When Andrew Robinson drove to Dallas in 2015, he had $100 in the bank and a growing disdain for the Christian church. Robinson, a gang member-turned-evangelical pastor, had just lost what little funding he had to kickstart a church in Foley, Alabama. While he was never given an official reason for the loss in funding, he believes the church sponsoring his efforts cut him off for criticizing Fox News on Facebook. It also didn’t help that he embraced gay rights. So, Robinson found himself crashing on a friend’s couch in Dallas. He had no church, no job prospects and a wife who was nine months pregnant. He was terrified, yet free.
“Evangelicalism taught me to be careful about what I say,” he says. “People love when you talk about feeding the poor, but when you start asking why people are homeless, they’ll call you a Communist. In Dallas, I had this moment where I realized I could now say anything I wanted.”
He started attending protests without worrying about what others would think. He and his wife became teachers as a way to make a difference without a pulpit. While Robinson was done with ministry, he realized he wasn’t done with his faith.
“Most days, I hate the whole institution of church, because the hierarchy of it is so corrupt, and I’ve seen behind the curtain. I’ve seen how cruel the church can be. But I feel like I have not just a role, but a responsibility to reform my tradition.”
Around the time Donald Trump announced his presidential run, Robinson founded Young Progressive Christians of Dallas, a group for Christians who felt they didn’t have a church to call home. At first, they met for weekly discussions. Now, the group just keeps in touch online or via text. They discuss politics, racial injustice, immigrants’ rights and everything else they were taught to never bring up in the pews. In light of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, an election rife with race baiting and a pandemic that has disproportionally harmed people of color, Robinson’s group has had plenty to talk about. But much of the time, they talk about the intersection of faith and politics.
“When I was in evangelicalism, you’re taught to pray about it,” Robinson says. “But now, when something is wrong, I want to actually do something about it.”
Robinson is one of more than a dozen Christians and members of the clergy interviewed for this story who are grappling with their place in the fight against injustice. Data from Pew Research Center reveal that 78 percent of Dallas residents identify as some kind of Christian, and Dallas-Fort Worth has the largest Christian population by percentage of any metro area in the United States. Yet the institutions and individuals behind those numbers are deeply divided.
On one hand, the city is home to megachurches like Dallas First Baptist, where Pastor Robert Jeffress has called Islam “evil” and decried gay people for their “filthy” behavior. But most churches aren’t as transparent about their political leanings. Many faith leaders, particularly white pastors, yearn to be more outspoken, but they’re wary of losing congregants. As Robinson noted, many churches are adept at feeding the poor but will fail to confront the wider problems that lead to poverty. In remaining silent about politics, they end up remaining silent about issues like racism.
“What gets labeled as politics is actually questions of justice,” says Scott Gilliland, a Methodist minister in Dallas. “These are questions of theology. I believe in church and state, but your faith can inform how you feel about justice.”
Even some outspoken progressive pastors are now realizing they have missed plenty of opportunities to lift their voices.
“I would like to feel that I have always been committed to racial justice, but maybe I could have always done more,” says the Rev. Eric Folkerth, senior pastor at Kessler Park United Methodist Church.
Folkerth first spoke of racism from the pulpit after the 2015 murders of nine Black people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, but Floyd’s death prompted many faith leaders to speak up about systemic racism for the first time. The question is, how long will they continue to raise their voices? For many white churches, the answer likely depends on how the people in the pews respond.
“We don’t have the privilege of waiting for justice,” says Michael Waters, founder and lead pastor of the Abundant Life A.M.E. Church. “For white congregations, George Floyd was a break in their regularly scheduled programming. For us, this is the programming.”
Some white Christian leaders don’t want this to be “a break in the programming.” Many white members of the clergy are taking cues from their Black colleagues, engaging their congregations in tough conversations and dealing with the fallout. Meanwhile, some Christians are reflecting on what they want from their churches. Some have learned to separate their life at church with their views on politics and justice. Others believe the two are forever intertwined.
