Editor’s Note: This week, Atticus Review unveiled the story of the unauthorized taking of Portland’s Mt. Zion Baptist Church with three articles: “Swindled Church Nets White Baptists Big Bucks” (Part 1), “Troy Smith to the Rescue?” (Part 2) and “Plundering the Corpse” (Part 3), plus two sidebars: “Recompense for the Dispossessed?” (Part 4), and today, “A Success Story with Stealth Issues of its Own” (Part 5). Investigative reporter Daniel Forbes wraps up the series with a penetrating look at the property’s current tenant, Door of Hope.
A Success Story with Stealth Issues of its Own
PORTLAND, OREGON — Say what you will of the hijacking of Mt. Zion, some might still call it “a God thing.” Because its successor in the building, Door of Hope, is packed to the rafters with a hip, earnest young flock, 98% of whom appear white and 90% looking five years either side of age 27. At the 11:30 a.m. “gathering” last Sunday, of the approximately 500 people present, I saw two of color.
Good-bye old, poor, black and in the way. Hello slick, young, white Portland, 1,500 adults (total) at three somewhat austere gatherings each Sunday, crammed onto the stairs and window sills. The irony is, they come to hear orthodox bible-preaching, delivered at length and with rigor, an uncompromising gospel Percy Manuel well might have embraced.
It’s a “message” usually delivered by Lead Pastor Josh White and Pastor Tim Mackie in Door of Hope’s sparsely adorned, cavernous space, the lighting odd and dim, the church with its own austere beauty.
The gatherings are similarly unadorned aside from the marvelously infectious “country-shuffle” music. The lyrics to the jaunty, unprepossessing, Fill-Me-with-the-Spirit songs, all written in-house, are projected on a screen (one of its few uses), the congregation singing shyly. There was a stand-up bass one Sunday, a flute another.
It speaks to the intelligence at hand that the drummer plays to suit the room rather than overwhelm it, and thus isn’t muffled by one of the absurd, plexiglass screens seen in rock-n-roll mega-churches. Referring to the gatherings as a whole, Mackie called them “a drink of fresh water that strips away the crap–the light shows.”
Declared too old-school churchy, the original, dark wood pews are gone, replaced by a yard-sale collection of chairs. It’s hard to imagine the same warmth of spirit, everyone in pews, no matter how rich the wood.
Though a dozen people scattered about hold their arms aloft to receive God’s grace, it’s no holy-roller affair. No thumbing of a personal pacifier, the only sound aside from White or Mackie’s adroit delivery of a long, challenging message are the scratching pens of those taking notes.
There is a bit of calculated, hep-cat argot. (One service is declared “stinking awesome,” and Christmas Eve is touted: “It’ll be rad.” When speaking trenchantly, Jesus is said to “drop a line” on his disciples.) Yet, in today’s saccharine, overly solicitous, religion’s good for your (married) sex life world, Door of Hope puts the lie to the notion that you have to water it down to draw ’em in.
Good-bye old, poor, black and in the way. Hello slick, young, white Portland.
Greater Gresham Baptist Church bought the property for $200,000 from the Interstate Baptist Association in 2009. (See prior articles.) But, despite years of effort, GGBC’s lead pastor, Keith Evans, failed to plant a Southern Baptist Convention church in the building. Someone named Andrew Stills tried to make a go of it but, said GGBC’s Jo-Anne Mackey, “It never came to fruition.” Evans said he couldn’t find a church planter with enough “indigenous” mojo to make an SBC church palatable in ‘urban core’ Portland. Then in July 2013, Evans got a call from White, someone with mojo to burn.
An ex-high school acid dealer and former successful rock-band front-man, White risks self-parody preaching in a nerd-redolent cardigan, the sleeves pushed up over arms resplendent with ink and shoes with no socks. But he carried it off with aplomb.
