It would be hard to find a more desirable real estate location in Durham than 408 West Geer Street.
The building, built in 1948 and situated at the intersection of Geer Street and Rigsbee Avenue, is the former home of Weeks Motor Company and Hutchins Auto Supply and contains a sleek, immaculately white showroom. Floor-to-ceiling windows gives the space the feeling of a fishbowl.
Over the years, prominent local businesses have tried to lease the space, but longtime landlord Mark Hutchins demurred. For several years, the property—which, in conjunction with the adjoining Hutchins Garage space, has an assessed total fair market value of $1,530,187, according to county tax records—has mostly sat empty.
In early October, signs appeared advertising the new business taking over the space: Pioneers Durham, a “project of Pioneers Church” offering “Coffee. Tea. Baked items. Events. Co-working. Faith. Community.” A QR code directs to a website introducing future parishioners to lead pastor Sherei Lopez Jackson and her husband, Daniel Jackson, both graduates of Duke Divinity School. Pioneers Durham, the coworking space and market, will operate in the showroom during the week; on the weekend, the space will flip to become Pioneers Church.
The church and business spaces have different tax statuses, and the business portion, according to church leadership, will not be tax-exempt.
“We are pioneering a vibrant and fresh approach to church uniquely for the people of downtown Durham—where creativity, compassion, belonging and purpose come together to bring hope to the heart of our city,” the website reads. It outlines the organization’s aims, including facilitating “redemptive enterprise and social entrepreneurship” and providing a “space of commerce for micro-businesses and start-ups to flourish and a ‘church space’ that is open every day of the week as a local community resource to come rest, eat, dream, gather, and play.”
The church’s website invokes a blend of references—Black Wall Street in one section (which the name Pioneers is intended to honor), a call for “city renewal” with hopes for seeing “Durham’s bright future manifested in our time” in another.
“Did you move to Durham because you wanted to be part of the weird, creative, and diverse leg of the Research Triangle?” the “Who is Pioneers for?” section of the website reads. “Are you in a creative, technical, or medical field and dreaming or playing in the startup wonderland that is Durham?”
Soon, skeptical comments on social media proliferated—my own among them—as residents questioned the message that Pioneers’ name and Millenial-Id-adjacent language sends to a gentrifying Durham.
The church’s affiliation with the Association of Related Churches—an umbrella organization that helps fund and plant churches and that does not affirm LGBTQ+ members—furthered that unease. Numerous churches in Durham also do not doctrinally affirm LGBTQ+ rights, including the UMC denomination that is planting the church. Still, a conservative church in such a prominent location has caused waves.
“I’m very concerned about you opening a church in a very diverse, queer community given ARC’s discriminatory stance on marriage,” local journalist Matt Lardie commented on the Pioneers Instagram. “Will you openly welcome and bless ALL members of Durham’s community?”
To this, Sherei Lopez Jackson sidestepped Lardie’s question and instead invited him to chat over coffee. Though Lardie declined, several people did sign up for a virtual “Sunday Coffee with a Pastor” event posted on the website. Lopez Jackson, who got into a car accident later that week, was unable to attend. As social media chatter piled up, comments on the church’s social media accounts were turned off and numerous commenters (including Lardie) were blocked.
Dialogue about the church briefly quieted; then, in mid-November, Lopez Jackson released a series of Instagram slides clarifying Pioneers’ position on LGBTQ+ rights. Although the church will “prioritize love and welcome because we follow Jesus,” she wrote, both UMC’s and her own principles prevented her from marrying LGBTQ+ couples.
“I, personally, hold an interpretation of scripture that Christian marriage is a sacred covenant between one man and one woman and believe that sexual intimacy has the potential to be at its healthiest in that context,” Lopez Jackson wrote.
The Sunday morning after the slides went up, a pair of women were seen pouring a thick perimeter of salt around the church storefront—a rite traditionally performed to cleanse a space of negative spiritual energy. The salt lingered for several days afterward.
In-person, Lopez Jackson, who was 37 weeks pregnant when we met, is passionate and eloquent. It is easy to see why she was drawn to being a pastor. On a sunny October afternoon, she showed me around the space.
The project is still in the early stages and Lopez Jackson says that she anticipates that the church will begin operations in February or March 2022. Still, several months out, the space is already polished, with one side of the room flanked by a bar that will serve locally sourced coffee, tea, and baked goods made by businesses that have “a real ethos around equity.”
At the back of the room, olive-green bookshelves built by Lopez Jackson’s father line the wall. Here, 100 display cubbyholes will be available as artist vendor rental spaces for $50 a month (more prominent booth spaces go for $200, plus a cut from sales), with priority going to “people of color and women.”
Upstairs, an airy room overlooking the downstairs will be the coworking space; Lopez Jackson hopes to lease memberships on a modest sliding scale of $25 to $50 a month. (For comparison, average WeWork memberships go for $199 a month.) Another small room will potentially provide childcare so that parents can drop their children off while they work.
