Is it worth staying with a church that keeps the oppressive status quo?

by Mariam Williams

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At some point during the last two weeks, I came across the following headline: "West Louisville residents pray for proposed Walmart, even as critics protest." The photo with the headline showed about 20 people standing in a circle outside in their winter coats, holding hands. Most of them had their heads bowed.

I found this headline confusing because it wasn't from The Onion or another satirical website. It was from a local television news station that, though not known for having a liberal general manager, also doesn't have a reputation for fabricating news. This was real. A group of people -- some identified as ministers -- stood at the site of a proposed Wal-Mart, praying that God would make a way for the store to be built.

The backstory that led to this point is about 50 years long and has to do with Louisville's history of segregated housing, including a period of urban renewal in which an interstate was built to cut off West Louisville, where large concentrations of African-Americans had moved to and still live, from the rest of the city. The city plans back then also forced many black business owners to close shop. West Louisville has suffered from economic neglect ever since.

The gist of the more immediate story is this: Wal-Mart wants to build a store at a site in West Louisville that's been vacant for 20 years. Despite protests from groups who see the company as predatory in its treatment of workers and who are concerned about local businesses, Wal-Mart has the go-ahead from the city.

However, zoning laws say anything built at the proposed site must have an urban design and a building close to the curb (and to a heavily used bus line). Wal-Mart has proposed a suburban design, with a parking lot at the curb and the building in the back. The company has threatened to pull out of the project altogether and take an estimated 300 jobs with it if forced to comply with the urban design.

Some ministers and residents who believe the low-paying jobs are more important than the urban aesthetic, the convenience of workers and customers who don't drive, and obeying the zoning laws of the city giving the company money to build a new store gathered to ask God to help Wal-Mart disregard the law. Other ministers, some of them pastors, spoke in front of the local planning commission in support of Wal-Mart disregarding the law and the urban aesthetic. Other pastors asked their church members to sign a petition to encourage the planning commission to give Wal-Mart a waiver so it can disregard the law.

The situation troubles me, and not just the fervent prayers for a predatory company. Sure, I wonder if church leaders supporting Wal-Mart have asked themselves, "If this is how Wal-Mart treats a city that throws money at it, how does the company treat its workers?" But I also wonder, "If this is what my spiritual leaders are supporting, why should I follow them?"

I'm conflicted between the comfort I find in the worship experience, fellowship, and teaching my church offers and the discomfort I feel knowing my politics are in stark disagreement with the head's and much of the body's on this one. That's not the first time this has happened, and it won't be the last, but sometimes, pastors (in general, not just mine) encourage believers to think about a political issue from a Christian perspective, and other times, pastors encourage members to mobilize. Seeing droves of people get in line to sign a petition supporting Wal-Mart's bullying -- after being told from the pulpit to sign it -- reminded me that church leaders are in a unique position of influence and that their influence is powerful. Why should I support an institution that uses its power to keep the oppressive status quo?

This is different from the many times the Christian perspective on an issue has conflicted with my feminist identity. No matter how often my feminist and spiritual beliefs have gone to war, I've rarely been asked from the pulpit to make a concerted, anti-woman political effort, and when I have been asked, I've found another church. Why not do that this time?

Maybe I expect patriarchal politics from a patriarchal institution, so I'm a bit number to the support of gender inequality from the pulpit. Perhaps I have lower standards when it comes to capitalism and economic inequality. Or maybe it's something less shameful. Maybe consistently good teaching, worship, and fellowship outweigh political disagreements.

Either that or I've just given up on finding the perfect combination of church experience and radicalism.

[Mariam Williams is a writer born and raised in Louisville, Ky., where she's received numerous arts awards. When not working in the field of social justice research and taking graduate courses in women and gender and Pan-African studies, she blogs at Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]

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