Unorthodox

Three stories of rogue ministers who found their own states of grace

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#1: Pastor 7

The embankment feels like a ninety-degree incline, but the minister strides purposefully up it as if hiking a switchback trail—”the trick is to take it sideways,” he says—toward the abutment of the I-75 overpass. Notched into this sunless elbow-crook of concrete, out of sight and largely out of mind for the commuters speeding above and directly below, are members of his congregation.

Photograph by Jason Maris

The nesting materials of tattered blankets and cardboard, rank bundles of clothing and potato chip bags, a stray flip-flop, and Mr. Boston empties surround those who are sleeping it off, each occupant allotted a “cubby,” or just enough ledge between buttresses to stretch horizontally—people stashed on a shelf. The minister and his team of four volunteers extend sacks of food and scoop up the willing recipients in bear hugs, cheerfully oblivious to any lesions, infected track marks, and, in one case, a concave depression where a homeless veteran’s nose used to be. Then they link hands, teetering in this precarious spot polluted with exhaust fumes and other odors, to pray.

Because bridges function as a powerful metaphor, Pastor 7, as this roving evangelist is known, named his ministry 7 Bridges to Recovery. Dedicated to rescuing and restoring “the last, the lost, and the least,” his bands of volunteers from all over the country, guided by a core group of trained regulars—most of them survivors of the streets and the strip clubs, with naughty old tattoos that have been painfully edited into church-friendly images—venture out several times a week, no matter the weather; under the bridges and into “the bluff” around Cleveland Avenue and Bankhead Highway.

“When I first started doing this, riding around on my Harley, the reaction was, ‘Who is this crazy, bald-headed, white man with a Fu Manchu telling me about Jesus?’” Pastor 7 says, in a voice that sounds like the growl of a loyal and loving watchdog. With his intense gaze, no-bull biker veneer, and beefy arms filigreed with Bible-verse tattoos, he is not your grandparents’ suit-and-tie preacher. In a dark alley, he looks, to put it bluntly, like a stone-cold badass who could mess you up. Indeed, Pastor 7 used to “put people in hospitals regularly, as a right-hand tool of Satan,” he says. Back then, the FBI knew him as “Dangerous Dan.”

Born Danny Wells, he ran away from an abusive home life when he was ten years old and lived in the woods around Jonesboro, where he foraged for food. “I was so beaten down, with a stutter and a learning disability,” he recalls, noting that he progressed only to the second week of second grade before dropping out of school. After hardening and bulking up, he drifted into crime and addiction, staying awake and crazy-eyed for up to ten days at a time on meth, and running drugs and guns for bikers’ clubs and organized crime syndicates.

Pulling a stretch in the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta, he was punished with solitary confinement in 1996. Sixty days into it, he experienced his Damascus Road conversion when God spoke to him, he says, renaming him 7, the numeral that symbolizes completion. Still imprisoned a couple of years later, he found himself jolted, ex nihilo, with literacy. For the first time in his life, he could read. “It comes in flashes, like a PowerPoint presentation,” he says, demonstrating by flipping to random pages in his dog-eared Bible and reading aloud, still marveling at this ability.

After his release, he lived in a halfway house and worked briefly for a furniture maker. By then dubbed Pastor 7 and brimming with agape, he roamed the southside to spread the Word, sometimes welcoming weather-beaten men into his own home. These converts started joining him on his rounds, along with urban missionaries, megachurch suburbanites, and earnest college kids talking of “social justice.” “Even if they’re secular, they all leave crying about Jesus,” the evangelist notes.

Today they hand out 7,000 meals a month. When someone decides to leave the streets, the volunteers will help him or her into a van conspicuously labeled “Go Jesus, Go Jesus, Go!” and, with high hearts, head back to one of 7 Bridges’ two, separate group sanctuaries: a residence hall for men in southeast Atlanta (with renovations under way for two additional men’s facilities) and the ministry’s headquarters in Smyrna. Dubbed “the Garden,” the Cobb County facility is a church with a dormitory, which, though it lodges about sixty-five traumatized women and thirty-nine children, seems remarkably quiet and serene. Kleenex boxes are scattered everywhere. “Emotions run high up in here,” explains Velma, a resident with a shy smile.

Pastor 7, whose left-hand ring finger is tattooed with a vine of thorns, resides at the Garden in a modest apartment plastered with the kind of snapshots and children’s artwork displayed by an exceptionally outgoing “people person.” He accepts no salary, he says, and his sprawling organization runs on volunteerism and donations, including a new, restaurant-scale kitchen.

“It’s a miracle that I, somebody who was destroying lives including my own, was called in this way,” he says, “and it just goes to show that God can and will use anybody.” —Candice Dyer

#2: Dennis Meredith

As the organ music swells, the Anointed Voices choir builds to a crescendo of hallelujahs with a backbeat of synchronized clapping and stomping.

