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Holy Wars

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

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Dale Mullennix believes it is. For one thing, he says, some of the most prominent churches in the area -- Myers Park Baptist, Myers Park Methodist -- have kept hiring ministers "who were pulling them in directions that did not make them feel comfortable." Mullennix, the former assistant minister at Myers Park Baptist, believes the habit of being challenged by liberal ministers has now become ingrained, at least in certain parts of the city.

In addition to that, when it comes to the interlocking issues of poverty and race, always a litmus test for the liberals, there are literally hundreds of churches in Charlotte reaching out in meaningful ways to the poor. Mullennix cites his own organization as an example. He is currently executive director of the Urban Ministry Center, an advocacy organization for the homeless. Not long ago, when he put out a call for churches to offer their facilities to serve as shelter for people in the streets, more than 100 congregations responded.

"They cut across denominational lines," he says, "Christian and Jewish. It takes some courage to invite in folks who really are strangers, to put yourself in a position to learn that they really are our neighbors also."

Andy Baxter, executive director of Mecklenburg Ministries, also notes that even some of the conservative churches have undertaken ministries that might have been considered liberal in the past. He mentions in particular Forest Hill Presbyterian and its charismatic minister David Chadwick, and a little less visibly, the Steele Creek Church with pastor Kelvin Smith.

Chadwick clearly is the better known of the two. At 6-foot-6, he is the handsome son of a Presbyterian minister, low-key in his bearing, often dressing in slacks and an open-collared shirt. He was a basketball player at North Carolina, and he remembers the flashes of glory from those days -- in 1971, the dozen or so games he started as a senior, and the high of 30 points that he scored against Clemson. But he remembers even more the lessons he learned from his coach, Dean Smith.

"The way he treats people," says Chadwick, "and the value he places on each individual. Those are the things that stay with you for life."

Certainly, they are a part of his understanding of the ministry, a profession he never expected to pursue. He wanted to make his own way in the world, and studied broadcasting during his time at Chapel Hill. But eventually he decided to go to seminary, and in 1980 he came to Forest Hill, his first and only church.

From that suburban pulpit in southeast Charlotte, Chadwick preaches often about sexual sin and the dangers of promiscuity and adultery. "If we reserved sex," he says, "for a man and a woman in the context of marriage, how many social ills would we cure in one generation?" But he also rejects the old dichotomy between the Bible's pronouncements about personal morality and its cry for justice and reconciliation.

"We have to speak out against racial injustice," he says. "Few of us in the white community know what it's like to be black -- to fear racial profiling or wonder why you're not getting a job. And we have to talk also about the growing disparity between rich and poor, and the quagmire of poverty. I say to our congregation all the time, "you can't love your brother if you don't know your brother.'"

Among other things, Forest Hill has tried to reach to inner city churches, supporting the work, for example, of the Rev. Barbara Cameron, pastor of the Community Outreach Church in a neighborhood knows as Genesis Park. Nestled just north and west of downtown, it was once the most drug-infested part of the city. But in 1983, Pastor Cameron set up her church on a little hill overlooking the skyline. She began holding Sunday school classes for the children, and then started working with non-profit agencies to build better housing, and with community police officers to make the neighborhood safer.

Within a decade, Genesis Park was a very different place, and Chadwick and other members of his church tried to help where they could. They offered volunteers, and before they built a new sanctuary for themselves, they raised $500,000 for Cameron's church building in Genesis Park.

"You have to be intentional," says Chadwick, "about breaking down barriers, about building relationships that really matter."

Kelvin Smith agrees, though his approach through the years has been slightly different. He shares with Chadwick, and with the new fundamentalists such as Dan Burrell, an absolute faith in the authority of the Bible. Smith is a native Charlottean, a Baptist in his raising, who, unlike some of his peers in the 80s, developed an interest in the issue of poverty. After graduating from Gardner-Webb College, he started a ministry in Jackson Park, an at-risk neighborhood out by the airport, where the red-brick apartments were scattered all around, and the people were poor, and the drug dealers came and went as they pleased.


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