April 23, 2019
Note: Even in death, Jerry McLeese made a statement. The service, or, perhaps more aptly, the celebration of Jerry’s life, was exactly as he wanted it: a conspicuous display of his long quest to “gain a greater understanding of and respect for each other’s traditions.” Among those leading the worship were Rev. Maria Teresa Jones, Rabbi Mark David Cohn, Imam Khalid Griggs, and Rev. Kelly P. Carpenter. In a packed standing-room only sanctuary, a potpourri of humanity sat beneath the rainbow flag listening to an ecumenical expression of how Jerry had touched so many lives. Perhaps there was a broader message in this celebration than that of the life of one man, as full and meaningful as it was. The United Methodist Church is going through a well-publicized reevaluation of its ministry and it remains to be seen if the type of celebration at Green Street United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, NC, yesterday will be marginalized to a protest outpost or whether it is the future of a welcoming community for all. – Warren Dunn 4/23/19
Jerry’s Journey is the story of the search by a man and woman for a congregation in which their faith could be fulfilled and their beliefs upheld. It was an arduous journey because it involved confrontation and difficult decisions, yet it was successful and rewarding. Today, Jerry and Sybil McLeese are active members of perhaps the most socially conscious United Methodist congregation in Winston-Salem, the Green Street Church.
The church itself survived a difficult journey as it searched for a way to remain a viable sanctuary. Its membership had dropped to as low as twelve worshippers and the church searched for a way to survive and serve. That way was to embrace diversity and to provide a place of healing. With their doors opened wide, the faithful returned, the church reclaimed its influence and its leadership by confronting the polarizing issues that trouble a divided nation.
Jerry and Sybil never lost their faith in Christianity, but their experiences within the United Methodist denomination resulted in an awareness that intolerance, fear, and suspicion have no place in the church or in their lives. Their long journey ended on Green Street. “Jerry’s Journey” is, moreover, as much of a challenge to churches that only look inwardly to their “happy homogeneity,” as it is a testament to one man’s courage of his convictions.
In response to the growing diversity of our nation, and as a way of putting into practice his beliefs, Jerry founded Interfaith Winston-Salem, which reaches out to all religions and those of no stated belief in an effort to establish trust and respect. After twenty years of service, this book is, in a narrow sense, his legacy as he assumes a different role within the organization he helped create. In a much broader sense, it is an exploration of faith itself. Faith is too often associated only with religious belief. In truth, faith is a component of everyday life. Faith is the willingness to risk the unknown, the uncertain, and the unproven. It drives us to get through the vicissitudes of life by providing solace and it drives us to achieve.
United Methodism sustains Jerry, and his belief system supports him, but it is faith itself, that enigmatic force that gives his life its meaning. We wanted to explore with others how faith affected their successful lives and that is what much of this book is about.
The “We” includes me, friend and neighbor of the McLeeses. I share Jerry’s belief that only if you have faith, however you want to define it, can you expect to lead a life well-lived. We have interviewed successful men and women in the Triad area who have made significant contributions to our society. From them we have reaffirmed our faith in faith itself as a motivating factor in life and to them we express our deepest appreciation.
by Jerry McLeese
(My faith journey has taken me through several churches in the Carolinas. Over time, I have come to the conclusion that faith differs from belief, that a steadfast faith can strengthen through experience but a belief system can change with learning and knowledge. You won’t hear me talk much about God. In fact, I don’t believe that I mention God at all in the story that follows. I don’t understand God well enough to pose a description. Christian church liturgies call God “Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.” I know that there is an energy or force present within and among. I have felt it. If you want to call that “God,” it is perfectly okay with me. I will simply appreciate the experience.)
Every journey has a starting point or, in my case, a confluence of experiences.
I grew up surrounded by a community of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents large enough to populate a small town. Mother had 11 siblings, Dad had 12. Most lived around Anderson, South Carolina. My mother’s family was first-generation off the farm, settling in the Appleton Mill village where many of them worked. Dad left the farm for work in a grocery store while some of his brothers and their families continued to operate farms.
We had impromptu Friday night family gatherings made special by Aunt Annie Mae’s hot French fries and mounds of steaming scrambled eggs. In the late summer, I would get to ride on the back of a combine, bagging oats or wheat for Cousin Wade Martin.
There were overnight stays in the winter at Aunt Lizzie’s where chilly winds gusted under the house and up through cracks in the floors. And, we made scary faces in the dark by holding flashlights under our chins. When I turned 10, Dad let me do odd jobs on the weekend at the grocery, and we would go downtown in Anderson for the “blue plate special” at his favorite restaurant.
The wealth of my childhood was one of invaluable experiences. We never had much in the way of material things, but we had family.
