Myers Park Baptist Church

Myers Park Baptist Church



Myers Park Baptist Church

Myers Park Baptist Church

“Open to All and Closed to None: A Message of Radical Belonging”
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, NC
By Deborah Jodrey

Myers Park Baptist ChurchOn October 19, 2020, a few minutes before 4:30pm, I clicked onto my personal WebEx room and waited for Rev. Ben Boswell, the Senior Minister of Myers Park Baptist Church, to join me for an interview. Ben is a White man in his late thirties or early forties with a brown beard, glasses, a warm presence, and he is very easy to talk with. At about the halfway point of our conversation, Ben began to tell me a story about a family in his church, the Green family. Ben shared how this family, originally from Jamaica, started coming to Myers Park a couple years ago after leaving another Baptist Church in town because their son had been discriminated against for being transgender. Ben shared with me how, despite some skepticism at first, this family has now become some of the church’s strongest members. In response to my question, “tell a story that captures what your congregation is all about,” Ben said that he chose this story because to him, this was a story that demonstrated why their “church exists and why it matters in Charlotte.” Ben expounded further, sharing that with this family’s unique social location and their transgender child, it was more difficult than they thought to find “a place where they can feel welcomed and loved and connect with God,” until they found Myers Park. To Ben, that is the “whole reason for our existence.”

I was not ready for the richness of his answer and the way he captured what his congregation is all about—a place of belonging for folks no matter who they are and no matter where they come from. The best part about this story is that it isn’t over. Ben continued, sharing another component of the story about when the son decided to have top surgery, which as Ben explained to me, was a dream of his. The son then asked Ben if he would go with him to the hospital, and the next part of this story literally sent chills throughout my body and even caused me to tear up:

Since then, he came back and told me that that was like, the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done for him, was to be there with him at that moment. And so that touched me. . . it was one of the best days in ministry of my life, my career, you know, I felt like I had a reason for existing . . . and without our theology being where it is as an organization and our commitment to openness, we would never have been able to do that for that family. We couldn’t have done it. We wouldn’t have been able to be equipped to do it. Not just me, but the other clergy and lay leaders who have been there with the family the whole time.

What a powerful story, both the content and the way that Ben told it—this vision of belonging. I truly felt the presence of God in this story. I can’t help but wonder, what if this is what the Church should actually be all about? If so, what is it about Myers Park and their ecclesial imagination that has allowed them to get to this place of radical belonging? On the other side of things, what opportunities for ministry and creating spaces for connection and belonging are other churches missing out on without this kind of ecclesial imagination that makes space for true diversity and inclusion?

Founded in 1943, Myers Park Baptist Church is a wealthy and predominately White congregation of over 1000 active members located in an affluent neighborhood in Charlotte, NC. Myers Park possesses a rich and complex history with a total of only five senior ministers before W. Benjamin Boswell was hired as their current senior minster five years ago. Myers Park carries with it a history of notoriety for their Sunday School programs in the fifties, marching and protesting alongside African American churches in their area for civil rights, working to integrate Charlotte’s public schools, protesting the Iraq War, and hosting numerous famous theological speakers like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. The church has been a part of launching twenty different nonprofit organizations and, as Ben puts it, “the church has got this history of being an incubator for founding social movements and social justice and being at the forefront of all those issues here in the city of Charlotte.” Marcy McClanahan, the lay leader I interviewed, shared with me another high point—Myers Park’s departure from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). When Marcy and her wife first joined about 18 years ago, Myers Park was part of the Southern Baptist Convention. This was the case until Myers Park made an explicit statement of welcome and affirmation for the LGBTQ community. At the same time, the Southern Baptist Convention also made an explicit policy, but theirs was one of exclusion. Instead of just quietly leaving, like many other progressive Baptist churches, Myers Park confronted the SBC, called out their hypocrisy and discrimination, and then were forcefully kicked out of the SBC for their explicit affirmation of the LGBTQ community. Marcy shared how this story gives her so much pride for her church and their commitment to inclusion.

Along with this beautiful history of progress and social justice, there is also a history of classism, systemic racism, and difficult and painful departures of each of their senior ministers. In response to me asking about a low point in the church’s history, Ben shared with me how “they have not had a positive departure, ever.” Looking back only a few years to 2016, the context in which Ben, their sixth and youngest senior minister, arrived was not any less tumultuous. Charlotte had just been named the last-ranking city in America for upward mobility, which as Ben saw it meant that they were “the worst in America for racial opportunity” as well. Along with that, North Carolina had just passed HB2, which prohibited trans folks from using the public restrooms that aligned with their gender identity. In September of 2016, Keith Lamont Scott was shot by police, and then in November, Donald Trump was elected president. What a complex past full of tensions of both high and low points in the church’s history.