He’s an aficionado of Saul Bellow and David Foster Wallace, as well as of theologians who, he said, “have stood the test of time”: Calvin, Wesley, Augustine, Aquinas. As we breakfasted one morning, White pulled out of his bag a book by Saint Athanasius, who’s been standing the test of time since his death in 373. He said he shied from the charismatic movement’s anti-intellectual bent: the notion that if you give too much attention to the mind, that you miss the Holy Spirit.
In today’s saccharine, overly solicitous, religion’s good for your (married) sex life world, Door of Hope puts the lie to the notion that you have to water it down to draw ’em in.
White sterner and Mackie a bit more self-deprecating, they both offer earnest admonishment, encouragement, exhortation. “Portland – you can feel the city hurting,” White said. In one message from the pulpit, he charged his flock: “Is the Door of Hope community one that contributes to life in Portland and not decay? … In a city that’s very dark, we must bring visibility to Jesus…. We preach Christ crucified in word and deed. If we’re not transforming lives, then we’re just playing church.”
But beyond such bromides, there’s little acknowledgement of the struggles swamping the world outside their door. Last autumn, White mentioned that he was glad fall had come after sweating through some gatherings in the crowded church. But this the day of nationwide demonstrations on the specter of climate change, there was no mention of it. The Sunday after the Eric Garner grand-jury bafflement acquitting the NYPD cop, the whole country in turmoil, not a word during the bulk of the service prior to communion (at which point, with commitments elsewhere, I left). The diction contemporary, yet demanding, it’s a Jesus-is-Lord bible lesson—no more, no less.
The message over, communion is offered. Folks approach the several tables reverently, it left to them to decide exactly what they’re partaking of (and whether, this being Portland, to choose the gluten-free bread or not). Though there’s no claim to transubstantiation, White said, “I don’t relegate it to the purely symbolic.” Couples nestled together, yes, communing, cupping the bread, murmuring prayers for some private intention. People rise as the spirit moves them, no rows standing robotically at an usher’s behest. It was quite spiritual.
White and Mackie are the real deal—or so the explosive growth of their five-year-old church, which started out renting space in a yoga studio, indicates.
The IBA Just Might Recapture the Property
Between them, GGBC and its tenant, Door of Hope, took a building with birds flying around inside, an unsafe balcony, failing exterior paint, crumbling walls and a leaky roof, and fixed it up real nice. White said Door of Hope invested $330,000 in repairs, while Evans pegged GGBC’s investment at around $175,000. Surprising, really, that an assessment didn’t tag it for more than “the five-hundreds” Evans reports.
Fine and dandy but for the fact that when GGBC bought the property from the Interstate Baptist Association (see prior articles), the deed had a common feature known as a Right of Reverter. It states: “SHOULD THE PROPERTY CEASE TO BE USED FOR SOUTHERN BAPTIST WORK” it would revert back to the Interstate Baptist Association. [Caps in original.]
Saying the IBA has “every right” to exercise the Reverter, its Moderator, Pastor Troy L. Smith (see prior articles), said, “It sounds like it’s up to the Association” – the IBA. Doubting that Door of Hope’s orthodox Christian gospel would fulfill the “Southern Baptist work” requirement, Smith added that any decision to invoke the Right of Reverter would rest with the pastors of the IBA’s 70 churches scattered around greater Portland.
The IBA is an affiliate of the national Southern Baptist Convention. SBC General Counsel, D. August Boto, said, “ ‘Southern Baptist work’ is not a term of precision. It’s not in the [SBC] governing documents.” He suggested that this salutary lack of precision may be deliberate and, in this case might have to be resolved in court, should it come to that.
“Bigger legal battles have been fought over smaller issues than a right of reverter. I don’t look at it and see it as ineffective,” said Brooks M. Foster, a shareholder with the Chenoweth Law Group PC.
