A demonstration at a Baptist church in the nation’s capital Jan. 22 had an effect the protestors may not have expected — a strengthening of the congregation’s long commitment to social justice.
A small group stormed through Calvary Baptist Church in Washington last Sunday to protest the church’s calling of a lesbian couple as co-pastors.
Before the morning worship service started, a group of five to seven persons carrying signs and shouting slogans condemning the church for its action made its way to the pulpit before being confronted by church members.
Protestors left only after police were called, and they re-formed on the sidewalk in front of the church, “aggressively engaging” members arriving for the 11 a.m. service, as well as passersby, according to associate pastor Elijah Zehyoue.
Calvary announced Jan. 9 the hiring of Sally Sarratt and Maria Swearingen as the congregation’s new senior ministers. The couple, married the weekend after same-sex marriage became legal in South Carolina in 2014, were ordained to the ministry by First Baptist Church in Greenville, S.C., in 2015.
Both are chaplains in the Greenville area and are scheduled to begin their work at Calvary on Feb. 26.
“It was pretty difficult to get them [protestors] to stop and leave the sanctuary,” Zehyoue said. “Outside they were still pretty aggressive with members and visitors and random passersby who looked like they may have been coming to the church.”
Although the church was virtually empty except for practicing choir members when the protestors took over the pulpit, Zehyoue said the incident was “disturbing and unnerving.”
The protestors did not identify themselves as representing any particular group. Although they did not name the new pastors they said Calvary members “were going to hell” because of their support for LGBTQ pastors and that the church was “the house of Satan.”
“While the language was not comfortable, it was still basically peaceful,” said church moderator Becky Vaughn. “There was no effort to do harm, and they did move out to the sidewalk.”
Vaughn said about 15 members stayed at the front door while the protestors remained on the sidewalk. Members prayed and sang hymns and “assured them that God loves them and we love them,” she said.
Following the confrontation, the morning service went as planned with associate pastor Erica Lea preaching her scheduled sermon — a call to unity. Unity doesn’t mean glossing over important issues to keep peace, she said, but rather claiming them and speaking up for neighbors on such issues as Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights and marriage equality.
For Calvary, with a long history of directly addressing controversial social issues, it was natural that the sermon led directly to a decision at the congregation’s annual meeting immediately following the service to identify as a “sanctuary church.”
Under study for several months, the church voted unanimously to join the sanctuary movement. Vaughn said members will identify space in which to shelter immigrants who fear being deported. The congregation will seek funds to provide legal assistance as well.
“As disturbing as it was, the protest was a good moment where many of our church members were energized and found the presence of the Holy Spirit on the steps of our church and that was powerful moment,” said Zehyoue.
With the protest, and the sanctuary vote, Zehyoue said it was “what we call just another Sunday at Calvary.”