Where's Our Faith?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Faith is hard in dark times, but it can be essential.
By Sanjena Sathian
A torrent is hitting Baltimore tonight. Flash flood warnings, lightning that turns the sky from gray to black to purple. Inside an old, red-brick church building are some 15 men and women with Bibles in hand — half the number who usually make it out for weekly study.
Blame the storm. “I’ve never understood it,” muses the Rev. Brad Braxton, as the attendees fill their paper plates with Thousand Island-dressed salad, potato chips and store-bought cookies. “Never understood how folks who’ve been baptized can be afraid of a little rain.”
“It’s not the rain they’re afraid of,” calls out one of the congregants. “It’s Charleston.”
It’s been mere days since a white gunman shot up a Black church in South Carolina, and two months since Freddie Gray suffered a fatal spine injury while in the custody of the Baltimore police. So you might understand what’s at stake in this room full of Black congregants: their capacity for love and forgiveness in a dangerous world. Their faith. They’ve had practice, these merry misfits of the Black Christian world. There are gay men alongside church ladies you’d figure should be wearing big ol’ Southern hats; there is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a female naval officer. There is the woman crocheting a riotous neon quilt for LGBT Pride Month and another whose Sunni Muslim nephew is fasting for Ramadan.
And then there is wide-shouldered, mellifluous Braxton himself, the founder and pastor of this group, the Open Church in Baltimore, a congregation of some 125 active members. It’s an aggressively liberal organization, full of members who grew up attending charismatic or Southern Baptist Black churches and are now opting for something more ecumenical, more progressive. Highly educated, highly connected and highly savvy, Braxton is the son of a pastor and a Rhodes scholar who’s had one foot in academia and one in the ministry since his late teens. He’s known for once being the youngest pastor ever and second Black pastor of the famous, wealthy Riverside Church in New York City, conceived of in part by John D. Rockefeller.
But there are more important things for a leader of a Black church than a bedazzled set of credentials. Especially now, after the Charleston massacre. The president of the United States is eulogizing the slain pastor, Braxton reminds his flock, which replies in a chorus of passionate “mhm”s.
And then the lady with the crocheting looks up from her quilt. She heard something in the news — that the murder suspect, Dylann Roof, came close to not shooting, because everyone in the church was “so nice” to him. Think on that a minute, she says: He almost didn’t do it. “If he had been able to stay there and feel that love a little longer …” she trails off. There are murmurs of dissent; this idea is tough to stomach. Churchgoers are understandably afraid to come to Bible study, someone else says. A grandfatherly electrician with worn hands and a missing tooth named Wayne Jackson joins. “God uses chaos to push people together,” he says. “If we start coming up with cameras, getting overprotective, keeping people out, then we doubting the God we believe in. If we doubt, then tell me: Where’s our faith?” The question echoes around the room: “Mhm. Where’s our faith?”
That’s the million-dollar question, one that Braxton hopes to answer by preaching unity, both within the church and across religions. His own career, though, has had its share of strife and discord. During his Riverside days, managing 130 staffers and an endowment of about $115 million, Braxton fell from grace amid a series of politicky battles. Braxton says it began with disagreements with congregants who didn’t like his religious or management styles; it ended with newspaper stories about something more distasteful to the spiritual mind: compensation. Braxton’s base salary was $250,000, and his benefits package, he says, totaled up to some $460,000. (The church did not confirm the latter number.) Braxton resigned, into the arms of a faith-testing battle with skin cancer involving six surgeries. Today he calls the Riverside dustup “humbling” — but also, he writes in an email, “a red herring that distracted people from the other crucial, ‘colorful’ issues (pun intended) that were surfacing.” He wishes members of the congregation could have loved one another (and him) through it.
These days Braxton is closer to his roots, philosophically and geographically. Born as the civil rights movement crested into the integration years, Braxton grew up attending his father’s Baptist church in the blue-tinged mountains of (mostly White) Salem, Virginia. His father, too, was political, even making a long-shot run for mayor. “A strategic move,” Braxton says. “He was very politically savvy — well, he was a civil rights activist!” Remembering his father, Braxton seems joyful, his manner behind his wooden desk conjuring that of a benevolent school principal. Braxton first encountered the subject of tonight’s lecture, on the Apostle Paul’s letters, as a boy in his father’s pews. (He’d later write his dissertation on Paul.) He first felt the call of faith when he was 7, when his father dipped him into the baptismal waters. Braxton sings, his shoulders dancing a bit, with surprising lightness, his wise-looking spectacles sliding down his nose a bit: “Wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the water.”
You can imagine him as a professorial megachurch leader, booming out of television sets around the country.
No doubt things are not as simple as his childhood years, when his father made just $20,000 a year and enjoyed the basic perk of a parsonage — a home provided by the church. And certainly they’re not as simple as in Paul’s day. During tonight’s teaching, Braxton lingers on Paul’s refusal to take a salary for his preaching, which he seems to admire. To lead a movement today, though, one needs practicality, resources, a product-market fit. Braxton needs to grow the church — which he refers to as an “entrepreneurial venture” — far beyond its small scope, attract younger people who aren’t much inclined toward organized religion and expand the quarter-million operating budget, $100,000 of which pays his salary. It all rings of the concern he faced at age 17, when he first felt called to the ministry: “I thought … ‘I kinda want to get paid.’”
He’s raked in plenty of cultural capital. The Rev. Martha Simmons, who has known Braxton for more than a decade and is a leading voice in African-American preaching, says Braxton helped give Black Christianity “a new stature … and increased its hype, especially in the academy and seminaries.” That personal prestige is part and parcel of his plan in the post-Charleston age. He’s perfectly aware of his own charisma, and he seems ready to capitalize on it; you can imagine him as a professorial megachurch leader, booming out of television sets around the country. That’s what he’s angling for, a faith that is both intellectual and passionate. He hops between cities almost weekly, being interviewed by journalists and holding forth on interfaith panels, part of his effort to create a movement with “digital and national” scope.
