The devil went down to Greenville, S.C.
It’s the dream of every growing congregation to have a building they can call their own. It’s a milestone that many churches with ministries to gays and lesbians have achieved.
The congregation of MCC Greenville believed they had achieved that dream earlier this year when they purchased a 6,000-square-foot building after renting space from another congregation for the past 14 years. Finally, the church would have space for its many outreach programs: a food pantry, support groups, a workshop for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. They also planned to hold two services — one in the morning, another in the evening — to meet the congregation’s needs.
That dream quickly turned into a nightmare when the Greenville Zoning Commission ruled the church could not use the building because there were not enough parking spaces. Now, the congregation is struggling to meet the mortgage payment, while still paying to rent space and keep up with other bills.
MCC Greenville Pastor Mick Hinson said they believed they would have no trouble getting the board’s approval since no other church in the history of Greenville has been turned down. Some say that points to a more sinister reason for the denial. The church is known for it’s outreach to the gay and lesbian community in this northwestern South Carolina city of 60,000, where the county council has passed a resolution condemning the “gay lifestyle.”
The biggest opposition to MCC Greenville came from Central Baptist Church, just down the street. They used their bulletin one Sunday to urge members to attend the zoning meeting and speak out against the “homosexual group.”
Since the decision, the church’s 114 members have been working hard to complete a list of items the city says needs to be done before they can issue an occupancy permit. Rev. Hinson said they have also set the appeals process in motion, and a Court of Common Pleas Judge is set to issue a ruling in the case. The judge could overturn the zoning board decision, affirm it or put the whole matter back in the board’s lap for reconsideration. Rev. Hinson said they already plan to go back before the board with a majority of the previous problems solved.
If God is anywhere, He is in our trials and tribulations. Rev. Hinson said the adversity the church has faced has only strengthened their mission and position in the community.
“It’s been scary, but God has been evident in all of this,” he said. “While we’ve had some doors slammed in our face, other doors have opened. That has been a blessing.”
Despite the hardship, MCC Greenville continues it’s ministry in the community and has even attracted new members. In addition, several pastors of other churches have come to their aid and have publicly endorsed the mission of the church. “Regardless of what takes place, we’re getting stronger through all this,” Rev. Hinson said.
But, the delay has come with a price tag. In addition to the $1200 they must now find every month to pay rent, mortgage and utility bills, they’ve lost some members, who for their own personal reasons, cannot take part in a very public battle.
A Real Church
One of the strongest critics of the church has been Rev. J. Allen Smith, the interim pastor at Central Baptist who said MCC Greenville deserved to be turned down, because it is not a true church.
To that, Rev. Hinson responded, “We don’t need anyone else to tell us whether or not we are a church or a vital ministry or loved by God. We experience that in our hearts.”
No matter what the outcome of the court or zoning board decision, Rev. Hinson says MCC Greenville will survive.
“The church is not the four walls of the building,” he emphasized. “The people are what make the church. We do ministry in this community. The Bible says ‘where two are more are gathered together’ God will be there.”
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.