Episode 75: Marv Knox and Fellowship Southwest

In Christianity, it feels like denominational lines are becoming less important. Fellowship Southwest is a new organization that demonstrates this by connecting people of faith to the work of the church in the world, particularly these days to serve refugees on the border of the U.S. and Mexico. Marv Knox is the coordinator of Fellowship, and he and George talk about this new kind of organization today on Good God.

Listen here, read the transcript below, or click here for the full video version.

George Mason: 00:00 We live in a time when religious identity is not based so much upon what you believe so much as how you behave and who you act with in the community, what you care about in social issues. Today, Marv Knox will be on Good God talking about that in his work with an organization called Fellowship Southwest. Stay tuned.

George Mason: 00:31 Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith and public life. I'm your host, George Mason, and I'm pleased to welcome to the program today, my friend Marv Knox. Marv, welcome.

Marv Knox: 00:42 Thank you, George.

George Mason: 00:43 Good to have you here. Marv is now the coordinator of what's called Fellowship Southwest. It's an ecumenical organization that is individuals and churches that are seeking to promote the common good and work in the public square. But before we sort of get to that, Marv, I'd like to just connect somewhat with your history and your story. One of the things we love to do on Good God is to find out how people discover their vocation. Where were you raised and how did faith become a part of your life and your sense of call? How did all of that take place?

Marv Knox: 01:25 Yeah, thanks. Well, you know, I grew up in the Panhandle, Texas Baptist, preacher's kid, small towns, small churches, and you know, can't ever remember not loving Jesus because that was kind of the air that we breathed when I was a kid. My parents allowed me on a Sunday night when I was eight years old to walk the aisle and commit myself to what we called back then, full time Christian service.

George Mason: 01:54 Eight years old. Oh my goodness.

Marv Knox: 01:54 And at that time in my worldview, I thought I was going to become a preacher like my daddy or a foreign missionary like I saw at church camp in the summer. And that's all I knew. So for the longest, I thought I was, so... rural area... I was the preacher boy up there. By the time I got to be about 14, the little churches would call me to preach on Sunday night.

Marv Knox: 02:15 And I mean, I was so young, my mom had to drive me to go preach and I can't imagine how, what I inflicted on those people. And then, I didn't know it, but what I would look back and call today, I began to have a struggle with my calling, because I didn't feel totally comfortable. And so people would call me up and call my dad and asking Marv, come preach. And I'd always say yes, cause I felt like I had to. And then I'd hang up the phone and cry. I mean, and I said sorry, because I didn't want to say no to God, but I was having trouble saying yes to that. Fast forward, I went to Hardin Simmons University, little school out in Abilene, Texas. And began to see a broader picture. And I love to write. My high school teachers had called that out in me. And so, I had been on the staff of the high school newspaper. I was the editor of the college newspaper. So happened Toby Druin who was a layman who worked for the Baptist Standard here in Dallas was a friend of my father since I was a little boy. And my dad said one time on spring break my sophomore year, let's go see Toby. I went over and saw Toby and John Hurt. John Hurt was the editor.

George Mason: 03:22 John Hurt was a member of Wilshire Baptist Church as a matter of fact.

Marv Knox: 03:24 He was, and he loved this church, as I do too, but he loved it more, I'm sure. Cause he was here forever. And we'd known Toby since I was two or three years old. Both laymen both following God's call in their lives, through journalism. I didn't know it that afternoon, but my life changed that day because I had freedom then to pursue that calling, which I did for almost all my life.

George Mason: 03:46 Well everybody doesn't know it of course, but the Baptist Standard is the Texas Baptist newspaper. And started in what year?

Marv Knox: 03:57 Uh, 1888.

George Mason: 03:58 1888. Remarkable. So it's a weekly paper and now online. That's right. And you became the editor of that paper when?

Marv Knox: 04:09 In January 19. Uh, what was it? 99? Yeah.

George Mason: 04:17 In 99 having come from Kentucky where you worked for the Western Recorder.

Marv Knox: 04:22 I had been the associate for three years, but then I was editor in Kentucky, the Western Recorder.