“Jesus had very specific things to say to people in power,” says Byron Sanders, a Christian and the CEO and president of the education nonprofit Big Thought, which helps children develop creativity and social and emotional skills. “If we seriously ask ourselves, ‘What would Jesus do?’ the answer is obvious: Jesus would be in the streets.”
“A Very Dallas Thing to Do”
The sermon had just begun, and DeVion Hinton already knew something was off. The 25-year-old works in marketing in Houston, but since September 2019, he’d attending “The Porch,” a young adult gathering hosted by Dallas’ Watermark Church.
“I liked having a nice night out with people in my age group,” Hinton says, “and it’s cool to get a sermon tailored to us.”
Like many people, Hinton was craving community amidst the pandemic. Earlier this fall, he decided to meet up with some friends at a church in Houston to watch a livestream of that week’s Porch sermon. It was Tuesday, Oct. 20, and Watermark was in the middle of its “Divided States of America” program, a series about the election, racism and, on that night, abortion.
Roughly five minutes into an hour-long address, Pastor David Marvin brought a couple onstage for their first ultrasound. Then, Marvin played a video describing an abortion in graphic detail. Hinton was squirming in his seat.
“The whole thing was set up to explicitly reinforce all of the pro-life talking points,” he says. “You got a couple on stage for this very private moment, then you get this substitute teacher video about a doctor sucking out a baby piece by piece.”
Then came what Hinton considers the worst part.
“The parallels to the issue of slavery on this one are uncanny,” Marvin told the audience. Slaves were regarded as “less than human,” Marvin said, the same way unborn babies are considered today.
“We have to hit our knees and pray, not just in an election year but every day and every year, ‘God, will you end abortion in our generation?’” the pastor said. “‘You ended the atrocity of slavery in our past. You ended what happened in Nazi Germany. Will you end again what is taking place in our land?’”
Marvin’s message isn’t original. In fact, after Roe v. Wade, some evangelicals dubbed themselves “new abolitionists,” arguing abortion was akin to centuries of slavery. Hinton had been uncomfortable in previous Watermark sermons, such as the one where a pastor said sin, not racism, is the real issue haunting America. But for Hinton, a Black man and a progressive, the abortion sermon confirmed what he had already been feeling for a while: He can’t expect his brand of politics to be mirrored from the pulpit.
“We’re dealing with white pastors in Texas,” he says over the phone in November. “They’re not going to say, ‘America is a racist country.’ That’s just not going to happen. Churchgoers are conservative, so pastors have a lot to lose.”
Hinton says he is still a Christian, and should he ever find a church that aligns with his politics, he’d be happy to attend, but he’s not holding his breath.
“I’m not going to church because I’m a fan of these people,” he says, referring to pastors like Marvin. “It’s about my journey.”
Shanice Mzavas, a 27-year-old in Dallas, has a similar perspective. Mzavas is part of a small group at Watermark Church, and while she was irked by the abortion sermon (“It was kind of heartbreaking,” she says) she has had difficulty finding a church where she agrees wholeheartedly with every sermon
“As a Black person in Texas, it’s going to be a bit more difficult to find a church that applies to your political ideology and has a good biblical foundation,” she says. “You have to decide what is good for you. I am aware more can be done [at Watermark] in terms of diversity and inclusion.”
Folkerth and several other pastors are troubled by stories like these. They don’t believe all churchgoers have to share identical political views, and Republicans and Democrats alike can and should worship together. But, the line has to be drawn somewhere. In their opinion, if a church isn’t willing to admit systemic racism is a problem, they’re clearly not committed to bringing the kingdom of God to Earth.
“If you have a bad experience at Watermark, you assume all Christians are charlatans,” Folkerth says. “You always assume another shoe is gonna drop, especially if you’re a gay man or a lesbian woman. You think one day, ‘Oh, Eric is gonna tell me I’m going to hell.’ But no, that’s never gonna happen.”
