On a recent night at Myers Park Baptist Church, the predominately white congregation and guests from a black church belted out “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” a gospel song once performed at the funeral for Martin Luther King Jr.
The moment reflected the challenge facing the Rev. Benjamin Boswell, the youngest person ever to the lead Myers Park in 70 years, one of Charlotte’s most prominent churches.
Boswell, 36, is attempting to step up Myers Park’s commitment to racial justice, but must avoid alienating more conservative members in the roughly 2,000-person congregation.
Speaking to about 70 people who attended a special service called “Awakening to Racial Injustice,” Boswell did not temper his message about segregation in the church.
“We started that problem,” Boswell said, referring to white Christians. “Now, we suddenly want to all come together, but we don't want to do any work. It is not enough to think we can just sing some songs together.”
That approach has been met mostly with high praise, but also resistance from some quarters of his church.
After Rev. William Barber, founder of the “Moral Mondays” movement and head of the state NAACP, addressed the church following November’s presidential election, some church members were upset.
They complained that Barber used the pulpit to accuse President-elect Donald Trump of encouraging racism, mixing biblical teachings with political commentary.
While political talk is common in black churches, it is considered off-limits for ministers in many white congregations.
Boswell acknowledged that Barber’s speech was “uncomfortable” for some members, while offering assurances the congregation would find common ground on the issue.
But the Myers Park Baptist debate symbolizes a larger question for Charlotte’s religious communities: How should churches speak about divisive social issues such as economic inequality, race and gay rights?
“It has been a challenging year to be in ministry,” Boswell said, citing September’s riots over the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott and fallout from HB 2. “This is the most important year in the history of the city.”
A progressive history
Founded in 1943, Myers Park Baptist has long been known for taking controversial stands.
It is affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists and not the conservative Southern Baptist Convention. The church lost membership in the state Baptist Convention in 2007 for welcoming gays and lesbians. Outside speakers have included scholars who question some basic tenets of Christianity.
Congregational leaders say they picked Boswell to lead the church after a two-year search because he takes bold stands on social justice issues, including opposition to Amendment One — the N.C. constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage that passed in 2012 but was later thrown out by a federal court.
“Our senior pastor has always been more progressive than our congregation,” said Bob Thomason, a member since 1966 and a deacon. “We want somebody who will provoke us. He is more than happy to be bold.”
Boswell has thrown his support behind Charlotte’s upward mobility taskforce, a group of civic leaders charged with looking into why researchers from Harvard and other institutions said children born in Charlotte have the lowest chances of any big city in America of moving from poverty to privilege.
Thomason acknowledged the Barber speech remains a contentious issue for some and was subject of debate at a recent deacon meeting. But after Barber’s sermon, Thomason said, multiple ministers who attended thanked Boswell.
“They told him ‘You’re the only one brave enough to do this,’” Thomason said.
Carol Reid, a 12-year church member, said it is difficult to acknowledge the role white churches have played in systemic racism.
“It is up to us as members to take full advantage of the miraculous gift of Ben’s ministry with us, so that the boldness of Myers Park Baptist is not only a part of our past, but our present and our future,” Reid said.
Boswell describes Myers Park Baptist as a dream job. He was senior pastor at Commonwealth Baptist in Alexandria, Va., from 2006 to 2011, and has held the top post at 400-member Greenwood Forest Baptist in Cary until coming to Myers Park in February.
He spent most of his childhood in Pennsylvania, but he has family roots in the Charlotte area. His mother, Diane Browder, is a professor of special education at UNC Charlotte. His father, Wally Boswell, is retired, but taught at Central Piedmont Community College.
Since arriving at Myers Park, Boswell has wasted little time pushing for change inside Myers Park Baptist and outside its doors.
Boswell and Minister Chrissy Tatum Williamson help launch monthly weekday services on racial injustice with topics such as “Becoming White” and “Faith and Race.”
He is also attempting to make Myers Park Baptist more appealing to millennials, who are far less likely than their parents to attend church or identify a religious affiliation.
Churches historically have marginalized transgender people and other minorities, leaving millennials disillusioned with dogma about sexual norms, Boswell said.
“The church has to change,” he said. “We have to find out how to be a meaningful place for millennials.”
Engaging and energetic, Boswell talks with a mix of hope and realistic expectations.
He said wants the church to participate in social justice movements, but acknowledges that movements such Black Lives Matter and gay rights groups view religion with skepticism.
“We cannot demand that the movement be led by us,” Boswell said. “We can’t be the loudest voice... But we still need to be able to show up. The church can still support Black Lives Matter.”
Asked about reaction to Barber’s speech, Boswell said there is room for differences of opinions. Despite its liberal reputation, Boswell said, congregation members have diverse political views.
“We will have disagreements,” Boswell said. “At this church, a disagreement does not end the relationship. Our covenant holds us together and says, ‘We will accept controversy as a reality of life together and an opportunity for growth toward maturity.’ How many churches have a covenant that says that?”
Clasen-Kelly: 704 358-5027; @FrederickClasen
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Rev. Benjamin Boswell
Time in Charlotte: Moved to Charlotte earlier this year from Cary, where he was pastor of Greenwood Forest Baptist Church.
Family: Wife, Katie, and daughter, Lucy Joy
Background: A graduate of Campbell University, a Baptist school, he also has a Master of Divinity degree from Duke University, which has Methodist roots. He completed coursework toward a doctorate in moral theology from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Boswell served as second lieutenant and platoon leader of an Army National Guard Unit in Lumberton.