A 'Purple' Congregation With Diverse Viewpoints Prioritizes Community In an era of red and blue polarization, purple congregations are increasingly rare and a challenge to maintain. They learn to avoid some subjects to maintain congregational harmony.

Pastoring A Purple Church: 'I Absolutely Bite My Tongue Sometimes'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/703356844/710867514" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Millions of people went to church today. And if you were one of them, you might have chosen it for the music or the atmosphere or maybe because it's filled with people who agree with you on things like politics and social issues.

If so, you're not alone. There are red churches and blue churches. Congregations where they mix - so-called purple congregations - seem to be increasingly rare. But NPR's Tom Gjelten found a purple church in North Carolina that has held together after surviving a storm that could have torn it apart.


TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Any given service at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh finds worshippers who voted for Donald Trump shoulder-to-shoulder with people who voted for Hillary Clinton. Here are two members - Greg Thompson (ph) and DeLana Anderson (ph).

GREG THOMPSON: The area that I grew up in was a very conservative rural district. And I served in the legislature as a Republican for a decade.

DELANA ANDERSON: I have a harder time with people who are Trump supporters. But that's not something we focus on. You wouldn't run up to a stove and touch a hot burner (laughter). So I'm certainly not going to do that here.

GJELTEN: The pastor at White Memorial, Christopher Edmonston.

CHRISTOPHER EDMONSTON: I absolutely bite my tongue sometimes. There are things that I resist.

GJELTEN: He's the man responsible for maintaining harmony in this purple congregation. But sometimes, it's not enough to just stay clear of touchy subjects. In the summer of 2015, the Presbyterian Church USA told local congregations they would have to decide on their own whether to allow same-sex weddings. There was no avoiding what Edmonston says is among the most difficult questions a congregation can face.

EDMONSTON: I have never known a day in the church from the day I was ordained in 1999 up until that summer of 2015 when it wasn't an active conversation and an argument ever.

GJELTEN: But Edmonston has made it a mission in his congregation to promote civility and keep his church united.


EDMONSTON: Welcome to Ash Wednesday service here at White Memorial Presbyterian. It is a pleasure and a joy to welcome...

GJELTEN: On this night, the church is packed. This congregation now has about 4,000 members at a time when church attendance across the country is declining.


EDMONSTON: Every person who believes in Jesus is welcome to take communion here.

GJELTEN: Edmonston says the church has just been true to Presbyterian theology. His denomination is devoted to community. More evangelical churches by comparison focus on one's individual, personal relationship with God.

EDMONSTON: I think that's important. I just don't emphasize it as much because that's not the thrust that I see in scripture. The thrust in scripture is I'm calling you to be builders of the kingdom of God. We're trying to build a community that's putting into practice what it really means to love your neighbors and to welcome them into our spaces.

GJELTEN: And that commitment, the pastor says, has special importance in a place like Raleigh, N.C., a purple city in a purple state.

EDMONSTON: So many of our people who have come to church here in the last 25 years are from other parts of the country. And they, of course, bring their ideas, their politics, their viewpoints with them when they come. So we almost have to be purple if we're going to continue to be open and welcoming to any person that wants to come.

GJELTEN: When the same-sex wedding decision came along, Edmonston and the church governing board wanted the congregation involved. Outside speakers, pro and con, made presentations. Carol Vassey, a church elder, made her opinion known to those who asked.

CAROL VASSEY: I have a grandson who is gay. I have a nephew who's gay. I have many friends who are gay. We're all children of God.

GJELTEN: But others felt differently. Members were encouraged to write letters. Most said they were opposed to same-sex weddings. Vassey and the pastor read them all. She also led discussion groups.

VASSEY: Some came to the meetings trying to convince us that we were not looking at it correctly. Some of them truly just wanted to be heard.

GJELTEN: In the end, the church board - called the session - voted to allow same-sex weddings. But they did not announce the margin by which it passed. The tally remains a secret to this day. Edmonston says it was for strategic reasons.

EDMONSTON: If you would have reported that it was 56 to 2 for marriage inclusion, then the people who didn't want it to happen would have gotten the message we really are out of step here. And if we would have reported that it was 30 to 26, the people who are really for it may have thought this place isn't as open minded as I thought it was.

GJELTEN: On the Sunday following that vote back in 2015, Edmondston addressed his congregation, choosing his words carefully.


EDMONSTON: Because the spirit of the motion and the effort was to create a means for our church to care for all of us...

GJELTEN: In his sermon that day, he pleaded with his congregation to stay united.


EDMONSTON: If you are overjoyed by the session's conclusions, I humbly ask you that you respect that there are others who are not there and some who might not ever get there. If you are one of those who is dismayed, I ask you to remember that the work that we do goes on and that our love for one another and our devotion to this church family is greater than any single issue.

THOMPSON: It was - I struggled with it.

GJELTEN: Church member Greg Thompson.

THOMPSON: It was something that I had to do a lot of soul searching and a lot of praying about. But the way that it was handled helped put me at ease some.

GJELTEN: Thompson stayed at the church. But after the same-sex wedding decision, more than 40 members who had opposed it left for a more like-minded congregation.

Still, the process of working through the decision, painful as it was, may actually have made the church stronger. One of those who left, at least for a while, was Jim Brown, a congregant for more than 30 years.

JIM BROWN: We had a gentleman who was in our Sunday school class who really talked all of us into moving to another church. And I got over there. And I realized I just missed this church too much. So I came back. And now, everybody's rallied back around together. I mean, it's probably closer as a church then I've ever seen us. We all come together in the grace of God.

GJELTEN: There are lessons here. It's not enough just to promote civility, you have to live it. Pastor Edmondston says in a place like his, civility is always about what he calls the long game.

EDMONSTON: No matter how right my position may be, if I wound you and tear you down while I'm making it - I'm right, you're wrong, you're stupid - at the end of that, you and I still had to be neighbors. We have to live with each other once the votes are counted.

EDMONSTON: At the end of the Ash Wednesday service, the worshipers - liberals and conservatives alike - came forward to have ashes put on their foreheads to be reminded of the biblical message you are dust. And to dust, you shall return.


GJELTEN: Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Raleigh, N.C.


MARTIN: This piece is part of an NPR series on how Americans are grappling with the idea of civility in polarizing times. You can find more of those stories at npr.org.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.