I had the good fortune of growing up (from age five through my teen years) in New Prospect Baptist Church, less than half-a-mile from my Grandfather Alonzo McLeese’s farm. Looking back, I recall a church that focused more on loving neighbors than it did with beating them over the heads with Scriptures.
Outside my family, two men, in particular, had major influences on my early life – Pastor Clarence Shirley, who worked closely with the youth; and Kenneth McCoy, the successful owner of a lumber company, who taught the boys’ Sunday School class.
They gave me a foundation in faith that reached beyond memorizing Bible verses (which I gladly did so that I would be allowed to play on the church’s Royal Ambassadors baseball team). They modeled an internal strength for us.
When death interrupted our youth years, they were there to give us the strength to cope. The best player on our baseball team was Fred Murdock (whose sister, Linda Sue, was later my first sweetheart – although I never had the nerve to tell her). Fred had leukemia and died during the baseball season. All of the players sat together on the front pew of the church during the funeral. Pastor Shirley was very forthcoming with us, and, although my memory is dim, I don’t recall any platitudes about God needing a good first baseman. We grew from that experience.
The next summer, a handful of us went to a Royal Ambassadors camp, and, as fate would have it, the counselors had arranged a baseball tournament among the different cabins. Out of a team of misfits, for some reason, I was drafted as the pitcher. I felt more at home in right field. Our opponent was a team from Pineville, near Charlotte, and it appeared they had been playing together for years. They didn’t have much mercy on me. About the fourth inning with runners on first and second bases and me on the mound, the umpire standing behind me called “balk” as I prepared to pitch. I had never heard the term and thought maybe he was making fun of me. I ran to my dugout, crying and telling our counselor that I couldn’t continue. With my cheeks still wet, I returned to the mound and finished the game. Our team didn’t win, but, with the counselor’s encouragement, I left the field with a sense of accomplishment.
It followed me into high school. During the spring of my sophomore year at Boys High School in Anderson (Girls High School was on the opposite end of McDuffie Street a little more than a mile away.) I joined tryouts for the baseball team with around 30 others looking for one of the 17 slots on the team. When the final cut was announced, I was No. 18 on the list, but, fortunately for me, a player who had been chosen was declared ineligible because of his grades. I had made the team because I was a good student.
I practiced hard all season and gladly accepted the drudge work that fell to underclassmen. When the last game of the season rolled around, I had not played in any of the games. Late in that final game, Coach Jack Miller, possibly feeling sorry for me, inserted me as a pinch hitter. After taking a couple of pitches I hit a line-drive single to left field. It was the only time I batted in a game that season, but I still claim to be the only player in the history of Boys High School who batted 1.000 for an entire season.
With growing faith in myself I joined the baseball team for my junior and senior years. By the time I finished high school I had played on a team from Greenville, S.C. that won the National Little Boys Baseball World Series in Springfield, Illinois and had served as co-captain and named most valuable player on the high school team my senior year.
I had been working on Fridays and Saturdays with my Dad in the grocery store from age 10 to age 15. Mother doubted that the grocery business would offer me much of a future. When she saw a “help wanted” ad in the newspaper for someone to work part-time in the sports department of the local paper she arranged for me to apply. The job involved taking calls from high school sports correspondents on game nights, working as a proofreader and eventually taking calls from funeral homes to write obituaries.
This was 1956-57 in the South. Segregation ruled, and from my limited experience it was the way things were supposed to be. I was too naïve to notice the subtle discrimination mandated for the obituaries and sports pages. I was instructed to use “Mr.,” “Mrs.” or “Miss” when identifying white people in the obits. If the person were not white, which was obvious because only African-American mortuaries handled burials only of African-Americans, I was told to avoid the honorifics.
Once when I was responsible for the placement of stories on football games on the sports pages, I placed the story about Westside High School, the segregated local African-American high school, higher on the page than the story on one of the area white schools. The publisher reprimanded me. “Stories about Black schools always are placed at the bottom of the page,” he told me.
Looking back now, I can see that my teen years were laced with a kevlon faith that was constantly with me. Through my huge extended family, I developed faith in community. Through the church, I had the kind of faith that comes from saintly men. Through my experiences in sports I developed a faith in my own ability to succeed and make a difference. I also was beginning to recognize the inequalities that made my life easier than the dark-skinned people who lived on the other side of the tracks.
The part-time job opened a series of doors for me over the years. I became sports editor of Anderson’s afternoon daily paper, The Daily Mail, at the age of 17 and sports editor of the morning paper, The Independent, at the age of 19, shortly after my wife and I were married while sophomores at Anderson College. During that time I wrote a column about a freshman basketball player at Daniel High School in nearby Clemson. He was a gangly kid named Pete Maravich, and, for the first time in print, I called him “Pistol Pete.” He still holds the NCAA record for most points scored in a career.