Gilliland believes politics and the church are separate entities for a reason. He’ll never stand at the pulpit and endorse a political candidate, nor go out of his way to align himself or his church with any political party. On issues of justice, though, he refuses to hide his thoughts.
“When George Floyd is murdered and the video circulates, the national conversation is already happening,” he says. “For me, it’s an opportunity to say, ‘What does our faith have to say about this?’ Being anti-racist is at the heart of who we’re called to be by Jesus.”
Writing in the popular Christian magazine The Christian Century, Greensboro, North Carolina, minister Lee Hull Moses advocates an approach similar to Gilliland’s practice: Pastors should never use their pulpit to advance a political agenda, nor should they ignore the injustices happening before their eyes. While we often conflate the two, he argues, politics and justice are two separate entities.
“In times such as these, the preacher’s task is to remind the congregation that the basic tenets of our faith — grace and mercy, radical hospitality, love of neighbor — go beyond politics but have political implications,” Moses writes.
In that same publication, Susan Reisert, a pastor in Maine, agrees with Moses, while taking a rigid stance on the separation of church and politics.
“Sunday morning worship should not be another place where we get our political ducks all lined up in a row,” she writes. “Worship is for praise and prayer, for singing and silence, for renewal of hope in a violent world, and a place to connect with what it means to be God’s people, appreciating that we can only barely glimpse the enormity and wonder of what that is.”
The Rev. Edwin Robinson (no relation to Andrew) disagrees. The former young adult pastor at Concord Church in Dallas is vehemently opposed to any notion that faith and politics (let alone faith and justice) can be practiced separately.
“To not integrate the gospel message you hear on a consistent basis is just an intellectually and socially lazy thing to do,” he says. “You can’t leave the gospel for Wednesday and Sunday.”
In early December, Edwin Robinson was in Athens, Georgia, preparing for the upcoming Senate runoffs with The New Georgia Project, a voter registration and civic engagement organization. Robinson says he lives “at the intersection of faith and politics.” His faith was guiding his work in Athens, just as his faith guided his organizing in Flint, Michigan, and Waller County, Texas, after the death of Sandra Bland in jail there.
“The gospel speaks very clearly about what’s happening in the world,” he says over the phone. “I can’t hear that Jesus flips over the money-changing table and not see how that relates to my current reality. Black people have been severely harmed in this country. If I’m going to save myself and others, I have to wed my faith with civic engagement.”
The evangelical writer and professor Bruce Ashford seems to agree.
“As evangelical Christians living in a democratic republic, we should engage in politics and public life as an aspect of our witness,” he wrote in 2016, “as a way of seeking the common good for our society.”
Edwin Robinson contends that to compartmentalize faith and politics is “a very Dallas thing to do.” People have their organizations they do political work in, he says, and on Sunday they go to a church that doesn’t match their values. Churches have stayed aggressively neutral, he argues, because they’re minding the bottom line. If conservative churches like First Baptist can openly espouse their views, he argues, why can’t more churches do the same?
“I’m not gonna blame First Baptist, and I’m not gonna put Friendship West on a pedestal,” he says, referring to two churches on the opposite ends of the political spectrum. “Both are shaping the world in a belief they need it to be shaped.” In Robinson’s view, if churches and Christians care about justice, it makes sense for them to weigh in on political struggles where justice is at stake. They don’t, Edwin argues, because Dallas churches are competitive by nature.
“People don’t have midweek services where the pastor from down the street comes to preach and brings their choir,” he says. “When those things happen, it’s usually around a big event or some pulpit swap. There’s a very capitalistic, entrepreneurial spirit that is just so Dallas. It’s the same reason McDonald’s and Burger King don’t work together; because this is a business.”
