Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Christianity, Part 1
Our Region—Like Our Nation—Remains Predominantly Christian. But What Exactly Does That Mean To The Religion’s Various Adherents?
Christ and St. Luke's
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
~ The Gospel According to Matthew.
When I was a child I attended Sunday school virtually every week at a lovely and historic Episcopal Church, nestled at the foot of a large, thickly wooded hill in Staten Island, New York. Initially I went because my parents took me. But as I grew older I looked forward to it. In particular, I loved the hymns—especially, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God,” which promised that I could “be one too.”
After my confirmation, at the age of 10, I became an acolyte and grew to love it even more. I took satisfaction in donning my black robe and white surplice, lighting the torch that I would carry next to the Crucifer—an older boy carrying the heavy brass cross—and assisting the priest in the ritual of communion. I loved the way the morning light gleamed through the stained glass windows; I loved the pomp and circumstance of the processional, and I loved the way the sterling silver communion chalice gleamed in reflection of the altar candles. Most of all—I realize in retrospect—I loved being a part of something larger than myself.
In my late teens, however, I began to question all of that. Having been exposed to other religious traditions, I could no longer accept the exclusive claims of Christianity, even though the minister of my church had never threatened hellfire for non-believers. On the contrary, the message I got while growing up was that God loves us, unconditionally. When I went off to college, I pulled away from the church, but I found that I could never do so entirely. Something always pulled me back.
To this day I have a deep affection for the beauty of the Anglican liturgy, the loving embrace that I felt from the church as a child, and the stories in the Bible. At the same time, I understand the resistance that many people feel toward Christianity. When I was beginning my research on this article, I asked a question of my 3,000-plus Facebook friends: When you read or hear the word ‘Christian’ what other words come to mind? Within a few hours I had received well over 100 responses. Some people mentioned “love” or “compassion.” But the negatives far outweighed the positives. The most common word associations were “arrogant,” “divisive,” judgmental,” “deluded,” “hypocritical,” and “sexually repressive.”
I get where they were coming from. And yet the comments saddened me. They seemed to be based on mass-media stereotypes—and/or bad personal experiences people had as children—rather than broad exposure to people who identify as Christian.
The spectrum is broad, indeed. Over the course of my life I’ve met people who identified as Christian but were harshly judgmental. At the same time, some of the kindest and most brilliant people I’ve ever known are also deeply devout. In between, I’ve met a lot of people who go to church without fervor but with a kind of quiet comfort in the ritual that they’ve known since childhood.
With this in mind, I set out to talk to some Christians in our region, to see what I could learn about the realities of the religion as it lives and breathes today in Coastal Virginia and beyond.
Sanctuary at Christ and St. Luke's
First, let’s look at the big picture. According to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of U.S. adults identify as Christian. That number is significantly lower than it was in the 1960s. But church attendance is still far higher in this country than in any Western European nation.
In Coastal Virginia, the number of people who identify as Christian is higher still: 89 percent, according to a study conducted in 2002 by Old Dominion University’s Social Science Research Center.
It would be a mistake, however, to interpret this as an indication of unity. Tensions within American Christianity have always run high. I encountered this reality some years ago after publishing an essay about my upbringing in the Episcopal Church. Within 24 hours I had received harshly worded emails from two readers, one Catholic, the other Baptist. Both said I belonged to a “false” church—the Catholic because Anglicans had rejected the Pope, and the Baptist because Anglicanism was still essentially Catholic in her view. Their arguments had deep historical roots going back to the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. These disputes were especially dramatic in the Puritan settlements of Colonial America. While many people tend to associate Puritans with the execution of “witches,” the disputes among Puritans were arguably more significant, leading to condemnation and exile of “heretics” who remained devout Christians but challenged certain theological ideas.
The strongest words of condemnation, however, were reserved for Catholics. Among protestant reformers, there was a widely held view that the Pope was actually the “Anti-Christ.”
Anti-Catholic sentiment in American was fueled by prejudice against Irish and Italian immigrants in the 19th century and lingered well into the 20th. In the presidential election of 1960, for example, John F. Kennedy’s greatest obstacle was his Roman Catholicism. Many prominent protestants spread fear that his allegiance to the Pope would result in his putting the interests of his Church above that of the American people as a whole.
And yet, therein—ironically—lies the beauty of our nation. Fierce biases notwithstanding, we are all free to worship as we please—or not worship at all.
