During America’s ‘Most Segregated Hour’, Both Black and White Pastors in North Carolina Grapple With Trump’s Rhetoric, Language, and the State of His Soul After ‘Angry’ Campaign Rally

The Rev. Stephen Howard delivers a fiery sermon at Cornerstone Missionary Baptist Church in Greenville, N.C. Howard’s sermon included strong words for President Trump’s rally last week that many called racist. (Eamon Queeney/For The Washington Post)

The Rev. Stephen Howard knew President Trump’s speech was going to be unsettling for his city and his mostly black church the moment he saw people had lined up at 4 a.m. Wednesday to get into the arena.

These were his congregants’ neighbors and co-workers. Soon, they would be cheering for a president that Howard and many of his flock at Cornerstone Missionary Baptist Church considered a racist. He knew he would have to say something.

“I’m not into politics, but I’m into speaking for people,” he said.

Across town, Brad Smith, the pastor at a 192-year-old predominantly white Baptist church, got his first inkling that something had gone wrong when his wife returned home from the speech. She was there as an employee of East Carolina University, where the rally was held, and was shaken by the anger in the auditorium.

“It was bad,” she told him. “Really bad.”

Last week’s campaign event in this North Carolina city was something different and more disturbing than the typical Trump rally. Before the president even stepped on the stage in Greenville, the House had voted, mostly along party lines, to condemn as racist his repeated attacks on four congresswomen of color.

At the rally, Trump focused much of his frustration on Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who is Muslim and a refugee. “Send her back! Send her back!” the people in the arena chanted in response.

The next day Trump sought to distance himself from the chant. “I disagreed with it,” he said in the Oval Office.

But in Greenville, the rally and its aftermath weren’t so easily dismissed. Mayor P.J. Connelly put out a statement defending his town as “a place of compassion and acceptance.” At Greenville’s lone mosque, members spent a portion of Friday prayers talking about racism and Islamophobia.

Some of the deepest soul searching has taken place in churches, and much of it fell to pastors like Howard and Smith. In the days after the rally, they spoke with spouses, friends and fellow congregants about what the event had revealed about their president, their country and their hometown. Were the president’s words and the anger they generated evidence of a moral or political failing? Did they say something deeper about their city? And did one of the biggest news events in Greenville’s recent history merit a pastoral response from the pulpit Sunday?

The G-D word

Trump’s Greenville rally and the “Send her back” chants it inspired, divided much of the country, and Greenville was no exception.

Most of the congregants at the Unity Free Will Baptist Church in Greenville, where Jeff Manning, 55, has been the pastor for the past 29 years saw little wrong in the president’s remarks or the chants that followed. They dismissed the cries of racism as more fake news.

On Friday evening, two days after the rally, Manning and his wife joined two families from his church for dinner. Soon, the talk turned to the president’s appearance in Greenville, the growing rancor in the country and the aspect of the rally that had most struck his congregation.

“What I’ve heard is how upset people are with the language [Trump] used,” Manning said. “He used the G-D word.”

This, of course, was a violation of the third commandment and a serious matter in Manning’s world, where the word of God is inerrant.

“Really?” said John Locklear, who had skipped the rally to attend Bible study.

“Children were there,” added Adam Congleton, who watched it on a live stream.

With the exception of college and divinity school, Manning, 55, has spent his life in Greenville. His house, surrounded by soybean crops, is just yards from the modest, brick one-story where he grew up.

Over the past three decades he has seen his congregation grow from about 150 to 700 people. Three years ago the church built a sanctuary on a 50-acre plot, with plenty of room to keep expanding.

He has seen Greenville change, too.

“It’s perceived as more progressive, but I don’t see that as a compliment,” Manning said.

He generally has liked Trump’s policies: the economy doing well, the Supreme Court inching closer to an abortion ban, and the president moving to protect the country’s southern border.

Manning’s biggest concern was the anger gripping the country, some of which he blamed on Trump.

“Christ got fired up at times,” Manning said, “but he was always righteous in his anger.”

Too often he worried Trump’s fury wasn’t righteous. And lately, that had led him to fret about the state of the president’s soul.

On Sunday, he didn’t plan to talk about the president’s rally or its aftermath. Instead, he would discuss a verse from Philippians about embodying Christ-like qualities: “To live is Christ and to die is gain.”

It was in this context that he found Trump wanting and wondered whether he was a “true believer.” “I have grave concerns about his spiritual condition,” Manning said of the president. “There’s too much evidence against it. . . . I pray he will become one.”

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Greg Jaffe and Cleve R. Wootson Jr.