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Take Me to Church

June 19, 2017, 6:23 PM UTC

Last week, the annual meeting for The Southern Baptist Convention turned into an emotional referendum on white supremacy. It did not go well, at least at initially.

The leadership at first declined to review a proposal, submitted by a prominent black pastor named Dwight McKissic, to officially condemn white supremacy. The denomination played a key role in supporting and justifying slavery in the past, and the proposal was unflinching:

WHEREAS, this toxic menace, self-identified among some of its chief proponents as “White Nationalism” and the “Alt-Right,” must be opposed for the totalitarian impulses, xenophobic biases, and bigoted ideologies that infect the minds and actions of its violent disciples; and

WHEREAS, the roots of White Supremacy within a “Christian context” is based on the so-called “curse of Ham” theory once prominently taught by the SBC in the early years—echoing the belief that God through Noah ordained descendants of Africa to be subservient to Anglos—which provided the theological justification for slavery and segregation.

After a fierce in-the-room backlash that tumbled into online debate –white supremacist Richard Spencer tweeted his delight at the development – the SBC finally passed a revised version of the proposal. But the process was painful. (The Atlantic has an excellent play-by-play here.) These sorts of bureaucratic and emotional struggles are part of both church and American culture, explains Jeff Chu, a journalist turned student at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Progress is slow but happening, he says.

I spent part of Sunday with Jeff, a friend and former colleague, to help understand how the deep divides of race, class and sexuality are playing out in denominations across the country.

“I grew up Southern Baptist, so in many ways, they were my people,” he says of the recent dust-up. “I think many white Southern Baptists suffer from the same things many white Americans do, which is a sense of shame, a sense of discomfort with language that they see as overly strong.” But part of it is that they just don’t see the whole problem. “People say talking about racism is divisive? I say racism is more divisive. But when resolutions like this come up, these church-policy wonks find it really hard to understand them in a human way.”

Jeff began his journey from newsroom to pulpit with his book, Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Search of God in America, published in 2013. He crisscrossed the country to dig deep into the experiences of Christians gay and straight, some questioning, some welcoming, and others, like the “God Hates Fags” Westboro crowd, anything but. He long ago left the Baptist church, married his long-time partner, and now finds himself a 39-year-old summer intern at the Reformed Church of Bronxville, NY, a congregation open enough to accept him. “I have no idea what I’m doing!” he says, while he fusses over notes for his Sunday sermon.

Recently, Jeff got a taste of the cultural divide at the annual meeting of his own denomination.

Last week, the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America passed a resolution that interpreted part of the Heidelberg Catechism, one of the foundational touchstones of the church, to mean that marriage was only meant for a man and a woman. Though the resolution was only symbolic, it stung. “Never mind that there are some things we ignore or have reinterpreted in the Catechism,” he says, citing teachings once used to justify persecution of Catholics and Anabaptists. “So some of us interpreted this as poking liberals with a stick, saying that there are more of us than there are of you. It wasn’t loving.” Though the resolution passed by a narrower margin than similar ones had in previous years, “it’s where we are,” he says.

After the vote, some of his colleagues chose not to participate in the closing worship service. “Which is great for them, but sometimes people who are in the majority have a freedom to walk away that those of us who are not in the majority do not feel we have.” As an elder, Jeff had been invited to serve communion at the service. Torn, he took his place at one of five communion stations. “To participate in the sacrament…it’s a tremendous privilege. I wasn’t going to turn my back on that.”

What followed is an object lesson in allyship. “At one point I realized the other four stations were done serving and there were 25 people lined up at mine,” he said. Then the crowd stopped the line to offer prayers and blessings to him.

“I was just weeping because they knew where I was,” he says. “It meant so much to see so many people, especially of my generation – including young pastors from around the country– publicly make this gesture.”

After our conversation, Jeff stepped in front of a diverse group of parishioners and shared the news from the Synod. “It doesn’t change the ministry of this church, which remains as welcoming as ever,” he said. “But it reminds us that we haven’t achieved equality in the broader church.”

Then, after a short prayer, he turned to Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which he described as “an invitation to be faithful and hopeful, to walk through life’s troubles together, to turn individual weakness into collective strength.” He said Romans was a letter to a community, meant to be read aloud and processed together, something that doesn’t happen often enough. “[W]hich leads us to a truth about hope: We can’t hold onto it alone.”

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The question is: where does this thing we call racism or racial hierarchy start, and it's been very contentious, a huge question and has a big blame attached to it. Is it the Christians, the Muslims or the Jews? You find evidence for all three.
—Werner Sollors