“I get really cringy about church spaces that are open for like an hour on Sunday for service and then take up massive real estate and sit empty,” Lopez Jackson says. “I have a lot of curiosity about how that space could be stewarded in a better way. So I started to ask about this, and the question that we’re trying to answer is the loneliness question—how can we create that third space, the ‘Friends couch space’?”
Lopez Jackson became interested in this question of loneliness while doing a demographic study of Durham at Duke Divinity. The loneliness describes, she says, many of the transplants who have moved to Durham and who are “interested in technology and start-up culture and who came to Durham because they want to be part of the new South.”
As a half-Latinx child in a military family, Lopez Jackson says she identifies with the transient identity and made it an outreach focus.
“I’m not native to Durham,” she says. “But I’m also not native to anywhere.”
A “third space,” she says, will be attractive to millennial and Gen Z transplants seeking connectivity, especially after pandemic isolation (Lopez Jackson, who is in her early thirties, considers herself an “elder millennial”). To help guide people, she plans to have placards on the tables for people to signal whether they are plugged in and working or want to share a table and chat.
Her view of the wave of young professionals is strikingly optimistic.
“The hopeful thing about all the transplants—many of the transplants, not all of the transplants—is that they are actually politically left of center, which often indicates that they have a social concern for how their money is spent,” Lopez Jackson says, explaining that her projections anticipate that the income made from the business—the coworking rentals, coffee station, market rentals, and 10 percent sales from market items—will be enough to cover the operational costs of the building, and 80 percent of the church tithe from parishioners can be allotted for neighborhood partners.
“We’re paying attention to what’s happening right here in Durham,” Lopez Jackson says when asked which community partners she hopes to support. “I mean, TROSA is right here. There’s another school system right here. We’re really excited about the neighborhood that we’ve landed in.”
Still, the initial brand launch in the neighborhood was bumpy.
When resident Monica Byrne commented on an Instagram post and asked if Lopez Jackson had a relationship with NorthStar Church of the Arts, the community space founded by Nnenna Freelon and the late Phil Freelon a block down the road, Lopez Jackson said that she had “read the website” and suggested that NorthStar reach out and welcome Pioneers to the neighborhood.
On the other side of Pioneers, meanwhile, is Cocoa Cinnamon. The coffee shop’s staff posted on Twitter in early October that they had asked Pioneers several times to take down a photo of the Geer Street Cocoa Cinnamon storefront, which lived on the church’s homepage with the script “Pioneers Church” overlaid on it. When asked for comment, Jackson said she had never got any of the messages from the coffee shop and would have “happily taken it down” had she known there was an issue. By the end of the day that the tweet was posted, the image was off the website.
“Whenever you’re dealing with churches,” Lopez Jackson says, “it seems like it’s this big corporation. But it’s just me.”
Krista Nordgren, co-owner of The Mothership—a coworking space and retail showroom for local goods that was formerly located directly across from Pioneers and shuttered in 2020 due to the pandemic—reached out to both Lopez Jackson and the INDY to express concern about the new space.
“I’m opposed to homophobia wherever it lives, but I’m especially concerned about the presence of Pioneers in this particular neighborhood because safe spaces are so rare and important to queer people,” Nordgren, who ran The Mothership space alongside Katie DeConto and Megan Bowser, said over the phone. “This neighborhood has traditionally been so welcoming. Because of the community-facing business aspect, I fear that people will unwittingly stumble into Pioneers, not knowing that it’s not a place where they’re celebrated or embraced.”
“Durham is very much about queer people, and I love that. I think a lot of people really embrace that as an identity of the city,” added DeConto, who identifies as Christian. “For any place to not be affirming of queer people and then say that they’re a space for everyone—[they’re] not being honest.”
Nordgren herself came out at the age of 29 and credits The Mothership for giving her the courage to do so.
“My expression of love is the most dignified part of my life, and you can’t understand my humanity, let alone respect it, if you feel like my love is undeserving or outside of your paradigm of godliness and health,” Nordgren says. “It’s a surprise that one year, there’s a place that is so affirming it can actively draw out this really tender part of me that was kept hidden and let me step into this really beautiful new life—and then a year later and like 10 feet away, there’s a place that is purposefully opposed to me living that life.”
Sherei Lopez Jackson’s road to ministry, as a female pastor, has not been easy. In a Facebook post from June 2017, she detailed a lengthy list of sexist pushback she had received from people who did not believe women should have church leadership positions.
This, she says, is why she pursued ordination within the UMC in the first place. (Although she has not been ordained yet, she is a LLP, or licensed local pastor; Daniel Jackson, meanwhile, is an LLP at Trinity UMC in Durham and is not a pastor at Pioneers, though he has a bio on the church website.)
“The United Methodist Church has many growing edges and, of course, these things happen within its context as well,” Lopez Jackson wrote in the post. “The difference is the United Methodist Church very actively affirms the ordination of women and works to destigmatize the issue.”
To many, the UMC is progressive, and Pioneers—with its millennial aesthetic and emphasis on food, friends, and fellowship—is a far cry from its stuffy counterparts.
