CHARLOTTE – Myers Park Baptist Church isn’t your typical Southern Baptist church and its members want everyone to know it.
The 75-year-old congregation in one of Charlotte’s oldest neighborhoods has long taken the stance that everyone is welcome in the church. That means atheists, believers of different faiths, immigrants, LGBTQ – everyone.
Now, they’re turning the volume up on that message through a series of colorful posters with bold sayings both inside and outside the sanctuary, announcing the church’s position on immigration, climate change, social justice, religious freedom, racial equality, women’s empowerment, sexual identity and environmental justice.
A few of the messages read, “Jesus was an undocumented immigrant, just saying …”
“We can’t affect positive change on the environment? What a bunch of manure.”
“Where you can use whichever restroom you identify with. Amen & hallelujah.”
“A pastor, an atheist and a transgender woman walk into a church. No joke.”
“Helping Charlotte get its God on since 1943.”
The campaign is among the first outcomes of a strategic planning process that began four years ago. At the time, the majority of the congregation agreed the church needed to brand itself better, especially for new Charlotteans who don’t know its history.
Some of the members formed an identity task force to tackle the issue and worked with an outside firm to poll the public through phone surveys, focus groups and other research methods. What they found was only a small percentage of the surrounding Charlotte population knew who Myers Park Baptist Church was and what it stood for.
“When people drive by, they see a Southern Baptist church and say, ‘We know what they’re about,’ well, they’re wrong,” said Chaz Seale, chair of the identity task force.
Seale said Baptist churches, especially those in the South, are known to be highly exclusive, conservative and have been associated with abuse, scandals, racial bias and hatred toward homosexuals and immigration.
Seale said Myers Park doesn’t want to be known as “that kind of Baptist church.”
“We need to speak a lot more loudly, more clearly and in a fun way to show people who we really are or else they’ll just assume that we’re something that we’re not,” he said.
Seale described the church as “highly interfaith,” with more than 2,000 members representing more than 20 different faith communities. It’s also a safe environment for sharing different opinions, and a place where controversy and free discussion on scriptures is accepted.
Its members believe strongly in social justice and that climate change exists, but it’s up to mankind to do something about it. They want to talk about school shootings, mental health and gun control, and don’t agree with how illegal immigration is being handled in the U.S.
“We’ve been down to the deportation centers as a church and it’s abysmal how they’re treating human beings,” Seale said.
The church also welcomes the LGBTQ community and recently installed new inclusive restroom signs that read, “All who identify as men,” and “All who identify as women.”
“This campaign isn’t about making a political statement,” Seale said. “These are just things that we stand for and if someone wants to take that as political, that’s fine, but it’s what we talk about and it shouldn’t be political.”
Laurie Donato was the co-creative director of the campaign, along with her business partner, Ruben Lopez. She has been a creative director for 20 years and currently works for an ad agency in Charlotte.
Donato said she used to attend Myers Park with her mom when she was a child, but hadn’t been since she moved back to Charlotte as an adult. She thought she knew what the church was about from childhood memories, but her mom insisted it was different.
As soon as Donato heard the Rev. W. Benjamin Boswell speak, she realized her mother was right. She was actually going through the process of joining the church when she learned about the rebranding effort and offered her services pro-bono.
“Everything we’re trying to do is to change people’s perception of Myers Park Baptist Church,” Donato said. “We want to flip the scripture.”
Lopez and Donato created over a dozen witty, bold and colorful messages for Myers Park Baptist Church that were eventually printed on posters and pew pencils.
They also made a video with Go North Films called “Myers Park Baptist Church. OPEN TO ALL.” It shows the reveal on Dec. 8 and explains why the church is taking this stance. Donato hopes the video helps spread the word not only across the region and state, but also the country.
“We think this is a message that is not going to stop in Charlotte,” she said. “This is a message that is really going to breakthrough because no one is doing it.”
But Donato believes you have to take risks to start a conversation. Sometimes, she said, companies and organizations fail when it comes to marketing their message and the risk doesn’t pay off.
“I think we’re saying exactly who we are instead of who we’re trying to be,” Donato said. “People who get it wrong are trying too hard. It’s forced. This isn’t forced and if you like it, join us and if you don’t, that’s OK, too.”
The Rev. Boswell said that while the intent of the campaign is not to offend anyone, he knows not everyone will like the church’s new messages.
“That’s a sad moment when those who have always been front and center and have always been included are somehow offended by a poster that says we love transgender people,” Boswell said. “People feel that somehow because we want to include people who have been marginalized, that we don’t want to include them and that’s just not true. We love everybody.”
The point is to show people – especially those who have historic church hate from experiences in their past – what church can be, instead of what it has been.
Boswell said the poster that reads “When we say ‘bless your heart’ we mean it strictly in the biblical sense” aims to overturn Southern passive aggressive behavior. Meanwhile, the saying “A pastor, an atheist and a transgender woman walk into a church. No joke” reframes what it means to be Baptist.
His favorite message is “Spoiler alert: God loves you unconditionally,” because in the end, the campaign will be successful if people see the signs and feel a deeper love of who they are, regardless of whether they join the Myers Park Baptist community.
The campaign has been in the works for a while, but Boswell said they chose to release it in December because that’s when many people are thinking about the story of Christmas.
“Christmas sort of evokes these feelings of love, whether it’s love for your family, your spouse or your partner, but also love for humanity, so we thought it was appropriate to reveal our message of inclusivity and love during the season of love,” he said. “We thought it was a message that would resonate with the season.”
Want to learn more?
Myers Park Baptist Church is located at 1900 Queens Road, Charlotte. Visit www.myersparkbaptist.org, find the church on Facebook or follow on Twitter and Instagram @mpbaptist for more information.