Saint, leader, intellectual giant. Moral, compassionate, humble servant. Those are some words of praise for Neville Callam, the first Black to lead the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), describing him in a ceremony in Arlington, Virginia, shortly before he retired in 2017.
In 2007, Dr. Callam, a Jamaican, was elected General Secretary and CEO of the BWA, a global organization for Baptists, founded in London in 1905 and dedicated to furthering mutual fellowship and collaboration among its members as well as protecting religious liberty worldwide. Callam, previously BWA vice-president, stood out as the head of such an impressive movement because he was the first person who was neither American nor European who oversaw the fellowship of 238 Baptist conventions and unions consisting of 40 million members in 177,000 churches in 124 countries and territories.
Callam is described as a “man of faith who lives, perceives, thinks and decides theologically.” He attended the prestigious Harvard Divinity School and has been lauded for safely guiding the BWA through the global economic recession whose onset in 2007-08 coincided with his appointment as the head of the worldwide organization.
During his decade as General Secretary of BWA, Callam emphasized the importance of evangelism and undertook various bold initiatives to boost interfaith relations, racial and gender justice, peace and reconciliation, and human rights advocacy.
BWA membership expanded on Callam’s watch. Two dozen new member organizations were added to the Alliance, bringing the total number of member groups to 238. Callam brought new countries and territories into the BWA, from South Sudan, Chad and Grenada to the British-controlled Turks and Caicos Island and Vietnam.
In His Own Words
“The non-existence of a firm ecumenical commitment in some sections of the BWA community has impacted negatively BWA’s capacity to identify truly representative international teams for the bilateral dialogues in which the organization participates.” — Neville Callam on the eve of the 2013 Annual Gathering of the Baptist World Alliance in Ocho Rios, Jamaica
“Whatever the divergences that mark Baptist ecclesiology, emphasis is often placed on the church of our Lord Jesus finding expression as local ‘gathered churches.’ These individual church communities relate to one another at the local, national and regional levels and, as trans-local expressions of the church, they are vital to the church’s witness to their Lord who, through the Holy Spirit, draws believers into the life of God.
“Many individual congregations that share a common theological heritage have not been satisfied to confine their presence, their existence, to the local, national or regional levels. They have also desired to relate on an ecumenical — that is, a worldwide — scale. This partly accounts for the establishment in recent centuries of ‘denominational bodies’ on a global scale.” — Neville Callam in a 2014 editorial “Baptist Churches in Global Fellowship,” in Review and Expositor, a Baptist academic journal of theology
“If we are to love our neighbors, we must first see our neighbors.” — Neville Callam, in a lecture of the Baptist Heritage Series at Campbellsville University, a private Christian university in Campbellsville, Kentucky, March 24, 2015
“… Callam was asked how he felt about being the first ‘non-white’ serving as general secretary [of the World Baptist Alliance], and he responded by saying, ‘I am not non-white, I am Black.’ Callam said he believes over time this anomaly will be corrected, and ‘We belong together and because of that anyone can lead.’” — Neville Callam, in a lecture at the Baptist Heritage Series at Campbellsville University March 24, 2015
“Serving in this position, God has never failed me and, through all the opportunities and challenges, I have benefited from the unwavering faithfulness of my wife who has helped me selflessly.” — Neville Callam in a 2017 speech shortly before his retirement from the Baptist World Alliance
“You learn to live with people. You come to appreciate them. You have differences of opinion — differences of conviction, actually — but you discover the grace of God in the life of these people. You begin to realize that there is something marvelous about our common new humanity in Christ. If we could treasure that and if we could appreciate that, we would be better able to negotiate the contours of our disagreements and our differences and our distinctives.” — Neville Callam, in response to a question in a 2017 interview with Word&Way
“I have discovered that in some particular contexts in the BWA, should you hear a person from a country addressing an issue, you could be turned off completely because of the way they spoke — the tone, the tenor, what appears to be an absence of grace — and that is absolutely unrelated to what they mean. That is the way they communicate. When you get to know them, deep in their hearts they are wonderful people — just as loving as those who try a tone that is far more tender, far more sweet, far more compassionate. I recognized that we needed in the BWA to create a opening for us to be far more affirming of other people and far more patient in seeking to understand them and also far more patient in allowing them to understand us so that we could negotiate any kind of differences that we experience ourselves.” — Neville Callam, quoted in a 2017 interview with Word&Way https://wordandway.org/2017/08/30/q-a-interview-with-baptist-world-alliance-general-secretary-neville-callam/
“The same God who speaks to us speaks to others, and therefore we need to be comparing discernments to ensure that we are not being led astray by our own prejudices and inclinations. It is for this reason, fundamentally, that the Baptist World Alliance is necessary. With Baptists sharing a common tradition and a common heritage, affirming the confidence of the congregation to discern the mind of Christ, recognizing that all congregations—because the Spirit is with them—may discern the mind of Christ.” — Neville Callam, quoted in a 2017 interview with Word&Way
“I would mention Estonia, which is perhaps a surprising choice. One of the most secular countries in the world, but a post-Communist country where believers in Christ in the Baptist community … are actually diverse. … I went to serve with them and they asked me to participate with them in an evangelical effort in the university city of Tartu in the north of the country. I found it fascinating that the Baptist community is unashamed of its identity as a Christian organization as many in that university city — having been formed in a Communist context or being children of those formed in that Communist context — don’t have a strong sense of the existence of the supernatural, not to mention the purpose of worshiping God. That church is willing to put its reputation at risk in that context to proclaim the Gospel in as creative of a way as possible so that people many have something awaken within them to a sense of the supernatural and eventually perhaps come to meet Jesus Christ for the transformation of their lives. I like that conviction. I like that grasping of the opportunity to present Christ in that context. So, I remember that one very well.” — Neville Callam in a 2017 interview with Word&Way, during his leadership of the World Baptist Alliance.