In some ways, this perception is true: The evangelical church at large is in crisis. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center between 2018 and 2019, 65 percent of American adults “describe[d] themselves as Christian when asked about their religion”—a number that reflected a dramatic 12-percentage-point drop in the last decade. Black storefront churches struggle to afford rent, churches with older congregations struggle to fill pews, and denominational schisms within the church don’t help balance the scales.
The United Methodist Church is in the middle of such a divide: In 2019, worldwide delegates from the UMC—once the second-largest Protestant denomination, with 13 million members worldwide—voted to uphold its ban on the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ+ people.
The denomination, which is broad enough to count both Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush as members, is expected to split at the 2022 General Conference into two factions: a conservative faction and another that affirms LGBTQ+ congregations.
The Association of Related Churches, the organization from which Pioneers receives support, including a proposed loan of up to $50,000, also maintains that marriage is only between a man and a woman. It also does not support female pastors. (The loan, on top of a $50,000 church-planting grant from the UMC and some donations from “friends and family” is how Lopez Jackson says the church affords rent)
The ARC is a resource and not an organization to which Pioneers is theologically accountable, Lopez Jackson says. But when initially asked about her own stance, she hedges.
“It’s a really tender question that needs to be handled relationally,” she says, adding, “I want to protect freedom. That’s my priority, so why would I politically advocate for someone else’s freedoms to be limited, when freedoms are so essential to what it means to be a part of this country? I’m saying all that to say, I don’t always think that there is a relationship between a theological conviction and a political conviction.”
Not all UMC churches in Durham are loyal to this thusly called distinction between theological and political convictions: Several have actively pushed back against the UMC ruling on gay marriage, including Elizabeth Street UMC, just five blocks away on North Elizabeth Street, which was the first outwardly queer-affirming UMC church in the state. Duke Memorial, meanwhile—a prominent, steepled structure on West Chapel Hill Street—hosts an annual “Queerly Beloved” service and has been known to drape its exterior in rainbow banners.
In January 2020, Duke Memorial lead pastor Heather Rodrigues took historic action when she stood alongside 11 other UMC pastors and married Durham residents Caleb Parker and Thomas Phillips, who became the first gay couple to be married in the history of the 112-year-old Duke Memorial.
Complaints were later filed against Rodrigues to church leadership, though Rodrigues was able to reach a “Just Resolution” mediation. (The more severe risk that UMC pastors and ordained elders run in officiating the weddings of same-sex couples, Rodrigues wrote the INDY over email, is the loss of ordination orders.)
But Lopez Jackson is called, she says, to make space for multiple perspectives. The Pioneers Instagram Story also reiterated this.
“I hope to teach and create conversation around sexual formation with humility, listening, and compassion towards the ways that this interpretation has caused deep harm,” Lopez Jackson wrote. “Our leaders commit to listening, apologizing when necessary, and continually growing in love, kindness and healthy relationships. We commit to surrounding ourselves with voices unlike our own, so that we might be better spiritual friends to Durham.”
As our interview ended, Lopez Jackson—whom I had never met before—shared how, earlier that day, she had prayed about our interview and had had a vision of me “running away from something in a wedding dress” and that perhaps it meant that there had been a period where “you were saying yes to something you didn’t want to say yes to.”
Leaning forward intently, she asked, “Does this resonate with you?” I said that I didn’t think so, though as time wore on the comment lingered uneasily in my mind, its imagery and message both vague and specific enough that it could resonate with almost anyone.
Outside, it was after five and the sun was filtering into hazy early evening light. People were beginning to trickle past the antique orange car—referenced, in an Instagram post, as being a highly Instagrammable spot—outside the storefront and out toward Rigsbee Avenue.
The car isn’t new, but the view it looks out toward is: on this street alone, multiple new luxury condo developments are springing up, including a 20-story project with rooftop penthouses near Motorco. A recent News & Observer tally outlined more than a dozen developments in the works that will account for more than 2,000 market-rate downtown units.
It is true, certainly, that the city is changing and that an affluent young professional class, one which likely does long for connection, is at the fore. Whether that intended connection extends to everyone—the new and old Durham, those lower-income and those well off, the queer and the straight—is a harder task and an open question.
Pioneers is certainly not alone in encountering these questions: United Methodist churches across the United States are answering them, with varying degrees of welcome, in real-time. The difference, perhaps, is that most churches do not double as a business, do not attempt the language of both radical and conditional acceptance, and are not as visible, as keenly on display, as Pioneers is in its glass showroom.
“Diversity can be really challenging,” Lopez Jackson says. “It can also be really beautiful. It can lead to a really rich life, to be walking with friends who have diversity of thought, and to be able to take a step away from a lot of echo chambers, to be able to see the humanity of one another. It is what I hope we live out here at Pioneers.”
Correction: The print version of this story incorrectly stated that Pioneers Church is a church plant of Trinity UMC and that the Pioneers Durham Instagram account was deleted. It was not deleted; the journalist was blocked.
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