That business mindset also influences what pastors do and do not say. Two pastors interviewed for this story said they had never addressed systemic racism before George Floyd’s death, and that merely mentioning systemic racism in recent months has cost them seats in the pews and money in the collection plate. There is, however, also a cost for inaction. According to a study by the D.C.-based think tank The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 4 in 10 millennials now say they are religiously unaffiliated, and unlike previous generations, research shows that millennials are unlikely to return to the church later in life. Many of those millennials cite a lack of tolerance as a reason for stepping away from Christianity, and in one recent study, a majority of young people said they believe religion causes more problems than it solves.
And yet, institutions like First Baptist and Watermark are unlikely to lose popularity anytime soon. Rather, it’s the churches whose politics are unclear that face an uncertain future.
“The crisis faced by mainstream and progressive churches is the same crisis faced by the two major political parties,” says Michael Phillips, author of White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001. “The two parties have lost their legitimacy: the Republicans by embracing white nationalism, and the Democrats by forgetting about people who struggle. If you don’t like the Green New Deal, you have to come up with some other kind of new deal. Same thing with churches. They have to fight against exorbitant mortgages, environmental racism, racism in housing, and every injustice that true progressives really care about.”
There are some signs that churches in Dallas want to do that. Earlier this year, Rachel Triska, a white woman and a pastor at Life in Deep Ellum, helped conduct a program for 53 Dallas faith leaders.
“I had a longtime desire to see white clergy members of Dallas see that changing the experience of people of color is not the responsibility of people of color,” Triska says. “It’s the responsibility of people who have been part of systemic racism. I want to systematically take pastors through a process of waking up.”
For her, the program was another chance to blend her faith with her views on justice. In 2019, the pastor made it clear that her congregation is LGBT-inclusive. This year, she used words like “racism” and “white privilege” in sermons for the first time. She was invited to a police department prayer gathering after Floyd’s killing, but she had no interest in attending a prayer gathering with no action attached to it.
Over a series of Zoom calls informally dubbed “clergy circles,” Triska talked to white pastors and clergy members about how to start conversations on race with their congregation. At the start of the programming, many of the 53 white faith leaders expressed fears about losing their jobs.
“Gradually, that fear went away, and instead of getting fired, people were more worried that they wouldn’t follow through,” Triska says. Still, she’s encouraged by the conversations and plans to hold a similar series in 2021. Some pastors, she says, have already started having meaningful conversations about race and white privilege with their congregants. Others are contributing to local or national movements. Triska knows there’s an element of self-interest to these actions. In her view, self-interest isn’t a bad thing; it’s just honest.
“There are churches who know, to the penny, how much each seat is worth,” she says. “There are churches who are looking at their budgets and saying, ‘If I lose X seats, there’s going to be an impact.’ But there’s also an impact if you don’t make the changes.”
Folkerth, the pastor from Kessler Park United Methodist Church, is familiar with the impact even a single sermon can have. The veteran minister grew up in North Dallas, where he says he was “your typical white Dallas teenager.” He was surrounded by people with narrow perspectives on race and justice, perspectives that weren’t challenged until Folkerth was in college. Still, it wasn’t until 2015, when Folkerth was 53 and decades into a ministry career, that, as he puts it, his soul was “rocked to its core.” That was the year Dylann Roof walked into Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston and murdered nine Black parishioners.
“I had grown up with this idea that racism was just going to die out,” Folkerth says. “That’s what I had been taught: that our ancestors were racist, but they’re almost all dead now. But then this shooting rocked me. That was the event where I said racism is not dying out.”
Folkerth started listening closely to Black clergy leaders, each of whom told him the same thing: “You, as a white person, have to speak out more.” So he did. Folkerth started delivering sermons about racism, which he says were well-received. Then, he started preaching about the removal of Confederate monuments. Those didn’t go well.
“There was a lot of resistance, even from middle-of-the-road folks and progressive folks,” he says. “People didn’t think they were a big deal, and I’m telling them, ‘Look, these are not honoring Civil War dead. They’re a message to Black people.’”
