Agent of change

Oakhurst Baptist Church had been challenging the Southern Baptist Convention for years. But when Lanny Peters arrived as pastor, there was no turning back.


By the time Lanny Peters took the pulpit on the morning of June 2, the topic of his sermon was no secret.

Around the sanctuary of Oakhurst Baptist, a century-old Decatur church, gay and lesbian couples sat in weathered pews with their straight counterparts and waited.

“The spirit of Pentecost is moving,” Peters proclaimed.

At that moment, Baptist churches across the metro area were mulling the expulsion of Boy Scout troops from their churches for deciding to accept gay members.

The Southern Baptist Convention — the largest Protestant denomination in the nation — was preparing another resolution opposing same-sex marriage.

My wife and I joined Oakhurst Baptist a little more than a year ago. We knew about its history on race, women and sexuality. I was brought up Baptist, and I found in Oakhurst a church home for our family that reflected the diversity of the real world  and displayed a gentleness of spirit.

Because he told me, I knew what Peters was thinking as I watched him get ready to preach that day: He was a long way from the North Carolina mill town of his birth.

Peters’ sermon unspooled the last four decades of the church’s progression from accepting gay members to ordaining gay ministers to sanctioning gay weddings.

The church hasn’t been shy about it either. It publicizes its stance in its “covenant,” a statement of beliefs sewn into a yards-long banner hung in the sanctuary.

Now the church must do more, Peters said in his sermon, titled “Inside and Outside these Walls.”

Peters is 61, but his abundant head of dark hair makes him look younger. When he speaks, he sounds like a preacher. The pitched drawl of his voice squeaks and crashes like an old screen door as long stories evolve into metaphors and parables. Here the comparisons with other Baptist ministers stop.

Personally, Peters’ sermon was another chapter in his lifelong struggle between his personal beliefs and his arms-length distrust of organized religion. It is a curious combination for a preacher, Baptist or otherwise, but fitting for a congregation that has been challenging preconceptions about the denomination since the 1960s.


2
Doubting the church
Peters grew up in Lexington, N.C., a mill town just south of Winston-Salem where racism and homophobia ran hand in hand.

Peters’ life took a dramatic shift in middle school when his father came home from his job at the textile mill, crawled under the house and refused to come out. His father was committed to the state mental hospital, heaping both shame and poverty on the family.

“I was totally shamed by it,” Peters recalled. “I start middle school and I am terrified that people will find out that I have a mentally ill dad.”

His father’s mental illness shattered Peters’ worldview. Life was not secure and often it was not just.

As a young boy, Peters’ refuge was Erlanger Baptist Church, a small, white-frame church with about 150 members. Erlanger had a conservative, authoritarian theology, and as he entered his teen years Peters started pushing back.

When the pastor preached a sermon against rock ’n’ roll titled “Jeremiah Was Not a Bullfrog,” Peters started a petition to get him replaced. It didn’t work.

When other Erlanger kids started coming forward to be baptized, Peters declined.

Immersion is a cleansing ordinance in the Baptist church, a symbol that the believer’s sins are washed away and he surfaces as a new person. But looking around, Peters did not see that among his fellow church-goers.

The old men of the church swore and used racial epithets. “Racism infused our lives like cotton dust,” Peters said.

Suspicious of authority, Peters saw no metamorphosis brought about by joining the church.

“I knew my neighbor would beat the heck out of his wife and then go to church,” he said. “There wasn’t this group of transformative people.”

Peters began looking for signs of Jesus outside the church.

He found it in the man who ran the mill store who hired him to work part time after school and gave him another chance when he caught him stealing food. He found it again when a young woman in the church took him for a ride in her car and told him it was OK to like rock ’n’ roll.

“It’s all about grace, but all I heard from the church was that it is all about judgment,” he said. “The irony was the healing and grace wasn’t in the church. ... It’s a clandestine movement — as it always is.”

In 1970, as he prepared to head to Western Carolina University on a full scholarship, Peters already was challenging the racial attitudes in his hometown, but sexual orientation was barely on the map.

He recalled that when he was in high school a new male hairdresser came to town. Peters’ mother whispered that the man was “different,” but all he and his buddies knew was that the man could give them a Beatles’ mop top — a style Peters improbably wears to this day.

“We thought he was cool,” said Peters. “Mr. Clark, the old barber, would only do two haircuts: A G.I. and a flattop. That was it.”

Looking back, Peters thinks that hairdresser might have been the closest Lexington came to a gay community back then.

“I can’t remember any mention of homosexuality that wasn’t derogatory,” said Peters, who admitted throwing around gay slurs with his friends in elementary school. It seemed “perfectly normal,” he said.

“Occasionally, if spoken in anger, these names could be fighting words. More often, it was just picking on each other, as we could not imagine that any of us were really gay.”

But he was wrong.

Peters had a close friend all the way up through high school, whom he lost touch with after graduation. Years later, Peters found out from the friend’s brother that he was gay.

“Nah, it couldn’t be,” Peters said.

Peters called the friend and the two met in a restaurant. His friend told him about his secret life.

