The Day I Walked Out of the Southern Baptist ConventionFeatured, Social Justice — By Curtis Honeycutt on December 9, 2009 at 12:00 am
A few thousand Southern Baptists from all over the United States filed in to the civic center in downtown Indianapolis. We sang hymns together, led by slick looking choir leaders. President Bush addressed us via satellite, which triggered the biggest applause of the whole event. I sat and observed, excited about such a gathering of people who shared my faith. I was nineteen, serving a summer internship at a suburban non-denominational church, and my church in Oklahoma made me a delegate since none of the church staff was able to trek the 800 miles to Indiana.
I honestly enjoyed the convention, even though I was the youngest person there by about twenty years. As I sat in my row at the conference, I couldn’t help but notice the people outside the window who were protesting across the street. A row of policemen watched on as the protestors chanted and angrily held up picket signs. I didn’t know what the uproar was all about…that is, until the homosexual issue came up.
Each year at the Southern Baptist Convention, leaders introduce a few major issues and the delegates vote to approve or disapprove the proposed stance on the issue. The decision thus becomes the party line for Southern Baptists, like when they voted to boycott Disney in 1997. Although a devout Baptist, there was no way I was going to stop going to Disney movies at age twelve. Toy Story instantly became one of my favorite movies, and I wasn’t about to turn my back on Buzz Lightyear just because Disney was gay-friendly.
A motion was presented to continue to take a stance against the “abomination of homosexuality”. I was glad that at least this time they left Mickey out of it, but, as they continued to talk about the issue from onstage, fellow brothers and sisters in Christ sitting around me started making some of the most rude and hateful comments I had ever heard. The general vibe in the room was hate-filled, and I even saw an old man snarl. I sat there, dumbfounded. I thought we were supposed to “love the sinner, hate the sin”, right? If we all thought they were going to hell, shouldn’t we at least pray for them? I couldn’t understand the collective hateful attitude in the room; I walked out.
People took notice and stared. I didn’t need to go to the bathroom. I grabbed my belongings under my seat and slowly shuffled out of my row, brushing across knees of the people who represented the only worldview I had ever espoused. Normally when people are moved at Baptist events, they walk down the aisle towards the stage and fill out a card. On this day, I made a bee-line for the exit. I wasn’t coming back.
I didn’t want to be part of a group who was known for what they were against; I wanted people to know me for what I was for…although I didn’t know exactly what that was yet. All I knew is that I couldn’t leave the parking garage fast enough to head back to the intern house at 23rd and Broadway in Indy. I grew frustrated at myself, as I had forgotten my umbrella, and the rain fell on the protestors and me alike, without playing favorites.
Back at the house, I wasn’t sure what to do with the rest of my day. I had requested the day off from my internship because I was a delegate, proud to represent my church in Oklahoma at the convention. I felt a huge amount of guilt, which is a spiritual gift possessed by every Southern Baptist. I was torn between my Baptist heritage and what I felt was right. What if my church asked me to come back and give a report? I’d have to tell them that I walked out. Before I could figure out what to do, the doorbell rang.
I answered the door. A rain-soaked man stood on the other side. He appeared homeless. He introduced himself as Percy, a guy who had fallen on some bad luck. I decided to let him in, and he asked me if I had any dry clothes he could change into. I ran upstairs and found a pair of brown cargo shorts, a pair of socks, and a Pacers shirt to give him. These weren’t exactly clothes that were in the Goodwill pile; they were some of my favorite shorts and a shirt I recently got at a Pacers’ playoff game. He said he liked basketball, so I gave it to him. Now, dressed like a college student, he asked me to help him find a place to stay. Initially, I hesitated to tell a complete stranger to get in my car and drive around in an unfamiliar (and potentially dangerous) part of Indianapolis, but I decided to do my best to find Percy a place to stay.
