This opinion column was published in the October 15, 2014 News & Observer. Jim Jenkins is the deputy editorial page editor for the paper.
The pastor’s study at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church was quiet and unassuming and rather plain. I’d been summoned that day more than 20 years ago, 1992 to be precise, by Mahan Siler, the minister and my friend. Though I’d been raised a member in Pullen, I was then attending only occasionally and was no longer on the books.
I had no idea what Mahan wanted to talk about, but my curiosity was quickly answered.
He handed me a single sheet of paper.
“This,” he said, “is what I’m going to take up with the deacons (the governing board) tomorrow.”
On that paper was his proposal to conduct a union between two young men at the church. It would not be a marriage, exactly, he said, but a ceremony he felt it was his duty to perform. He sought the support of the deacons and ultimately the backing of the congregation.
He didn’t ask my opinion of the idea. If he had, at that time, I’d likely have expressed doubts. If I’d had a vote, I don’t know. I’d have had to take into consideration the impact on the church and particularly on its more senior members. They had long fought for civil rights and women’s equality and against the Vietnam War but they might not endorse what was then a revolutionary notion. Gay marriage, whatever it was called, wasn’t really on the public scope then. At least not here.
But Mahan didn’t want my viewpoint. He wanted, he said, to know what the public reaction, particularly in the media, would be. I didn’t have to think about it much.
“All hell will break loose,” I said.
And, when the plans for union were publicly announced, that’s exactly what happened.
Pullen members backed the idea, but some left the church. My father was as righteous a liberal as I ever knew, but he transferred his membership to a family church in Scotland County. My mother, perhaps more liberal than the old man, stayed and never wavered. She came to love and admire the minister who would eventually succeed Mahan and who remains at Pullen, the first openly lesbian minister in a Baptist church in the South.
Her name is Nancy Petty, and I am proud to call her my good friend. I know of no better person and certainly no better preacher. She is the first person I thought of when court decisions made it possible for same-sex marriages to proceed in North Carolina. Nancy stopped performing weddings some time back, saying she didn’t believe she could marry people when other people, lesbians and gays, could not marry. Another controversial call.
And yet another proud moment for Pullen church, the center of the liberal Baptist universe for more than 60 years. Yes, it’s a small universe, and Pullen was long ago kicked out of most of the Southern Baptist church alliances of which it once was part for being liberal, for being the church of the late Rev. Bill Finlator, who once preached a sermon, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., that filled the church to standing room only and had people outside transfixed and crying. He integrated the church when few predominantly white Southern churches had, and some did not permit, black members.
He led peace vigils and civil rights demonstrations. He would, as the old inspirational spiritual goes, not be moved.
Mahan and Jack McKinney and Nancy Petty carried on the tradition.
Whatever the cause, they’ve gotten the same threats, the same vicious criticism, much of it publicly, that Bill Finlator endured for decades. Other ministers in this very town have privately expressed to me their admiration for all of them, while explaining their own congregations would never tolerate the kind of outspokenness that is the Pullen tradition.
Finlator and the others often climbed up a steep hill, and victories on social issues were rare and came far after they should have. But the preachers carried on.
But now…now here is a victory. The courts have put the matter of gay marriage, its legality at least, to rest after some disgraceful pandering by politicians and even some others who should have known better.
Pullen knew better all along, as it so often has when it comes to mixing some practical enlightenment with the Good Word.
So in that Finlator tradition, lead on Sister Nancy. You shall not, and must not, be moved. Lead on.