A Birmingham Update from the Executive Committee

Greetings SBCVoices readers.  My name is Bill Townes and I serve as the Vice President for Convention Finance and Convention Manager for the SBC Executive Committee.

I want to thank the SBCVoices team again for the opportunity to help shed some light on this issue. I apologize for the delay in responding, but I needed to do a lot of research to fully understand the issues that we were experiencing over and above some of the obvious challenges related to housing in Birmingham.

Our Convention planning team left for Birmingham around 6:00 am this past Monday and just returned to Nashville last night around 8:00 pm.  This was one of our regularly scheduled site visits, but took on a much greater importance as we had significant meetings with the general manager of the Sheraton hotel and the president of the Convention Visitor’s Bureau.  We had some very frank conversations regarding the issues we are facing (including those mentioned in the original blog post by Adam) with these local city leaders and they responded graciously and encouragingly.

Before I update you on the results of those, let me give you a glimpse into our housing guidelines process. (Because it is actually, very similar to what was suggested in the blog).   The SBC Executive Committee Board has a policy that was last updated/approved in June 2011 that spells out for staff the process we use for assigning our room blocks to attendees.  The policy requires the following:

At least 40 percent of the rooms in the convention hotel(s) will be available to individuals.  The other 60 percent will be a sub-block for SBC entity presidents, officers, trustees, speakers, and Executive Committee staff that are required to be available for meetings in the hotel.” – June 2011

While the policy allows us to use up to 60% of the room block in the convention hotels, we limit ourselves to 50%, as we want to make as many rooms available as possible to general attendees.

Since housing always has a finite number of rooms available in the main hotels (closest to the Convention Centers).  We open our housing reservations at a specific date/time  (8:00 am central time) that is provided by notification to the entire SBC through Baptist Press (and of course SBC Voices).  The only way we have found to do that fairly in our electronic environment is our current “First Come, First Click” process. We also limit each person to no more than 5 room reservations to allow as many general attendees as possible to obtain rooms in the main hotels.  When we opened housing this year, we had 238 reservations within the first 3 minutes, and filled the entire available main co-convention hotel block before 8:04 am.  So, actually we did (and always do) have a significant number of reservations within the first few minutes each year.

UNIQUE CHALLENGES (OPPORTUNITIES) IN BIRMINGHAM

Sheraton Hotel:

Normally, our reservation process works very well and hotels do not fill up at 8:04.  However, as you all are probably aware (alluded to in BP), we have had some significant challenges in Birmingham.   We originally had 650 rooms committed/contracted at the Sheraton and 200 at the Westin (both connected to the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex.  In September, we were notified that the Sheraton experienced catastrophic water damage that resulted in a loss of over 400 rooms to our contracted room block at the Sheraton.  Resulting in a nearly 60% drop in available rooms at the Sheraton.  So, the net result to the SBC was an overall loss of nearly 50% of rooms in the two Co-Convention hotels.  That is why we delayed housing opening to find additional hotel rooms (at close to the same rate) that could fill the void lost at the Sheraton.  As you can imagine, that 50% drop in rooms caused the remaining available rooms to be snapped up very quickly.

After some healthy and frank conversations with the Sheraton general manager, we made some good headway and received some helpful concessions. Unfortunately, the damaged rooms at the Sheraton are not anticipated to be fully renovated and back in service until July 2019.  (Good for the Sheraton, but not immediately helpful to us).  However, there is always the possibility that some rooms may come back in service as they are completed, and we are working on contractual addendums to require that we receive first availability for our attendees for any rooms that come back in service.  (We are prayerfully hopeful).  The Sheraton has been extremely helpful in securing additional hotel rooms throughout the city and is also going to provide shuttle assistance for any of these attendees that will have to be moved to the other hotels as a result of this as well as insuring that the rates were reasonably consistent (or a little less in some instances).  With all of the inconvenience to us, we need to keeping the staff of the Sheraton in our prayers as they are experiencing these same conversations over and over with multiple groups and I am not sure if all of their clients interact like we do. (We believe in “saying what you mean, meaning what you say, but not saying it mean” – not original to me, but you can feel free to use this saying in the future).

Westin Hotel:

Now on to the Westin and the part of the original post that took some additional research especially as it relates to Adam.   After some thorough analysis by our housing bureau, they realized that a large number of reservations actually showed up inappropriately as “Waitlisted” on the Westin hotel.  Remember, we only had 100 rooms generally available in that hotel (50% of the total contract) (it is a nice property, but small).  Unfortunately, rather than just showing unavailable after the hotel room block was full, the system mistakenly opened up a waitlist on 317 reservations rather than directing them immediately to other hotels.  Since this inconvenience/confusion was caused by the housing bureau program, our provider (Experient) is going to make a contribution of $2,500 to our SBC ministries through the Cooperative Program Allocation Budget.  Additionally, Experient has been working behind the scenes to secure rooms for those already in the system.  An email notification will be sent out to all of those waitlisted by accident next Monday to follow up on helping to accommodate their needs (if not already met).