George Mason: 04:26 Okay. Alright. So anyway, so journalism became your real sense of call for that season of life. Right, right. And, and actually, you know, one of the things that many of us relied upon is that you would be the kind of journalist who would preach with your pen. That is to say you would hold accountable Baptists for their behavior, for trying to, you know, call them to be true to who Baptists were and are supposed to be and have been.

George Mason: 05:02 And so we would relish your editorials week by week. And it was a great contribution.

Marv Knox: 05:09 It wasn't a universally held opinion. We, we lived through some contentious times back then. What I felt like my calling was.

George Mason: 05:17 Well, and of course, you know, everyone has their role to play. And you and I have lived through times when we were fully invested in Southern Baptist life and in Texas Baptist life. And we now are in a time when we are no longer connected to Southern Baptist or technically to Texas Baptist either. We have found ways to create new Baptist identity that we think is rooted more in our Baptist tradition. What are some of those Baptist guiding principles that you think are bedrock for you and for the kind of Baptist that we seek to be?

Marv Knox: 06:00 Yeah, so a bunch, but the ones that come to mind first are the priesthood of all believers, soul competency, that each person has the, not only the right, but the responsibility to relate directly to God, to study scripture, to seek their way forward. We do it in community, but ultimately it rests with us individually. We don't have a mediator in between us. And then a corollary to that because we come together in congregations is the autonomy of the local church or the local congregation to make decisions together. And that helps us to find our way forward in community, again, holding both privilege and responsibility, in tension. And then in a larger context. The other thing that I'm proud of Baptist for being is being for religious liberty for all people.

Marv Knox: 06:55 And this dates to 400 years or more ago. Thomas Helwys, one of the very first Baptists, was a huge champion for that. Told off the King said, you can't tell people what to do. And then on these shores, Roger Williams was a great champion and founded Rhode Island colony for religious liberty. And then others throughout history and even up to this day have been among the foremost champions for religious liberty. But not necessarily the way you see it defined a lot now.

George Mason: 07:27 Well today it seems like religious liberty is being redefined by many Baptists and certainly by evangelical Christians in America as being the right to discriminate, rather, the freedom to worship and the respect of everyone to be able to worship freely. This is really a departure from our historic understanding of religious liberty. But I agree with you. Those are our bedrock guiding principles for the kind of Baptist we want to be. And of course I think we should hasten to say that while they are our Baptist convictions, they are shared by many other kinds of Christians also and people of other religious traditions, right? These are not, you know, solely the provenance of Baptists. But really they are principles that we seek to defend in being the kind of Baptist we are.

Marv Knox: 07:52 Yeah. James Dunn, whom you knew, he's gone to be with the Lord now, but was quite a character, but understood Baptists very well. And he said the same thing. These values are shared by our sisters and brothers, all kinds of folks. It's maybe the little recipe that how they all come together and that maybe the emphasis that it makes it a little bit unique but we share them with a lot of folks.

George Mason: 08:56 So you and I have traveled different paths in one sense, but we find ourselves together in another way as being the kind Baptist that I mentioned earlier have become disenfranchised from the larger Southern Baptist world and Texas Baptist world that we were so closely associated with. And yet on the other side we're saying that we're the kind of Baptists and Christians that are seeking to find common cause with other kinds of Baptists and Christians too. So it's an odd place to be in that we find ourselves not by our own choice or decisions, so much disenfranchised from some, but what do you make of this kind of time we're in, Marv, where on the one hand we have this greater desire for cooperation, collaboration with other Christians and other religions. And on the other hand, we have those who are sort of doubling down on their identity and making sure that they participate only with people who agree with them. It's an odd time, isn't it? Where both of those things are happening at once.

Marv Knox: 09:58 Right. Yeah. And I think that on the doubling down side, it seems that's motivated by fear, fear of change, fear of being overwhelmed by larger and larger numbers of people who seem to be different. On the other side, there's just a great convergence of things that have happened. So I can remember years and years ago when I was in seminary in Louisville, Bill Leonard, who we both count as a really good friend, a great church historian, particularly of American church history, he predicted, this would have been in '82 maybe or so, that folks of faith instead of falling along the lines of denomination, would begin to have affinity along the spectrum. Back then he said from fundamentalist to liberal, but in that conservative - progressive perspective, and that they could find common cause along different areas for things that they have an affinity with it that transcended denomination.