The first shelter we found looked promising. It had a picture of a lighthouse on the sign. Normally during the summer, Indy’s homeless shelters would be at half capacity, because the homeless people could sleep outside, fashioning makeshift beds under overpasses and on park benches. On wet days like this, you’d be lucky to find an available bed at a homeless shelter, and we weren’t fortunate enough to find an open bed at this shelter. We kept driving. This might be harder than I thought.
We decided it might be a good idea to get something to eat. Percy said he knew of a good place. On the way I learned more about his life. He told me about drugs, alcoholism, no father figure, losing his job, and living on the streets, but how God still loved him. I blurted out, “Wow, I wish my testimony was interesting like yours…my life is pretty boring.” Percy told me that I should be thankful for my “boring” testimony, and that God could use me just as much as he could use someone who had a complete turnaround. Wait a second, I thought, I’m supposed to be helping him, and he’s the one encouraging me!
The Country Kitchen came into view, which was a first for me. This was what you would call a “soul food establishment,” which I knew nothing about. Earlier that morning, I was in a room full of white people; now I found myself the only white person in the entire restaurant. Percy ordered, among other things, collard greens and pig’s feet. I stuck with fried chicken. I didn’t expect him to have money to pay for his meal—he didn’t. I paid and we left in search for an available bed at a shelter.
My view of homeless shelters changed at the second place we visited. The rain had picked up, and the place was crowded. Percy and I both tried to explain his situation to the people at the front desk. “Sorry. Full,” was the only answer they gave us. They didn’t bat an eyelash at our situation. Strike two.
Percy and I shook it off. At this point I decided that I would go the extra mile to help him, even though I barely knew him and didn’t feel completely safe. Percy told me he wanted to go talk to his son. I started to feel like the chauffer for the homeless, but I had already committed to helping out. We drove to a shady apartment complex, and Percy had me wait in the car while he looked for his son. While waiting, I watched as two guys approached each other and made a drug deal. Wow, this was a day of firsts. I made sure the doors were locked.
After what felt like an hour, Percy returned and thanked me, because it was usually too far for him to walk to go talk to his son. This saddened me because, in Oklahoma, I lived very close to my parents, and could drive to see them every day. We were driving out the parking lot slowly over speed bumps, and I saw another first; a lady was arguing with a guy, probably her boyfriend, and they began to yell back and forth at each other. She tricked out a switchblade and slashed his arm faster than I could realize what was happening. I couldn’t believe it; I had just witnessed a stabbing. I immediately grabbed my cell phone and began to call 9-1-1. “Don’t,” Percy said, grabbing my phone, “they’ll find out it was you.” That was enough for me to run the red light and speed off to the next shelter.
I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but this shelter was full as well. Rainy days make for packed homeless shelters. I decided to put Percy up in a cheap hotel for the night, and on the way to the hotel, I bought him a bicycle at a pawn shop. He had told me that the biggest hold up for him getting back on his feet was his lack of transportation; he wanted to get a job and get a new start. I did what I could to help him, and I honestly don’t know what happened to him after I helped him check in to his room for the night. All I knew is that I didn’t want to be like the priest or the Levite who didn’t give a second glance to the man who was left for dead on the side of the road.
Looking back on this day, I realize that my morning at the convention represented a Christianity I wanted nothing to do with. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not against Southern Baptists, but my perceived attitude of the collective group of people in that room (who represented all Southern Baptists) more than rubbed me the wrong way. I feel like this type of attitude and seemingly condescending approach to people who don’t fit in is the one glaring problem many people have with Christians.
What I did after I walked out represents how I’d like to live the rest of my life. I’m not saying I want to give all my money to anyone who knocks on my door, but I would like to be compelled by compassion, whether it is triggered by someone who is grieving, hungry, or hurting. My faith demands action, not boycotts. I’m far from perfect in this approach, but I would like compassion to be the defining characteristic of my life.
Curtis Honeycutt lives in Indianapolis with his wife, Carrie. He has a strong desire to see the local church engage in issues of social justice. Curtis is a regular contributor to Stuff Christians Like. You can find more of him at twitter.com/curtishoneycutt.