A House of Prayer for All People

 

Myers Park Baptist Church

By Lisa Moore

 

For over 60 years Myers Park Baptist Church has had a reputation of being “open to all and closed to none.” With 2100 members from 30 different denominations, everyone from Pentecostal to Universal Unitarian is welcomed to ask questions, debate issues and seek truth.

“From the very beginning we’ve had an ecumenical posture that sought to be in unity with all Christians, but also to have spiritual friendship with other religious traditions,” says Senior Minister H. Stephen Shoemaker.

He says that interfaith families find the church a good home and know they won’t hear a jab against other religions when they come to worship.

“We believe that historically Baptists have stood for radical spiritual freedom – not the first thing you think of when you think of the word Baptist,” states Shoemaker, who has been at Myers Park Baptist Church for 11 years.

The church, says Shoemaker, has been both theologically and socially progressive over the years, as leaders in the civil rights movement and in the integration of schools. It has been an advocate for full equality of women, ordaining women as deacons and clergy. “And we have a fully inclusive policy towards gay and lesbian persons,” he adds.

But this forward-thinking policy came with a price. In 2007, Myers Park Baptist Church became the first Baptist church to be expelled from the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina over their public stand for welcoming gays and lesbians without trying to change them.

Instead of waiting for someone to turn them in and then be investigated, the church turned itself in and presented their stance to the executive committee. “Part of our goal was to say ‘we don’t want to get kicked out secretly, if they’re going to kick us out we think they should do it in broad daylight,’” recalls Shoemaker.

Myers Park Baptist Church presented their case on two counts: that they seek to fully include of all God’s children and that Baptists should honor the minority conscious, not exclude them. Despite the landslide vote to oust them, Shoemaker feels it was right for them to make witness and be expelled than to leave angrily.

“It was a powerful moment and gave courage to gay and lesbian persons that felt they could never go to a church.”

Sheila Wade was raised a Southern Baptist but had been a practicing Nichiren Daishonin Buddhist for over 15 years when she first attended Myers Park Baptist with partner Genie Williams.

“The openness and inclusiveness at our very first visit was pretty amazing and we immediately felt at home,” says Wade, a choir member.

She adds that the church believes that God’s creation is not done yet – that God continues to create in us and thru us. “This is how I understand it. That I am one of many of God’s creations and as such, I am acceptable and whole and worthy of God’s love just like everyone else. Just as I am. This appeals to the Buddhist in me as well.”

Worship services in the architecturally-stunning church are described as traditional and formal, more like a Methodist or Presbyterian service. Shoemaker says a cornerstone of the ministry is the popular free pulpit.

“We do not believe that one person should coerce the faith or doctrine of another person. Whoever stands there is utterly free to preach whatever they are led by the spirit of God to preach. We invite those into our pulpit that may not be welcome elsewhere who have a message that may be more of a minority than a majority vision of a Christian life.”

In addition to rich and varied educational opportunities that impose no “right interpretation,” there are many ways to serve at Myers Park Baptist. Several compassion ministries assist the homeless, poor and hungry.

The Cornwell Center provides programming that addresses the body, mind and spirit, including adult enrichment classes and youth sports. An affordable fitness center offers a gym and group classes.

Myers Park Baptist also provides space for local groups to hold events or meetings. A Buddhist meditation group has ongoing meetings and recent speakers have included mystical scholar Andrew Harvey and acclaimed theologian Matthew Fox.

Shoemaker feels it is important to host events like these even if they don’t align with Baptist beliefs.

“We feel like church can be the place where you can ask all the questions you need to ask. We are willing to invite people with whom we disagree because we feel like the spiritual path is strengthened by encountering people who are different.”

For more information on worship services and program offerings, visit www.mpbconline.org.

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