We can thank Thomas Jefferson, in particular. His Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom—passed unanimously by the Virginia General Assembly in 1786—proclaimed, “that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever … nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief …” The Statute later became the basis for the First Amendment’s opening clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
This “wall of separation” between church and state—a phrase Jefferson used in a letter to a group of Baptists—has been criticized by Americans who feel that our society has become too secular. Jefferson himself was a Deist. He didn’t think much of orthodox Christianity and, in fact—for personal use—created his own version of the Gospels, cutting out all reference to miracles and the supernatural, and keeping only Jesus’ moral teachings. But he believed fervently in every person’s individual right to religious freedom. “It does me no injury,” he wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia, “for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
The wall of separation proved to be religion’s greatest asset in America. The flourishing of American Christian diversity and vitality in the 19th and 20th centuries is a testament to this.
That said, America’s Christian landscape is always changing. Since the 1960s, the traditional denominations have been losing members as a result of two phenomena: On the one hand, more and more Americans—nearly 23 percent, according to the Pew Research Center—now claim no religious affiliation at all. Those who still do, meanwhile, are increasingly flocking to newer, non-denominational churches. (See article in our next issue.)
And yet, the “mainline” churches—as these traditional churches are called—have served as vital forces in the life of our region and our nation.
Win Lewis, rector of Christ and St. Luke's
The Episcopal Church, especially so. For one thing, its precursor—the Church of England in America—was the established Church of pre-Revolutionary Virginia. As other denominations—especially the Methodists and Baptists—grew in the 19th century, the Episcopal Church lost its dominance. Today it represents only slightly more than 1 percent of the adult population. And yet, throughout much of our history its influence was disproportionate to its numbers. More than a quarter of all U.S. presidents, for example, have been Episcopalians.
Today, for roughly 3 million adults in this country, it retains its appeal for a variety of reasons.
“I think there is a sense of inclusion in the Episcopal Church,” says Win Lewis, the popular rector of Christ and St. Luke’s in Norfolk’s historic Ghent neighborhood. “This value of inclusivity actually runs very deep in the Anglican spirit going way back, but I think it has become more clearly defined—as one of acceptance without judgment—since 2003, with the election of Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop of New Hampshire. People who come here tell me they like a church where they’re free to express their beliefs and ideas without criticism—and where they can therefore also explore them and test them.”
Someone walking into a traditional Episcopal Church for the first time might be surprised to hear this, since the Anglican liturgy remains firmly grounded in the language of the Lord’s Prayer and the Nicene Creed, as well as the Eucharist—the ritual of Communion. Within the Church, however, one finds parishioners with a wide range of theological interpretations of those rituals.
Lewis himself says that while he’s a “cradle Episcopalian” and comes from a long line of Anglican priests, he did a lot of soul searching during his first two years as an undergraduate at William & Mary.
“I was really kind of exploring different paths,” he says. “At one time I thought of Judaism. I also considered Catholicism. There are factors of both that I really appreciate. I love the domesticity of Judaism—that there’s a sacredness that can go on in the home, with a Seder, for instance, and Hanukkah. And I like the mass and some of the other traditions of Catholicism.” By the end of his junior year, however, he realized that he was most “at home” in the Episcopal Church—so much so that he decided to become a priest.
“I went to see the bishop,” he recalls, “and he said, ‘I think you need a little seasoning. So I got a master’s in special education and taught at Eastern State Hospital. Then I went to seminary at Episcopal Seminary in Alexandria.”
At the church’s heart, he says, is a deep commitment to tradition balanced by an embrace of the ways in which we have evolved as a species.
Christ and St. Luke's Church
“We are a church that is not afraid of mystery,” Lewis says. “We’re not afraid of intuition, and we’re not trying to define everything perfectly. We do believe in scripture as foundational, but we also believe in reason, allowing for a dialogue between scripture and the context of the world in which we live. When we talk about sexuality today, for example, we’re talking about something very different from the ways in which it is presented in the Bible. Homosexuality was seen as not being true to oneself. What we now know, of course, is that for many people homosexuality is being faithful to their identity.”
Among those parishioners at Christ and St. Luke’s who value that outlook are Tim Bostic and Tony London. You may recognize their names. In July 2013, the couple filed a federal lawsuit which helped pave the way for the legalization of gay marriage in Virginia. Two years later, they were married at the church, with Lewis officiating.
“My faith is one of the pillars of my life,” Bostic says. “It’s always been there for me.”
As a child, he recalls, he went to a Lutheran church, attended Sunday school every week and prayed every night before bed.
“One night when I was 12, I had a nightmare,” he recalls. “When I told my mother she said, ‘Honey, don’t ever forget—God’s always with you and loves you no matter what.’ That was the message I got from my family and my faith community—never messages of hate. Never, God’s going to smite you.”
