On Saturdays, for the past few months, a small group of protesters gathers in Durham holding signs that read things like “Keep Durham Queer” and “You Can’t Nuance Your Way Out of Homophobia.”
The organization they’re protesting, Pioneers Durham, is a hybrid church-slash-business run by pastor Sherei Lopez Jackson. I reported on Pioneers when it first opened last November and it began to receive community pushback for its stance on LGBTQ+ inclusion—about which it initially demurred, though Lopez Jackson eventually admitted that she will not marry queer couples but says that they are welcome at the church—among other things.
Since then, that pushback has amplified, forcing the United Methodist Church (UMC), with which the church has been affiliated, to step in and respond to the criticism and, more recently, prompting the church to disaffiliate entirely from that denomination.
But first, the real estate space: Pioneers is located at 408 West Geer Street, a highly sought-after property in Downtown Durham. Immaculately bright and white, the shop has the spacious feel of an Apple store or West Elm showroom; sometimes, there are people inside. Per its website, the space operates as an “innovative redemptive enterprise,” and inside, you can purchase tea and items by local artists—soap, candles, uplifting greeting cards—or use it as a coworking space; on the weekends, the space will eventually flip into a church. Lopez Jackson also recently announced plans to open up space for childcare.
It is this slippery blend of church and commerce, paired with an evasive communication style, outreach contoured around affluent new Durham populations (the Pioneer’s Instagram account often includes a string of hashtags for nearby luxury condos), and the non-affirming stance on LGBTQ+ issues, that has spurred controversy.
For a while, across the street, Motorco Music Hall, which faces Pioneers, hung large banners quoting LGBTQ+ activists, and rainbow flags dotted Geer Street. A petition condemning the church accrued more than 7,500 signatures, Motorco hosted a well-attended community forum about the church, and the Google Maps page of Pioneers was swamped with one-star reviews (though there has also been an influx of five-star reviews). Since late November, the satirical Instagram account @realnativechurch has maintained a prolific posting schedule and a pointed, sepia-toned caricature of Pioneers.
In March, a group of local UMC pastors penned an open letter to regional leadership denouncing Pioneers and asking the UMC to cut financial ties with it.
“United Methodists criticize Pioneers’ brand-first approach to community building and are wary of the church’s opaque relationship to a for-profit business sponsored by the Annual Conference. In response to each of these charges, Pioneers has remained silent or recommitted to the practice that originated the concern,” the letter stated. “We stand with those who say that the broken trust between Pioneers and the people of Durham is beyond repair.”
The tension may be local, but it has also crept into broader discussions about the direction of the UMC, with which Pioneers is affiliated.
Or was affiliated with, at least.
On June 5, Lopez Jackson’s husband, Daniel Jackson, head pastor at Downtown Durham’s Trinity United Methodist Church, stood up in the pulpit and announced to the congregation that he would leave his post and join his wife as co-pastor at Pioneers.
“Now is the right season for my transition,” he said. “A part of this transition, on a practical note, is Pioneers changing from a United Methodist church to a Wesleyan church. The Wesleyan Church denomination is a historic sister church of the UMC that was launched as an abolition movement coming out of the main Methodist branch.”
To a congregant sitting in a church pew, this announcement may have seemed out of the blue, especially since Lopez Jackson had written a letter to Trinity less than two months before, thanking the church for its support of Pioneers and spelling out hopes for the future. But around the time of that letter, the North Carolina Conference—the regional umbrella leadership of the UMC—also made Pioneers halt services, according to local UMC pastor Heather Rodrigues, as part of ongoing mediation between the church and other local LGBTQ-affirming Methodist pastors.
Pioneers then announced it was leaving the UMC.
As Daniel Jackson said from the pulpit, the Wesleyan Church has a progressive history: rooted in the teachings of John Wesley, the denomination broke off from the larger UMC in 1843 and went on to elevate abolitionist and feminist principles. But if its history is more progressive than its UMC counterpart’s, in the present day it toes a much harder line on other social issues—including, notably, LGBTQ+ rights.
