Protestant-Only Ministry in South Carolina Opens Its Doors to Catholics

The front office of Miracle Hill Ministries in Greenville, S.C. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

In late May, the Rev. Jay Scott Newman received a visitor in his study at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville, S.C.

Reid Lehman, the CEO of Miracle Hill Ministries, sat down to tell the priest that Lehman’s evangelical agency, the largest provider of care to the needy in the Upstate —  the 10-county westernmost region of South Carolina —  was changing its policies.

For the first time in its 82-year history, the ministry planned to allow Catholics to serve as volunteers and employees in its vast network of homeless shelters, thrift stores and drug-recovery programs. More importantly, it would allow Catholics to serve as parents to foster children in its government-funded foster care agency.

The change marked a 180-degree turn for a ministry founded on fundamentalist Protestantism that has separated Catholics and Protestants in this region of the South for generations. That separation may explain why the priest and the CEO had never met, though the church lies only 3.5 miles from Miracle Hill’s offices and Newman has been its pastor since 2001.

But a lawsuit and a bruising public controversy over the ministry’s refusal to work with anyone who was not Protestant had finally brought them together.

In February, a Catholic mother of three who was denied an opportunity to volunteer at one of Miracle Hill’s children’s homes sued the federal and state governments, accusing them of allowing the ministry to discriminate on the basis of religion.

Aimee Maddonna’s lawsuit challenged a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services exemption that allows all foster care agencies in South Carolina to disregard a regulation barring religious discrimination in federally funded foster care programs.

Chastened by the public response to the lawsuit, which suggested that the ministry did not consider Catholics to be fully Christian, Miracle Hill’s board and CEO reconsidered.

The ministry continues to deny non-Christian applicants (including Jews, Muslims and nonbelievers). It won’t work with LGBTQ people, either. In May, a married lesbian couple sued the federal and state government over the religious exemption granted to Miracle Hill.

In an email, Lehman said he was traveling and unable to speak to a reporter.

But a news release acknowledged the ministry did not want to be known for its differences with other branches of Christianity.

“ … We recognize our previous stance has wounded other followers of Jesus Christ,” Lehman was quoted as saying. “For Miracle Hill, embracing Christians who share our beliefs simplifies our affiliation process while protecting core values and doctrinal consistency. It’s the right thing to do.”

If nothing else, the new policy marked a concession to changing times. Around the U.S. and the world, Catholics and Protestants have cooperated on a host of advocacy and social justice issues for more than 50 years.

“I grew up hearing all the time that Catholics were not Christians,” said Helen Lee Turner, a professor of religion at Furman University in Greenville, who spent her childhood in nearby Spartanburg. “This is what people believed. It’s really based on people not understanding what a Catholic is.”

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Source: Religion News Service