Midway Hills Christian Church has always been a small congregation with an outsized reputation. That’s mostly because of all the social justice work that’s come out of the church.
Earlier this year, when a church in Kentucky proposed a resolution for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to become “a people of grace and welcome to all,” Midway Hills was the first in the country to become a co-signatory. The only regret might have been not being its author. At the denomination’s national convention this summer, Midway Hills fought to pass what opponents called “the gay resolution.”
The church on Midway Road just north of Royal Lane has been welcoming the LGBT community for decades. P-FLAG Dallas started there in the early ’90s. More than 10 years before that, the church was the first home of the Turtle Creek Chorale.
And a year ago, when the Rev. Arthur Stewart became the church’s new pastor, he said he might have gotten a bigger response had he told the congregation he was left-handed than when he told them he was gay.
“It was a non-reaction,” he said.
The Rev. Steve Sprinkle, one of Stewart’s professors at Brite Divinity School, called him “a breath of fresh air.”
He said Stewart, 29, is exactly what the church needed to revitalize the congregation. Stewart describes his congregation as a little quirky but passionate on social issues.
“We’re a wonderful anomaly,” Stewart said. “We’re the liberal uncle no one talks about.”
In the 1950s, the church helped desegregate Dallas schools and hosted Martin Luther King. It was one of the oldest integrated congregations in the city.
“In the ’70s we had more women in leadership than was thought to be appropriate by mainline standards,” he said.
He laughed at the idea of any devoted members not being considered appropriate leaders.
At some point in its history, gays and lesbians were given full membership, considered a radical step by most churches decades ago.
“We were open and affirming before it was a thing,” he said.
By the time it was a thing, Midway Hills was actually late in officially getting the designation, but leaders decided it was important to display it on the website for potential members looking for a church.
Roger Wedell, who serves on the Midway Hills board of elders and maintains standing ordination in the denomination, attended the denomination’s meeting that considered the “gay resolution.”
“There’s a subtlety to the resolution,” Wedell said.
He called it “a position of the assembly” and said that in a question-and-answer addendum, it takes the position, “This resolution is not an ‘Open & Affirming’ declaration.”
Those opposed to it threatened a schism in the church. Stewart said leaders understood how divisive it was within the church and scheduled prayers before and after the vote.
Wedell said the position adopted is not binding on any congregation but shows where the denomination is moving. He said each region is independently incorporated and individual churches have autonomy, so no proclamation could be forced on any congregation.
But Stewart said the resolution has significance.
“We decided to switch the status quo from closed and denying to gracefully welcoming,” Stewart said.
He said it changes the default to a more hospitable position and summed it up simply.
“All means all,” he said.
Stewart said when the final vote was taken, it passed by three-fourths. And while it may not be binding on any congregation, he said it will cause conversations among even the most conservative in the denomination.
Since joining Midway Hills, Stewart has kept up the church’s tradition of remaining somewhere ahead of the mainstream.
Earlier this year, he participated in the science textbook hearings in Austin. As a pastor who believes in science, he said he’s comfortable balancing his religious beliefs with scientific fact. Those views were not particularly welcome by the committee.
Instead of using the Bible to deny science, he prefers to use biblical teachings to focus on caring for those in need.
“I think it would be really neat if we could make sure every person in our zip code has a coat,” he said.
And he’d like to see everyone with enough food — so he’s starting a monthly food drive.
Currently, members volunteer regularly at Austin Street Shelter and partner with North Dallas Shared Ministries, which runs one of the city’s largest food pantries.
Twice a month, about 60 quilters meet at the church for Project Linus to make quilts for every child in a Dallas hospital. Stewart joked it was the church’s sweat shop but called the work they do amazing.
When he was interviewed for his position, he asked about their commitment to feeding the poor.
“Are you OK if we need to sell the building so we can feed the poor?” he asked.
When the board didn’t object, he knew he had found his dream job.
And the young pastor is attracting younger members. When the church opened a nursery, there were five infants for the first time in a long time.
And the church is planning its first baptism in several years.
He said the monthly jazz service is attracting new members. That service, held the fourth Sunday of the month at 5 p.m., features the Dallas Jazz Quartet, made up of five members.
Stewart appreciates how special his congregation is. While other LGBT pastors have to hide their sexual orientation, about 40 members of Midway Hills — more straight than gay — marched with him in the Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade.
He quoted a colleague whose philosophy he wishes more pastors would embrace.
“If you want to look at a member of the LGBT community and tell him Jesus Christ doesn’t love you, you may need to re-evaluate what you’re doing,” he said.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 1, 2013.