The tepid response didn’t deter Folkerth from bucking tradition. Even though Methodist ministers are prohibited from performing same-sex marriages, the pastor has married gay couples in his church since 2016. And while he praises his own congregation for their open-mindedness, Folkerth is highly critical of the church at large (or, what many Christians call “the Church with a capital ‘C’).
“I wrestle with the fact that the church has aided and abetted white supremacy,” he says. “The church of Jesus has a really poor track record. I’ve been a pastor with progressive Methodist churches for more than 20 years. Our polity has always been good, but our actions have not.”
Byron Sanders puts it another way.
“We can’t love our way out of racism,” he says. “We can’t hold hands and sing our way out of that. It will take policy, and our church and our faith have to get in the muck of policy advocacy.”
For years, Black faith leaders in Dallas have been trying to do just that. Edwin Robinson, a friend to both Triska and Folkerth, is part of a group called Dallas Black Clergy. The group of preachers and organizers has consistently noted that Dallas is a redoubt of racial segregation and inequity. The group fought for the removal of Confederate monuments, helped establish a civilian police review board and advocated for paid sick leave. Other battles are still in progress.
Earlier this year, they supported the group Our City Our Future, which proposed a robust plan to take money from the Dallas Police Department’s budget and invest it in the community, tackling problems like housing, homelessness and education. The pushback was swift.
“Everyone told us we were crazy to take 200 million from the policing budget,” Robinson says. “But if we can’t get the money from there, then where? This isn’t an attack on the police, as they’d like to make it, but if you’re in your household and your roof is caving, you’re going to look at your budget and see what you can do to fix the problem.”
Despite the groups’ efforts, Dallas City Council approved a police budget increase from $501 million to a forecasted $509 million for 2021. The Sept. 23 vote had bleak timing; just hours earlier, a grand jury in Louisville, Kentucky, had decided not to indict any police officers for the killing of Breonna Taylor. Robinson was incensed but unsurprised.
“Every one of our social ills, whether it’s police brutality, homelessness or Shingle Mountain, you can hang on the tree of economic disenfranchisement,” he says. “That’s Dallas. That’s always been Dallas.”
Follow the Money
When Michael Phillips’ church debated hoisting a Black Lives Matter banner in front of their building, some parishioners were worried. What if someone comes and vandalizes the church? Don’t all lives matter? Those were the arguments bandied about, and to Phillips, the debate was eerily reminiscent of fears he unearthed while researching his book.
Decades ago, worshippers at Temple Emanu-El were worried that admitting a Black member to their congregation would incite violence. Elsewhere in the country, synagogues were being bombed. What if someone does the same to us?
In Phillips’ view, those parallels reveal a disturbing truth about religion in Dallas: Fear and inaction have created a safe haven for racism.
“Religion is one of the major forces shaping Dallas history,” says the writer and history professor. “It’s not just about banks and real estate. The theology supplemented the racism and often was a reinforcement for the racism. And since we’re a laboratory for amnesia, we don’t want to examine our very violent and oppressive past. It’s better to have this myth where Dallas was a city that sprang from nothing through the grit and determination of wealthy men, and the church has played a major role in enshrining that.”
For instance, Phillips says, take First Baptist. The church is “gaudy,” and that gaudiness is attained with the help of wealthy donors. The historian calls this part of the “Dallas edifice complex,” the idea being that tackling inequity is hard, but building pretty things is easy.
“What these churches do is convince people they’re doing good works by contributing to that gaudiness,” he says. “You don’t have to do the hard work of inequality, and you have a safe space for paternalistic philanthropy and the elevation of business success over more humanitarian values.”
In turn, the theology of the church becomes the message these donors want to hear. Before Robert Jeffress was even born, Dallas had W.A. Criswell. Criswell opposed racial integration and is now considered a pioneer for the modern megachurch. As president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Criswell aligned his church and the Baptist faith at large with the Republican Party. Dr. Joel Gregory, a former First Baptist pastor, once said, “To say that First Baptist had a high identity with the Republican Party is to say that fish have a high identity with the ocean. If there were Democrats in the church, they could have gathered in a janitor’s closet.”