Bostic realized that finding the right church would require some exploration and deliberation. Having been raised in a deep liturgical tradition, he feels at home at Christ and St. Luke’s. “We have been accepted with open arms by that congregation,” he shares. “The people there truly live their faith; they’re not just giving it lip service.”
Bostic notes for example, that one of the parishioners—“a pillar of the community”—volunteers his time to teach homeless people how to paint. When they complete the paintings, they sell them and get to keep the money.
Living in faith, for Bostic, also means opening ourselves up to experiences and growing as a result. He was particularly struck by something a fellow parishioner said to him at a dinner party held to celebrate the couple’s success in the lawsuit.
“When I sat down he said, ‘You know, Tim, if someone had told me 20 years ago that this conservative would support gay marriage, I would have told them they were out of their minds. But I’m so grateful to the two of you for making me a better man and a better Christian.’”
The inclusiveness of some churches notwithstanding, many people I’ve talked with still reject Christianity because of its apparent claim to be the only true religion.
Particularly troubling to people who respect all religions is a statement attributed to Jesus in the Gospel According to John: I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.
Lewis argues, however, that this is “one of the misunderstood passages in Scripture.”
First of all, he notes, it is only found in one of the four Gospels, and that Gospel needs to be read “through the lens of the prologue, which talks about the cosmic reality of Jesus: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
“When Jesus is speaking, he’s speaking as the embodied word of God that is reflected in all of creation. It’s no one comes to the Father unless they experience this heart of God, which is found in Jesus but not exclusively in Jesus.”
“When Gandhi went to England,” Lewis adds, “and read the Sermon on the Mount, he said, ‘I’ve known this Jesus all my life.’ He recognized in Jesus what he knew through his own faith. So how can we say this is exclusive?”
Little Piney Grove Baptist Church
Having talked with people whose outlooks and religious experiences are similar to mine, I wanted to venture far beyond my own comfort zone.
With this in mind, I head out one Sunday in July to visit Little Piney Grove Baptist Church in Creeds, a rural area of Virginia Beach, just south of Pungo.
Unlike the imposing neo-Gothic façade of Christ and St. Luke’s, whose stately tower looms majestically over the Hague in Ghent, Little Piney Grove is a modest structure—and yet, its historical significance for Virginia Beach’s black residents is profound.
“During the days prior to the Civil War,” states the church’s website, “our forefathers worshipped at the churches of their white masters. Consequently, many of our churches that exist today grew and developed from the efforts of a persistent group of black worshippers. They had a desire to worship and praise God, freely, in their own sanctuary. They dreamed of a day when they would not be limited to the designated “Black Only” section of the churches of their masters.
“Our neighboring brothers and sisters in Christ from Oak Grove Baptist Church, formerly Pungo Baptist Church, have written within their recorded history the story of our ancestors who were members there. But, those faithful parishioners ‘formed for themselves a church, Little Piney Grove Baptist Church in the 1850s.’”
The original worshippers assembled under a tent near the site of the current building, according to the website, but eventually managed to raise a permanent structure.
I’d called in advance and left a voicemail message but hadn’t received a response, so I had no idea what kind of greeting to expect when I arrived. As it turns out, I’m welcomed with open arms by a man who said he’d passed my message along to the pastor, who would arrive shortly.
He invites me to join the Sunday school class currently in session, and I’m greeted warmly there as well. Then, at 11 a.m., we all file into the sanctuary for the formal service.
I’d been to black Baptist churches before but not in many years. I’m immediately struck by how vastly different the style of worship music is in contrast to the organ-driven hymns to which I’m accustomed. Here, an electric trio consisting of keyboard, bass guitar and drums takes the lead, accompanying the exuberant, hand-clapping choir. The keyboard player continues with a bed of sound, even while various parishioners stand up to lead prayers without relying on texts.
Indeed, everything about the service seems to be characterized by spontaneity, albeit within an established outline in the program, much as jazz musicians leave ample room for improvisation over an agreed upon series of chords. In largely white Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian churches, there is a call-and-response element—the priest or minister trading lines with the congregation—but it is all strictly scripted. Here, the script is loose, to say the least. While some of the congregational responses are prescribed, parishioners also call out whatever comes to mind: “Praise the Lord”; “Hallelujah,” or simply, “Yes!” or “Uh huh.”
All of this is building up to the climax of the service—a sermon by the Rev. Rashad Cartwright, an engaging 33-year-old who became pastor of Little Piney Grove in April 2016.
Minister Shanae C. Moore and fiancée Rashad Cartwright
During a conversation in his office, Cartwright tells me that as a child he was immersed in the Baptist church. His uncle was a pastor, he added, and both his father and mother were deacons.
“I was in church six or seven days a week,” he remembers.
Like a lot of people, he briefly rebelled.