“He talked about his early attraction to males and his fear of being found out,” Peters said. “He not only heard all the derogatory names, he used them himself to sound like one of the boys. He told me he had even thought about coming out to me on more than one occasion but was too scared.”


3
Seeking broader horizons
At Western Carolina Peters became involved in the Baptist Student Union (BSU) and eventually landed a position as a summer missionary. It was a plum opportunity for a young Baptist because it involved travel and a stipend. Peters ended up getting baptized by a local church, although he demanded to be dunked in a local lake and not in the church itself. “The only convert that summer was me,” he joked.

After Western Carolina, Peters enrolled at East Carolina University to get a master’s in school counseling. It was there he met and married his wife, Karen, joined the BSU and became more interested in campus ministry.

When Peters decided to go to seminary, he sought advice from the campus Baptist missionary.

“If I were you, I’d get out of the South and away from Southern Baptists,” the missionary told him.

By the fall of 1979, Peters was enrolled in The Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif.

After graduation, Peters landed a job as an associate pastor at one of the nation’s most prominent Baptist churches — First Baptist Church of Washington, D.C.

The church had a racially and culturally diverse congregation, but its approach to gay members was “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Nevertheless, he said, “gay members started coming out to me almost from the time I came in the door. It wasn’t an issue for me, but it was a big issue for the church.”

First Baptist was like Congress, Peters said, with a similar partisan divide on a number of issues. As a junior member of the staff, Peters said he felt like a legislative aide shuttling between the factions. On homosexuality, the senior pastor decided the church would welcome gay members but not endorse their lifestyle.

“He had to play the politics,” Peters said.
A

closeted member — a deacon, no less — came out to the congregation while Peters was at the church. “It was a firestorm,” he said. But the church’s debate over homosexuality was sidelined when the deacon was killed in a traffic accident.

“It is unsettled to this day,” he said.


4
A church in flux
While Peters was on his journey from the mill town boy to preacher at one of the nation’s most prominent Baptist churches, Oakhurst had followed its own path.

Founded in 1913, the church spent its first 50 years on a traditional path for a white Southern Baptist Church. As Decatur prospered as an close-in bedroom community for Atlanta, Oakhurst Baptist grew to more than 1,000 members and had plans to build a new, larger sanctuary.

In 1963 the church peaked at more than 1,300 members, but the neighborhood surrounding it had begun to change. White, middle-class families began moving out, replaced by black families, often of more modest incomes.

White flight was happening across Atlanta and the South, with whites rushing deeper into the suburbs, taking their churches with them.

Walker Knight, 89, a long-time Oakhurst member and a historian of the church, said the pastor at the time was unprepared to deal with the neighborhood’s changing racial makeup and the tensions that arose.

With a new pastor, Oakhurst became one of the first traditionally white Southern Baptist churches to integrate, accepting black members in 1967. While other long-standing churches around it moved out, Oakhurst stayed put.

But change did not come without a cost. Membership declined dramatically to about 500 members.

The decision to integrate put Oakhurst out of step with the Southern Baptist Convention at the time. In 1972, Oakhurst stepped out again by ordaining two women as deacons in direct conflict with Southern Baptist doctrine. Two years later the church added a woman to its pastoral staff.

The church had settled thorny questions of race and gender, but not sexual orientation. That conversation started when David Chewning came to Oakhurst in the 1970s as the church’s first openly gay member.

Short and stout but with an out-sized, evangelical personality, Chewning was “hard to miss,” member Dee Ann Dozier wrote in a history of the church. “You couldn’t overlook David and his words.”

While Chewning was a member of Oakhurst, he wasn’t fully accepted. In the early 1980s, he volunteered to teach a children’s Sunday school class, but the nominating committee refused, which angered then-Pastor Mel Williams.

“He stood up and preached the next Sunday and said, ‘There will be no second-class citizens at Oakhurst,’” Knight said.

In response, the chairman of the committee and some other members left the church.

It was around this time that Jerry Garrison, 57, joined the church. In 1985, Garrison and his gay partner decided to commemorate their relationship in a “covenant ceremony,” using the example of Oakhurst’s own covenant. They booked the community room in a Midtown bank and asked Williams to officiate, but he declined after some members of the church warned him against it.

“I supported them and believed in what they were doing, but at that point I did not have authorization from the congregation to proceed,” Williams said. Williams attended as a guest.

Clearly the church was conflicted.

Garrison, who two years later was ordained a deacon at Oakhurst, said he wasn’t angry at Williams for not officiating. Williams was a “pioneer,” he said. He took the church as far as he could.

“Lanny had the skills to take it further,” he said. “Lanny had the stuff to take the church to its next stage.”


5
A challenge to change
Williams announced he was leaving as pastor of Oakhurst in 1988, and the church offered the post to Peters, who had applied for an associate minister position.

Peters hedged. He stalled. He didn’t see himself as pastor of a church, but Oakhurst pursued with a strange pitch: The pastor of their church would not have that much authority. That appealed to him.

“What I was never at home with at First Baptist (in D.C) was the hierarchical, almost priestly role (of the pastor),” he said. “Oakhurst’s slogan was, ‘Every member a minister’ and I could buy into that.”