BIRMINGHAM TRANSPORTATION: 

As noted by one of the SBCVoices commenters, Birmingham is undergoing significant freeway infrastructure improvements that will ultimately improve the downtown connectors.  The good news is that many of the new exit ramps are or will be completed to bring guests downtown and bypass the major bridge projects.  In fact, city leaders explained to us that only “through traffic” (on I-20) will be diverted around the city during the project, which should help alleviate some of the downtown congestion for those intentionally heading downtown for convention meetings (like the SBC).  So, again we are prayerfully optimistic on that project.

Due to the number of anticipated attendees, limited size of many of the hotels in Birmingham, geographic spread of the 37 contracted hotels, and limited local transportation options we will be using HOTEL shuttles again in 2019.  We will probably be offering a number of solutions including Hotel Shuttles, Park and Ride lots (with shuttle) at local churches, and Uber and Lyft Event coupons (for those who use these services).  Additionally, downtown parking concessions at the Sheraton hotel are being negotiated for those having to drive back and forth as a result of the damaged hotel rooms who would not normally need to.  We continue to work with the great Birmingham CVB team to facilitate these issues and are very appreciative of their dedication and service. One additional good piece of news is that downtown parking is usually around $10 per vehicle.

So, suffice to say, the loss of hotel rooms at the Sheraton is what is driving most of the issue that Adam experienced (and others) and also being in a smaller city with smaller hotels.  However, in spite of the challenges, we are excited about 2019 and bringing together Southern Baptists as we work together to share the Gospel throughout the world.

On another note, we had a great initial meeting with our Local Arrangements Committee in Birmingham this past Thursday.  This diverse committee is comprised of committed local pastors, leaders from six local Baptist associations, Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions leaders (in fact, Dr. Rick Lance, Exec Director, with the ALSBOM volunteered as well!), WMU representatives, SBC Pastors’ Conference representatives, members of SBC President J.D. Greear’s team and other local leaders.   We briefed them on all of the unique challenges that we are experiencing and they are committed to assisting and welcoming all of the SBC attendees to Birmingham for our historic 2019 SBC Annual Meeting. And yes, due to popular demand, the preferred twitter hashtag will be #sbc19!

Bill Townes, SBC Executive Committee

Vice President for Convention Finance/Convention Manager

Note: We are thankful for Bill Townes’ willingness to address the housing issues in Birmingham here at SBC Voices. The staff at the Executive Committee works very hard to ensure that our convention meetings are a success. I appreciate their willingness to answer important questions when asked. I findf the information Bill shared here very helpful. I trust you will as well. -Adam Blosser

The Word that Changed Our Lives (by Ashley Blosser)

This article originally appeared at Bearing His Image and is crossposted here with permission.

Autism. The word reverberated off of the pale yellow walls of the pediatrician’s office and settled on my stomach like bad Chinese. I knew Hudson’s development was atypical. I was aware of the impending result of the 23-point questionnaire I had completed because I had marked the wrong answer more times than not.

Deep down, I knew. But nothing could have prepared me to hear that word out loud at that moment and in that room. I hated how much weight the suggestion carried coming out of the mouth of a professional. Her tone was even, cool, and matter-of-fact. I stood across the room in stark contrast—agitated, hot, and emotional.

I somehow managed to hold it together until we made it out to the car. As I secured my beautiful 18-month-old son in his car seat, I could feel that dreaded lump begin to form in my throat. At that point, the floodgates opened and unleashed a torrent of tears. I cried all the way home. I cried off and on the rest of that day. I cried myself to sleep that night and many nights after.

On one particular day, as I sat in my self-imposed isolation and darkness mindlessly weeping, I came to the realization that the emotion I was experiencing wasn’t simply sadness. It was grief. But why was I grieving? What was I grieving? The doctor said my son might be autistic. If so, he would struggle in ways that would make life—put simply—very difficult for him. Shedding tears for my son and his plight would’ve been appropriate. But this? It was as if I was experiencing a loss—a death.

I looked down from my place in the recliner to spot my son playing on the floor. He was alive and well. Nothing about him had changed since before the word “autism” was spoken into our lives. Hudson was fine. But my hopes, dreams, and plans for him—for us—were dead. I had built our lives, our future, and the future of our home on the assumption that I would have a typical son. There would be makeshift forts, lightsaber duels, baseball practices, and sleepovers with his little buddies. There would be graduation, maybe college, then a wife and a family.

