Levellers

Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Baptist Peace Churches #3

I will use use this third installment to focus on MY congregation: Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty in Louisville, KY. (We don’t have a website, so that link will connect you to our church blog, Life at Jeff Street, run by Dan Trabue, who convinced me to start this blog.)

This is an historic congregation that has ALWAYS attracted odd characters and has always worked with and for the poor.  In 1881, Steve Holcombe, a former riverboat gambler (who had murdered two people) who had been converted to Christ, founded this congregation as the Holcombe Mission. In 1886, the mission’s name was changed to the Union Gospel Mission, a joint project of the Long Run Baptist Association of Louisville, KY and a Protestant Mission Board (roughly equivalent to today’s Kentucky Council of Churches). Our congregation remained such a joint mission (though effectively led by Baptists) until 1944 when the Protestant Board gave up its interest completely to Long Run Baptist Association. From 1944 until the early ’60s, the mission was known as the Central Baptist Mission.  Then, our congregation became the Jefferson Street Baptist Chapel meeting in the Jefferson Street Baptist Center.  We then underwent our current change, but that is a longer story (see below).

In all this time, we were located in East Downtown Louisville, an area once known as the “Haymarket District,” one of the poorest areas of the city and once one of the worst slums in the nation.  From the time of our founding by Steve Holcomb until today, we have been a small church (usually numbering about 100 members) ministering with the poor.  We have also always had “odd characters,” as one might expect from a church started by a converted riverboat gambler.

In the 1940s, the Union Gospel Mission’s story intersected that of some of those who later left huge marks on the more progressive (even radical) strand of Baptist life in the South:  The mission was supervised by Long Run Mission Director Clarence Jordan, then a Ph.D. student in New Testament, who went on to found Koinonia Farm (now Koinonia Partners), an interracial Christian community in South Georgia that testified to gospel nonviolence, interracial brotherhood and sisterhood, and community of goods. Jordan also became the author of the “Cotton Patch” paraphrases of New Testament books–attempting to make clear to white Southerners the radical demands of the gospel by “translating” the NT into modern, “Southern” speech forms.

In the 1930s and ’40s, Henlee H. Barnette, later a Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was the pastor of Union Gospel Mission.  He began our long partnership with our sister church, Broadway Baptist Church in Louisville.  During Barnette’s pastorate, the deacons had to ask members to leave guns at the door! (Ministering with and to the poor is not always easy!) Among those whom Barnette recruited to preach guest revivals were Carlyle Marney, (trained as a church historian, during the ’50s-’70s, Marney became one of the few liberal pastor-theologians of the Baptist South to have a large national and international influence–even receiving an honorary Th.D. from the University of Glasgow, the first American pastor to do so since Harry Emerson Fosdick!) and Frank Stagg (later to become an influential professor of New Testament).

The congregation has always been controversial. It was integrated during segregation (although this was whispered both to avoid funding loss as a Southern Baptist mission and because integrated churches were against Kentucky state law!), though the number of African-American members were small.  The roles for women and laity were always greater than the societal norms of the day.  It’s very membership and “social location” challenged middle class “respectable” Christianity.  But that controversy grew when then-pastor Mike Elliott resigned in 1988 and the congregation (then-known as Jefferson Street Baptist Chapel) called the Assistant Pastor, Reverend Cindy J. Weber, a graduate of the Carver School of Church Social Work at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, as the pastor.

The Long Run Baptist Association went nuts and tried to force the congregation to fire Rev. Weber and hire a man by threatening to cut off funds and kick them/us (I joined the church just after the Association made its final ruling) out of the building.  We incorporated as a church, purchased an abandoned machine shop on the corner of Shelby and Liberty (still in the same neighborhood) and changed our name to Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty. (I have repeatedly lost votes to get us a shorter, more usable, name. I wanted originally to name us Holcombe Memorial Baptist Church, but would have supported a dozen other suggestions, including Liberation Anabaptist Fellowship, but lost every time.) We refurbished the inside of the machine shop and took on a new chapter in our church life.  We had the first, but not the last, woman pastor among Baptists in Kentucky.

In 1992, we broke all ties with the Southern Baptist Convention because of its increasing fundamentalism.  We affiliated with the small, progressive, Alliance of Baptists.  We considered ties with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, but its hostility to gays and lesbians prevented us.  For the same reason, since the “issue of homosexuality” was dividing the American Baptist Churches, USA, we considered but did not join them.

We have long been a partner congregation of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.  Some of our members have served as BPFNA board members. Our pastor has been the preacher at a BPFNA summer conference and our members have taken various other roles within the BPFNA.  Many of our current and former members have been involved in other faith-based peace organizations such as The Fellowship of Reconciliation, Witness for Peace, Christian Peacemaker Teams, and Every Church a Peace Church.  In 2002, seeing the invasion of Iraq looming on the horizon (although I and other members worked to try to prevent this, it was with little hope that we could actually stop the juggernaut of war), the congregation as a whole declared itself a “peace church.”

