Bahai News - The Bible Belt Loosens Up a Notch
The Bible Belt Loosens Up a Notch
By: Louis Jacobson
GREENVILLE, S.C.-It's midmorning on a Sunday, and the Metropolitan
Community Church of Greenville is filling up to the sound of hymns. Pastor
Marty Luna stands on the steps of the sun-dappled church and welcomes
parishioners one by one. Once inside, men and women greet each other with
big hugs and then await the service.
On one level, the scene is a picture of Southern ordinariness-a small
and neighborly Sunday service in a place where the lengthy phone listings
under "churches" make a good argument for why the city is
considered the buckle of the Bible Belt. On another level, the very
existence of the Metropolitan Community Church is radical. The 80 men and
women joining together in praise of God are gay. It is the only gay church
in a 60-mile radius.
Historically, Greenville residents' passion for churchgoing has been
manifested most prominently at conservative Christian churches, particularly
Baptist denominations. That is still true today in Greenville, as elsewhere
in the South: Recent surveys show that more than half of native Southerners
identified themselves as "fundamentalist," compared with less than a
quarter of those who were not raised in the South. The most striking
example of old-time religion in Greenville is at the fundamentalist Bob
Jones University, which remains robust despite the headline-grabbing
controversy over its policy (since repealed) of banning interracial dating
by its students.
Still, other types of religious practice gained ground during the 1990s
in Greenville, a city of 57,000 in northwest South Carolina. Newcomers-drawn
in part by a local boom in industrial and corporate development-have begun
to make their mark on Greenville's religious life.
The most obvious additions are active populations of Muslims, Buddhists,
Hindus, and Baha'is; some Muslims, for instance, have requested, and
received, special workplace rules that allow them to worship during the
workweek. Even Greenville's established, yet distinctly minority
religions-including Judaism and Catholicism-have been expanding noticeably.
Until a few years ago, "this was Baptist country, and if you were
anything else, you were an outsider," said Angie Gutierrez, a member
of the Prince of Peace Catholic Church. "But there's been a fantastic
influx of all faiths. It's not a novelty anymore." In fact, so many
Catholics from Illinois, Indiana, New York, Ohio, and elsewhere have
settled in and around Greenville that church officials are straining under
the weight, said Sister Margie Hosch, who works with Catholic Charities in
Greenville. One recently built Catholic church near Greenville, she noted,
was already too small for its flock by the time it was completed.
At the same time, Greenville's Jewish community-which includes two
long-standing congregations-is also expanding. Community-service involvement
is rising, and a Jewish educational resource center recently opened, serving
several congregations in upstate South Carolina. "The story for the
Jewish community is most definitely the huge influx of Jewish newcomers,
primarily from the North," said Rabbi Marc Wilson of Beth Israel, the more
traditional of Greenville's two congregations. "You're seeing a community
that in population and activities has remained stagnant for decades and is
now going through the excitement and challenge of a renaissance."
Several towns in South Carolina have experienced influxes of Baha'i
practitioners. In fact, South Carolina now boasts the second-largest
population of Baha'is of any state in the nation; it also has the only
Baha'i-oriented radio station. The pacifist-oriented religion, which
emphasizes human brotherhood, originated in 19th-century Iran. Unlike many
churches, Baha'i congregations often are thoroughly mixed between blacks
and whites. (According to an old saying-still often true-the most racially
segregated hour of the week is 11 a.m. on Sunday.)
Not all of the newcomers' religious expressions have been equally
tolerated in Greenville. Some local officials have gotten into hot water
for making anti-Buddhist and anti-Muslim comments; in 1995, arsonists
destroyed an Islamic mosque. (A new mosque was built, and the crime seems
to have been anomalous.) Political battles have also been fought over
social issues, such as selling liquor on Sundays, access to controversial
library materials, and gay rights.
