Text: Luke 9:37-43
Archives for October 2014
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.
On October 12 we, celebrated our connections with the wider Christian community through our relationship with the Alliance of Baptists. Dr. Timothy Moore, former pastor of Sardis Baptist Church in Charlotte and current Alliance board member, was a guest in the Pullen pulpit.
Text: Matthew 22:1-14
World Communion Sunday
Text: Isaiah 40:28-31
I don’t know how much or what you know about the creation of the worship guide or as some call it the “bulletin.” It is a weekly process that involves me, Larry Schultz, and David Anderson. Larry begins the worship guide every Monday as we meet to plan worship. Once he has our outline roughed in and the music placed that we have negotiated (I advocate for the old hymns and Larry for the theologically sound hymns—a good balance) I take over. I create the call to worship, add elements that I think will add to our worship as related to the text that I am preaching on, insert the scripture, and lastly, I type in the sermon title. From that point, David takes over the process of formatting and editing. Who knew that it takes a village to produce a weekly worship guide!
You have listened before to my complaints about sermon titles. It’s hard to be creative on Wednesday or Thursday when the Spirit doesn’t often start speaking until Saturday. That is why some of my predecessors like Edwin McNeil Poteat and W.W. Finlator often didn’t include a sermon title in the bulletin. And honestly, it’s been a comfort to me to know that the Spirit waited until Saturday to speak to them, too! With that said, it is a very rare exception that I don’t include a sermon title in our worship guide. Sometimes they are creative, imaginative, and provocative. Other times they are bland, boring, and unimaginative. But even on those Sunday’s, rarely do I get questioned or critique openly by my colleagues. This week, however, was different. On Friday, David called me late afternoon and said, “I have a question about the worship guide.” I could hear the caution in his voice as he asked. “Did you mean for your sermon title to be Walking Willing or is that a misprint?” “Yes,” I responded, “that’s my sermon title.” Still unsure, he gave me another chance. “Well, okay. I just thought maybe it was supposed to be ‘Willingly Walking’ or something like that.” “No,” I said, “it is Walking Willing.” “Okay,” David replied and we hung up the phone.
Walking Willing—it is an odd phrase and I want to tell you the story of when I first heard it and what it has come to mean to me. Last year, on July 14th, Sister Simone Campbell preached here at Pullen. I had been following her work and ministry since 2012, when I heard about the first Nuns on the Bus project that aimed to draw attention to the nuns’ work with the poor and to protest planned aid cuts in our national budget. She caught my attention as she was speaking to issues that we, here in North Carolina, were facing and continue to face—affordable healthcare, economic justice, voting rights, and immigration reform just to name a few. Given the struggle we were in here in North Carolina, I thought a word from this prophet would be timely. And so, I invited her to Pullen to preach. If you were here that Sunday you will remember that her message was both timely and inspiring.