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Holy Wars

Liberals, conservatives and gray areas in Charlotte's Christian Churches

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On other Sundays since his arrival at Myers Park nearly four years ago, Shoemaker has spoken out against the resegregation of the public schools and in favor of tolerance for people who are gay. He understands that he is not alone. Just a few blocks away at Myers Park United Methodist, James Howell is settling in as the new senior minister, and so far it seems to be going well. The pews are packed on most Sunday mornings, the balconies full, with folding chairs on the ends of many rows, as Howell gazes out across the faces in the crowd, and urges people "out into a pained and broken world -- and thanks be to God for the high and holy privilege."

Howell came to Myers Park from Davidson United Methodist, and it seems that nearly everywhere he's been, his churches have grown, and people have been struck by the beauty of his sermons. "He's one of the best preachers I've ever heard," says Caroline Hicks, a member at Davidson. But Howell says it gets harder all the time.

"Twenty-five years ago," he contends, "the highest compliment for a minister at the end of a sermon was, "You stepped on my toes. You really made me think.' Today, the highest compliment is, "I agree with you.' Some axis has shifted."

Howell says he still tries to talk about difficult things -- peace in the aftermath of 9-11, public schools in a time of resegregation, greed in a land of material wealth. But he tries to do it gently, with sensitivity and style, and even so, he understands clearly he is taking a chance.

"I think we're living in an era," he says, "when we no longer understand the virtue of disagreement. We have these litmus tests. We don't really talk to each other anymore."

A Sense of Isolation
William Wood shares that troubling assessment. The veteran minister at First Presbyterian Church uptown has studied the statistics of the mainline churches. "If you project out the membership losses since 1965," he says, "by the year 2038 at noon on Sunday, there will be no more Presbyterians."

Wood says there are many different reasons for that. But he believes primarily that polarization has taken its toll, and divisive issues such as homosexuality and abortion have torn at the unity of churches like his own, costing them members. So he finds himself becoming more cautious, pulling his punches sometimes in his Sunday morning sermons in what often seems like a delicate time. There are certain subjects that he will not avoid, especially the rights and needs of the poor, and his church has been known through the years for its outreach.

Its members build houses for Habitat for Humanity, and two nights a week the church building serves as a shelter for the homeless. There are, in fact, more than 35 programs for people in need, and Wood says that "is a permanent part of the identity of this church."

But he also says at a time when the issues are becoming more complicated, when people of good will can disagree about the foreign policy of the country, or the pros and cons of homosexual marriage, he tries to balance the desire to speak out with the need to preserve the unity of the church.

"Sometimes you just can't help it," he says. "But in this climate, I don't go picking fights."

Though he tends to resist it, Clifford Jones understands the current inclination to be more cautious. He says it's not just the white community that has changed, but also his own. Jones is pastor at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, one of the most prominent black churches in town, and under his leadership, one of the most involved in the total community. But Jones has moments of deep frustration, moments when it seems like his own institution, which, for generations now, has stood like a beacon on Beatties Ford Road, is becoming "sinfully incestuous" in its definition of the faith.

"I don't sense the same kind of urgency in the African-American community," he says, "not the same kind of involvement in political and social issues that I saw 20 years ago. The rising middle class of African-Americans doesn't seem to have the same commitment. I sense that the emerging church of the 21st century places more emphasis on what goes on within its walls than it does on the hungry, the homeless, the AIDS patient."


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