Six years later, while at the Winston-Salem Journal, I wrote a long feature article on another basketball player that was published in the Journal and picked up by the Sporting News. In that story I talked about “Earl’s Pearls,” referring to the phenomenal statistics of Earl Monroe of Winston-Salem State Teachers College. After that article appeared everyone began calling him “Earl the Pearl.”
My newspaper work led to work at the Bowman Gray School of Medicine (now Wake Forest School of Medicine), Wachovia Bank and, for the final 13 years of my business career, as owner of McLeese Marketing Communication in Winston-Salem. I retired in 1998 at the age of 58 and felt I still had many productive years left as a volunteer in the community.
# # #
A Beach of a Day
Early September 2001. It’s a good time to rejoin my journey because it was the beginning of the end of an age of innocence for many of us.
My wife and I, like most families, cherished the idea of happy times when our entire brood could be together, assembling 1,000-piece puzzles, walking on the beach, eating Calabash-style seafood, laughing at shaggy dog stories.
We had rented a large oceanfront house at Ocean Isle Beach on the North Carolina coast for two weeks. The first week was for the entire family. The second week was for Sybil and me to recover from the first week. Our family vacations often required time for recuperation. We always preferred early spring or early fall because there seemed to be smaller crowds around.
Ashley and her husband, Greg, and toddler, Zach, drove up from Cumming, Georgia. Our son, Greg, drove down from Winston-Salem. Daughter Lori flew in from San Francisco, where she had been working for a few years.
We arose fairly early for breakfast on Tuesday, looking forward to a day of beachcombing. Someone had told us a secret spot for digging sand dollars at nearby Holden Beach.
As was usual, television was playing in the background. A “breaking news” bulletin flashed on the screen. An airplane had flown into one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York. We watched the unfolding news: a second plane flies into the second tower, a third plane crashes into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and a fourth crashes in Pennsylvania. Almost 3,000 people would die that day in the attacks.
The responses in that beach house that day ranged from revenge to retrenchment to unstated acceptance of complicity. For me, it told me that the world can be better than this, but I never expected my world to change as it did following September 11, 2001.
# # #
When we moved from Winston-Salem in 1973, we joined around 2,000 other residents of Rural Hall 10 miles away. We were leaving a development with small ranch houses that shouldered against the neighbors and a postage-stamp yard. With three children, we chose a house with four bedrooms, a study, a large den, three-and-a half baths and a basement large enough for the Kansas City Bombers.
The house sat on two acres of wooded land out of sight of any other homes. Streams ran along two sides of the property. The kids could explore without our having to worry about traffic. And, I could have a small garden to balance my time behind the desk at my day job. It was idyllic.
I was returning to my childhood in the 1940s, when my family lived in the outside Anderson. For several years the quarter-acre front yard had been dedicated to growing sweet potatoes my Dad sold to supplement his income. The back yard featured a chicken coop and our home garden. Dad tilled that garden using a push plow, and I raided the nests for eggs. I have always longed to work the soil, to be absorbed by the country life, to raise my family in that environment. It was like being back home again, although I grew asparagus instead of sweet potatoes in the front yard. Were we coming up in the world?
To help become established in the community, we immediately began considering churches. Our religious and social lives had always been built around the church from the time we both were children. Sybil grew up in the home of a Southern Baptist preacher, so the die was cast for her. Having both been in Southern Baptist churches for our entire lives, we visited Rural Hall Baptist Church first. Then we had a visit from the pastor at Kingswood United Methodist Church, which was energized by a modern new building and active young members.
We were quickly swept into the energy at Kingswood, even with an admonition from Sybil’s Baptist preacher father to “know what they believe before you join them.” I also was intrigued that, according to some people, the United Methodist Church had “a wide middle,” which meant that it was accepting of different people and different viewpoints.
We liked that the people of Kingswood lived by the John Wesley motto:
“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”
Rural Hall and Kingswood proved to be excellent homes for our family as the children were growing. We both became leaders in the church, and Sybil was asked to become church secretary when the long-time secretary accepted a job in another church. Sybil eventually became director of the preschool program, and her role in the church office expanded. She was given the honorific “Miss Sybil” because of respect people in the church had for her. I, of course, became “Mr. Sybil.”
While director of the preschool in the late 1970s, Sybil recognized that while the program was serving many children whose families were not members of the church, it had attracted none of the African-American children in the community. She worked quietly with one of the matrons of the church to establish a scholarship fund that would be available to African-American families that needed financial assistance. Later, Sybil organized a readiness class that gave children – mostly boys who are slower to socialize – an extra year to prepare before entering public kindergarten. Both were highly successful and praised by members of church leadership.
Sybil retired in 1996 after more than 20 years on the staff, and I sold my business and followed suit in 1998. Now with an empty nest (and a large one at that), we chose to downsize, buying a condominium in downtown Winston-Salem. We had developed strong ties at Kingswood, however, and decided it would continue to be our church home.