Marv Knox: 11:01 And so I think that's part of it. We've seen that to become true. And then we also work with young adults who we know that are very fluid in their faith traditions. And so you sit down in a Bible study group and you can have folks that have come from all kinds of things and they've chosen the church particularly because they may like the preaching. They may like the childrens or the youth ministries, they may like what the church stands for in the community. But that makes us even more ecumenical.

George Mason: 11:28 Because it really isn't something where when they go to look for a church, they go to the yellow pages as if such a thing, really, anybody ever did that anymore? But you know, they wouldn't look necessarily for the brand and say Baptist or Methodist or Lutheran or Presbyterian or whatever. They tend to look in their neighborhoods and their communities, right. And where their friends go and their kids have friends at school together. And so they tend to to figure, is this a kind of church that feels right to us in our place? And so doctrinal differences are not what drives a lot of these folks anymore.

Marv Knox: 12:07 No. You know, if you get into that in a discussion, it really gets enlightening. Interesting, right? For someone who's been around for awhile, sometimes a little surprising, but I found that mix like you described is so strong that people will, they'll have strong affinity. They may be in one kind of congregation, have a strong affinity for a very different kind of congregation theologically, but they liked the mix of what that congregation did. And oftentimes don't necessarily think critically about, well, how is that different than what we say we believe around here. And have a fluidity that is fairly comfortable. It's sort of instructive to me because I'm not wired that way. And so I think about those theological distinctives and it may make my hackles even get up a little bit. And then I take a good lesson from those folks who say they just love each other. They love the faith. They love what people are doing in the community on behalf of the Lord or on behalf of what they believe. So why not lighten up a little bit and not try to put them in a mold?

George Mason: 13:14 And yet as a pastor, I find myself both welcoming this development and also feeling more and more responsibility to make sure that there is some way that people can be formed in the faith so that it's not only about affinity groups around social issues or worldview or children's programs or something, but that they have a sense that they know what the basic Christian beliefs are, that when they find themselves at a moment of serious illness or the death of a loved one or a crisis of life, they have someplace to come back to some bedrock, some way of thinking about who God is and how God relates to the world. And what the Christian faith is really about. And I do find that in this movement from the years when we were really working hard on making sure everyone knew what they, what Baptists believe, what Christians believe, to this more of free flowing interchange among Christian denominations that's based more on affinity, somehow we have to have a balance between that. And, I think that's really partly a responsibility for those of us who lead churches to make sure those things are true.

George Mason: 14:39 So anyway, we're going to take a break and when we come back, we want to talk about how this works out now with Fellowship Southwest, this organization that you're leading. So we'll be right back.

George Mason: 14:54 The Good God program is a project of Faith Commons, a nonprofit organization that I founded in 2018 to promote the common good. Think of a commons on a campus and how you can bring all your faith and people from all corners of the campus together. Think of the city that way. Think of the country that way. Faith Commons aims to bring people together to promote greater understanding and peace throughout our communities. You can find more information about it at faithcommons.org.

George Mason: 15:31 We're back with Marv Knox, coordinator of Fellowship Southwest. Now when did this start? Marv, tell us something about the birth of this organization.

Marv Knox: 15:40 Right. So we're almost two years old. We started August of 2017. The genesis was a burden behind that, and sort of reader's digest version is that we are affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. And at that time, the leader of CBF was Suzii Paynter. She was living in Georgia, but she was a Texan and she understood some of the ethos of fellowship baptists in this part of the world. We are affiliated with Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Southern California. So except for Oklahoma, we have the border in common. And Texas-Oklahoma have a lot of the same kind of cultural, social ethos as well. She understood how separated we were, how we didn't have a whole lot of infrastructure. A lot of folks felt very isolated and, and so Fellowship Southwest was started to come alongside those groups to kind of help us find each other in that, because we were understaffed to fill in the gaps of a ministry, that sort of thing. Which we'll probably talk about a little bit later. And then the other was to expand the ecumenical cultural, racial relationships that we had across this vast region. Because as we were talking about before, the ecumenical relationships come I think naturally in a lot of ways for a lot of our young people. And we have many opportunities to have common cause for the greater good with other groups. And so why not put some emphasis on that and see what can happen.

