Predominantly White Charlotte Church, Myers Park Baptist Church, Walks Fine Line Between Its Commitment to Racial Justice and Not Alienating Its More Conservative Members

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On a recent night at Myers Park Baptist Church, the predominately white congregation and guests from a black church belted out “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” a gospel song once performed at the funeral for Martin Luther King Jr.

The moment reflected the challenge facing the Rev. Benjamin Boswell, the youngest person ever to the lead Myers Park in 70 years, one of Charlotte’s most prominent churches.

Boswell, 36, is attempting to step up Myers Park’s commitment to racial justice, but must avoid alienating more conservative members in the roughly 2,000-person congregation.

Speaking to about 70 people who attended a special service called “Awakening to Racial Injustice,” Boswell did not temper his message about segregation in the church.

“We started that problem,” Boswell said, referring to white Christians. “Now, we suddenly want to all come together, but we don’t want to do any work. It is not enough to think we can just sing some songs together.”

That approach has been met mostly with high praise, but also resistance from some quarters of his church.

After Rev. William Barber, founder of the “Moral Mondays” movement and head of the state NAACP, addressed the church following November’s presidential election, some church members were upset.

They complained that Barber used the pulpit to accuse President-elect Donald Trump of encouraging racism, mixing biblical teachings with political commentary.

While political talk is common in black churches, it is considered off-limits for ministers in many white congregations.

Boswell acknowledged that Barber’s speech was “uncomfortable” for some members, while offering assurances the congregation would find common ground on the issue.

But the Myers Park Baptist debate symbolizes a larger question for Charlotte’s religious communities: How should churches speak about divisive social issues such as economic inequality, race and gay rights?

“It has been a challenging year to be in ministry,” Boswell said, citing September’s riots over the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott and fallout from HB 2. “This is the most important year in the history of the city.”

A progressive history

Founded in 1943, Myers Park Baptist has long been known for taking controversial stands.

It is affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists and not the conservative Southern Baptist Convention. The church lost membership in the state Baptist Convention in 2007 for welcoming gays and lesbians. Outside speakers have included scholars who question some basic tenets of Christianity.

Congregational leaders say they picked Boswell to lead the church after a two-year search because he takes bold stands on social justice issues, including opposition to Amendment One — the N.C. constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage that passed in 2012 but was later thrown out by a federal court.

“Our senior pastor has always been more progressive than our congregation,” said Bob Thomason, a member since 1966 and a deacon. “We want somebody who will provoke us. He is more than happy to be bold.”

Boswell has thrown his support behind Charlotte’s upward mobility taskforce, a group of civic leaders charged with looking into why researchers from Harvard and other institutions said children born in Charlotte have the lowest chances of any big city in America of moving from poverty to privilege.

Thomason acknowledged the Barber speech remains a contentious issue for some and was subject of debate at a recent deacon meeting. But after Barber’s sermon, Thomason said, multiple ministers who attended thanked Boswell.

“They told him ‘You’re the only one brave enough to do this,’” Thomason said.

Carol Reid, a 12-year church member, said it is difficult to acknowledge the role white churches have played in systemic racism.

“It is up to us as members to take full advantage of the miraculous gift of Ben’s ministry with us, so that the boldness of Myers Park Baptist is not only a part of our past, but our present and our future,” Reid said.

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Source: Charlotte Observer | FRED CLASEN-KELLY