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Church congregation: Controversial email won’t deter mission

By Elisabeth Arriero
earriero@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/09/08/19/36/YyhbL.Em.138.jpeg|224
    DIEDRA LAIRD - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
    Sadie Hoffard, far left, and Quentin Miller greet people entering Freedom House for the 9 a.m. Sunday service at the north Charlotte church. WBTV reported receiving the email from a woman who attended Freedom House.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/09/08/19/38/mRibi.Em.138.jpeg|223
    DIEDRA LAIRD - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
    A diverse crowd worships during the musical portion of the 9 a.m. Sunday service, led by the Freedom House Worship Band, at the north Charlotte church.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/09/08/20/37/T4hec.Em.138.jpeg|230
    DIEDRA LAIRD - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
    Freedom House Church Senior Pastor Troy Maxwell, Executive Pastor Makeda Pennycooke, center, and Senior Pastor Penny Maxwell, Maxwell's wife, pray for the church's healing during the 9 a.m. service Sunday. Pastors of Freedom House Church, a north Charlotte church, have been under fire after Pennycooke sent out an email requesting that "only white people" greet people at the front door.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/09/08/14/57/1bFmMz.Em.138.jpeg|284
    DIEDRA LAIRD - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
    Greeter Sadie Hoffard greets people entering Freedom House Church for the 9 am Sunday service. Diedra Laird - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/09/08/14/57/NAxqx.Em.138.jpeg|187
    DIEDRA LAIRD - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
    Greeters Sadie Hoffard and Quentin Miller greet people entering Freedom House Church for the 9 am Sunday service. Pastors of Freedom House Church, a north Charlotte church, have been under fire after an email requested that "only white people" greet people at the front door. Diedra Laird - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Freedom House Church leaders and parishioners said Sunday that the words in a church email with racial undertones did not accurately reflect the everyday culture of the north Charlotte church.

And they committed to turning the controversy into a tool for unifying the Charlotte community.

“I know this is going to catapult us to tear down some walls,” senior pastor the Rev. Troy Maxwell said. “I believe we can turn this around.”

The church, on Salome Church Road, which runs between North Tryon Street and Interstate 85, north of Interstate 485, has been scrutinized for an email that circulated to volunteers three weeks ago that requested only white people greet the congregation at the front door.

According to WBTV, which received a copy of the email from a woman who has attended the church, executive pastor Makeda Pennycooke, sent to a group of volunteers who act as greeters at the church’s 9 a.m. service.

In the email, Pennycooke, who is black, said that “first impressions matter” and that the church wanted “the best of the best on the front doors.”

“We are continuing to work to bring our racial demographic pendulum back to mid-line,” she wrote in the email. “So we would like to ask that only white people be on the front doors.”

On Sunday, black and white greeters stood at the door to hug and high-five parishioners walking in.

A Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officer and a Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Deputy stood in the lobby. Church leaders said law enforcement is always on site to help with traffic and crowd control.

During the service, Maxwell dedicated the majority of his sermon to addressing the email.

“What happened three weeks ago was a horrible mistake because what we did was we singled out one particular thing and it was wrong,” he said.

Maxwell asked parishioners for forgiveness and said that, as a church leader, he was just as responsible for the email as the person who wrote it.

He also told parishioners he believed that the situation would make the church stronger, and he told a story from more than 20 years ago to illustrate his point.

He described how he was hanging out with his best friend one day when he decided to get a haircut. When he walked in with his friend, the barber said, “We don’t serve your kind here.”

The barber was referring to his black friend, said Maxwell, who is white. The pair left the barbershop, and Maxwell said he never returned.

Maxwell described the interaction as a defining moment for him and said he’s proud to lead a church today with so much diversity and acceptance as Freedom House.

At one point during Sunday’s service, Pennycooke and Maxwell’s wife, Penny, joined him on stage to hold hands and pray with the congregation.

“Anybody who walks through these doors, who’s ever walked through these doors, knows that what is being said (by the media) is not the truth,” Penny Maxwell said. “We are just going to be who we are. And that’s all we can do, is be exactly who we are.”

She added that she believed God would use the “muddiness of this situation” to perform good work so that “hearts will be open that weren’t before.”

Support of the parishioners

After the service, several parishioners said they were standing by their church.

Tara Williamson, a 39-year-old black Charlotte resident, said she has attended the church for more than a year.

She stayed because she feels welcomed and accepted for who she is, she said.

“I love the diversity here,” she said. “We feel very comfortable, and we love the fact that in any row, there’s a little bit of everything.”

Williamson said that while the email was “not necessarily what you want to read,” she added that she didn’t think it told the whole story of the church.

“I interact with a lot of different people, and the message is always one of acceptance,” she said. “I don’t take this to heart. And I think the pastor handled it with grace today.”

Michelle Searcy, who just joined the church, said she also did not think the recent email was an accurate portrayal of the church. The 40-year-old white Charlotte resident has a biracial 9-year-old daughter. She said she was “pleasantly surprised” by how modern and open-minded Freedom House is.

Searcy said she will not be deterred from attending the church, although she acknowledged that “it would have been very different had the email come from a white pastor.”

“But because it came from a black pastor, I truly believe that she wanted to make sure the right people were out front to welcome and greet people and just be representative of the church.”

She was impressed with how Maxwell addressed the email frankly during his sermon. She echoed that the aftermath of the email is likely to make the community stronger.

“He wasn’t scared of the topic. He spoke about it and related it back to everyday life,” Searcy said. “That’s what I look for in a pastor: to be honest and to recognize that we’re human, we make mistakes, but we can still move forward.”

Arriero: 704-358-5945; Twitter: @earriero
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