Four years after GGBC’s purchase, whether or not Evans was cognizant of the deed’s requirement (written in all caps), he said he made no stipulations about SBC affiliation when leasing the empty, damaged property to Door of Hope. Smith, IBA’s head, disputes that, referring to his “understanding” from talking to Evans in February 2014 when Door of Hope moved in, that it intended to affiliate with the SBC. A mollifying Evans said, “We’re all friends…. We want to love the people of Portland and help them know the love of Christ.” As to Smith, Evans said, “We’ll talk. I know his heart and his love of Portland too.”
The issue might have been moot since, for a time last fall, the Door of Hope leadership was considering joining the SBC in secret–that is, before they learned that the SBC’s own rules on congregational awareness prevented such a stealth affiliation.
Though, by definition, the congregation already lacks liberal Portland’s tendency towards religious disenchantment, asking them outright and above-board to sail under the arch-conservative SBC flag might have proved too much for many Door of Hopers.
Hence the email last fall to a reporter from Darcy White, Josh’s wife, writing from his church address. It read in part, Josh “is asking that you MAKE NO MENTION of us potentially joining the Baptist convention … as it is DEFINITELY OFF.
“A few facts were discovered in the last day that have made it clear it is impossible for us to join. In order to join, we have to have a majority vote from the congregation and the leadership of Door of Hope does not want to take it to the congregation….” [Caps in original.]
(Sending a reporter an email out of the blue doesn’t grant after-the-fact off-the-record status.)
Before either of us learned of the Baptists’ requirement for congregational approval, I asked White if he would announce becoming Southern Baptist from the pulpit. And he said, “I don’t know, I haven’t thought that far.” He said there are “pros and cons” to disclosure, to telling the congregation about the proposed affiliation with the Northwest Baptist Convention, the SBC’s 460-church regional arm in Oregon, Washington and the Idaho panhandle.
After the agreement had been scuttled, NWBC Executive Director Randy Adams told me that Door of Hope’s leadership hadn’t thought about asking the congregation for a vote of approval.
Before learning of the need for aboveboard consent, White said, “We wouldn’t have to change our name. It’s not like we’re signing our life away–we’ll remain autonomous.
Darcy White, who helps administer the church and contributes often to its women’s ministry blog, joined us mid-session as I formally interviewed her husband. Referring to the congregation, she said, “I don’t understand the purpose of why we’d take it to them.” She added, it’s just a matter of the Baptists providing “purely internal [financial] support. We won’t have Baptist in our name. Nothing will change.”
Evans, a local SBC bigwig and former president of the NWBC, flatly contradicts such notions. Before the move to affiliate was withdrawn, he told me that even if it’s not in their name, Door of Hope “officially would be Baptist.”
I asked White if his church would “freak out” about joining the SBC. At first he said, no, but then, “People freak out about everything.” He added, apparently without irony, “We’re open and transparent, so it works out.”
The NWBC Application for Affiliation plainly states the need for congregational approval, either through a direct vote, or with the congregation’s “knowledge and consent.” The pastor plus two church elders have to check a box on the application form and sign their names in affirmation that either a vote or “knowledge and consent” have occurred.
The congregation has to approve joining since, to its credit, the SBC takes seriously the concept of individual religious autonomy, or what can be referred to as “soul competency.” From Wikipedia: “The basic concept of individual soul liberty, as Baptists refer to soul competency, is that, in matters of religion, each person has the liberty to choose what his/her conscience or soul dictates is right….”
And should a veiled affiliation have occurred, that’s exactly what 1,500 Portlanders would have lost.
Asked about respecting religious autonomy, Pastor Mackie said, “That’s a good point.” Asked whether churchgoers would have been told they’d become Southern Baptists, he said, “I think so,” But he admitted, “That’s post-reflection on the gravity of the decision.”
The Door of Hope congregation lacks liberal Portland’s tendency towards religious disenchantment, but asking them to sail under the arch-conservative Southern Baptist Convention flag might have proved too much.
