GREENVILLE, N.C. — The Rev. Stephen Howard knew President Trump’s speech was going to be unsettling for his city and his mostly black church the moment he saw people had lined up at 4 a.m. Wednesday to get into the arena.
These were his congregants’ neighbors and co-workers. Soon, they would be cheering for a president that Howard and many of his flock at Cornerstone Missionary Baptist Church considered a racist. He knew he would have to say something.
“I’m not into politics, but I’m into speaking for people,” he said.
Across town, Brad Smith, the pastor at a 192-year-old predominantly white Baptist church, got his first inkling that something had gone wrong when his wife returned home from the speech. She was there as an employee of East Carolina University, where the rally was held, and was shaken by the anger in the auditorium.
“It was bad,” she told him. “Really bad.”
Last week’s campaign event in this North Carolina city was something different and more disturbing than the typical Trump rally. Before the president even stepped on the stage in Greenville, the House had voted, mostly along party lines, to condemn as racist his repeated attacks on four congresswomen of color.
At the rally, Trump focused much of his frustration on Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who is Muslim and a refugee. “Send her back! Send her back!” the people in the arena chanted in response.
The next day Trump sought to distance himself from the chant. “I disagreed with it,” he said in the Oval Office.
But in Greenville, the rally and its aftermath weren’t so easily dismissed. Mayor P.J. Connelly put out a statement defending his town as “a place of compassion and acceptance.” At Greenville’s lone mosque, members spent a portion of Friday prayers talking about racism and Islamophobia.
Some of the deepest soul searching has taken place in churches, and much of it fell to pastors like Howard and Smith. In the days after the rally, they spoke with spouses, friends and fellow congregants about what the event had revealed about their president, their country and their hometown. Were the president’s words and the anger they generated evidence of a moral or political failing? Did they say something deeper about their city? And did one of the biggest news events in Greenville’s recent history merit a pastoral response from the pulpit Sunday?
The G-D word
Trump’s Greenville rally and the “Send her back” chants it inspired, divided much of the country, and Greenville was no exception.
Many of the congregants at the Unity Free Will Baptist Church in Greenville, where Jeff Manning, 55, has been the pastor for the past 29 years thought the cries of racism that accompanied the president’s remarks weren’t fair.
On Friday evening, two days after the rally, Manning and his wife joined two families from his church for dinner. Soon, the talk turned to the president’s appearance in Greenville, the growing rancor in the country and the aspect of the rally that had most struck his congregation.
“What I’ve heard is how upset people are with the language [Trump] used,” Manning said. “He used the G-D word.”
This, of course, was a violation of the third commandment and a serious matter in Manning’s world, where the word of God is inerrant.
“Really?” said John Locklear, who had skipped the rally to attend Bible study.
“Children were there,” added Adam Congleton, who watched it on a live stream.
With the exception of college and divinity school, Manning, 55, has spent his life in Greenville. His house, surrounded by soybean crops, is just yards from the modest, brick one-story where he grew up.
Over the past three decades he has seen his congregation grow from about 150 to 700 people. Three years ago the church built a sanctuary on a 50-acre plot, with plenty of room to keep expanding.
He has seen Greenville change, too.
“It’s perceived as more progressive, but I don’t see that as a compliment,” Manning said.
He generally has liked Trump’s policies: the economy doing well, the Supreme Court inching closer to an abortion ban, and the president moving to protect the country’s southern border.
Manning’s biggest concern was the anger gripping the country, some of which he blamed on Trump.
“Christ got fired up at times,” Manning said, “but he was always righteous in his anger.”
Too often he worried Trump’s fury wasn’t righteous. And lately, that had led him to fret about the state of the president’s soul.
On Sunday, he didn’t plan to talk about the president’s rally or its aftermath. Instead, he would discuss a verse from Philippians about embodying Christ-like qualities: “To live is Christ and to die is gain.”
It was in this context that he found Trump wanting and wondered whether he was a “true believer.” “I have grave concerns about his spiritual condition,” Manning said of the president. “There’s too much evidence against it. . . . I pray he will become one.”
