It's hard to know exactly when I knew I needed to leave the church I had been attending for nearly two decades. This was the church where my kids were christened, the church where I was bathed in prayers when I thought I was on my deathbed. But I have little doubt, that in this burgeoning era of Trump, I'm fortunate not to be there now, because for all the love and respect those people have shown me—and I've reciprocated—I would no longer feel comfortable there. How could I be, when I know that many in the congregation either voted for or supported Donald Trump?
This is a Southern church led by a white Southern pastor in a deep red state with mostly (but not exclusively) white parishioners and an all-white leadership. It is conservative in its foundational principles: against homosexual sex, staunchly pro-life, in favor of the inerrancy of the Christian Bible, the idea that scripture is literally the word of God.
This isn't a screed about a racist church, because that would not only be unfair, it would be a mischaracterization. The church is the opposite of racist. It was founded by a white pastor who believes a central part of the calling God has on his life is to unify people across racial lines. When the church was being created decades ago, he literally spent hours walking in black neighborhoods and knocking on the doors of black residents, inviting them to attend and become members.
I watched him rap with a young black church member to illustrate his deep desire for racial harmony. Countless times I heard him say from the pulpit that white people need to own up to racism. He invited a few black reverends to preach, coordinated cross-cultural exchanges and dinners with mostly black churches, and allowed me to lead difficult conversations about race within the church.
He did and said things I didn't see being said and done by most white Southern preachers; that's what attracted me to his church. I respected him then, when I was in my mid 20s, and respect him now as a 43-year-old married father of two.
I don't plan to ask him who he voted for because I don't want to know.
Early in the Obama era, I began noticing a disturbing change in the attitudes of some fellow churchgoers. I'd be accidentally copied onto email chains that included vile and often racist descriptions of the nation's first black president. At first, I reminded myself that the people sending and reacting to these emails weren't racist in the most common sense of the word. They deplore the David Dukes of the world as much as I do, would protest alongside me if the Ku Klux Klan scheduled a rally in town, would march down to the school if I told them a teacher had called either of my kids nigger. I'd respond to the emails by telling them how such messages were not cool and explain why before pointing them to more objective facts.
Initially, this seemed to work. They said they appreciated my intervening without quickly labeling or hating them. But the emails and other such messages kept coming, no matter what I said, until I was eventually taken out of the loop.
I trusted them with my kids, they trusted me with theirs, and yet none of that seemed to matter when it came to their views of Obama and his black supporters.
As time went on, I kept seeing similar sentiments in a variety of settings, not just on social media, but in person. These were the same people who prayed with me on Sunday mornings, who I had over to my house for dinner and fellowship, who had me in their homes. I trusted them with my kids, they trusted me with theirs, and yet none of that seemed to matter when it came to their views of Obama and his black supporters.
It was jarring. It was disappointing. Still, I was convinced the best way to handle such things was to remain in the arena, to provide an example that might break through what I hoped was just a fog they were in. That didn't work. Instead, I began being dismissed as either not really black—because I didn't fit the stereotypes too many of them had begun expressing—or overly sensitive about race, if not blinded by the color of Obama's skin.
Still, I stayed. I remained even after the head of the children's church, where my wife and I had been volunteering to babysit infants or teach basic Bible lessons to kindergarteners and elementary-aged children, took me to dinner to tell me I would no longer be allowed to do either of those things because my work—which included sometimes writing positively about Obama and gay people and their right to first-class citizenship—made people in the church uncomfortable. I wasn't a pedophile preying on their children; I was a man whose views on high-profile issues differed from their own, which made me just as dangerous.
I was told my focus was just race while theirs was rightly on Jesus, as though pushing for racial equality was in conflict with God's word.
I stayed after fellow church members declared that it was perfectly reasonable for George Zimmerman to have shot Trayvon Martin after having stalked and chased him down. Everyone knows, they told me, that young black men commit the most crime—then they were shocked when I said that's why I feared for my own black son more than ever. In their minds, it's not racist to believe young black men are guilty until proven innocent because they are over-represented in crime stats, or to believe black people voted for Obama only because he's black. To them, that's just common sense.
I was told my focus was just race while theirs was rightly on Jesus, as though pushing for racial equality was in conflict with God's word. And even then, I stayed.
I stayed because of the fellowship, stayed because my kids loved kids church, because I knew my wife needed the community she felt there. I stayed because in so many ways and on so many days, love, God's love, was the focus—whether that meant raising money for a poor family that just happened to show up at the church's front door, helping clean up the state park as part of outreach work, or visiting the sick in the hospital or the elderly who lived alone. There is a diversity of opinion and life experience in that place that is reassuring and assures the biblical principle "iron sharpening iron" is personified. The church, and the people who inhabit it, are wonderful in 1,000 different ways.
Nothing could convince me to leave because I thought commitment was more important than any discomfort I felt, because I thought it silly to think I had to have everything my way, because I believed—and still believe—that the bulk of the members of that church, and what they do inside and outside of those walls, is life-affirming and God-honoring. I shouldn't leave because you shouldn't leave good people behind if they are struggling with some ugly tendencies they might not even recognize, I told myself. I wrestle with ugliness, too.
That changed when I confessed to my wife that I had begun feeling a real hatred bubble up in me. That, she said, was too great a cost. And after a few fits and starts, we left about two years ago.
It was gut-wrenching but the absolute right decision, and at the right time. Because what's been revealed about people I love and respect—people who would help me and my family to this day if I asked—during the Obama era and the Trump phenomenon has cut me like nothing else. It would have been easier to take if they really were racist. But they're not.
They struggle daily to walk with God in a way that's best for everyone—and still were able to rationalize their way into participating in some of the ugliness that grew up in the wake of the country electing its first black president, and followed that by proudly supporting a man who ran on a platform of open bigotry. I don't yet know how to process that. I don't know if I ever will.
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