Photograph by Jason Maris

Here and there, among the pews of Tabernacle Baptist Church, someone convulses into ecstatic “holy dancing” before swooning and falling to the floor. To an uninitiated newcomer, this exaltation, known as “getting slain in the Spirit,” can alarmingly resemble a seizure, heart attack, or fainting spell. No one raises an eyebrow, though, except the matriarch who dutifully waves her funeral-parlor fan over the faces of the fallen, and the male ushers, a small army wearing lavender vests, who carry them—horizontal and transfigured—out of the sanctuary.

If the Rapture comes, it well may resemble a bright Sunday morning at this African American church, established in 1917 in Atlanta’s historic Old Fourth Ward. Consecrated to Old Time Religion, with its jubilant, tambourine-rattling motions and emotions, it feels far away in tone, temperament, and demographic from the nearby Unitarian Universalist and existentialist colloquies, where gay rights are a foregone conclusion and spectacular “crowns” do not bloom from matrons’ heads. Yet with around 85 percent of its 1,200 members professing to be gay, Tabernacle Baptist Church claims one of the largest LGBT congregations in the South, says its leader, the Reverend Dennis Meredith, an out-and-proud, fifty-seven-year-old minister. It is, in the coded language of church directories, an “affirming” faith community where “all are accepted,” and the flock finally is settling into a period of peace and cohesion after a tumultuous, soul-searching decade.

“I became a member specifically because Pastor Meredith reaches out to everybody with a simple but powerful message,” says Emmanuelle Thomas, a gay man in his twenties. He adds, with a knowing edge to his falsetto, “He’s, um, realistic in ways most preachers aren’t.”

Meredith, a Toledo native called to preach at age eighteen, studied theology at Samford University and Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. In 1994 he assumed the pulpit at TBC, which had dwindled to 120 congregants. A tall, virtuoso choir soloist who is charismatic in every sense of that word, Meredith shored up membership, finances, properties, and morale. His stance against homosexuality resonated with the elders, who traditionally perceive gay rights as a threat to the beleaguered black family.

In 2001 his then twenty-one-year-old son, Micah, came out. “My wife and I did some research, giving due diligence to the Scriptures, and concluded the condemnation of homosexuality is wrong,” Meredith says. “So I changed my tone and message to one of inclusion, which attracted a bigger LGBT presence.”

Drag kings in men’s suits and fine-boned young men still sporting body glitter from Saturday-night club-hopping began filtering into the pews, as well as middle-class gay couples with children. Many of the newcomers had grown up in charismatic churches where they no longer felt welcome, but they still knew the moves, still sought the “anointing.”

“Probably 90 percent of the congregation walked out just because they couldn’t accept my change in language,” the pastor says.

Like his church choir, though, Meredith was just ramping up to a barn burner finale. In 2007 he officiated at a lesbian wedding and then, after hearing testimony from some street-ravaged prostitutes, welcomed the transgendered. Another exodus ensued. Then the bombshell: Meredith himself came out to his church. “You can imagine how that went over,” he says, exchanging glances with his partner of six years, Lavar Burkett. (Meredith and his former wife, Lydia, divorced in 2007 but have remained close friends. “She knew,” he says.)

Some TBC members defected to the Lithonia megachurch of Bishop Eddie Long, who preaches against homosexuality, even criticizing TBC. Since then, four young men have sued Long over allegations of sexual misconduct. The cases were settled out of court. Meredith issued a formal response, and a clarion challenge, to the faithful. In a YouTube video, he urged his community to rally around the accusers. He exclaimed, with mounting frustration, “Something needs to be said to end this charade and the homophobia that comes from so many African American pulpits! . . . You homophobic, hate-preaching preachers, stop doing it! It’s time to speak truth to the lives of the entire community, not just those people who you think deserve it, but everybody deserves God’s love.”

Has Bishop Long responded to the video, which quickly went viral?

“No,” Meredith says flatly.

This summer Meredith tells his story in a memoir published by JL King, activist and author of the New York Times bestseller On the Down Low. Lacing his long fingers together contemplatively, Meredith says, “One of my friends told me, ‘You tore down this church, brick by brick.’ On the other side, I am building it back, brick by brick. Our numbers are up, but the economy is bad; we’re only a month behind in our mortgage compared to a while back when we were several months behind. Every week, though, people come to me and say they were suicidal, that this church saved their life. If the church has saved just one life, these struggles have been worth it.” —Candice Dyer

#3: Barbara Brown Taylor

Grace-Calvary Episcopal, an antebellum North Georgia church that can seat barely a hundred souls, was always an unlikely parish to launch arguably the nation’s most influential female preacher, even before the ruckus over her leaving it. The tiny white clapboard chapel, nestled against towering pine trees like an idyllic scene from a Currier & Ives engraving, was built in 1842 as a summer respite for wealthy Anglicans from Savannah and Charleston. Quaker-like in its simplicity, its tall, clear windows overlook a verdant knoll tucked a couple of blocks off Clarkesville’s town square. Its nineteenth-century iron bell, which sits in a cupola beneath a spare wooden cross, was cast by George Handel Holbrook of East Medway, Massachusetts—son of an apprentice to Paul Revere.