His ambitions extend to his activism, where he preaches an expansive version of civil rights. “Politics and piety” today, in Braxton’s view, require a commitment to equality for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc. Case in point: Right after the violence broke out in Baltimore in April, Braxton found himself fielding a round of phone calls from the city’s rabbinical leadership. They gathered activists in the building that morning. The next day, he spoke at a pro-marriage-equality rally on the steps of the Supreme Court. Braxton describes those 24 hours as a prime example of the Open Church’s philosophy of “intersectional justice.” He calls out the phrase while pacing in front of the study group, delivering it with the full-bodied singsong of a Holy Spirit invocation. (“Mhm”s follow.)
Such values are average enough on liberal Main Street, but in the religious world, Braxton remains on the fringe, according to Josef Sorett, professor of religion at Columbia University. The “minority” that Braxton represents — liberal, intellectual, consciously tolerant — “often falls by the wayside” in the Black church tradition, Sorett says. Indeed, Braxton says he’s undoing some of the “post-traumatic stress” that many of his followers experience upon entering a sanctuary. Braxton doesn’t mince words. He believes his fellow preachers might need the greatest awakening of all. “I have felt more oppression inside Christianity than from any other faith traditions,” he tells his attentive audience of 15. He reminds them that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” was addressed to clergy colleagues.
Things begin to wrap up after about two hours. Everyone hops up from their seats at small round tables decked out with dull, floral-printed tablecloths; someone begins to tickle the keys of the light-wood piano, hands are held, a song is sung and Braxton sways with his eyes closed. The room is small and the song reverberates. It looks like a third-grade public school classroom — low seats, general mustiness — except for the touch of a dark-skinned, psychedelic-looking Jesus on one wall. The sanctuary down the hall is a more traditional space that can hold some 500 worshippers, but this building doesn’t belong entirely to the Open Church. It rents the space and shares it with three other congregations on Sundays. Sometimes the congregants can hear the African Pentecostalists or the Ethiopian Lutherans during their own prayers.
Despite the heat of the group’s discussion tonight, joking continues. “Marvin Gaye is one of our prophets,” someone says at one point. Parishioners recount past services with cheeky pride: the one during which condoms were handed out, right in front of those old-fashioned church ladies. Another in which Braxton refused to serve Communion, which he dubbed “a middle-class snack,” an unacceptable indulgence while Baltimoreans go hungry. Still another when he used Communion, “a blood ritual,” to talk about HIV and AIDS, declaring: “The body of Christ has AIDS — and if you come and drink of this chalice … then you too will have AIDS.”
How open is too open? Churches around the country are asking the same question.
Braxton soon retreats to his study upstairs, the classroom hubbub replaced by the lonely whir of the HVAC system. The rain has stopped. The congregants take pride in the humility of the space, bragging about the church’s first meeting, held in a library, like startup founders speaking of the proverbial garage. And indeed, it’s scrappy: For months they worshipped in the auditorium of a public high school. Braxton wasn’t even full-time with the church until about 90 days ago; he was keeping up a job teaching theology at Southern Methodist University.
Tonight’s sermon was indeed professorial, designed to draw a neat, interpretive throughline from the news of the day to tonight’s text. The Apostle Paul pleaded with the recipients of his letter that “there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.” Unity, though, is easier said than done. How open is too open? Churches around the country are asking the same question. Despite the deep scars left by many hate crimes on religious sites, from the 1963 Birmingham church bombing to the Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting in 2012, churches haven’t examined themselves as real targets of violence, says Brian J. Gallagher, founder of SecurityatChurch.com and a former Secret Service specialist. Gallagher points out that some reports show that Roof originally planned to go to the university nearby but found church security easier to breach.
Indeed, the Open Churchers choose an abiding optimism, an insistence on forgiving the 21-year-old suspect in the Charleston shooting. Braxton leads them there as he delivers the lesson of Paul, all the while pacing between the lectern and a whiteboard, where he jots elements of an exegetical analysis. Paul was once an intolerant zealot, Braxton says. Analogies flow: “He began life as president of the White [Citizens’] Council and then died … as the president of the NAACP! I mean, he was in the KKK! He was …” (here he leans in close, invading the personal-space-bubble of one of the shyer attendees) “… he was a slightly older version of Dylann Roof.”
All this conversation is a bit theoretical, of course. The Open Church itself is somewhat theoretical. Even its physical space is gestural. There’s no cross to call attention to the Open Church from the side of the highway. No bulletin boards wheedle you, as you drive through town, to come in on Sunday and dare to face your sins. No quasi-corporate legacy looms here; no Rockefellers to turn in their graves, no executive search committees. No one of historical note has yet sat in its pews. Maybe it doesn’t even need pews, says Braxton, who considers that the space of worship itself may be obsolete. If he wants to “re-engineer American religious life,” then “it might not be the Open Church someday. It might just be the Open Something,” he suggests. How do you lower the barricades against an angry gunman trying to take down a Something? Perhaps the better question is: How does an angry gunman discover and target a Something?
It’s nearing 10 p.m. and Braxton’s family waits for him at home. He’s still finishing up in his office. The skies outside have quelled, leaving a few heavy puddles in the back parking lot for an unsuspecting person to trip into. The streets of the surrounding middle-class neighborhood here on the western side of Baltimore are quiet. The building’s door is unlocked, and anyone might enter.
Libby Coleman contributed reporting.