Sybil volunteered to serve as coordinator of short-term adult studies. In 2001, following our time at the beach during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she conducted a survey of the congregation to identify topics of interest. The top choices were 1) a study related to the New Testament and 2) developing a better understanding of Islam and Muslims.
Our friend, Jo Hunter, a long-time member of the church, volunteered to create the New Testament study, and I volunteered to search for materials that could be used for a study of Islam. Both were approved through the Council on Ministries, which organizes church programs.
Jo’s study came first. She asked her group what it would like to cover in the study. I said I would like to know who wrote the New Testament, when it was written and why. Jo’s response: go and do your research and come back with a report.
Until then, I had seen church as a place where you went to be taught what to believe. I had never seen it as a place to question and learn. I had never been challenged to explore what church or religion could mean more broadly in the community.
The New Testament study became a pivotal point for me. I learned that the first four books of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) most likely were not written by people of those names, that Mark was written first (although it was second in the New Testament canon), that many of the verses from Mark were copied by the writers of Matthew and Luke, and that none of the writers lived when Jesus was alive. That just scratched the surface of my new knowledge.
Why had I not learned this basic information before now? Had I been asleep in church all those years? Had the church failed to help me learn? It was both discouraging and stimulating at the same time, and it only whetted my appetite to learn more. It was like a dam had burst.
As I began to ask questions, I began to wonder if I was raising doubts about the value of those wonderful stories told in Sunday School? Were my questions eroding my faith? The more questions I asked, the more questions emerged. I began to understand that religious faith was not about achieving a state of certainty by finding answers but it was all about developing a strong faith that accepted uncertainty as inevitable.
I poured energy into exploring resources about Islam and looking for ways that I could help others in the congregation learn about that tradition. I was excited to be making new discoveries every day. Eventually, I settled on a curriculum based by a series of videotapes by John Esposito, a professor at Georgetown University.
Unfortunately, I knew no one – absolutely no one – in the local Muslim community. I had lived in my happy silo too long to connect with the broader community. I should have known Imam Khalid Griggs of The Community Mosque in Winston-Salem. I should have known Irshad Hashan at Masjid al-Muminun or someone at what now is the Annoor Islamic Center in Clemmons. Today, I have many dear friends at those masjids, and Imam Griggs has been a constant inspiration.
But, like a blind squirrel that can still find acorns before the winter, I made contact with Sam Atassi, who was with the Muslim Association of the Triad. Sam provided introductions to other Muslims in the area – most of them from Greensboro – and also to Dr. Reda Bedeir, a visiting professor at Wake Forest University from Al-Azhar University in Cairo.
Dr. Bedeir was most interested in my proposal and invited me to meet at his apartment on the Wake Forest campus. My face still reddens in embarrassment when I recall the visit. He had a spread of foods and hot tea laid out on the table. In my innocent ignorance I did not understand that this was a traditional form of welcome in his culture, but he was most gracious when I declined his invitation to eat. I have since learned differently and have never refused to share food, especially when offered by my dear friend, Shereen Gomaa, who created a nonprofit catering business to provide employment for women of refugee families settling in the area.
When I explained that I had selected videotapes by a non-Muslim for the series, Sam and other Muslims asked why I had not chosen a Muslim. I explained that the Esposito tapes seemed to be educationally sound and interesting, and I shared copies in advance for them to review.
Some of them knew Dr. Esposito’s work and saw him as someone who understood Islam and Muslim culture. They heartily approved the tapes. We also decided that we would invite area Muslims and Dr. Bedeir to participate in the classes. As members of the Kingswood congregation, we would review two tapes of around 30 minutes, discuss what we have heard and list questions that we had. The next week, Dr. Bedeir and Muslim guests would join us for the discussion and answer our questions.
The series was open to everyone in the Kingswood congregation. As best I recall, around 35 individuals participated. They were open with their questions without showing hostility that sometimes surfaces in encounters like these. The series lasted four or five weeks.
At the end, we decided that participants in the series – both Kingswood and local Muslims – would gather for an evening meal in the church fellowship hall. Members of Kingswood, who were well known for their cooking, were invited to bring their favorite dishes (acknowledging Muslim dietary requirements), and Muslims would bring dishes from the several Middle Eastern countries where they had lived. Each brought recipes to be shared. One Kingswood member told me that having Muslims and Christians sitting side by side for the meal was among the most impactful of his time at the church.
This seemed like a positive experience that we could share with the broader community. So, I invited Michael Hastings, the food editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, to join us and write an article on the program and the meal. The meal was an evening of great joy for all of us, to be able to share in the intimate way that only food can make possible. Hastings wrote a front-page article with photos in the food section that carried over and filled an inside page with photos and recipes.