George Mason: 17:19 Okay. So let's think about Fellowship Southwest in terms of what it does and then who it does it with, right? As, as an organization. So to begin with, there's an awful lot of work happening right now on the border. Obviously we have a migrant crisis, and just tremendous frustration all through the country and certainly in Texas and the border states about what to do with their Central American refugees, what's happening with children separated from their parents at the border and the warehousing of people. The basic unpreparedness of our country to deal with this level of migration. And of course, the challenge theoretically about how we treat outsiders, those who want to come. So what is Fellowship Southwest doing? How does it invite individuals and congregations to participate with it around challenges like that?

Marv Knox: 18:27 So that one in particular, it's, you know, kind of start where you can and do what you are able to do. We are enormously blessed, in that Jorge Zapata, who is the associate coordinator for CBF in Texas, is a native of the borderlands and is doing ministry down there. He lives in Harlingen, Texas, and he's been on the border except for a couple of short ministry stints away, his whole life, very well connected, natural at building relationships and alliances across denominational lines and faith lines even too. And there's lots of things you want to do, but you can't do. Every week I get letters from people who basically say, I just want to go down there and love on those babies. You're talking about the separated children. That's just not going to happen right.

Marv Knox: 19:20 We can't get access. We work alongside and sometimes send volunteers to other groups like Catholic Charities, the Interfaith Welcome Coalition in San Antonio, with a good friend John Garland a Mennonite pastor down there helping to lead that. And so we plug in what we're also able to do, particularly because of Jorge's relationship is, we are working with the churches on both sides of the border who are just naturally ministering to the people who are on their literal doorsteps, right? Helping them with feeding and sheltering. The distinctions are a little different. The circumstances of someone who's an asylum seeker who's made it into the United States is different. They're in process, on the move, under the control of the U S government. And we're helping them in the gaps to get to where they need to go to have encouragement, love, nurture food and clothing.

Marv Knox: 20:20 On the other side of the border, their circumstances are more dire because they're just there waiting. But on both sides, congregations are there and they see these people that are hurting. They respond to Jesus' call, as he said in Matthew 25, to the least of these. And they're reaching out. And so we've had the happy opportunity, a heartbreaking opportunity as well, to come alongside them and to try to help them. And that's run the gamut too. Some of these are Baptist congregations, some of them are Pentecostal. Some of them are other faith groups. But we all have in common that we have compassion for these people. It's a huge political issue, but deeper, it's a humanitarian crisis. People are trying to work together, do what we can do.

George Mason: 21:04 So I think one of the keys I hear from you about this is that Fellowship Southwest is an organization that can help local churches do what they want to do because you make the connection among churches and on certain issues that they might care about. But many individual congregations are not equipped to be able to do everything on their own. And so this is a way of doing it collaboratively and about how to participate together. So, you already mentioned we work with Assemblies of God, Pentecostal kind of churches on the border. This gets to the larger point we were making earlier about how instead of just forming a new Baptist entity, Fellowship Southwest doesn't have Baptist in its name. It's birthed by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, but it has a very intentional desire in the future to really work across denominational lines. And I know we have a United Methodist pastor on the board. What are some of the other ecumenical markers that you've been able to see in the work so far?

Marv Knox: 22:20 A lot of things where there's need, and people want to work together on them. So, I already mentioned Jorge Zapata is working with us on the border with immigrant relief ministry. The Assemblies of God have asked him that the regional group down there to help them with church starting as well as with their own immigrant relief efforts. We have a group here in Texas that CBF Texas works on encouraging young ministers and that's become ecumenical. Our latest gathering had some Lutheran pastors from South Texas that participated with some Baptists. They got to know each other. They studied some common challenges. We worked with some Pentecostal pastors in the Houston area. We're working on theological education, particularly for Spanish speakers and particularly in remote areas.