What has the church done with these tensions of both high and low points? How has Ben processed this difficult history of departures of their senior ministers? Rather than ignoring or pushing down the more painful parts of their past or the more recent devastating events, I have learned about and witnessed the ways Myers Park has responded to them. The congregation has sought to reform governing structures within their church to make it more equitable, extend its ministry and membership beyond this wealthy neighborhood, make overwhelming statements against racism (especially through the work that the staff and congregants are doing on whiteness), and ask hard questions around clergy burnout. Four years ago, this more distant and recent history drove the church to put together a comprehensive strategic plan and goals. Ben shared with me, “[now,] we’ve pretty much accomplished them all.” Despite the progress and changes that the church has made, they haven’t stopped there; they continue to ask themselves, “Where are we headed? What’s our mission? Where are we going?” in order to uplift their gift for adapting and living out their commitment, which is, as seen front and center on their website, to be “open to all and closed to none.”

Adaptation is a part of who Myers Park is and the key to how they have adjusted and responded to the more difficult parts of their past. It is also how I see their ecclesial imagination and commitment to being “open to all” being worked out. It is what equipped them to navigate the tensions in their history and what prepared them to face the challenges of COVID-19. One major adjustment that the church clearly needs to and appears to be in the process of making concerns the difficult departures of each of their senior ministers leading up to Ben. Ben shared openly with me about this part of Myers Park’s history and how it looms in the back of his mind. He recognizes that part of his role at Myers Park will be to wrestle with these skeletons. Ben stated openly, “I don’t think the congregation has ever had a . . . real conversation about why that continues to happen.” Though real attempts to avoid clergy burnout have been put in place, I think both Ben and I wonder if those attempts without a real conversation with the congregation are enough, or if they are just the beginning of a fuller adaptation that needs to be made.

Marcy also brought this point up when I asked about a low point, sharing how the departure of Ben’s predecessor especially “was a very rough time for the congregation.” Yet, things appear to be shifting. With everything that happened in Ben’s first year, I don’t think it would have been possible for him to be where he is as the senior minister only five years in without the reality of some change and growth taking place. I wonder if it is both a combination of work the church has done and who Ben is. He brings many skills and gifts to the table, and the work he has been able to do has helped the church continue to process and heal from its past. I think Ben also senses this shift. I especially saw this come through when I simply asked, “What drew you to this congregation?” Ben responded with what he told me is the same answer he gives anytime anyone asks him this: “It’s the most liberating place I’ve ever been a pastor.” Ben explained that he means this in two ways: both liberating in the sense of working with and on behalf of marginalized folks and liberating in the sense of him having the freedom to challenge and push back against the traditions of the church. This allows the church to more readily adapt.

Another clear point that demonstrates this church’s ability to adapt comes through in the midst of COVID-19. I have never had a doubt working with this church that they are doing anything but taking COVID-19 very seriously. I saw this in the safety measures put in place at the events I attended and on their website. I was able to hear from the laity the appreciation they have for the staff and other leaders concerning their ability to adapt and respond to the pandemic. One member, Kathy, said it best when she shared, “I think that we responded by intentionally adapting.” This feeling that I already had about Myers Park’s ability to respond and adapt was definitely driven home in my interview with Ben. Not only did Myers Park immediately shut down and take all necessary precautions, but they saw it as an opportunity to truly be “open to all” in the way that they became a resource for their congregation and community.

Ben shared about how they offered a range of holistic resources on mental health issues that they anticipated would emerge from the loneliness and isolation. They also provided resources for spiritual practices, working at home with kids, relationships, exercise, how to create a safe home environment, and resources specifically on domestic violence and economic challenges that might come from the pandemic. Along the lines of facing the challenge of COVID-19, another aspect that really blew me away was how completely and fully supportive the congregation was on the decisions made by Ben and the staff to be extremely cautious. I think this response from the congregation says a lot about not only the level of trust for Ben and the whole staff, but also about their ecclesiology and the way they see the church and worship as extending far beyond a building.

Myers Park 2Worship and representation in their leadership have also been huge areas of responding and adapting. While one may think, looking at the younger staff and presence of the black female minister Rev. Mia McClain, that Myers Park has always been on the front lines of diversification in music and staff, Ben shared with me that these were two recent adaptations that the church has made that have greatly contributed to their commitment to being “open to all.” Ben shared with me how Myers Park went “from basically being the highest classical music church in the city, even in the highest liturgy, and putting our Episcopalian brothers and sisters to shame,” to, over a five-week period, experimenting with and incorporating new genres of music like “rock and roll, jazz, reggae, and indigenous music” into their worship services. I had an opportunity to witness this adaptation myself in the worship service I attended, which featured music by Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Canned Heat, and Bruce Springsteen. In the midst of that 60s rock and roll music, space was created for me to feel a connection with this church, and more importantly, with God. This introduction of more diverse styles of music in conjunction with their more traditional music and hymns has allowed Myers Park to grow in adaptation and has allowed folks of all backgrounds and music interests to be intentionally included and represented in worship.

Looking now to staff representation, my conversation with Marcy made it clear to me that representation “absolutely makes a difference.” She shared this in response to me asking more about Myers Park’s recent hire of their first ever black female minister, Rev. Mia McClain. Marcy went on to explain that while representation matters, they also hired Mia because “she’s the absolute best person and has proved herself to be unbelievable.” Ben also shared this recent hire with me in our initial conversation, and I have seen even more recently that as of January 2021, Myers Park now has two African American ministers on staff. This adaptation and commitment to hiring incredibly talented minsters and to representation has created space for folks of color to now see themselves in the faces of the leadership of Myers Park, leading, preaching, and teaching. Again, this ability to adapt has also significantly contributed to Myers Park’s call to be a place of belonging.

