Sunday, December 12, 2004

The Church's Unseen Face

It seems like many churches have two faces. There is the public face, the one seen during worship services and other church activities. Then, there is the "private" face, the one only longtime or high-level members see. My current church home, Beth Eden Baptist Church, has had two faces for a long time.

This is the church that basically forced out Rev. James Meeks. If you don't know him, he is second-in-command at The Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, a IL State Senator, and the pastor of Salem Baptist Church. He left Beth Eden after quarrels with the Board of Trustees at the church...and he took many members with him when he founded Salem Baptist Church. Now, Salem is arguably one of the largest churches in Chicago, if not the country.

Part of the reason why I know some about my church's behind-the-scenes drama is because my family (my father's side) is big in the church. We've always participated in the church, although I did so to a lesser degree. My grandmother served for years as a member of the Health League and (I believe) the Seniors group. My great aunt was head of the Junior Usher Board (which I served on for a while) and was involved in the Senior Usher Board, The Sisterhood, and (until recently) the Board of Trustees. Two of my great uncles were Deacons and one of them headed the board for a long time. My cousin served as an associate minister at the church before leaving to become pastor of his own church. Another cousin of mine sang beautifully in the choir and has since become very popular across Italy with her gospel music. She even flew our pastor and family out to Italy to preach at a conference about gospel music. My dad has served as a member of the Senior Usher Board for as long as I can remember. As I mentioned, I was a member of the Junior Usher Board when I was younger. I also served on the African-American History Team for a couple of years, and recited parts in several Sunday School pageants. Most recently, I gave a speech to the 2004 graduates.

However, all the drama in the past is nothing compared to the church's current drama. I can't expound on all of it because I don't know all of it, but it's a shame nonetheless. It started when the church's Minister of Music wanted to re-negotiate his contract. It's now dissolved to the point where the entire Board of Trustees was replaced, anonymous letters being sent to members with (questionable) information about the church, the church being split into factions, and a lawsuit being filed against the interim Board of Trustees.

The factions seem to consist of those who are for the ousted Board of Trustees (of which my great aunt was a member) and those who are for the current interim Board of Trustees. The interim Board of Trustees has the pastor and the family of the Minister of Music on its side. I never saw how nasty the feud had gotten...until I went to the Annual Church meeting on Saturday evening.

My dad came into my room and told me that my grandmother had asked him to go to the church and vote on something. He asked me to go with him because my grandmother had bugged the heck out of him to go. Reluctantly, I agreed (my sister and my mother are not members of the church). We left home and went to church to attend the meeting. Already, I could tell that things were not going to be pretty. A person my dad knew (and one who was allied with my family's side) pulled him aside and whispered to him. She spoke under the guise of "showing him an article" in a copy of N'Digo. We walked into the sanctuary and sat right behind my grandmother and my great aunt. The meeting soon got underway. The meeting itself was supposed to be solely about approving the 2005 budget and (re)electing members of the Board of Trustees. Everyone received a copy of the agenda and the rules of the meeting. The pastor gave a brief Bible reading (which included a verse condemning the idea of going to court) and a prayer. Only members were supposed to be in the sanctuary (although the attorneys taking part in the lawsuit were there observing). After the minutes were read, a copy of the budget for next year was passed out.

I will say that things didn't get as bad as I thought they would, but it did get fairly ugly at times. People yelled out of order frequently. One woman yelled very loudly and quoted the Bible. Another claimed that a promise made by the head of the interim Board of Trustees had been broken. One trustee got very angry. My great uncle (the one who used to head the Deacon Board) got angry a few times and had to be coerced to sit down. After two hours, only the budget had been passed. It was only passed by default, as a motion to delay the adoption of the budget was denied. During the time of the vote, the "house was folded" meaning that no one was supposed to enter or leave the sanctuary. This presented a slight problem for my dad and I as my dad had to get ready to go to work. We got up to leave when people complained about us leaving. We then had to go to the front of the sanctuary to vote before we could leave. People even chuckled as I made my way down the center aisle of the sanctuary to go vote.

The whole meeting left a bitter taste in my mouth. I voted with my family for the motion to postpone the budget in part because I really wanted to leave. It just sickened me to see how ignorant, petty, and self-serving the whole situation was. During the meeting, a mandate ordered by the judge of the lawsuit was read. It pleaded that the situation be resolved within the church and not go to trial. I really hope that happens. I feel that both sides are definitely in the wrong. They both have issues that need resolving. When I was at that meeting...I was ashamed to be a member of that church.

I admit that I am not the most active churchgoer. However, I've been thinking that it may be time for me to find a new church home. This church has a lot of history for my family. My dad grew up in this church. It's over 110 years old (it was started back in 1891!). I know other churches can be this petty, but I'm sick of the crap that's happening. Apparently, other people are too as membership and attendance has dropped. My dad recently ran into an older church member who has stopped going as a result of the whole mess. I've wondered if I should try a different denomination. Catholic is out of the question. I learned a lot about Catholicism in the nine years I attended Catholic school (from K-8) and I know it isn't for me. I could become a Lutheran like my aunt and uncle. Maybe I should try the whole non-denomination thing...even though it always seemed like kind of a cop-out to me. I wonder if it be different if I went to a multicultural church instead of a black church. In the end, all I know is that I am a Christian. I hope that everyone involved remembers that a church is supposed to be a house of God and God doesn't like ugly.

1 comment:

  1. Nothing is uglier than church politics! I'm a PK and the church historian at my church. When I was organizing the archives, I found evidence of amazingly bitter fights from the last 150 years -- I was shocked the church hadn't imploded.