(hear it on wwno)
The 195 year-old First Presbyterian Church in Broadmoor is growing. It’s in no small part thanks to a new pastor, who is reaching out to new communities and luring more people with special events. Like a square dance. With red beans… and beer… in a church?
“There are some stripes that say dancing in church might make people roll in their graves, but drinking in churches? Well, that might be First Presbyterian’s got a corner on the market!”
Five bucks gets you in the door, another dollar gets you red beans, and host Justin Wood says you’re encouraged to bring your own beverage of choice.
“Just because we think this space is sacred, we don’t have a problem with somebody having a beer in it and dancing,” Wood says. “We think that is a moment of fellowship that’s holy — whether or not they think it is or not — and we’re happy to have it here in our church.”
First Presbyterian does things a little differently. Wood and his fiancée Amy Benson moved to New Orleans about five years ago, and hopped around a few churches looking for the right one. They landed here, he says.
They also liked that First Presbyterian is a More Light Church. That means the congregation and the leadership can be any gender, race or sexual orientation. It’s the only More Light Church in the state.
“Not that any church is any less welcoming, but this church is really, really welcoming,” says Wood. “Like, you could smell bad, you could show up with a Rolex on your wrist, you could show up drunk from the night before, tattooed, or the nicest cutest old lady, and there’s a place for you at this church.”
This is interesting, considering the church’s history. In the Civil War era, prominent Confederate leader Benjamin Palmer led the congregation. He’s remembered today, and his portrait remains in the fellowship hall. But he’s not celebrated by members like Mina Cray.
“He’s embarrassing, truly,” Cray says. “He was sort of on the wrong side of civil rights, I guess would be the best way to put it. Which I don’t personally find very Christian.”
Pastor Fred is openly gay, and Amy Benson says he’s the first gay head pastor in the South. Benson was on the committee that chose Pastor Fred, and says they had to convince some church members.
“The biggest issues I heard was like, ‘Oh, well, he’s gay, can he do marriage counseling?’ Actually yes, he’s a certified counselor, yes he can. ‘Oh, well, what about relationship advice?’ Oh, well, he’s been in relationships, so…”
This really tested the congregation — and despite being part of the More Light philosophy, some people left the church. Pastor Fred even received bomb threats.
All but one church member has returned to the congregation, and now everyone supports Pastor Fred’s dedication to make his More Light church, well, even more More Light.
“We talk a lot about emerging churches in the Presbyterian church, ways that we don’t look like your grandmama’s church,” he says. “I would say the gay and lesbian folks are sort of the poster child for that idea, but we are looking for ways we can go far beyond that.”
Bring Your Own square dances may be just the beginning.
The Old Time NOLA Square Dance is Monday night at 5401 South Claiborne Ave., beginning at 7 p.m. for a lesson with Dan Wally Baker, and 8 p.m. for square dancing.