One final example of adaptation has emerged in the midst of COVID and proven beneficial for the future of Myers Park. Marcy shared how even after the pandemic they will be keeping the online format of their congregational meeting since they saw such an increase in attendance and participation. Marcy shared what she saw as the value in this online format and her hope for allowing the changes that had to be made during the pandemic to inform them for the future. She shared how this online meeting really allowed for “better engagement from the community.” I think that Ben does an amazing job of capturing how important adapting has been and will continue to be for Myers Park moving forward:

I hope we learn the difference between interruption and disruption. And that we are able to discern what things COVID disrupted that should never come back to the way they were and the new that was created [that] is better than what we had and needs to continue to evolve, and what things have been interrupted and need to go back to the way they were. . . [I hope] that we’re able to discern the difference between [these] with an eye toward what it means to be the church in the 21st century. Which I think we’re coming slowly to learn. But we, in the age of rapid church decline, . . . have to try to figure out how to learn that lesson quickly.

This statement expertly summarizes the important role that adapting has played for Myers Park. This is not just a surface level, rolling-with-the-punches perspective, but a vision for who they want to continue to be as a church.

“Open to All and Closed to None” is a clear part of the shape of Myers Park’s ecclesial imagination and vision for radical belonging. This is not only part of Myers Park’s covenant, but a rampant theme throughout the website, the events I attended, and my conversations with folks from Myers Park. I also saw this phrase in their covenant clearly being lived out in many of the stories Marcy told me, especially the ones concerning queer inclusion and racial justice. This is apparent right away seeing that Marcy, the chair of deacons, is a married gay woman. She shared how incredibly welcomed she, her wife, and her daughter have felt for the 18 years they have been attending Myers Park. This sense of welcome and belonging has reached from the very beginning when they first started attending Myers Park to the time when Marcy and her family were the first queer family to have a child dedicated. Myers Park’s stance on truly being open to all and closed to none does not stop there, but also extends to those of all racial and cultural backgrounds, as seen in the work this predominately white church has done and is continuing to do on white fragility, the stance the church took back during the Civil Rights movement, their participation in current BLM marches and protests (despite some pushback from within the congregation), and their recognition, as I have already mentioned, of the importance of having folks of color represented in leadership. Ben shared with me, on the same topic, how his goal is for 90% of the church community to go through the “What Does it Mean to be White” training that he created in order to, as he put it, “shift the burden of responsibility back to [white folks] for the problem of racism in America.” To really drive his passion for racial justice home, Ben stated:

My ultimate goal . . . is for my members to have a shift in their worldview into realizing that antiracism work is ministry first of all. [And] that may sound like not a big deal, but I want to say it even stronger: [antiracism work] is the ministry they have to be called to as a predominately white church in America in the 21st century.

While I learned much in my interviews about what Myers Park really means by being “open to all and closed to none,” this part of Myers Park’s identity was exhibited even more fully by the laity in my focus group. From them, I learned that Myers Park’s welcoming atmosphere, diversity, and commitment to being on the front lines of social justice movements is the reason behind why many folks are drawn to and continue to attend Myers Park. In his response to my opening question, Tucker Pearsall, the chair elect of the board of deacons, shared that it is Myers Park’s principles of “social justice, inclusivity, welcoming all people, and just the general openness” that has kept him involved and dedicated to the church. Another person, Cherie, a gay woman, stated emphatically how important it was for her and her family to attend a church where they saw people and families that looked like them, and more than that, experienced a community that embraced them. When asked by a congregant why the church isn’t saying “all lives matter” instead of “Black lives matter,” Ben responded with: “The statement Black Lives Matter is a rehumanizing statement for a community that has been dehumanized. . . People of faith should be about the re-humanization of those in our community who have been dehumanized.” It is this spirit of justice and inclusivity that propels Myers Park forward.

I can’t help but see these stories and this message of being “open to all and closed to none” as a response to what happened with the Southern Baptist Convention. In the midst of experiencing first-hand the feeling of being kicked out and closed off from the SBC, I see Myers Park flipping that narrative around and claiming a stance and a covenant of openness so that anyone who walks in their doors will never experience what the church as a whole experienced at the hands of SBC. In light of that experience, Myers Park has become a place of explicit belonging and openness to all. In the same vein of reflecting on Myers Park’s history and how it has shaped who they are today, I also see them learning and continuing to learn from their past, holding the tension of where they have fallen short and celebrating the ways their vision of radical belonging has been present. Myers Park has responded to the specific problem of so many churches being closed off to certain types of people by demonstrating through both words and deeds that they are a church that is willing to do the work and possess the ecclesial and theological imagination so that anyone could feel welcome and part of the community. They have used their skills in adaptation to take on the challenges that came with COVID-19, discerning the difference between disruption and interruption. I would argue that Myers Park, with this type of ecclesial imagination, exemplifies the potential any church has to be a place of radical belonging.

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