Marv Knox: 23:20 And Brite Divinity school at TCU is one of our partners there on figuring out how to deliver that. So almost everywhere you look, if there's a need, also even in disaster recovery and that's interfaith.We had Baptist groups that were working in Rosharon, a small farming community south of Houston after Hurricane Harvey. And where they had lunch every day when they were helping to rebuild homes was at the local Buddhist temple because it was the largest common building in the area. So I think people of good will and of all kinds of faith when they look at the world around them, they see that the issues usually often are bigger than that can do alone. But if we work together, we can accomplish them. We don't necessarily blur our differences, but we also grow closer to one another because in the working of it, we learn more about each other. We learn more about what makes each other tick, and that builds a stronger fabric within our community.

George Mason: 24:21 I think you're making a really important point. Good God and it's sort of parent company, you might say, Faith Commons, work specifically to try to create understanding, giving information, education across faith lines and all kinds of divisions of society trying to model civil discourse, generous conversations, as we're doing right here. But when we're talking about something like Fellowship Southwest, we're not just talking about a symposia where people come together and share ideas. We're actually talking about working together, and I think that sometimes we learn more by working side by side on issues of public concern, things where people are in crisis, where there's compassion ministry going on. And we don't check our denominational badges before we cooperate. We just look at human need and then learn to love and respect one another as we're doing it and then reflect upon that. And that seems to be the way Fellowship Southwest is oriented.

Marv Knox: 25:32 Yeah. I think there's something deeply sacramental about sweat, about, about laboring together, about doing things. Sometimes it's real sweat. Sometimes it's intellectual sweat of thinking about issues, but you come together and when you're focusing on those things, I think the guard drops a lot of times. The real person comes out. We see our fears, we see our humor, we see the things we love. We learn about each other's families because we're doing these things together. And that's just a great mix I think.

George Mason: 26:06 So when you look at the threads of your own life and your own journey, from this sense early of a call to ministry that then you realized was less about being a preacher or a church leader, more about being a journalist and now you are, a nonprofit Christian organizational leader, working in this way. How do you follow that thread and see how it makes sense when you look back?

Marv Knox: 26:42 Yeah, you know, I guess the first thing that comes to mind is, I remember you may remember Grady Nutt, Grady was a Christian humorist. We were members of the same church in Louisville when I was in seminary and Grady was still alive. And he preached a sermon for the youth Sunday about Abraham. And he played off the old King James language, but he talked about that God would, in King James language I believe said was, I'll show you a land you know not of.

Marv Knox: 27:19 And then he went back and he told Sarah his wife about that. And she had asked, where are we going? I know not of. What are we going to do? I know not of. Made it really funny, but I think as a child in a small town and small churches, there was a lot I knew not of. And so life has been a journey. And the exciting thing is there's still a whole lot I know not of. And so that kind of makes it fun to get up in the morning and not know when the next phone call is gonna take us on, Fellowship Southwest, on a new part of this mission together.

George Mason: 27:51 You know, Marv, it's so interesting you put it that way because I think a lot of people assume that to be a religious leader of some sort is to have things figured out that everybody else doesn't.

George Mason: 28:03 And that we're somehow the religious professionals. We are the people who have already answered the questions. So if you just come to us, you know, we'll help you settle all of that when in fact, what I think happens is, we are the people who have learned how to live with the knowing not of. We are constantly learning to walk by faith, not by sight as the scripture says, becoming as comfortable as we can possibly be with our being uncomfortable in the world. And realizing that settling down is not the ultimate goal of the spiritual life. But rather it's to be in this adventure into the unknown, right. To trust God, to risk, to understand that you can't take it with you, so you might as well travel light. And see where God is leading us next. Thank you for being a great example of that to us and for being a good partner with us too.

Marv Knox: 29:08 Well, thanks. George it's been a pleasure and it's good to know that I'm on a journey with partners like you, like Wilshire and great friends. That makes it all worthwhile.

George Mason: 29:17 Terrific. Well, thanks for being on Good God. Appreciate you.

Jim White: 29:24 Good God is created by Dr. George Mason, produced and directed by Jim White, guest coordination and social media by Upward Strategy Group. Good God, conversations with George Mason, is the podcast devoted to bringing you ideas about God and faith and the common good. Material copyright 2019 by Faith Commons.

Good God Project