In Texas, this week, more than 400 churches voted to sever ties with the United Methodist Church (UMC) over disagreements with how the denomination, which is currently navigating a looming split, handles LGBTQ+ issues. Those congregations are expected to join the conservative faction of the church—the Global Methodist Church—when the UMC meets in 2024 and votes on a proposal to split the denomination over the disagreement.
In North Carolina, this week: a different kind of action took place: The North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church (NCCUMC) issued a formal letter of apology to neighbors of Pioneers Durham located off of Geer Street in Durham.
“When it comes to the Geer Street Community and Pioneers Church, we as the NC Conference of the UMC and the Office of New Faith Communities were too slow to recognize the need to make a change,” the two-page letter, issued Tuesday, reads. “We are sorry we were slow to entirely comprehend the unique nature, values, and makeup of this neighborhood. We are sorry that we were not initially attentive to the harm that might be done when a new congregation was started, which was not fully affirming of the LGBTQIA+ community and inclusive of marriage equality, in a neighborhood which is known to be safe and affirming for LGBTQIA+ community members.”
The INDY Week reached out to Pioneers Durham owners Sherei Lopez Jackson and Daniel Jackson via their Pioneers emails and did not receive a response by the time of publication, but in the News & Observer’s Thursday report, Sherei Lopez Jackson told the newspaper that the UMC would continue to be their “neighbors and siblings in Christ.”
Back in November 2021, Pioneers Durham generated controversy within days of its opening announcement. Part of the controversy was its very specific packaging as a two-for-one church and business with a heavy emphasis on entrepreneurship, and part of it was an off-kilter relationship with its surrounding Old North Durham neighborhood and Durham at large, and its religious marketing toward affluent young professionals. Parts of the controversy were as simple as its name.
“Choosing the name ‘Pioneers’ is just absolutely wild to me,” says Brandon Bayne, an associate professor of religious studies at UNC-Chapel Hill who is currently writing a book on “pioneer statutes and how they served to justify dispossession.”
And then, of course, much of the pushback has regarded Pioneers’ stance on gay marriage: That, as Pastor Sherei Lopez Jackson wrote on Instagram, “Christian marriage is a sacred covenant between one man and one woman and [I] believe that sexual intimacy has the potential to be at its healthiest in that context.”
Within months of the church openings its doors, the controversy evolved into a series of regular protests outside of Pioneers; in response, the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church (NCCUMC) made the church halt services and enter into mediation with other local UMC pastors. In June, Pioneers split from UMC entirely and joined the more conservative Wesleyan Church, which has a clearer anti-LGBTQ+ stance. But as I wrote in a follow-up story on the church, also in June, it was evident that community wounds still ran deep, as local religious leaders called on the NCCUMC—which invested in and helped start the church—for institutional ownership of the situation. The letter is a response to those calls.
“The action of United Methodist churches engaging their communities is a common practice and core value of the denomination,” Mike Frese, district superintendent of the corridor district of the NCCUMC, wrote to the INDY in an email. “This can be in the form of community meetings or personal communication. In this case, since the conversation was happening in a more public forum, an open letter seemed to be the most appropriate format.”
In a phone call, Baynes said that public apologies from a denomination to a community, as seen in the letter, are “pretty uncommon” in his experience, but echoed Frese’s sentiments about accountability as a core value of the denomination.
“Christian communities have this sort of language built into their liturgy,” he said. “Methodists do as well. In their liturgy, they have a place for confession and a place for absolution. This pairing of needing to be truthful about the past before you ask others with whom you have a disagreement to move forward toward something like reconciliation is really crucial.”
A year later, Pioneers—which has hummed along, despite seeing very low foot traffic in the space—has become a regular site of protest in Durham; earlier today, a bike with a sign reading “This shop is a church that does not welcome everyone equally” was locked to the bike stand in front of the church.
But nothing happens in a vacuum. Events at the church have played out against a backdrop of national tensions. Pioneers’ contentious relationship with other UMC churches in Durham occurred as the UMC at large was splintering. Pushback to the business arm of Pioneer’s mounted alongside concerns about gentrification in a city pushing marginalized residents out. The UMC’s deliberations around LGBTQ+ inclusion have taken place as the Evangelical church has had to face—or not—its ties to the far-right. And NCCUMC’s apology comes as hostility against the LGBTQ+ community across the nation has grown more and more dangerous, particularly in North Carolina, as we have seen this week.
On Thursday, Congress passed a landmark bill protecting same-sex marriage.
Joanne Andrews—who has lived with her partner in the neighborhood since the late 90s, and has participated in the protests of Pioneers—felt reassured by the efforts of the letter, writing in an email: “I feel that their apology is sincere and heartfelt. Their entire organization is fracturing over this very issue and they gave our concerns full attention. Elizabeth Street UMC has been an affirming and inclusive church in our neighborhood for decades and it’s good to see the rest of their organization catching up.”
“Our goal remains for them to leave our neighborhood unless they state publicly that their position has changed,” Andrews continued, in reference to the church. “Pioneers has never once acknowledged our community’s concerns.”
On Instagram on Wednesday, a day after the UMC sent the letter to the Geer Street neighborhood, the church marked their time in the space, writing “We are about to celebrate 1 year and reflecting on so much goodness 😭🧡”
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