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Bob Jones University, which remains robust despite the headline-grabbing controversy over its policy (since repealed) of banning interracial dating by its students.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 Journal's visit.

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 secular-humanist transplants."


©Copyright 2001, National Journal

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