John Pavlovitz spends a lot of time talking and writing about the close alignment between fundamentalist Christians and the Republican Party, and he has gained a national following for his efforts to rally progressive Christians to stand up to that conservative coalition.
But the pastor from North Carolina said his overarching goal transcends politics. He said he just wants to help people figure out “how to make the world a more welcoming, compassionate place.”
Pavlovitz will bring that message to Billings on Sunday, April 29, during an appearance at the First Congregational Church, 310 N. 27th St. The event is scheduled for 6 to 9 p.m. and will include a talk by Pavlovitz, followed by a question-and-answer session and book signing.
Until the fall of 2014, Pavlovitz said said in a telephone interview from North Carolina, he was a minister working at a local church in Raleigh. Raised Catholic, he eventually became a Protestant minister, working for a Methodist church for 10 years before joining a congregation affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
He was fired from that church by the head pastor for, in Pavlovitz’s words, “being more outspoken in terms of diversity and inclusion.”
Before he was fired, he had been blogging for a couple of years, using his blog mainly to write about issues important to teens and the parents of teens at his church. After he was fired and was free to express himself more fully, he began to build a following beyond his church. Then, in the summer of 2015, he wrote a blog post titled “If I Have Gay Children (Four Promises from a Pastor and Parent).”
Its message of compassion and acceptance, and its rejection of dogmatism, struck a chord, Pavlovitz said, and “the blog exploded and went viral.” He appeared on CNN, found himself being written about and witnessed a huge influx of new readers of his blog, Stuff That Needs To Be Said.
“I was suddenly given this sort of global, virtual congregation,” he said, and he began doing pastoral care via Skype and Facetime. “I started pastoring a group of people all over the world.”
He was also approached by representatives of a book publisher. “They said, ‘Would you give us a book proposal?’ And I didn’t even know what that was.”
He wrote a book anyway, expanding on the themes he was developing on his blog. His first book, “A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community,” was published last fall.
Pavlovitz, who is now a pastor at a nondenominational church in Raleigh, said he can’t help writing often about politics, given everything that has happened in this country since the election of President Donald Trump.
“All the areas that our faith talks about, that our faith is relevant in, are being touched,” he said. And there are so many people of faith who don’t want to be lumped in with the unquestioning followers of Trump and the Republican Party.
As he wrote in a blog post on Tuesday, “We need to name this lie and push back hard against it: God does not belong to Republicans. Jesus is the not the property of white Bible Belt Evangelicals. The GOP platform doesn’t have the market cornered on morality.”
That kind of message resonated with Montana state Rep. Jessica Karjala, a Billings Democrat. She and her newly formed organization, the Montana Voter Policy Institute, are sponsoring Pavlovitz’s appearance in Billings.
Too many fellow Democrats appear to be unwilling to recognize that a coalition of conservative Christians and Republican politicians has succeeded in dominating state politics by first dominating Yellowstone County, Karjala said.
In particular, she said, first-term U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, by funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Laurel-based Montana Family Foundation over many years, built the political base that he called on when he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2016, then successfully last year when he won the special election to replace U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, now the secretary of the Interior.
Karjala said right-wing Republicans “have been able to overtake the entire political landscape of the state by politicizing churches in Billings.”
Pavlovitz’s appearance will be the institute’s inaugural event. The group’s mission, Karjala said, is to educate voters on policy, to work on voter registration and to teach people about the legislative process. Other members of the group’s steering committee are Carla Cobb, Shelley Thomsen, Eric Warren, Chris Goodridge, Teresa Bessette, Danny Choriki and Penny Ronning.
Karjala said she told Pavlovitz about other developments that show why a countervailing political force is needed here. She mentioned how Grace United Methodist Church was vandalized for supporting the LGBTQ community, and how a white nationalist ran for office on the Republican ticket.
Pavlovitz said he wasn’t surprised to hear what has been happening in Billings and around Montana.
“It’s happening throughout the country,” he said. The good news is that people in places like Montana have been organizing, getting together with like-minded people to counter the activities of religious fundamentalists and conservative activists.
Pavlovitz said he has been “invited to a lot of historically conservative strongholds. I’ve been in the heart of the Bible Belt for much of this tour. It’s very refreshing.”
One problem for progressive Christians, he said, is that by their nature they don’t build on fear and the threat of damnation, and they organize not so much to fight against others as to help people who have been discriminated against and marginalized.
Progressive Christianity “doesn’t want to become a dominant power, because that’s what it’s fighting against,” he said, and it is natural for progressives to want to reach out and engage with people from different belief systems.
“It can’t be an adversarial situation because that’s how we got where we are,” he said.
Details: Tickets for John Pavlovitz’s appearance at First Congregation Church are $25 each. You can buy tickets by clicking here.