Photograph by Jason Maris

For the Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor, the place was love at first sight. She and her husband, Ed, stumbled upon Grace-Calvary during a weekend country drive; two years later, she resigned from Atlanta’s high-profile All Saints’ Episcopal to take up its pulpit. Or, more accurately, to take up its helm, as she never felt comfortable speaking from its imposing dais, a relic of an era that valued authority.

Visiting Grace-Calvary with Taylor today, it’s obvious her affection hasn’t dimmed. She pauses at the paneled front doors to explain that the keys were lost decades ago, and no one ever bothered to replace them. Inside, she runs her hand tenderly over wooden box pews worn smooth by 170 years of bended knees and hearts lifted up to the Lord. “You know, the original recipe for the paint included real oxblood,” she says, testing an east pew like a silver-haired Goldilocks.

Serendipitously, a repairman begins playing the balcony’s old pipe organ, its pedals creaking and wheezing like rheumy joints. “Can you hear the workings?” she asks eagerly, blue eyes suddenly alight. “That’s what I like.” Before departing, Taylor gazes maternally across the sanctuary, fingers absently tracing the cool white marble of the baptismal font. Grace-Calvary is clearly her empty nest, even if she’s the one who flew the coop.

In her 2006 memoir, Leaving Church—the book that made her a Georgia Writers Association Author of the Year—Taylor gave many reasons for “falling out of love with church.” She was facing fifty and, with little time for study or prayer, was burning out professionally. Sunday crowds were overwhelming Grace-Calvary’s historic building. And she was conducting four consecutive services, wearing an orthopedic corset beneath her vestments to prop herself up. She found it harder to shore up her flagging spirit.

But what the media wanted to know—from PBS to USA Today to NPR’s Fresh Air—was how such a prominent minister had become so disenchanted. After all, Taylor was a female Episcopal priest, a national bestselling author who was twice ranked among the nation’s most elite preachers by surveys of her peers (along with Billy Graham and Max Lucado). She has received eight honorary doctorates as well as alumni awards from both Emory and Yale. To the faithful, her defection was tantamount to Oprah giving up daytime TV.

To Taylor’s chagrin, reporters implied that she’d renounced her orders, though she remains an ordained priest and occasionally preaches to this day. “It was my problem, my change, my transformation,” she says now. “It was amazing how many people responded to it as the truth.”

But Taylor clearly struck a nerve in an era of theological and political polarization. The church, she contended, was becoming preoccupied with arguments over doctrines like the authority of scripture and the ordination of homosexuals, banking on redemption through right ideas rather than right relationships. “Human beings never behave more badly toward one another than when they believe they are protecting God,” she wrote. “I wanted out of the belief business and back into the beholding business. I wanted to recover the kind of faith that has nothing to do with being sure what I believe and everything to do with trusting God.”

Raised by happily lapsed churchgoers, Taylor had never really been a conventional Christian. When Taylor was in high school, they settled in Druid Hills, where she got recruited by a Peachtree Baptist youth group, then blossomed under an ecumenical student ministry at Emory. She accepted a fellowship to Yale Divinity School without realizing she needed a home church in order to be ordained. So she joined Atlanta’s Central Presbyterian, which she admired for its social activism. Unfortunately, Presbyterians proved few in New Haven, so she switched to Episcopalian. An “ecclesiastical harlot,” pronounced the clergyman who welcomed her into the denomination that finally felt like home.

In the fifteen years since leaving Grace-Calvary, Taylor has again become a Sunday vagabond. Local notoriety has made it difficult to worship unself-consciously among the congregations of rural Habersham County, where she and Ed, an organic farmer, stone carver, and retired engineer, own a hundred-plus-acre farm. Sometimes the farmhouse’s wraparound porches serve as their sanctuary, the calls to worship issued by roosters and silver wind chimes providing the doxology.

The couple supplement their Christian beliefs with bits borrowed from other religions. They observe a Saturday Sabbath, abstaining from work and commerce, occasionally reciting Shabbat prayers at sundown. Ed has ventured deep into Native American traditions, hosting sun dances and sweat lodges on their native Cherokee property. Barbara studies Eastern faiths, noting that Buddhism and Hinduism have done a far better job of celebrating the divine feminine than Christianity.

“Both Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary have been incredibly limited and packaged in the Christian imagination,” she says. “I am very grateful when I find a statue of the Virgin Mary with her hair loose, dancing on a dragon’s back with a half moon under her feet. Yes, you go, girl!”

Taylor is now a professor at Piedmont College in Demorest. Not surprisingly, her favorite class is Religion 101: Religions of the World. Last fall, on the first day of the semester, she raced late into the classroom, wearing pearls and a lavender cardigan and looking as chipper and prim as Mary Poppins, and began pulling mysterious symbols out of a deep straw bag. Summer-dazed students, slouched low in their seats, warily eyed her Buddha, her Shiva, her Koran. “I promise that I won’t make anyone sacrifice live animals,” she assured them.

Toward the end of the class, Taylor turned earnest: “You are the best hope for being global citizens. There is no way you can love your neighbor if you don’t know what your neighbor holds sacred. Are you convinced this is an important class yet?” —Betsy Riley

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