Following the meal, the Muslim women asked if I would show them the church sanctuary, which was located above the Fellowship Hall. The Kingswood sanctuary features wood paneling, red carpeting, natural wood pews and stained glass windows. As we entered, the only light was a spotlight focused on a huge wooden cross (maybe 15 feet high) on the wall at the front of the sanctuary. Jeanie Holcomb, one of the Kingswood participants, recalled the chills years later as we stood “in the dim light of the cross” and shared with our new Muslim friends the importance of the cross to us and the symbolism of other elements of the holy space.
I could not have been more pleased with the entire series and the gracious acceptance by my fellow Kingswood members of the reception they had give to the Muslim guests. We had made real progress – at least, I thought so at the time.
Leaders at Kingswood taught me many things. One was that you always evaluate your programs to see how you can make them better the next time around. I scheduled an evaluation session and invited all church members who had participated. Around 30 came.
We had one visitor, our minister. I call him a “visitor” because he had not participated in any part of the series or the meal. We formed into a large circle. To decide who would be invited to share their comments and opinions first, following an old tradition from my youth I spun a milk bottle. It pointed to the person beside the minister, so I decided to start there and let the minister make the final comments.
Almost all of the comments were positive and constructive. One woman said that she would be concerned to let her children participate in a class led by Dr. Bedeir because he was so charismatic. Others wanted to find a way to continue the involvement with the Muslim community.
Then we came to the minister. He had said nothing during the many months of preparation for the series that would have led us to expect what we heard that evening. Without hesitation, he called Muhammad a pedophile because he had taken a young girl in marriage, conveniently failing to acknowledge the customs of the seventh century C.E. The minister was so outspoken in his hatred for Muslims and for the fact that they had been in his church, it almost as if their presence had desecrated the holiness of the Christian space. Sybil and I were stunned and said so while most of the others in the room were silent.
After his comments during the evaluation, he asked Sybil what she thought. “I don’t like what I’m hearing,” she said, “I wouldn’t want you teaching my children.”
The minister was not finished. In his exhortative Sunday sermon he continued his tirade of Christian superiority and exceptionalism. During the sermon, a couple sitting a few rows in front of us turned and mouthed, “He’s talking about you.” Few other people in the congregation recognized that Sybil and I were the being depicted as villains. As a final turn of the screw, he invited the congregation, now energized by his rhetoric, to respond to an altar call, which always has been an emotional point in a service, although seldom employed. Sybil and I were among the few who stayed in our pews.
It was like a sucker punch. We were left with the inkling that church was abandoning us. Although we were hurt by the minister’s comments during the evaluation and his Sunday sermon experience, we planned to let our faith carry us through the rough waters. Kingswood was our church, and we had no thoughts of changing that.
On Monday night we met for special classes. Sybil was teaching the respected “Disciple” series for adults (she taught the youth version on Sundays), and I was in a class on “Jesus in the Gospels” led by the minister. I thought maybe we were through with the worst of a bad situation.
However, in the discussion period preceding the “Jesus in the Gospels” class one of the participants said that the Sunday service was one of the best she had ever experienced. It was the tipping point for me. I could remain quiet no longer.
“It’s the worst service I have ever been in, and it’s the last one I will ever attend in this church,” I told the minister and my friends sitting around the table. They were stunned because they knew how invested we were in Kingswood. During our time at the church, Sybil had worked as paid staff in addition to hundreds of hours of volunteer time. I had served in almost every position in the church from stewardship chair to cleanup crew to council chair.
I reiterated to the Monday night class the full process behind offering the series with a focus on our effort to build a better understanding of Islam and open the possibility of new relationships. Since several people in the “Jesus in the Gospels” study had not been in the Islam series or the evaluation, I shared the minister’s comments during the evaluation. Then I explained that I interpreted the Sunday sermon as an attack on Sybil and me. We never got around to the lesson that night. One person told me she hoped I could find what I was looking for elsewhere.
Ironically, within a year the minister had alienated her and her family and they left the church. They were not the last. One person told me later that it was like “an earthquake” hitting the church. From what I understand, the minister’s philosophy and leadership style continued to be a drag on the congregation for two more years.
Despite the strained relationship, I continued to participate in the Monday evening class, in part because Sybil was committed to leading the Disciple class through mid-May.
Sybil also continued to attend Sunday morning services. I found myself visiting some of the downtown churches, but most of the time I simply sat at home and waited for Sybil to return. It was a period of spiritual cleansing for me. I knew that the church was far better than the hatred I had seen in the minister’s eyes at Kingswood. It also was becoming clear to me that any element of intolerance had no place in the church. Not in my church anyway. Was it unreasonable to try finding a church like that?
