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Holy Wars

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

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When Smith moved in, he started a basketball league for the kids, which they could join only after being tutored to pull up their grades. He gave out emergency food and supplies, and in the abandoned apartments just behind his church, he set up a program of transitional housing for families trying to get back on their feet. There were classes in parenting and financial management -- and in what Smith saw as some of the most basic tenets of the Bible: treating each other with civility and respect.

Today, that program is still going strong, and in the Steele Creek neighborhood not far away, Smith has started a new church to go along with it. With more than 40 nationalities represented, his non-denominational congregation is one of the most integrated in the city. The Sunday morning services are evangelical, filled with exuberant anthems of praise -- a style and theology that many would identify as conservative.

But Smith's motivations are different than some.

"One of our core values," he concludes, "is to break down the old walls of racism, classism, denominationalism. We want to show people that the races can indeed live together."

Blind Faith
Back in Myers Park, Steve Shoemaker is impressed by the spirit of Smith's undertaking. In many ways, he says, he is happy enough with the current state of religion in Charlotte -- happy with the diversity of strong pulpit voices, and undismayed by the fact that his own church and a handful of others no longer enjoy the monopoly of influence they had in the past.

"We are past the time," he says, "when the elite congregations on our side of town even ought to be speaking for the city."

Shoemaker mentions a new generation of African-Americans -- Ricky Woods, Casey Kimbrough, Claude Alexander -- and a handful of evangelicals as well, including David Chadwick, who have helped put a stamp on the public debate. But he worries more and more that the city is divided, that in a community that is less cohesive than it was, there isn't the same old search for common ground.

Certainly it's true that for many of the conservatives, that search is irrelevant or even worse. Bill James, among others, takes pride in the stridency of his positions -- "I have been the proverbial salt in the wound," he says -- and even the more mild-mannered Dan Burrell sees the debate in terms of black and white: "I believe I am fighting for eternal truths."

There is, in short, not much common ground to be found, and those who pursue it are either insincere or simply not committed to the things that they believe.

For Clifford Jones over on the west side, that kind of certitude can be chilling, and he decries the Christians "so blinded by faith that they become deaf to the realities of life." He thinks those voices are getting louder all the time, and he worries about what it means for the city.

But if Jones is right, if the pulpit debate is becoming more divisive, what about in the pews? Is anybody listening to what's being said?

One former minister at a Myers Park church had occasion recently to visit several times at one of the new churches in southeast Charlotte. It was a mainline institution in a new neighborhood where the symbols of prosperity seemed to be all around -- the two-story houses, the newly planted trees, the expensive foreign cars that were parked in the driveways.

When he took his seat on that first Sunday morning, the minister was shocked. The people, he said, seemed "spiritually dead." They showed little interest in being challenged by their faith, and it didn't seem to matter if the minister was liberal, preaching a gospel of justice and reconciliation, or somebody more conservative, preaching about homosexuality or abortion. The people didn't care.

The preacher wondered what was going on. Was it the cynicism of the times, the low-grade fear that followed 9-11, now making people numb? Or was it simply the triumph of greed, people living their lives in a cocoon of affluence, indifferent to anything else in the world?

Whatever it was, for this particular minister, liberal in his leanings, many of the signs of the times were not good. He was troubled by the arrogance of the new fundamentalists, and troubled even more by the new wave of apathy that seemed to be spreading through the suburbs of Charlotte.


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