Since the late 1980s, leaders and members of the congregation had been wrestling with homophobia and heterosexism.  In the ’90s, Rev. Weber told the church that she was joining “Religious Leaders for Fairness” to try to change local civil rights laws to stop discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons (a campaign that has met with partial success). We began attracting more “out” gay and lesbian members. (When asked if my church has gay members, I reply, “So does yours, but I know who at least some of mine are!”) After intense biblical and theological discussions, we began performing gay “weddings” (regardless of state and federal law) and ordaining gay and lesbian deacons.  In 2004, as politicians were increasingly stirring up hatred of GLBT persons for political gain, Jeff Street declared itself a “Welcoming and Affirming Congregation” and joined the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists.

In the ’90s, we formed a non-profit organization, Choices, Inc., and built first 1 and now 2 transitional houses for homeless or abused women and their families, Norma’s House, and Mary Jane Toney House.  Our pastor’s husband, a Presbyterian minister named Robert Owen, became the lead organizer for a faith-based community organization in the tradition of Saul Alinsky, CLOUT, Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together–and Jeff Street became a founding congregation.

God is not through with us, yet. We travel on a road together in discipleship–seeking nonconformity to the dominant culture and seeking ways to transform that culture.  If you are ever in Louisville, drop by 800 East Liberty and meet us.

N.B.: Several books have been written about our little church and/or parts of our history.  Maude M. Abner, The Story of the Union Gospel Mission, 1886-1944 (Louisville, KY: Mayes Printing Co, 1944), available in reprint from Antiquarian Booksellers.

Gross Alexander, Steve P. Holcombe, the Converted Gambler (Louisville, KY: Courier-Journal Printing Co, 1888).  You can download this for free here.  The description mistakenly calls Holcombe a Methodist. He was converted by a Methodist preacher, but became a Baptist.

There is a chapter on Henlee Barnette’s years as pastor in Henlee H. Barnette, A Pilgrimage of Faith: My Story (Mercer University Press, 2004).

Our former pastor, Mike Elliott, has told stories of Jeff Street in his Salty Saints books.

Michael Elliott, The Society of Salty Saints (Meyer Stone Books, 1987).

Michael Elliott, Community of the Abandoned:  Stories of Salty Saints (Meyer Stone Books, 1989).

Michael Elliott, Partners in Grace: Friends of the Salty Saints (Pilgrim Press, 1992).

Finally, several members of our current congregation edited and self-published, Bread for the Journey: Stories and Whatnot from Jeff Street (Lulu.com, 2008 ) which covers the 20 years to date of Rev. Cindy Weber’s pastorate.

August 3, 2008 - Posted by | Baptists, peace

7 Comments

  1. as the current pastor of FBC, Austin where Marney firsts became nationally known, it is nice to learn also of our connection through Jeff Street…At the urging of Henlee, I did a two year residency there during my student days in 1973-75…thanks for this brief, colorful history. Nice to catch up w/ a place that was so spiritually formative for my journey….

    Comment by austinokie | August 3, 2008

  2. Hey Michael, great history!

    Do you know if the Union Gospel Mission is mentioned in Clarence Jordan’s biography? It seems to me like it is, but I don’t have a copy anymore. Do you?

    Comment by Dan Trabue | August 4, 2008

  3. Welcome, AustinOkie! It’s good to hear that FBC Austin has such good leadership. I think Marney liked FBC Austin more than Myers Park, to judge from his comments. I think he found the people of Myers Park too upper class for his tastes, although he had a fantastic ministry there and led it to become even more of a progressive church than it had been.

    It’d be nice to renew Jeff Street/FBC Austin connections1

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 4, 2008

  4. Dan, if you mean Barnette’s biography of Jordan, I have loaned mine out and don’t remember if Jeff Street is mentioned. But there are other biographies and I know that Jeff Street figures prominently in some–after all, 1/3 of my dissertation was on Jordan!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 4, 2008

  5. I guess I was thinking of… Well, I couldn’t think of the name of the book (Cotton Patch Evidence??), but I was pretty sure I had a biography by Dallas Lee, but I couldn’t find a mention of it online. How many biographies are there?

    Comment by Dan Trabue | August 4, 2008

  6. There is, indeed, Dallas Lee’s, The Cotton Patch Evidence, Dan. It’s out of print, but can be obtained from Koinonia. I don’t remember if it mentions Union Gospel Mission, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. I do remember that Lee highlights Jordan’s Louisville years as the time when his ideas for Koinonia came into focus.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 4, 2008

  7. Michael, the Jeff Street and Holcombe books are both available online now here. fyi.

    Comment by Dan Trabue | November 25, 2008


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