Then, in early August, Sybil and I decided that it was important for us to be in church together. We would return together to Kingswood. It was a relief after months of separation. As a form of penitence, I wrote a nice check to the Kingswood Endowment Fund (Sybil and I had made the initial gift to start the fund a few years earlier.) and planned to place it in the offering on Sunday.
But, Sunday never came.
On Friday, Sybil met with the minister to determine what classes he might want to lead during the next church year. She also was prepared to continue leading the 34-week “Disciple” study or “Jesus in the Gospels,” both of which required significant commitment and weekly preparation.
Before the discussion could even begin, Sybil was told that she would never be permitted to teach in the minister’s church as long as he was minister. In other words, Sybil was welcome at Kingswood in his eyes no more than the Muslims guests had been earlier in the year.
Sybil was devastated. She came home crying. I seethed quietly. The check to the endowment fund was laying on the table. As a final act of separation, I tore the check into shreds. It ended our relationship with the minister, but it also severed our relationships with many friends. Our lives had been built around the church. The intolerance of a single person had ruined a 20-plus year relationships.
We never returned. We talked about the final straw that separated us from Kingswood with only a few people. We doubt that many ever knew the full story behind our departure. In preparation for this book, one of my best friends refused to discuss it with me. To a degree, we felt abandoned by our friends. Did they fail to step forward to support us because we were wrong? Was the church more important than its individual members? Did they not care? Or, did they simply not know the true story? We believe they were not aware of what had happened.
We still love the people at Kingswood although the gulf created by the minister made it impossible in our minds to continue close relationships. We had attempted reconciliation by planning to return, but reconciliation is not a one-way street. A torn heart is difficult to heal. Our physical distance from Rural Hall made the split easier.
We have been asked since then if that experience soured us on the church or exploded our faith. It did neither. Our faith became stronger because we had seen first hand the ugly belly of religion, one that espouses superiority and exceptionalism, one with which we vehemently disagreed. It can show up anywhere tradition is placed above the love of all people. We knew that we must continue our search. We were living through a paradox of loss and gain – the loss of many close friends but the gain of a great relief that a new journey can offer.
Without our knowledge, we were being prepared for what lay ahead. Within two months we landed in another United Methodist Church, Ardmore. The community was familiar to us because we had lived there for nine years before moving to Rural Hall. Ardmore United Methodist Church had the same homogenized membership as Kingswood.
What we had not expected was to jump from the frying pan into the fire, as my grandmother used to caution.
In October we were welcomed into a Sunday School class led by Bettie and Ron Yost, both of whom have passed. The class offered a slightly sharper theological edge than my experience at Kingswood. With the hunger generated by my experience in the New Testament class and in the Islam study, this was a good place for both of us.
I needed a deeper theological basis for what I was coping with. Maybe I simply was looking for confirmation for the ideas that had begun bubbling into my brain. Sometimes you have to de-construct ideas, or at least disassemble them, before you can reconstruct them in a meaningful way. Church is irrelevant unless it provides a theological foundation that provides the assurance that what I believe is worth pursuing. I was looking for a more rational basis for religion.
Late in the fall, two young men, Dan Kennedy and John Combs, persuaded church leaders (it was a herculean effort) to let them lead a study based on curriculum materials called “Living the Questions” which had been developed by two United Methodist ministers in Arizona.
The curriculum was described in this manner:
“People know that at its core, Christianity has something good to offer humanity. At the same time, many have a sense that they are alone in being a “thinking” Christian and that “salvaging” Christianity is a hopeless task. What is needed is a safe environment where people have permission to ask the questions they’ve always wanted to ask but have been afraid to voice for fear of being thought a heretic.
“Living the Questions is a source of curriculum and media for both seekers and “church alumni/ae” convinced that Christianity still has relevance in the 21st Century. Providing a variety of flexible resources, Living the Questions can help people explore the future of Christianity and what a meaningful faith can look like in today’s world.”
Between 40 and 50 people signed up for “Living the Questions” and were on hand for an introductory session. The title was intriguing: how could you live the questions? I learned that the phrase had originated with German poet Ranier Maria Rilke in “Letters to a Young Poet.” He said,
“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now.”
Many of the participants came from the Yosts’ class. Even before the series began there were rumblings of discontent in the church. Some people saw the study as an attack on their beliefs. In one heated Administrative Board discussion, a prominent member of the church who was not participating said the study “destroyed the foundation of her faith.” Participants were called heretics. Several people left the church permanently. Others attended the nearby Moravian church temporarily.
Dan Kennedy and John Combs persevered until the series was completed in the spring of 2005. Soon afterwards they left the church.
While the presence of Muslims in the church building had violated the minister’s sense of happy homogeneity at Kingswood, it was the introduction of different theological interpretations that upset the happy balance for a few individuals at Ardmore. These critics at Ardmore saw our study as beyond the pale, but, paradoxically, they continued to perform outstanding Christian service inside and outside the church.
