First Baptist now tied to ugly protests
I've visited Charlotte's First Baptist at least a dozen times in my years on this beat and never left without feeling good. From Sunday worship to Wednesday's community lunch and devotional, this is a church that expresses its convictions with a positive warmth.
Perhaps until now.
When members of Operation Save America protested outside churches, mosques and abortion clinics earlier this month -- displaying gruesome pictures, screaming at people, getting arrested -- the small group was helped by First Baptist, one of the city's largest and most respected churches.
First Baptist wasn't on the front line. The church provided parking spaces and ice water for protesters, and displayed crosses signifying its belief that abortion violates God's law.
That was enough, though, for the leader of Operation Save America to count First Baptist as a friend.
"They were very kind," said the Rev. Philip "Flip" Benham. "The biggest church downtown gave us an `Amen.' "
First Baptist chose to help
Operation Save America generated more media attention than it deserved, given its lack of public support. Benham said the eight days of demonstrating drew 400 out-of-state supporters and 60 to 70 locals. There are Sunday school classes close in size to that. The decision by First Baptist to help the operation strikes me as more interesting than a handful of zealots circulating tracts. Among their targets were Forest Hill Church and Silver Mount Baptist. Benham said those churches haven't done enough to protest abortion at a nearby clinic.
The Rev. Phil Anderson, First Baptist's minister of family life, said deciding whether to work with Operation Save America presented the 3,400-member congregation with a "narrow line to follow."
Anderson said the South Davidson Street church shares the group's opposition to abortion. He believes Benham is scripturally on target. But he also said the group's in-your-face methods are "very much up for debate" -- including the truck that was driven around town displaying pictures of aborted fetuses.
"I wouldn't want my child to turn a corner and there it was," said Anderson.
But weighing the group's tactics and principles, Anderson is satisfied First Baptist did the right thing.
"We were very happy with our level of involvement," he said. "We were supportive without necessarily making a full endorsement."
A delicate balance
First Baptist's decision is worth talking about because it challenges us to balance two principles: Taking a stand while respecting those who think differently than us.
When I think of First Baptist, I think of a family that reaches out to the single mother, the overburdened businessperson, the tempted teen. I don't think of a family that reaches out to Operation Save America, and to its leader.
The last time I saw "Flip" Benham, he was carrying one of those abortion posters and screaming at people who had just finished praying for us all at the National Day of Prayer.