“We adhere to the teachings of Scripture regarding gender identity, sexual conduct, and the sacredness of marriage and believe that sexual relationships outside of marriage and sexual relationships between persons of the same sex are immoral and sinful,” the Wesleyan website reads.
When asked for an interview about this sudden denominational shift, Lopez Jackson declined to interview or comment for this follow-up story, though she sent two emails, both labeled off-the-record, in which she asked me not to write one.
Over the past few months, though, INDY Week has received an outpouring of comments from readers who feel a vested interest in the future of this space and its stake in a changing city. Much of denominational inner workings—the way language is chosen, the way conferences and committees are structured, the way church finances are handled—can feel like religious inside baseball.
But religion itself, and the way it functions inside a community, is profoundly personal. It should also be profoundly public.
In 1832, 11 years before the Wesleyan Church was founded, a small congregation of 30, the first Methodist group in the area, began meeting at a small schoolhouse a mile east of Durham. This was the beginnings of Trinity United Methodist, which now meets in a large gothic steepled structure on the corner of Liberty and North Church Streets, overlooking city hall. For years, it has hung rainbow banners outside its gates and spelled out a message of inclusivity in its church bulletin.
As the INDY previously reported, the UMC at large has been inching toward a split over LGBTQ+ issues. In March that split became further realized when the UMC announced it was postponing its 2022 general conference—originally scheduled for 2020, and at which church leaders were expected to vote on a split—until 2024. In May, the conservative faction of the church decided it could wait no longer and launched the Global Methodist Church.
It’s not as if the friction within the UMC—or the friction between Pioneers and community members, for that matter—exists in a vacuum. Increasingly, LGBTQ+ rights are coming under vehement attack and just last week, in a solo concurring opinion regarding the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the court should reconsider “Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell”—three rulings that protect contraception, same-sex relationships, and same-sex marriage.
But while many churches may be conflicted about their stance on inclusion, in Durham, Trinity United Methodist Church has not appeared to be one such institution. This made the 2020 pastoral appointment of Daniel Jackson, a freshly minted Duke Divinity graduate, all the more puzzling to some members of Trinity’s congregation.
Alice Stone, a lifelong Methodist, was one such Trinity congregant. When she learned of Jackson’s appointment during the early pandemic, she signed up for one of the virtual coffees he offered and was excited to learn that he shared a vision of young adult outreach with her.
Several months later, she received a Facebook notification from Jackson’s wife, Sherei Lopez Jackson, inviting her to like the Pioneers page. This came as a surprise to her: it was the first time she was learning of a new church plant, which struck her as odd given Trinity’s implicit relationship with it.
“My original frustration is that the information that I was getting was not coming from the pulpit or from congregational meetings or from any of that—it was social media,” Stone says. “Recognizing that our population is largely older and not really on social media, I then had concerns about what was happening, what the congregation knew and didn’t know, and what was kind of being decided on their behalf.”
Community outreach is normally the first step when the UMC decides to open and support a new church. But in this case, Stone wasn’t alone in being in the dark: other local UMC churches, some just a few blocks away, had not been aware of the new church.
Stone says she contacted UMC’s Staff Parish Relations Committee with questions and was encouraged to reach out directly to Jackson with concerns. This wasn’t exactly standard procedure but Stone approached Jackson anyway with questions about Trinity’s involvement in Pioneers. Shortly thereafter, Stone says, Lopez Jackson blocked her from accessing Pioneers’ Facebook page.
Frustrated at the lack of transparency, Stone and her husband left Trinity. They have not rejoined a United Methodist church since.
Of course, there are other businesses and churches in Durham that are homophobic. Plenty of residents are, too: when Amendment 1—a referendum to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage—passed in 2012, as many as 30 percent of Durhamites voted in support of it. Pioneers is not alone in its theology.
Despite—or perhaps because of—this, opponents of Pioneers believe it still needs to be held to task.