Oddly enough, church leadership didn’t access the NWBC application until well after the process was set in motion, including after they discussed signing up with both NWBC boss Adams and Evans, their landlord, who’d gone so far as to draft an effusive letter of “high” recommendation.
The letter referred to that urban, SBC unicorn (at least in the Northwest): “young adults” and “younger people” and “mostly younger” churchgoers. And it touted Door of Hope’s success reaching “liberal urban Portlanders” and the “urban culture.”
Though White never signed anything to seal the deal, given the meeting with Adams and Evans, plus the latter’s letter, it was close.
“A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband….”
Along with respecting churchgoers’ integrity by requiring that they approve joining–and contributing their money to the SBC–the application for affiliation also swears them to SBC doctrinal fealty. In short, it requires acceptance of the Baptist Faith and Message of 2000.
A rigid document, the BF&M declares that “the office of pastor is limited to men.” It calls on Christians to “oppose all forms of sexual immorality, including … homosexuality.” It states that life begins at conception. And it instructs: “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband….”
Asked about the SBC’s hard line on female pastors, White rather opaquely said he didn’t know enough regarding the “nuances of their grid”—a grid he was perhaps about to impose on his church, perhaps in secret.
Asked whether imposing all that on their faith community – unbidden and perhaps unknown – would’ve been a breach of trust, Mackie said, “Once we learned it was about becoming Southern Baptist, if we had done that” – i.e., joined – “it would have affected how we present it.” But, he added, if it was just a matter of “cooperative missions and organization funding, that’s different.”
Mackie also noted that his church doesn’t have a congregationalist governing structure. So, for example, when the leaders decided to lease their current, now beautiful building and move from “the dive bar” of a church they were renting a couple of miles away, they just decided and then informed everyone. Should White and two of his team have decided to go ahead, as they were considering doing, anyone objecting to worship according to the harsh dictates of the Baptist Faith and Message—well, there’s the door. Never mind how rocky and steep the faith-journey that’s led them to Door of Hope.
Mackie acknowledged “a lot of reasons” that joining the SBC would roil the ranks of his church. “Door of Hope is Portland-bred. The perception of the SBC doesn’t fit what we’re about.”
A rigid document, the Baptist Faith and Message, the statement of faith of the Southern Baptist Convention, declares that “the office of pastor is limited to men.” It calls on Christians to “oppose all forms of sexual immorality, including … homosexuality.”
For his part, NWBC’s Randy Adams hasn’t entirely given up on this young, urban church whose attendance absolutely dwarfs that of his member churches. Speaking of the leadership, he said, “They want to partner with his us, they still expect to do it. Part of it is that it’s a new congregation.” They need more time to get the congregation “on board.”
An arduous task, perhaps, getting young Portlanders to join a denomination founded back before the Civil War so slaveholders could continue to serve as missionaries here and abroad. A church that felt it had to formally ask African-Americans’ forgiveness for its “racial prejudice and discrimination” down to modern times.
In fact, over past decades, the SBC has ruthlessly purged anyone with a tinge of moderation from its leadership. As the Wall Street Journal put it, “Since the birth of the Christian-conservative political movement in the late 1970s, no evangelical group has delivered more punch in America’s culture wars than the” SBC.
Given its hard-core right-wing values, the SBC ‘brand’ is in trouble. A survey it conducted found that it’s so reviled, 44% of respondents said the term Southern Baptist would “negatively impact their decision to join or even visit” a SBC church.
‘An Insidious, Slow-release Poison’
The SBC seeks less visibility in cities in part because of its unrelenting posture towards the LGBT community. A nationwide survey (i.e., including conservative states) by the Public Religion Research Institute found that of white evangelical Protestants under the age of 35—nearly all of Door of Hope—more than half supported same-sex marriage in 2013. Liberal Portland’s support presumably swings higher.
LGBTs driven for whatever complex reasons of their own to attend SBC churches might be tolerated, true. But they’re still urged to life-long celibacy if they can’t rewire desire. Best not to give expression to the gift of sex as God made you.