The Metropolitan Community Church -an affiliate of a national gay and
lesbian denomination-has had a mixed experience. The congregation began
operating in Greenville almost two decades ago in a succession of hotel
rooms and private homes. Then, four years ago, church leaders felt secure
enough to purchase a building and renovate its second floor into a loftlike
sanctuary. The church now boasts more than 100 members, roughly half of
them men and half women. "Our members were kicked out of other churches,
or were allowed to stay if they didn't acknowledge their sexuality or were
willing to listen about how bad God is going to punish them," said the
Rev. Luna, who moved on to another gay congregation after National
Luna said that most of her parishioners are not public about their
sexuality; as a precaution, members refer to each other only by first name
during church events. Between 1998, when she took over the pulpit, and
early 2000, the church saw two tires slashed on its van, its office
burglarized, its music system stolen, and a fire set intentionally nearby.
Anti-gay fliers are commonplace, she said. Yet the church has continued to
grow, with attendance rising by about one-third during her tenure, and
there have been no attacks for roughly a year now.
To curb some of the latent intolerance, several of the nontraditional
religious groups have banded together to form an ecumenical group called
Greenville Faith Communities United. "What you find is that immigrant
groups under a certain size are not viewed as a threat, but when they
cross an invisible threshold, it can trigger a reaction," said religion
professor Claude Stulting of Furman University, who along with Rabbi Wilson
is a leader of the ecumenical coalition. "We're hoping our group
will help head off these potential problems."
Coalition members knew they would face challenges on two fronts:
building bridges to African-American churches on the one hand, and
cementing ties with bigger, "tall steeple" churches whose
congregations are predominantly white. "There are churches separated
by parking lots that do not work together," said coalition leader
J.P. McGuire, who worships at a United Methodist Church. "There's a sense
that you're empowering another church if you start talking to them."
Wilson said that the past year has brought significant progress on both
fronts. Earlier this year, in the wake of the divisive fight over the
removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina Capitol,
Greenville Faith Communities United teamed with predominantly black
churches to organize the city's first-ever community-wide, interracial
commemoration of Martin Luther King's birthday.
The coalition has made progress on the "big steeple" front,
as well, Wilson said. "A lot of the mainstream churches, which had
been laying back and waiting to see if this was going to be real, have
now come on board," he said, citing a variety of Presbyterian,
Episcopalian and United Methodist congregations that have joined the group.
Even Furman University, a historically Baptist school which now has no
official church tie, has joined the coalition.
The "big steeple" churches, meanwhile, are experiencing their
own period of transition, said James Guth, a Furman political scientist who
specializes in religion and politics. Partly as a result of migration,
people in the South are beginning to embrace the same religious trends that
already prevail in other regions of the country-especially a weakening of
ties to one's inherited religious affiliation, Guth said. "Americans
increasingly feel that religion is not ascribed to you-it's something you
choose for yourself," Guth said.
Guth said that this trend shows up most noticeably in Greenville in the
growth of nondenominational churches. These churches practice an evangelical
form of Christianity, he said, but they maintain no official links to
established denominations, and they tend to adapt their liturgies and
worship services to the preferences of congregants. "It's been happening
in the South more slowly, but it's now here," Guth said.
Overall, Greenville has exhibited a good degree of tolerance, most
residents say. Scattered anti-immigrant advertising campaigns, for instance,
have failed to catch on. That undoubtedly owes something to the region's
good economic times. Most residents associate newcomers with capital
investments made by big domestic and foreign corporations. A decade of
such development has turned a region once dependent on the faltering
textile industry into a place where unemployment was as low as 2 percent
for much of 2000.
Moreover, many of the newcomers have assimilated into the region's
religious environment quite well. A growing number of Hispanics who have
settled in Greenville are not Roman Catholics but conservative Protestants
like the majority of people here.
Perhaps the most striking example of assimilation, of course, is the
Metropolitan Community Church. Luna noted that her church's liturgy is
much more conservative than that used by most of its big-city affiliates.
Greenville, and its populace, is simply a more traditional place.
Northerners, too, who have settled in Greenville were often more
religious than the neighbors they left behind, Guth noted. Because many of
them came from denominations that also have affiliates in South Carolina,
they were able to find new churches easily. "You see churches in the
suburbs around Greenville that are disproportionately Yankee, but they're
filled with serious, religious people," Guth said. "These are not
©Copyright 2001, National Journal
Page last updated/revised 052901
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