By the time Peters arrived, Oakhurst already had openly gay deacons and a number of gay members. But the church didn’t have a policy on gay marriage, and its stance on fully embracing homosexuals in the life of the church remained unsettled.

In 1995, Peters asked that a committee be formed for “discussion and education on the issue of homosexuality.” Knight, was tapped as chairman.

Knight was a natural to handle the delicate issue. As a longtime member and career journalist, he was respected by most.

But his tenure and resume weren’t the only things in his corner. Knight had a gay son who had come out to him 30 years earlier. He also had a lesbian sister and a gay uncle. He had dealt with this issue his whole life.

"Walker has been ahead of every curve at Oakhurst,” Peters said.

After a year and a half, the committee’s findings resulted in a change in the covenant that forbade discrimination against sexual orientation and a request that the church advocate for civil rights and equality for gays and lesbians.

And in the process, Oakhurst’s congregation found they had settled another question. The change in the covenant dictated the acceptance of same-sex unions.

The next year, the Georgia Baptist Convention, the SBC’s state affiliate, passed an amendment to its constitution stating that churches accepting and “affirming” homosexuals could not be in the convention. In March 1999, the convention asked Oakhurst Baptist — as well as Virginia-Highland Baptist Church — whether it could comply with the resolution.

Oakhurst spent months preparing a response to the convention’s accusation. Peters recalls the document as a “proclamation in the great style of the Reformation.” It did not back down one inch, but instead dug its heels into centuries of Baptist teachings on the independence of church congregations to “follow Christ as it feels led.”

In November, Peters went to the Macon Coliseum to plead his church’s case before thousands of Baptist clergy. The mill town boy who resisted church now represented one on a large stage.

The showdown caused a minor media flurry. Peters did interviews with television stations in what he described as his allotted 15 minutes of fame.

“This is it,” Peters recalled thinking at the time. “I was called for this.”

He was accompanied to Macon by a deacon, Jack Smith, who had volunteered to assist him.

Smith, an openly gay man who was HIV-positive, drove Peters around, opened doors for him, carried a briefcase that largely was a prop and shook hands with ministers from around the state.

Did they know he was gay?

“Who knows? We knew,” Peters said. More than that, Smith was a living symbol of the divine grace Peters always sought.

“Here was a guy who deeply loved me, ... a deacon, a well-beloved person who is HIV-positive, who has come out to his church about being gay ... and he’s dying,” Peters said. “Two years later, I would be spreading his ashes in a cemetery in Rising Star, Texas.”

In Macon, Peters requested the convention delay action for a year so Oakhurst members could travel to Baptist churches around the state and speak to congregations about their covenant. It was a biblical model of reconciliation taken from the Gospel of Matthew, he said.

But the convention was clear in its stance.

“In a society where people will tell you that political correctness includes the full acceptance of homosexuality as moral, we the church, I believe, are mandated to tell the truth about what the Bible says in love,” Robert White, executive director of the Georgia Baptists, said at the time. “The Bible calls it a sin.”

The convention voted overwhelmingly to eject the Oakhurst and Virginia-Highland churches.

The split made headlines, but the convention and Oakhurst moved on. It was a poor marriage and had been for years. Oakhurst held a mock funeral ceremony after the vote and the SBC continued to be the most influential Protestant group in America.

As the debate continues to rage over the acceptance of homosexuals and transgendered people in society, Peters said Oakhurst must make use of its experiences.

“It’s time to be more evangelistic. We’ve settled this internally,” he said. “We’ve created a haven: You can get married, you can be a deacon, there is no discrimination here if you are a gay family. But what about the ones who are not here?”

A group of Oakhurst members formed a covenant group on marriage equality following Peters’ sermon in June to work on legislative changes recognizing same-sex marriages.

Oakhurst “came out” a long time ago, the time has come to reach, Peters said. “Now, let’s go out and find the folks who need healing.”

HOW WE GOT THE STORY

Due in part to the church’s progressive reputation during the civil rights movement, Chris Joyner and his wife became members of Oakhurst Baptist Church a little more than a year ago. In that time, Joyner got to know the pastoral staff and grew interested in stories of Pastor Lanny Peters’ upbringing, which often find their way into his sermons. Joyner was intrigued by Peters’ journey from a boy growing up in small-town North Carolina to his showdown with the Georgia Baptist Convention over gay rights, and he wanted to share it with the readers of the AJC. It is a compelling story of faith and conviction.  

Suzanne Van Atten
Features Enterprise Editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com

 

About the reporter

Chris Joyner joined the AJC in 2010. He is an investigative reporter covering state government. An Atlanta native, Joyner previously worked for the Marietta Daily Journal, The Chattanooga Times Free Press, The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger and USA Today. He lives in DeKalb County with his wife and daughter.

About the photographer

Curtis Compton joined the AJC as a photo editor in 1993 before returning to the field as a staff photographer. Previously he worked for the Gwinnett Daily News, United Press International and the Marietta Daily Journal. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia and won a World Hunger Award for his coverage of the famine in Sudan.

Next week: A beauty queen struggles to overcome eating disorders while competing for a national crown.


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