If I were a Christian, I’d go to Pastor Tommy McDearis’ Blacksburg Baptist Church, just to hear him speak.
A Canadian politician and judge, Thomas Chandler Haliburton, wrote in 1840, “Never discus religion or politics with those who hold opinions opposite to yours; they are subjects that heat in handling, until they burn your fingers.” Tommy doesn’t hesitate to talk about both.
I know Tommy best through our Blacksburg Rotary Club. We talked recently about his take on religion and politics.
Tommy grew up in north Georgia. He first attended a rural Methodist church, but later his family migrated to a rural Baptist church. It was a less than favorable migration. “The negative preaching highlighted hell. Every scripture reading led to a sermon on hell.
“Most people believe a wrong choice leads to a penalty. Human minds are geared that way. To me, the Christian faith is based upon God’s grace. God loves you no matter what. Our response should be a life of gratitude. ‘Thank you, God for loving me even when I’ve done unworthy things. I want to honor you by doing the best I can do.’ Our call is to share that there is a God who loves and cares about people.
“That approach goes against human nature. It seems to lack justice, and people believe there should be justice. There are consequences to bad choices. The good news of my faith is that not even bad choices will prevent God from loving us.
“Yes, God cares what we do … He wants the best for everybody. I think He’s omnipresent and involved, but I don’t think God knows of every move we will make before we make it. He knows our potential for positive and negative actions. This is different to many of my more conservative brothers and sisters in faith. Many believe God knew all along of our every action. I disagree. God knows what we could do, and he has shown us how to avoid bad choices. He offers the power to choose well.
“Today, we are seeing choices by some Christians which are not for the benefit of people, society or the nation.”
Disillusionment with graceless faith led Tommy to leave the church entirely during his early teen years. But at age 16 he met a minister who convinced him God was a God of grace, mercy and love, one who had dreams for him. It changed Tommy’s life and directed him back to the church and ultimately to the ministry. Not long afterwards, another mentor guided him to a social justice gospel.
“They helped form who I became. I was unloading chairs from a pickup truck at a youth outreach rally where I was one of the leaders. There I realized the ministry was my calling. It was a mysterious, amazing moment for me. It was the epiphany of unloading chairs.”
Tommy went to Berry College and then to seminary where his brand of Christianity became inextricably tied to social justice. He said, “I personally don’t believe you can follow Jesus and not care about people. Christ was a radical man. He befriended prostitutes and sinners. He sought those who needed him most. His entire ministry was about making things and people better. He fed the hungry. He clothed the unclothed. He gave drink to the thirsty. God wants the best for the world, and our task is to make that happen.
“You can’t accept our faith and envision Jesus taking children from their parents and putting them in cages. You cannot advocate ‘sending her back home’ to an American citizen born somewhere else.
“I look at the strength of Christianity in the time of slavery and Jim Crow, and I cannot understand how Christians felt that was okay. As I’ve gotten older that’s become more baffling. Ours is a faith of love, and true love creates the justice that makes the world a better place. It looks at what’s wrong and tries to make it right.
“People – and not just Christians – are fearful. Things seem to be getting worse and we’re not able to stop it. Parishioners are being shot in churches and kids in schools. This never happened in my youth. We lock our church to protect ourselves. When this happens, even faith turns negative.
“Mine is a love-based, grace-based ministry. Even people who disagree with me know that I love and care about them. Occasionally, people will leave our church annoyed, but not often. Everybody is welcome in our church. It’s the best I know at making all people welcome. Sometimes this bothers some people, but not often. On the whole, our church embodies God’s love to everyone, and that thrills me.”
Michael Abraham is a businessman and author. He was raised in Christiansburg and lives in Blacksburg.