Politics in the pulpit
The day after the rally, Smith’s wife, Jamie, was back at work at East Carolina University, where she works in public relations, fielding wave after wave of angry calls from people who wanted to vent. Some were angry that the university hosted the rally. Others were upset that the school hadn’t done more to defend the president.
“I’m having a rough time with what I saw last night,” she texted Smith from her office.
He told her to take a deep breath and step away from the phone. To Smith, the chants at the rally were “disturbing” and “probably racist,” but they didn’t represent the Greenville that he knew. Smith’s church, The Memorial Baptist Church, shared its stately, old brick chapel with a congregation that worshiped in Chinese and another that held services in Spanish.
Over the past decade, the three groups have grown closer, gathering for fellowship dinners and Bible studies.
Smith knew he had Trump supporters in his pews. One of his members regularly posted articles from outlets such as Breitbart on her Facebook page that he found objectionable or at least worrisome.
But he knew that, if he asked, that same woman would rush to the aid of one of the Hispanic or Chinese families that used their church.
“I could go to her and she’d be right there for them,” Smith said. “It’s baffling.”
He was upset that Trump had chosen his city to hold such a divisive rally. And he wondered how the country had become so divided.
“Was it because a black president won?” he asked. “Maybe we weren’t ready for it?”
Smith spent two days thinking about whether he should scrap his prepared sermon on Noah and the flood in favor of a speech focused on the rally and its aftermath.
“I am pondering how I can do it without getting political,” he said.
When Sunday came he took the pulpit and told the story of God’s disappointment, the flood and the one good man he had chosen to save to start anew. The only mention he made of Trump’s rally was a fleeting one.
“When those who protest to open borders and those who chant ‘Go back home’ can’t seem to be on the same page, it is the love and grace and mercy found in the very body of Christ” that can mend divisions, he said.
This was the message of Noah’s story: “To love God is to love all of us,” he said. “It is hard to do, but it is beautiful.”
‘We can’t go back’
On Wednesday night, Howard, the pastor at the majority-black Cornerstone church, watched Trump’s entire speech from his home. To most Americans, the people chanting “Send her back” were an anonymous mob of Trump supporters. To his congregation, they were, in some cases, fellow Christians worshiping just a few blocks away.
Howard, 51, came to the United States in the 1980s from Liberia and has experienced the country as both a black man and an immigrant with an accent. As a pastor at churches throughout the Southeast, he said he has learned that being asked, “Where are you from?” is not always a sign of harmless curiosity.
Just before Howard stepped to the pulpit, Trump fired off a new tweet accusing the four congresswomen of not loving America and demanding they apologize for the “horrible” and “hateful” things they had said.
Howard didn’t see the tweet. On this Sunday morning he looked out at his church’s red pews. Almost all of the 150 worshipers were black.
There was an hour of singing, a pause for tithing and then Howard’s sermon, which began with the 37th Psalm’s advice “not to fret of those who are evil.”
Howard reminded his congregants that God had delivered African Americans from darker periods in the nation’s history. That salvation, he said, was even more reason to stand with Omar and the other congresswomen amid Trump’s attacks.
“There’s a message in [Trump’s] message. It’s not just for Ilhan Omar, it’s for you and I. Because when it’s over with her, they’re coming to us to tell us to go back,” Howard told his congregation.
The worshipers called out amens and shouted for him to “preach!”
“We can’t go back,” Howard continued. “What is it you want us to go back to? Second-class citizenship? Jim Crow? What is it you want us to go back to [former Republican senator] Jesse Helms?”
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once called church services one of the “most segregated hours” in America. Decades later, King’s quote still holds true. One of the biggest events to hit Greenville in decades was barely mentioned in at least two white churches here, where pastors were reluctant to blend politics and faith.
At Howard’s church, the political, the spiritual and the moral were unavoidably intermixed. He promised his congregants that if they were steadfast in their faith, their deliverance from evil and sin would be heavenly.
And in a nod to the previous week, he noted, it could also be earthly.
“November 2020 ain’t that far away,” he said. “The wicked shall soon be cut off.”