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A World-Class Jesus 

The Uptown crowd goes to church

Myers Park Baptist Church isn't your typical liberal church, where garden variety liberals go to worship whatever version of God appeals to them. It's more like a religious subsidiary of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce and Myers Park Country Club all rolled into one.

The first time I attended church there, it all finally clicked for me after years of reporting in Charlotte: So this is how all the right people know each other.

You can't properly appreciate the makeup of the Myers Park Baptist congregation unless you've spent vast amounts of time combing political donor lists or hanging out down at the government center. On any given Sunday, you'll find a healthy roster of moneyed, old-Charlotte blue bloods in attendance. You'll also find about half the upper-mid-level bureaucrats in this city who are known to be striving for advancement, politicians past and present, businesspeople whose names perpetually turn up in all the right places, Chamber hangers-on, and the lawyers and other professionals who serve them.

The last time I attended church there, it took me a couple of days to shake off the willies.

So when I read that the church was taking a religious stand that had to do with homosexuals, I wondered if this was part of the Chamber's plan to attract the creative class to Charlotte or the city's plan to grow the tax base by attracting young hip professionals. That Jesus had anything to do with this never crossed my mind as a serious possibility.

Last year, the conservative North Carolina Baptist State Convention voted to expel Baptist churches that welcome gays and lesbians without insisting they repent of the sin of homosexuality.

Ever since then, Myers Park Baptist, which has been a member of the convention since 1943, has been doing its level best to be expelled. Merely quitting in protest, as six other churches did, wouldn't attract the caliber of national, progressive, world-class city PR the church was clearly hoping for itself and for Charlotte. Church leaders obviously knew they would have to get the convention to discriminate against them by kicking them out to achieve that.

After the convention's anti-gay vote last November, Myers Park put out a statement emphasizing it welcomed gays and wanted local autonomy to do so. When the convention ignored that, Myers Park Baptist tried again.

The church's ministers began doing newspaper interviews. In a Feb. 5 Charlotte Observer article, a Myers Park Baptist minister invited convention members to "come visit the church before they kick us out."

When the convention ignored that as well, the church wrote the convention a letter, which it sent copies of to The Charlotte Observer in a transparent ploy to get public attention.

If you are fighting the good fight on behalf of all God's children, why is it necessary to achieve headlines in the process? That's definitely not what Jesus would do. But it is something the Uptown crowd would do to soften up what remains of Charlotte's backward, Southern image.

On Feb. 17, the Observer dutifully ran another article repeating the church's demand for a visit from the convention before it was kicked out, which was essentially a demand to be kicked out. That too was ignored by the convention.

If they were going to be repressed in public, the leaders of the church would apparently have to take a more direct route. According to rules passed by the convention, two people had to complain before an investigation could be launched. So the church filed a complaint against itself. And last week, it finally succeeded in getting itself kicked out of the convention.

If the leaders of Myers Park Baptist really cared about gay people and the direction of the Baptist church, you'd think they would have bothered to send a delegate to the state convention last year. That's when the changes to the bylaws regarding gay church members that they've spent so much time protesting in the media ever since were debated. And what about the seven years before that, when the church could have been a vocal advocate for gays at those state conventions, which it also didn't bother to attend?

Allan Blume, head of the Baptist State Convention's board, told the Observer that it appeared Myers Park Baptist was more interested in seeking publicity than in working with the convention, which clearly had to be dragged into expelling it. One man who was present for the vote to expel the church said the whole thing had on odd feel to it, like a slick PR campaign rather than an impassioned religious debate.

I know that odd, slick campaign feeling he was trying to describe. It's a trademark of the Uptown crowd, which ultimately got what it wanted here, not for gay people, but in world-class cache.

Whoever did the expulsion PR for the church did a marvelous job. Reporters from half a dozen news and wire services showed up for the expulsion. Daily newspapers as far away as Fort-Worth Texas covered it. The first to be expelled!

Both major national wire services carried the story, as did the national FOX news Web site and every national gay news service and Web site of note.

Guess you call that a PR coup for Jesus -- and Uptown.

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