In a politically polarized era (think red and blue), what does it mean to be a purple church?

A daily Google email alerts me to headlines about “evangelicals.” Most days, at least one publication delves into some version of this question: Why do most evangelicals support President Donald Trump?

I know, I know: Haven’t we figured that one out yet?

On the flip side, the supposed “rise of the religious left” in response to Trump is a favorite storyline for some journalists and talking heads.

Ho-hum. Isn’t there anything new on the religion and politics beat?

For anyone as tired as I am of the same old, same old, NPR religion and beliefs correspondent Tom Gjelten’s recent feature on a “purple church” in North Carolina was a refreshing change.

What’s a purple church? It’s a congregation that draws members from both sides of America’s vast Grand Canyon between red and blue, as Gjelten explains:

At a time when Americans are moving apart in their political and religious views, worshippers at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, N.C., have learned to avoid some subjects for the sake of maintaining congregational harmony.

"You wouldn't run up to a stove and touch a hot burner," says DeLana Anderson, a church deacon. "So, I'm certainly not going to do that here."

White Memorial is thriving, with about 4,000 members, while other mainline Protestant congregations are struggling. Just as impressively, it brings together worshippers with disparate political views, both red and blue.

"Raleigh is a purple city. North Carolina is a purple state," notes Christopher Edmonston, the church's senior pastor. "Many of the people who have come to church here in the last 25 years are from other parts of the country, and they bring their ideas, their politics, their viewpoints, with them. So we almost have to be purple if we're going to continue to be open and welcome to any person that wants to come."

The news peg for the NPR report is a recent Barna Group report on the communication challenges that pastors face in a divided culture.

Rather than interview a bunch of pastors, Gjelten focuses on one pastor and one church — and the result is that he is able to go below the surface and offer his audience a helpful, nuanced perspective.

There’s talk of North Carolina’s famous “bathroom bill.” There’s insight into Presbyterian theology and history. There’s an effort to highlight voices from a variety of perspectives.

All of the above contribute to a piece that is a joy to read and causes a reader to reflect.

A major thread is this particular church’s internal grappling over whether to allow same-sex marriages.

NPR quotes a church elder who favored a more inclusive approach:

Rather than making an executive policy decision, Edmonston and the church's governing board (in Presbyterian terminology, a "session") sought to involve the congregation. A series of public meetings were scheduled, with speakers for and against same-sex marriage. Members with strong feelings, pro and con, were invited to send letters to the church leaders expressing their viewpoints. Most were opposed to a more inclusive wedding policy, according to Carol Vassey, a church elder who read all the letters and responded to each one personally.

"I wanted them to know that sometimes in our family, we agree to disagree," she says, "but that I loved them and I cared how they felt. Some of the people came to the meetings trying to convince us that we were not looking at it correctly. Some just wanted to be heard."

In those meetings, Vassey did not hide her own advocacy for a new church policy to allow same-sex weddings. "I have a grandson who's gay," she says. "I have a nephew who's gay. I have many friends who are gay. We're all children of God."

But the piece also reflects those on the other side:

Among those who were troubled by the decision was Gregg Thompson, a former Republican member of the North Carolina legislature who was raised in what he calls "a very conservative rural district" of the state.

"Growing up Southern Baptist, I struggled with it," he says of the same-sex wedding issue. "I had to do a lot of soul-searching and a lot of praying about it. But the way it was handled within our congregation helped put me at ease some."

I wish NPR had devoted a little more attention to the theology behind the pro and con positions on same-sex marriage.

But overall, I was pleased with the report.

Kudos to Gjelten and NPR for a fair, balanced piece of journalism that approaches the subject in a fresh way.

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