The Stories Others Tell
“You are one of those gifts from God for the church. I have been touched and encouraged by our deep faith and commitment to God and to the mission of the church. Your hard work and sacrificial service describe your deep commitment and love for the BWA.” — Baptist World Alliance President Paul Msiza, responding to Neville Callam’s 2017 announcement that he would retire at the end of that year.
“My first response was one of sadness. It felt I was losing something very significant and precious. I have been deeply grateful for the opportunity to work alongside Neville, not only while serving as president of the BWA but in every other capacity. His deep commitment to the BWA and his tireless service to it will long be appreciated.” — John Upton, former president and chair of the Human Resources Committee of the Baptist World Alliance, in response to Neville Callam’s 2017 retirement announcement
A Life in Brief
Neville Callam was born in Gibraltar, a small town in the region of St. Ann in Jamaica. He was a well-known leader in Jamaica’s religious community, mainly because of his presence in the Jamaica Council of Churches. He played a significant pioneering role in religious and public broadcasting on the Caribbean island, serving as founding chair and general manager of The Breath of Change, a nonprofit FM Christian radio station in Kingston. He was also a founding board member of Jamaica’s National Religious Media Commission and founding chair of the Public Broadcasting Corporation of Jamaica.
Callam trained for the gospel ministry at the ecumenical United Theological College of the West Indies, the University of the West Indies, and Harvard Divinity School. His diverse interests and passion for community development led him to serve in various capacities in both church and society. He was a member of the Board of Governors and Education Council of the United Theological College of the West Indies. He was president of the Jamaica Baptist Union from 1985 to 1987 and from 2000 to 2002, where he held every senior position, including that of general treasurer and acting general secretary.
Callum served for 15 years on the influential Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, where he chaired many of the organization’s study groups.
In 2007, Callan made history by being elected as the first Black general secretary and CEO of the Baptist World Alliance at the organization’s annual meeting in Accra, Ghana.
Callam and his wife of 35 years, Dulcie, have two adult children— son Gairy and daughter Diedre.
Achievements We’ll Remember
1985-1987: Neville Callam serves as President of the Jamaica Baptist Union.
2000-2002: Neville Callam serves once again as President of the Jamaica Baptist Union.
2007: Neville Callam is elected General Secretary and CEO of the Baptist World Alliance. Under his leadership, the BWA raises upwards of $26 million in donations, despite a severe global economic downturn that began that year and accelerated during the next. The BWA undertakes a number of bold initiatives under Callam’s leadership, including a new Division on Freedom and Justice, which is launched after years of discussion and debate. The BWA also forms numerous commissions, from those on Interfaith Relations, Racial and Gender Justice, and Social and Economic Justice, to Peace and Reconciliation, Religious Liberty and Human Rights Advocacy.
July 2017: Neville Callam publishes From Fragmentation to Wholeness: Race, Ethnicity and Communion, a book that probes how race and ethnicity cause divisions in churches and how Eucharist (the Lord’s supper) can help develop identity within diversity, acting as an inclusive, unifying force.
Neville Callam’s Religion
The Baptists are among the most well-known denominations in Protestant Christianity. Baptists believe that baptism is where a person chooses to publicly proclaim their faith in Christ.
There are 241 members of Baptist denominations in 126 countries, 169,000 churches and 47,000,000 baptized members.
The name comes from the Baptist practice of immersion in water. It was coined in the seventeenth century by opponents to the new movement but rejected by followers themselves. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Baptists accepted the use of the label to describe themselves.
The first Baptist churches were formed by English-speakers in Holland (1609-1612). They believed adherents should read and interpret the Bible on their own. Unlike the Church of England, where people were considered to be born into the church and were baptized as infants, Baptists believed church membership should be voluntary and that only believers should be baptized. John Smyth led the first congregation. Thomas Helwys returned to England and founded the first Baptist church there in 1612. The first Baptist church in North America was established by Roger Williams in what today is Providence, Rhode Island.
Approximately 15.3 percent of Americans identify as Baptist, making Baptists the second largest religious group in the United States.
The Baptist World Alliance has grown to a fellowship of 241 conventions and unions in 126 countries and territories comprised of 47 million baptized believers in 169,000 churches.
More Profiles in Faith:
Rabbi David Nathan Saperstein (September 5, 2021)
Neville Callam, Baptist World Alliance (August 23, 2021)
Patriarch Bartholomew Bridges East-West Christian Divide (August 12, 2021)
Wilton Cardinal Gregory: First African American Cardinal (July 21, 2021)
Hindu Guru Mata Amritanandamayi (July 8, 2021)
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (July 1, 2021)
Pope Francis (June 23, 2021)
Archbishop Desmond Tutu (June 16, 2021)
Episcopal Bishop Michael B. Curry (June 9, 2021)
Thich Nhat Hanh, Father of Engaged Buddhism (June 2, 2021)
Ayatollah Al-Sayyid Ali Al-Huseinni Al-Sistani (May 26, 2021)
Justin Welby, the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury (May 19, 2021)