Members of the Yosts’ class stood together and others who were interested in the approach offered by “Living the Questions” joined the class. Many of us, including Sybil and me, stayed with the class but became less involved in the Sunday morning worship services. To be honest, we found the discussions more interesting that the Sunday sermons. Almost every Sunday we found ourselves deep in discussion long after the organ sounded the beginning of worship in the sanctuary.
Beginning in late 2005 while at Ardmore and building on our Kingswood experience, I organized seven volunteer teams that spent a week each time in Moss Point, Miss. helping rebuild homes following Hurricane Katrina. Many of the volunteers were friends from Kingswood, including the late Harvey Pardue, who was a model of Christian sweat. I had learned from Harvey the value of a collective approach rather than going it alone. Locally, Ardmore responded by arranging for two families from Louisiana displaced by the hurricane to stay free in homes in Winston-Salem and provided food and care for a full year.
I was dismayed by the actions of one of the team members, who, to me, played on one Moss Point family’s misfortune by offering to “save” their souls. That was not our purpose. We were there to help them rebuild their homes.
Ardmore actively supported the work of organizations affiliated with other churches in the community through its missions outreach program. One of those churches was Green Street United Methodist Church. And, the Living the Questions study at Ardmore led me to attend a weekend lecture series, January Adventures on St. Simons Island, Ga. There, for the first time, I met Kelly Carpenter, the minister at Green Street, during a bathroom break. In 2007 Kelly invited me to become a charter member of the board of The Shalom Project at Green Street, where Sybil later served as coordinator of the clothes closet for several years.
We had briefly considered the possibility of becoming members at Green Street when we moved downtown in 2000. Although my semi-radical streak had been sparked by the Kingswood experience, Sybil was not quite ready to make such a drastic change in her church life. Both of us were still comfortable Christians at the time. Green Street was already beginning to make waves with its radical hospitality.
As Sybil and I began planning for our 50th wedding anniversary, we decided in 2008 after one of the trips to Mississippi that we would lease our condominium to generate revenue to pay for special travel. We began to conclude our long-term commitments in Winston-Salem, including the volunteer work at Ardmore and at The Shalom Project. We knew that we could stay at an old log cabin we had restored in Ashe County during warmer weather. So in April 2009, we moved all of our furniture into storage and left for the cabin. We had no rental prospects at the time, so there was a calculated risk. We had faith that someone would lease the condo.
Finally in August we signed a lease for one year with the option for the lessee to have a second year, which was eventually taken. That meant we were away from Winston-Salem and from Ardmore for more than two years. In addition to the time in Ashe County, we lived for seven months in southwest England, spent our 50th anniversary in Vienna, Austria; enjoyed Christmas with friends in France; stayed two months on St. Simons Island; and later took two months to travel around the south island in New Zealand. Income from the condo lease made that possible.
On August 6, 2011, before the lease on our condo had expired, we joined Jim and Anne Collins, friends from Ardmore, to hear a lecture at First Baptist Church of Clemson, S.C., by Bishop John Shelby Spong sponsored by the Anderson School of Theology for Laypersons. As we listened to Bishop Spong, Jim scribbled a note and passed it to me:
“Just a thought! How about starting a series at a library/community center instead of Ardmore. No approval needed. May get 1-3 ministers – (WFU?) – to be active participants. May draw larger interest from earlier pool of folks. For those who become interested, we could offer our SS class as an option. Publicize? Truly just a thought. Not necessarily well-thought out.”
I was intrigued. But it would take a lot of work to pull that off. Who had the time? Who could we get interested in such a task? It turned out that the answer was “I.”
My experiences at Kingswood and Ardmore had left me with a void. I felt there must be a better way of knowing our neighbors and bringing them into a broader, accepting community. I began working on an idea and told my friends that I didn’t know what the outcome would be but that I certainly would meet interesting people along the way.
We were still living in our cabin between Boone and West Jefferson at the time and attending West Jefferson United Methodist Church. We had developed a great relationship with the minister, Kirk McNeill, and Russ Moxley, the leader of the class we had joined. When I finished the first draft of a concept paper describing and expanding on Jim’s idea, Kirk and Russ were the logical choices to get to react to the paper.
Their responses initiated a cascade of requests. Each of them recommended two or three other people to review the paper, and those people recommended two or three others. Very soon in the process, Rollin Russell, a former executive with the North Carolina Council of Churches, suggested that the effort would be far more valuable in the future if it took an interfaith orientation. His suggestion gained traction with other reviewers. By the middle of December between 85 and 100 people in the U.S., England and France had reviewed the document; given me their ideas, and I had rewritten the paper more than 30 times.