As a teenager, he recalls, he “couldn’t wait to go off to college and get away” from all that. “But God,” he added, “has a way of humbling you—of showing you that the world of fun is not the answer.”
This realization came in a single moment of epiphany that he remembers vividly.
“I was 16 years old and attending a [religious] conference in Lynchburg. The service one night had been especially powerful, and I was so filled with emotion that I had trouble falling asleep. I finally did, but in the middle of the night, I woke up because I heard something in the kitchen. I remember the exact time: It was 3:27 a.m. I walked in to see what it was and I saw this bright light. It wasn’t the figure of a man—just a light. I dropped to my knees and cried like a baby. When I finally stopped, I had a feeling of peace wash over me. I knew from that moment on that that was God’s calling to me—it was time to preach the Word.”
When he told his pastor about this revelation, the pastor told him he was a little too young and should just be patient. Three years later, however, the pastor invited Cartwright to preach a sermon.
The experience reinforced his sense of calling. “I had some notes,” he recalls, “but I never looked at them. God had deposited that sermon within me.”
This conviction is evident as well as he delivers the sermon on the Sunday that I attend. Indeed, I can say, without hesitation, that Cartwright is one of the best speakers I’ve ever heard in my life.
He began his sermon in a light-hearted manner, talking about the proper way to make a pound cake. A good baker can tell simply by looking into the oven window when the cake is done, he says. No one seems to know where this is going, but it doesn’t matter. His charisma, charm and good humor captivated the congregation.
Then, as his voice rises in pitch and deepens in intensity, he reaches his main point.
“Listen!,” he says, with the excitement of someone who has just discovered his faith in that moment. “Can I tell you about God?! Sometimes God puts us in the oven of life. But He knows when to take us out!”
The only proper response as we endure hardships, he continues, is to pray and trust in God. Prayer works, he says with utter conviction. To illustrate his point, he talks about the story of Jonah being swallowed by a fish and finally gaining his release through prayer.
The choice of subject matter seems strikingly appropriate, in light of a conversation I’d had before the service with a 59-year-old woman named Victoria Bell, a lifelong member of Little Piney Grove.
Like everyone else I encounter there, her faith is rock solid.
“I love God,” she says. “I couldn’t make it without Him. I know He hears our prayers, and I know He answers them.”
As evidence she points to an especially difficult time in her life when her son went to jail.
“He was always getting in trouble,” she recalls, “and I kept trying to fix it. I paid the lawyers so much money. Finally I reached my wits’ end and told God, ‘I can’t do this anymore. He said, ‘I was wondering how long it was going to take you to let him go.’ I was a single mom with three children, and I needed to focus on the ones who were still in the household. I continued to love my son, and told him that. But I felt as if I were in jail with him, in a sense. When I told him that I wasn’t in jail with him any longer—that he made his choice and needed to live with it—he grew fearful.
“I was glad he was locked up because at least I knew where he was.”
The comment is a remarkable foreshadowing of Cartwright’s sermon, in which he makes the point that Jonah’s being swallowed by the fish wasn’t punishment but protection.
“Once I let it go,” Bell recalls, “God took over. My son got out of jail two years ago, and he’s doing good. He has a job and is paying his child support and doing all the right things. I told him, ‘All God asks is that you do your best. Not your worst, but your best.’
“People can say what they want about Him,” she concludes, “but I believe in God truly, for what he’s taken me through.”
While her faith runs deep and is rooted in the Bible, it is obviously strengthened by the community at Little Piney Grove.
“I love the fellowship,” she says. “There are such good people here.”
This is abundantly evident to me throughout my visit, as I’m welcomed as if I’d been a member there my whole life. The feeling is confirmed when a woman invites me to sit next to her and her husband during the ice cream social.
“My husband and I live in Richmond,” she says, “but we drive here every week. Sometimes several times a week. This church feels like home.”
As I drive home, I can’t help thinking about what an eye-opening experience this has been for me. Prior to going, I was preoccupied with the vast differences that I imagined I would encounter: liturgically, theologically and racially.
In the end, however, the fellowship and the rituals of worship—different as they are in style, among various denominations—all seem to boil down to a fundamental belief: that love is the essence of Christianity.
And in the end, those two types of Christians may have more in common than it first appears. Lewis sums this up nicely.
“I think what Jesus embodied,” he says, “was the essence of God, which is love—and a particular kind of love. The Greeks had several words for love. Agape is the one that’s used in the New Testament, and that is a love that sacrifices self for others. Agape love also is not judgmental, in the sense of judging someone and rejecting them. It is discerning in the sense of helping someone who is on a journey to discover what brings them fullness of life.”