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Where justice and diversity meet radical welcome and healing hope

After stints in journalism and banking, the Rev. Dr. John Cleghorn turns his attention to writing about the ‘Resurrecting Church’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. John Cleghorn

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Dr. John Cleghorn used skills honed as both journalist and banker — his jobs before hearing God’s call to ministry in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — to write his first book, “Resurrecting Church: Where Justice and Diversity Meet Radical Welcome and Healing Hope,” published last year.

Cleghorn, the pastor of Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, was the guest Wednesday of the Presbyterian Foundation’s senior director of Theological Education Funds Development, the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty, the host of “Leading Theologically.” View their half-hour conversation here or here.

In “Resurrecting Church,” Cleghorn uses stories, profiles and insights from other church leaders and members he’s come to know on how they’ve found ways to build more racial diversity and extend radical welcome. Cleghorn and the congregation he serves have walked a similar path: he told Hinson-Hasty that Caldwell Presbyterian Church’s members and friends are 20% people of color and 20% LGBTQ. About half come from a church background other than the PC(USA).

He told Hinson-Hasty he wrote the book “to the self I might have been,” the reporter turned senior vice president for Bank of America, the nation’s second-largest bank.

Instead, “I got plunged into the deep end and have been learning ever since,” Cleghorn said of his ministry and research. “I use this ‘intersectional’ language with respect and humility and caution.” He borrows language developed by Prof. Kimberlé W. Crenshaw: Intersectionality is “a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not a problem to see that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem there and a class or LGBTQ problem there.”

The Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty

“It’s not really a problem,” Hinson-Hasty noted. “It’s an opportunity.”

“The proposition in my book is it’s a way forward,” Cleghorn replied. “It’s a far stretch for a lot of congregations to get from here to there, but it’s a proposition worth talking about.”

Cleghorn called enrolling in seminary at age 41 “an unexpected exit ramp.” Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, was opening a second campus in Charlotte just two miles from Cleghorn’s door. It was offering classes on Saturdays to cater to students with full-time jobs during the week.

Cleghorn saw the writing on the wall, telling himself, “You are out of options. I knew,” he told Hinson-Hasty, “I would stay on that exit ramp.”

In time he was called to Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte’s Elizabeth neighborhood. A few years later he wrote “Resurrecting Church,” about which Hinson-Hasty told him it “feels like you bring some of your journalism to bear here.”

Fortress Press published “Resurrecting Church” in 2021. (Contributed photo)

“It was fun to get back into some reporting,” Cleghorn said. He’s forged relationships with many of the pastors he reported on in the book. One thing about them and the congregations they serve is “they center social justice,” Cleghorn said, in a variety of ministry areas including worship, theology, formation, mission, evangelism, pastoral care and the use of their church campus.

“These are laboratories,” Cleghorn said of the churches and worshiping communities he studied. “Social justice is the heartbeat of these places.”

It’s right there in the prophetic books of the Old Testament, Cleghorn said. “There is the unrest we read about from the prophets and a willingness to engage in the messiness of the world. We can’t fix things — that’s up to God. But we can meet God in this work.”

“Gloriously messy” and “constructive tension” are among the watchwords at Caldwell Presbyterian Church, he said, and they’re also present in the churches he studied for his book.

“There is a particular messiness to this that is the lifeblood of these churches and their membership,” Cleghorn said, likening the tension to “a guitar string pulled taut. That’s when it makes a true note.”

It is both a sacrifice and a hardship, Cleghorn said, for people of color to worship each week at a majority white church.

“They are investing themselves and making an effort to come to worship on Sunday morning,” Cleghorn said. “They hold [Presbyterian] polity respectfully, but there is a revolutionary streak around the rules because rules can bind us.” Some look at membership standards “in a relaxed way,” Cleghorn said.

“That strikes traditional pastors as out of bounds. How dare you!” Cleghorn said. But during the pandemic, many churches have gained members who’ve joined in worship and even the life of the congregation online.

“A gentleman from Pittsburgh joins us and donates,” Cleghorn said. “I’ve never met him, but he’s my hero.”

Up to 20% of the Caldwell congregation is classified as friends of the church. “Some have been walking with us for years. They pledge and they volunteer. They help lead worship and they get on the streets [to demonstrate] when it’s time … We try to make a sanctuary for folks to just come and be, not hover over them and say, ‘Can we get you on a committee?’

“There’s our core membership,” he said, “and there’s a broader cloud of witnesses, which has grown online.”

Asked by Hinson-Hasty to offer a benediction, Cleghorn reached for his mother’s Bible and turned to Philippians 4:8: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

“Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me,” Cleghorn said, quoting Paul in the next verse, “and the God of peace will be with you.”

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