By Phillips’ reckoning, that alignment created an echo chamber in which prominent Baptist leaders trumpeted the messaging of Republican parishioners and donors, thereby helping men such as Donald Trump attain the highest office in the land. But it’s not churches’ political affiliation that most bothers Phillips; rather, it’s their denial that systemic racism is even real.
Southern Baptists founded their convention because they opposed abolition, and while the convention has made attempts to reconcile with its hateful past, its members are still divided over critical race theory.
At its core, this theory asserts that institutionalized racism exists and is pervasive throughout American society. In late November, Baptist seminary presidents declared, without clear reasoning, that critical race theory was “incompatible” with their faith.
“While we must continue to speak with clear conviction against any aspects of racism, the sure and certain cure to any evil of this age is the gospel of Jesus Christ,” the convention’s statement reads in part. "No unbiblical ideology can solve the social issues that confront us."
Even still, some Southern Baptists argue that their faith leaders haven’t done enough to distance Baptist seminaries and churches from critical race theory. This is similar to some of the core tenets of the evangelical faith. As Michael Luo recently noted in The New Yorker, “evangelicals’ understanding of the race problem tends to be rooted in beliefs about individual decisions and shortcomings rather than the ways that broader social forces, institutions, and culture can constrain and shape them.”
While it’s easy to condemn the First Baptists of the world, it’s clear that megachurches and “the Dallas edifice complex” are part of a larger resistance to confronting racism in white churches in Dallas and beyond. In a 2019 survey, nearly two-thirds of white Christians said that the police-perpetrated killings of Black men are isolated incidents and not part of a larger pattern of mistreatment. Furthermore, more than six in 10 white Christians disagreed with the statement that “generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.”
In the new book White Too Long, Robert P. Jones, the head of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan research organization, relies on these data and other troubling studies to show that, “the more racist attitudes a person holds, the more likely he or she is to identify as a white Christian.” When faced with that level of historical hatred and deeply ingrained opposition, it’s easy to see why white church leaders like Eric Folkerth, Rachel Triska and many others interviewed for this story are fighting an uphill battle.
“You can get up the Sunday after George Floyd is murdered and say a whole bunch of stuff is right and true, but if all you’re going to inspire is defensiveness, there’s not much use in that,” says Gilliland, the Methodist pastor. Nevertheless, Gilliland is still trying to address racism in his congregation because, in his words, “being anti-racist is at the heart of who we’re called to be by Jesus.”
The Sunday before Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck, Gilliland spoke about the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was pursued and fatally shot while jogging in Georgia.
“We have to be willing to risk some discomfort in ourselves and in others to say, ‘This, specifically, is unjust,’” he told his congregation. “‘This, specifically, must change. This, specifically, is not coming into the kingdom of God.’”
Over the phone in early December, Folkerth shared a lesson he learned from fellow white faith leader George Mason, the senior pastor of Dallas’ Wilshire Baptist Church.
“You should always be one step ahead of your people,” Folkerth says. “Of course, that means something different for each church. I said years ago that I have to be able to sleep at night, and I know so many of my colleagues feel the same way. Unfortunately, they don’t have the same freedom as I do.”
Folkerth is surprised, he says, by the number of pastors who have spoken up about systemic racism in recent months. Yet others still feel as if they can’t risk losing people in the pews. Predicting whether George Floyd’s killing will be remembered as a turning point for white churches in Dallas is impossible, though as Triska noted, it may have to be if churches hope to survive. After all, churchgoers like Hinton are craving a place that aligns with their views on politics and justice, but as the data show, they’re starting to give up. If white churches continue to placate their existing congregations, they may alienate future ones.
“Religion has an amazing ability to endure,” Phillips notes. “I think there will be a home for people who yearn for justice, who yearn for fairness. As far as where that ends up or what it looks like? That I don’t know.”
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