That small six-letter word cast everything I thought would come to be into the darkness of the unknown. I had assumed he would have a circle of friends. Now I wondered if he would ever be able to make just one. Would he ever become independent enough to move out, much less, take on the responsibility of a husband and father? Would he ever say my name? Would he ever verbalize what those bright blue eyes communicated whenever his gaze met mine—I love you? I didn’t know. And it was killing me.

I always believed the mercy of God to be soft and gentle like the salty streams running down my cheeks. But here it felt like a raging sea—waves crashing against all that I thought was certain and an unrelenting current pulling me back toward the Rock of Ages. I had constructed idols out of normalcy, comfort, and the good life according to the world. I had placed my hope and joy in the temporal stuff of this life, as if Eden hadn’t happened. As if our world hadn’t been tainted and broken. God in His infinite mercy abruptly reminded me that only He is truly good and perfect. Always. Constant. Unchanging. Hope and joy found in One like Him is all-satisfying and eternal.

I do not know the purpose of Hudson’s autism. I don’t understand why he must struggle in areas that come easily to his peers. Or why our family must consider and wrestle with things other families will never work through.

I do know that God is good and, by extension, His purposes are good. Because I am finite, my scope of vision is severely limited. I can’t see entirely all the ways in which God, according to His good purposes, is working in and through our daily struggles for our good and His glory. But I do see how every morning brings with it a new set of opportunities to grow in Christlikeness. There is strength to triumph. There is grace for failure. I look back over the past 5 years and I can see God’s hands providing and His arms sustaining. He is good. And I am thankful.

Social Justice Is No “Newfound Obsession” for Christians (Mike Miller)

An influential Evangelical recently lamented that contemporary Evangelicals are displaying a “newfound obsession” with social justice. I think this man needs to study church history (which I am teaching on Sunday nights, by the way). 4th century Emperor Julian (a pagan) wrote, “Atheism [his term for Christianity, since Christians rejected all the pagan gods] has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew [he did not distinguish between Jews and Christians] who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans [again, the Christians] care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.”

Greek philosopher Celsus was a second-century critic of Christianity (precipitating Origen’s treatise, “Contra Celsum,” or “Against Celsus”). One of his criticisms was that Christianity was reaching out to the marginalized of society (which he saw as a bad thing). In 177, he wrote, “Their aim is to convince only worthless and contemptible people, idiots, slaves, poor women, and children . . . . These are the only ones whom they manage to turn into believers.” He was wrong, of course, as the educated and influential were also being reached by the writings of men like Origen, Tertullian, and Justin, but the point is that the Christians were reaching all levels of society. One reason for that is their compassion ministries and advocacy for the most despised and oppressed.

And what in more recent years? What about George Mueller founding orphanages, William Wilberforce combating slavery, and the countless homeless, hunger, medical, and agricultural ministries founded and run by Christians? What about our fight against human trafficking and abortion? What about our efforts at racial reconciliation? Should we have just preached the Gospel all this time and turned a blind eye to the needs of people and the ills of society?

I don’t know of any evangelical that has come even close to compromising the Gospel in the name of social justice, nor do I know of any who see efforts of social justice as being decoupled from the Gospel. To claim or even imply that there is such a movement within Evangelicalism is either ignorant or dishonest, and it represents a sad and unfounded attack against brothers and sisters in Christ. And to throw around the terms “Marxism” or “Cultural Marxism” is patently absurd. In fact, I’ve noticed that most people who use those terms don’t even know what they mean.

The social gospel that only meets needs and addresses problems without preaching Jesus is misguided. But so is preaching without doing. We must preach the Gospel without shame, and we must stand for and work for justice in all spheres of life and society. This is what our spiritual ancestors did. It is not something new. So let us walk in their steps.

Dr. Mike Miller is the pastor of Central Baptist Church in Jacksonville, TX. This post originally appeared on Mike’s Facebook page and is printed here with his permission.

Are We Really Smarter Than Our Forefathers? (Greg Davidson)

Eighth grade is a great time for teenagers. They still have that love and loyalty to their parents, their God, and their country. We wanted to cultivate that moment in our fourteen-year-old’s life by taking him to Washington D.C. to revisit the great purposes and foundation of our country.

We arrived in the city, checked into our hotel, and the adventure began.

We visited the U.S. Capital and found that there is a Private prayer chapel off the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. The focal point of the chapel is a stained glass with George Washington kneeling in the snow. Surrounding Washington is the verse Psalm 19:1. The two lower panes show a Bible and a candle.  Underneath the window is a Bible opened to Psalm 23.