The outcome was the creation of a nonprofit organization called Interfaith Winston-Salem, which was incorporated in North Carolina in February 2012 and accorded tax-exempt status in August 2012. In its first seven-plus years, Interfaith Winston-Salem held more than 300 events that attracted participants from multiple faith traditions across the area. More than 16,000 people attended at no cost because all programs were offered at no charge. The organization led the City of Winston-Salem to become the 18th city in the world to sign the Charter for Compassion and has been active in establishing creative anti-bulling programs in local elementary schools. (See Appendix I for more information on Interfaith Winston-Salem.)
One of our annual events was the interfaith youth tour. We visit three worship centers each spring, with a focus on Islam and Judaism but trying to represent all traditions over time. We also have attempted to include conservative, moderate and progressive congregations. One year I made a concerted effort to include one of Winston-Salem’s more conservative churches. I explained to the pastor that we would have Muslims, Jews, Hindus and others participating. In a throwback to my experience with the minister at Kingswood, the pastor told me that Muslims would not be welcome in his church. He declined the offer to participate.
Rollin Russell’s guidance was on target: our focus needed to be on interfaith relationships. Even in a community as compatible as Winston-Salem hate has raised its ugly head. Urine was poured in a bucket in front of Imam Khalid Griggs office door in the Chaplain’s Office at Wake Forest University. The sign announcing plans for the county’s first Hindu temple was peppered with shotgun pellets. One man, fearful of Muslims, shouted in a meeting of right-wing activists that “… my only recommendation is to start killing the hell out of them. I’m ready to start taking people out.”
Interfaith Winston-Salem has either led or joined other community groups in building community solidarity when any religious or ethnic group has been threatened. For example, more than 800 people assembled for a vigil at Temple Emanuel to support the Jewish community following the murders at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in late 2018.
In the previous September – 10 years after that 9/11 week at the beach when our innocence ended – we had returned to our condo in Winston-Salem. The experiences at Kingswood – where the minister’s intolerance hit us hard – and Ardmore – where a few individuals disparaged any understanding of faith other than their own – we felt like refugees from the church.
We took the unusual action of returning to the small Sunday School group at Ardmore, which had nurtured us. We finished the Sunday School class in time to attend Sunday morning services at Green Street. That continued until Ardmore changed the hour of its Sunday School classes in 2018, making it difficult for us to do both. Green Street had become our new church home.
How can I describe Green Street? Sometimes it’s an experience that transcends words. While we could have been comfortable with the happy homogeneity at Kingswood and Ardmore, what we found at Green Street was a diversity of God’s children. The diversity was less a parade of incongruity than it was a warm, multifaceted quilt. Within that diversity is unspoken acceptance and love.
On any Sunday, you may sit behind two gay men who found welcome arms at Green Street. Or talk with the Caucasian woman and African-American man about their new home and their drive from Guilford County. Or sit beside the wife of the imam at a local mosque. Or to a young man recovering from drug abuse and finding a place where his experience can help others by exchanging syringes. Or to performers in the symphony. Or black and white participants in an anti-racism class. Or to two lesbians who have leadership positions. Or to lawyers, doctors and university professors. Or to the gentle man who proudly wears his two shiny sheriff’s badges. And other people like Sybil and me who are refugees from the church of conventional wisdom.
And a small jazz group (piano, guitar, drums and bass) instead of a praise band plays rousing spirituals to open the worship service with a composer at the keyboard who can add new life to an old hymn. And sermons – both to children and to adults — that address social injustice and successfully send members out to change – first themselves and then the world around them.
Green Street in 2009 was the first United Methodist Church in Western North Carolina to join the reconciling church movement, which is dedicated to the inclusion of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in both the policies and practices of the church. The United Methodist Church has struggled for more than 45 years with official church law that declared “homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching.” The church could not ordain non-straight clergy. Green Street further strengthened its opposition to that church position in 2013 by declining to conduct heterosexual marriages in its sanctuary or by its ministers until it was permitted to perform same-sex marriages.
I can look back through my journey with 20-20 eyes and see how each step contributed to who I am today. It all began with the love I felt in a small rural church, New Prospect Baptist. It was there that the pastor and a Sunday School teacher helped build the foundation of faith that has served me well. Sybil and I learned from the adversity at Kingswood and Ardmore, but we still love our friends in those congregations – even those who see differently from us. While others found their comfort at Kingswood and Ardmore, Green Street opened a completely new world.
For us, faith is the ability to rise above life’s challenges and to embrace life’s opportunities while keeping a focus on a better future for everyone around us. As we approach our eighties, we know that the greatest challenges lie ahead: How will our faith help us as our health declines, as our cognitive abilities fail, as we become dependent on friends and on systems? I can’t say that we are ready, but I hope our faith along the way has given us the resolve and resilience to welcome it gracefully.
“A Matter of Faith I”
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