Rev. Tara Wilkins, a local United Church of Christ minister and executive director of the Community of Welcoming Congregations, said, “Anytime a theology excludes or condemns a particular group, that’s an insidious, slow-release poison. If you’re not gay, you can’t realize the damage that can do. I’ve sat at too many bedsides of folks who’ve attempted suicide because they feel no hope. And that’s partly because they feel God doesn’t love them, that God condemns them.” She added, “That’s why marriage rights are so important: if you’re a young gay person who can look forward to marrying who you fall in love with like everyone else, then you can feel normal.”
Back in November 2010, White invited Jason Thompson, Executive Director of the Portland Fellowship, to Door of Hope to discuss his ‘reparative’ ministry. The fellowship declares itself “a Christ-centered ministry to those who desire change from sexual brokenness.” Its website’s tagline: “proclaiming freedom for the captives.”
Thompson told me he was invited to just generally share about his ministry, what the fellowship does. White said he doesn’t regret inviting him, that Thompson is “a Godly man,” though he wouldn’t invite him now. White doesn’t know all the details of the fellowship’s ministry, but knows they “hold to evangelical views.” He added, “There’s plenty of kids, young, artistic kids with a lot of despair and confusion. Jason offers help for those who want it.”
Rev. Wilkins said, “Such so-called ‘reparative’ therapy seeking to ‘cure’ gays and lesbians takes their vulnerability of trying to connect with God to try to change them from who God created them to be. It’s a form of spiritual abuse.” Also known as conversion therapy, it has since been widely discredited and even outlawed for minors in some states, including Oregon.
“Theologically, I have a view. I do not personally resonate with the view I hold.” – Pastor Tim Mackie
Both White and Mackie seem wary and conflicted about homosexuality. White replied “maybe” to the question of whether someone might be born gay. He said, “Many people have been hurt by churches making homosexuals a target.” Citing his gay best friend at the time, he added, “I walked away from a small church because I never heard a message of grace, I just heard about rules.” (And he was thinking of shepherding his flock to the SBC?) Though anyone, no matter their gender presentation, is welcome at Door of Hope, White did rule out gay weddings. “We hold the orthodox view found in Genesis that God has set a good design of man being with woman.” Summing up, White said, “Jesus calls us to a denial of self. As Chesterton put it, ‘Christianity is not tried and found wanting. It is tried and found hard.’ ”
Pastor Mackie is deeply moved by the entire issue, citing he and his wife’s pain over her gay brother’s death from AIDS. Asked about same-sex marriage, he said, “Theologically, I have a view. I do not personally resonate with the view I hold.”
Conflicted, yes—but not seeking a more embracing theology.
Acknowledging it the single toughest issue he faces, Mackie said, “Friends, family members, gay people I love, all have been so hurt by what Christians have done to them.” He decried being associated with that history. But he added, “Jesus seemed to think that sexual integrity was part of what it means to be one of his followers.” That leaves it to “his followers to fill out the implications.”
Door of Hope’s success means the building’s no longer a paint-peeling eyesore, as it was while GGBC flailed about trying to plant a SBC church in a sophisticated city. It’s in no danger of becoming yet another McMenamins tavern or another Gethsemane Church of God in Christ, a recently demolished African-American church a few blocks away.
Yet stealth affiliation with the Southern Baptists might have happened had the SBC rules allowed. To repeat, asked if he’d inform the congregation, White said, “I don’t know, I haven’t thought that far.” He hadn’t fully weighed the “pros and cons.”
That would have been quite the breach of faith with a young church community, many of whom are led to believe in something bigger than themselves for the first time. But for the SBC’s commendable rules on a public vote, these folks’ religious autonomy was at risk, something they should unfailingly possess. And for what? White said a main attraction of affiliation would be SBC money to help plant another church. Another gay-shaming, women-in-their-place, SBC church to spread a message of love and redemption.