Natalie Spring is a mother of two school-aged children, one of whom is queer. She walks past Pioneers often. Her mistrust of it, she says, is in part its lack of transparency about its beliefs. She also feels it stands in for other lurking prejudices.
“It’s not a ‘capital-C church,’ right? It’s a ‘social enterprise,’” Spring says. “A lot of straight people just kind of forget—because, like, ‘Oh, Durham is perfect, Durham is great.’ And it’s not. In some ways, this is a reminder to people that we don’t live in a bubble in Durham. Everything is not for everyone. Here is a manifestation of that.”
Jesse Huddleston, the director of music ministry at CityWell United Methodist Church and co-chair of Pride: Durham, NC Steering Committee, says that, among other things, they are disappointed by the way Pioneers has responded to conflict.
“More than my disappointment in learning that they weren’t affirming, I really felt disappointed by the way they were responding to community members,” Huddleston says. “There wasn’t a sincere openness to equitable, real, authentic conversation.”
You will find scant evidence of this conflict on Pioneer’s website and social media pages. Offline, Pioneers’ engagement has also ping-ponged: According to local resident Caleb Parker—who is Methodist and married his husband in 2020 at a local Methodist church—at some protests Lopez Jackson would sit outside the church with baked goods and a sign encouraging people to come talk to her.
At other points, she blocked local queer residents from the business’s Instagram account, on which comments are already disabled.
The church also did not engage with a list of questions I emailed over, including a request for the name that the business is registered under, which the INDY was unable to locate online, and for a copy of the church’s most recent 990, which is supposed to be publicly available. (Lopez Jackson also responded “no comment” to my query about whether it was true, as rumor has it, that she and Daniel Jackson traveled to Waco, Texas, to seek guidance from home renovation television stars Chip and Joanna Gaines, who have drawn criticism for attending a megachurch led by a pastor adamant that same-sex marriage is a sin.)
In November when I spoke to Lopez Jackson, she told me that the church and business have different tax statuses, but it is unclear where the organization’s business designation lives online. In both the reporting of this and the previous piece, Mark Hutchins—landlord of 408 West Geer Street—did not return calls from the INDY inquiring after more details about the lease.
And so Pioneers has chugged along, slowly forming a quiet presence on Geer Street. There are occasional events—a Juneteenth celebration, a series of coworking lunches, and recently, a book launch from the writer Jonathan Martin that, according to the event description, centers on religious trauma and “disentangling the good news of the gospel from the toxic theologies that have rendered Jesus unrecognizable.”
Weeks ago, before Pioneers announced its disaffiliation, community organizers had planned a reparative meeting with UMC leaders—including Bishop Leonard Fairley, resident bishop of the North Carolina Conference—hoping for the denomination’s leadership to take responsibility for its unquestioning support in launching the church. When Pioneers shifted to the Wesleyan Church, organizers decided to continue with the meeting regardless on June 21. I did not attend—media was asked not to—but reportedly about 50 people showed up, and Huddleston told me that they believed that leadership was “sincere in their lament over how things had transpired.”
To be clear: the UMC, on paper, is still not an affirming denomination, and Fairley also declined to comment for this story, except to say that he was looking forward to working with area clergy to “address the harm.”
Still, it seems like change is afoot.
“I don’t think this could have happened 15 years ago,” says Caleb Parker, in reference to the forum, which he helped organize. “We’ve come a long way.”
Also to be clear: although Pioneers has switched denominational affiliations, local organizers still very much want the organization to leave.
“Our last question [to UMC leadership] was ‘Do you still believe it is your responsibility for the Methodists to get Pioneers out?’” Parker says. “And they said, yes, they feel that that is their responsibility.”
Natalie Spring walked away from the meeting hopeful that Pioneers’ new denomination will, at the very least, force the church to be more explicit about its beliefs.
“I own my beliefs,” Spring says. “I would like them to own their beliefs and see if it’s profitable. And if it’s not, maybe that becomes a story, too: they tried to have a church, in the middle of a queer neighborhood, that wasn’t affirming, that was overtly anti-gay—and this is what happened.
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