The rotunda in the U.S. Capital displays a painting that shows the Pilgrims on their ship before they departed Holland for North America. The painting shows the pilgrims praying as William Brewster holds an open Bible.  On the sail of the ship are the words “God with us”, from Isaiah 7:14

I later pointed out, at the Washington Monument, that there were scriptures carved into its hallowed walls: Exodus 28:26, 30:30; Isa. 23:18; Zech. 14:20; Jn. 5:39; and Pro. 10:7.

We then traveled to the Supreme Court where my son saw a freeze of the great lawgivers of the world looking to Moses sitting on a throne. On the outside of the doors leading into the courtroom, he saw the Ten Commandments. He was then able to view, above where the Supreme Court Justices preside, a craving of Moses with his arm resting on the Ten Commandments. The official film they show visitors at the Supreme Court pointed out to him that every session begins with the words: “God save the Supreme Court and the United States of America.”

Furthermore, he discovered on his adventure that the famous monuments and other buildings were broadcasting the Word of God on their edifices as well. The Lincoln Memorial: Mat. 18:7; Ps. 19:9; Is. 40:1-5; The Library of Congress: Jn. 1:5; Micah 6:8; Psalm 19:1; Martin Luther King Memorial:  Amos 5:24, “But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

His favorite place was the four days he spent at the new Bible Museum. Seventeen stories tall, the Bible Museum is six floors of a high tech presentation of the History and proof of an infallible Bible that impacted our Nation for man’s good and God’s glory.

After visiting the Nation’s Capital with my son and wife, my heart whispers a prayer, may God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.

Yet we are so smart today that we have been talked out of our great spiritual heritage. We are so intelligent that we have been manipulated into believing Thomas Jefferson thought Christianity should stay out of schools and government when he wrote his famous line in a letter that stated, “There is a wall of separation between church and state.” The facts are that he wrote the letter to a group of Baptist pastors. His meaning was that government should stay off the backs of the church, and certainly not have one state sponsored church. He never meant that church should stay out of government. If he meant otherwise, why did he sign three times legislation that allowed the setting aside of  government land for, “missionaries to evangelize the Indians.”

We hear the same old tired arguments from some (which some actually believe they have discovered some new thinking), that they don’t want some non-Christian person reading the Bible or praying, but for almost 200 years our forefathers, many of whom were not born again Christians, read the Bible and prayed until it was outlawed in 1962-63; yet God has told us that any nation would be blessed that honored his Word. Does God’s Word and the wisdom of our forefathers ring true?

From 1940-1962 we have data that the problems in our public schools that concerned teachers most were:

  1. Talking
  2. Chewing gum
  3. Making noise
  4. Running in the halls
  5. Getting out of turn in line

From 1963 to the present the concerns of teachers are:

  1. Rape
  2. Robbery
  3. Assault
  4. Burglary
  5. Arson

Not to mention plummeting SAT scores, increased rate of out of wedlock births, increase in illegal drug use, and deterioration of school behavior.

I remember the Bible being illegally read in my school as a young child, and scripture being assigned for memory; but very soon that antagonists joined by some professing Christians said it had to stop. It did. I then saw my schools deteriorate over the years until large-scale violence engulfed my High School. I saw people stabbed with 12-inch knives, I saw people shot, I witnessed large-scale fighting, and saw my own brother taken to the hospital in an ambulance. I saw fear in the faces of students as death lists were circulated that led to early school dismissal. I was beaten myself on several occasions. Drug abuse spiraled out of control so much so that the daily newspaper declared my High School the leading drug school in the state. My principal was adamant, though, there would be no Bible read and no prayer in the classroom. I feared our school would be tore to pieces. We made a final appeal to the principal to allow us to begin to read the Bible to the entire school each day. We asked him to allow us to have an illegal class for credit to study the Word of God. We also asked him if we could meet (illegally) during instructional time to study the Bible (By the hundreds it turned out), and in desperation he allowed all of that to happen.

By God’s grace, we saw good results. The violence virtually went away. No more stabbings, shootings, ambulances picking up battered bodies at the school. Many came to Christ, and our school found hope in despair just like our forefathers; and we all got along and worked things out without Big Brother. When our Jewish friends complained about the reading of New Testament scripture, we invited them to read the Old Testament on all of their main holidays. Our Jewish friends were delighted and even started attending the Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings. Our school was very diverse (we had 60 students who were Satan worshippers that met regularly a few blocks from the school), but the Satan worshippers made no attempt to stop us. Several of them actually came to Christ.  Amazingly God worked things out and we did not need a Federal regulator.

When we think about how our U.S. Congress paid for the first Bibles to be printed in America, when we understand that the primary reason for the existence of our schools in the United States was to teach the word of God, and when I think of the blessings of God that were poured out on our nation because of these courageous actions by our forefathers, I pray, “Dear God, teach us the old paths once again.”

Greg Davidson is the Senior Pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Vacaville, CA.