By Ted D. Davis/TedtoWORK69@gmail.com
When Jasmine Clisby posted screenshots on Facebook of The Church of the Highlands senior pastor Chris Hodges likes of posts made by Charlie Kirk, President of the pro-Trump organization Turning Point USA, it set off a firestorm of criticism and backlash that resulted in termination of leases and partnerships, respectively, with both the Birmingham Board of Education and the Birmingham Housing Authority, who primarily serve the city’s predominantly black, inner city communities.
Clisby, a Birmingham city high school English teacher and Doctoral candidate at the University of Alabama Birmingham noted that Hodges “repeatedly liked social media posts by Kirk”. Among those posts is one which shows President Trump standing with Muhammad Ali and Rosa Parks, whose caption reads, “The Racist Donald Trump in the 1980s”, as if to infer that Trump is not necessarily racist because he was pictured with persons of color. In another post, a picture of former president Barack Obama playing golf is positioned beneath a quote from his wife Michelle Obama urging people to stay home except for essential activities in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic. And in another, a photo of Kirk donating blood is captioned, “We all must do our part to defeat China Virus”, an insensitive assumption that China is the absolute origin of the virus.
Hodges likes are viewed as racially insensitive, an obvious conflict of interest for the white pastor of a mega church whose membership of more than 50,000 persons is made up of roughly a third of black and Latino worshippers. In his defense, in a June 2nd statement, Hodges, who founded the church in 2001, stated that, “I can tell you those social media posts that I ‘liked’ do not reflect, in any way, my true feelings or beliefs. I realize now they were hurtful and divisive, and I sincerely apologize”. And, in an online sermon on June 6 he added that it is his belief that White supremacy or any supremacy other than Christ is of the devil, that he understands that his character is in question because he liked posts by Kirk, and that he owns it.
Clisby says that she is not calling Hodges racist, and she’d be hurt if it is implied that she is, but she is troubled by the fact that he likes things that she deems insensitive and that he followed Kirk on social media. In truth, Hodges’ like of Kirk’s post don’t imply he’s racist, but the fact that he posted those likes on social media makes him a target of those who perceive his behavior as at least racially insensitive.
Associate pastor Layne Schranz, who relocated to Birmingham to help found the church, says that Hodges record over the past twenty years is evidence that, “Pastor Chris doesn’t have a racist bone in his body”, and to his credit, Hodges has made racial inclusion and service to the inner a city a priority throughout his tenure. He spent some 2 million dollars erecting the Christ Health Center a decade ago, which provides free and discounted services to the poor of Woodlawn and surrounding areas in Eastern Birmingham. He led the movement to restore its abandoned fire station, converting it into the Dream Center, a volunteer arm whose mission, among others, is to improve the area by cleaning up trash and repairing run-down homes. And, since 2014, he has paid the Birmingham school district an average of $12,000 monthly to rent the auditoriums at Woodlawn High School and Parker High School in order to conduct live-streamed church services there for residents. That’s nearly $900,000 in total for a city that claims to be in debt.
Despite the contribution, on June 9, 2020 the school board voted to terminate its lease with COTH, and the next day the housing authority told news outlets that its board of commissioners, “agreed that Pastor Hodges’ views do not reflect those of HABD and its residents; and Hodges’ values are not in line with those of the HABD residents”, a sentiment shared all or in part by some of Birmingham’s black clergymen. In May of 2018, the Reverend Michael Jordan, pastor of New Era Baptist Church in the city’s West End area, posted a message which read “Black Folks Need to Stay Out of White Churches” on the message board outside his sanctuary, in opposition to The Church of Highlands proposal to buy a church in his community.
His reasoning was posted on the other side of the board, explaining that, “White Folks Refused to be Our Neighbors”. When asked what he meant, he described the concept that he refers to as a “Slavemaster Church”, an institution that governs what he calls Plantation or Slavemaster religion, wherein a wealthy white church buys a church in the black community and elects a black pastor to lead it. Pastor Hodge planned to appoint former Auburn University football player Mayo Sewell as pastor of the church, a shrewd move considering Sewell’s popularity among black college football fans may have necessarily driven traffic to the church.
Jordan argues that one must look at that plan in a historical context in order to understand that it has minimal value to the black community. He reasons that because whites left the inner city and fled to less ethnically and racially diverse suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s, referred to as “White Flight”, it proved that whites by and large don’t want to live among ethnic minorities or have their children attend school with them. Why, then, fifty plus years later, Jordan surmises, do they want to run churches in black communities? To those who argue the privilege and prominence of a black pastor Jordan reasons, “He’ll be a token. They’ll still control the sermons, they’ll still control the choir, the white administrative leadership will still run the church”. He adds that the white and black life experience is often fundamentally different, that black and white worship style is largely different, and that music is often different, facilitating the need for blacks to worship in a church led by black leadership.
Still, Jordan acknowledges that thousands of black parishioners flood COTH services each week, which he attributes to them wanting to attain status from attending a trendy church, and for self-worth, but he assesses that, “99 percent of whites won’t go to a black church”. He says that it was very hypocritical of whites to abandon the inner city to create their own school systems and communities 60 years ago, but if they want to create change today, the most effective way to do so is to fund programs that train young, poor black and brown people, and fund it through the black church. He adds that he doesn’t believe there is any way that Chris Hodges would live in his community.
In that vein, when COTH began its infiltration into the inner city community through its associations with the school board and housing authority, Patrick Sellers, pastor at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, also located in West Birmingham, expressed concern that Hodges ministry didn’t work with black churches, including his own. He felt that it would have been appropriate for COTH to partner with churches in the inner city rather than steering their members and financial resources away. Of this phenomenon, Sellers says that, “it’s tough for some to compete with megachurches that have lots of members and plenty of money for ministry”, and he worries that urban churches won’t survive if all their members defect to mega churches.
Sellers and Jordan’s philosophies are substantiated by Ohio State University Sociologist Korie Edwards, who studies race and power in churches. She acknowledges a tension between mostly white-led megachurches and urban churches, and says that, “churches that are led by white people and run by white people don’t tend to work with black people and black leadership”. Whether or not it was willing to work with black churches and black church leadership, what it certain is that COTH has made a significant financial and civic impact on the city of Birmingham.
The question, then, is who will fill the void left by COTH? Can that void be filled? Among Birmingham’s black megachurches, including Faith Chapel, More Than Conqueror’s Faith Church, and Sixth Avenue Baptist, will one emerge to secure and appropriate the resources necessary to provide the ministry and civic services that are the benchmark of COTH’s footprint in the community? Should another white ministry or organization take the reins, or should the shepherd best suited to fill the void live amongst the sheep in Eastern Birmingham or its surrounding areas? In spite of a lack of resources and the reach associated with COTH, Pastor Sellers say’s that his church will continue to do all that it can for the community, including feeding the homeless. He reminds us that black churches are the foundation of the black community, and, “if they go, so does the neighborhood”.
(2020, June 10). Birmingham agencies drop church over pastor’s social media. The Tribune.
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Garrison, Greg. (2020, May 31). Pastor Chris Hodges responds to social media controversy. Al.com. Retrieved from: https://www.al.com/news/2020/05/pastor-chris-hodges-responds-to-social-media-controversy.html
Garrison, Greg. (2018, May 15). Pastor denounces Highlands’ urban plan as ‘slavemaster church’. Al.com. Retrieved from: https://www.al.com/living/2018/05/pastor_denounces_
Stewart, Sherrel. (2019, September 20). Megachurch Presence in Birmingham Schools sparks Tension. WBHM. Retrieved from: https://www.wbhm.org/feature/2019/megachurch-presence-