Charlotte church apologizes for whites-only directive

tfunk@charlotteobserver.comSeptember 6, 2013 

— A north Charlotte church noted for its multiracial membership is apologizing after a top pastor sent an email calling for “only white people” to appear at the front door to greet worshippers.

Leaders at the nondenominational Freedom House Church near UNC Charlotte declined to be interviewed Thursday but released a statement through a Texas-based public relations firm that has many evangelical Christian clients – including Billy Graham.

The statement said that one of the 11-year-old church’s longtime pastors – Makeda Pennycooke, who is black – sent the controversial email and has since admitted that “this was a grave lapse of judgment” and has apologized to the congregation and “asked for forgiveness.”

The church’s senior pastors, Troy and Penny Maxwell, are white.

According to WBTV (channel 3), which was given a copy of the email by a woman who has attended the church, it was sent by Pennycooke, the church’s executive pastor in charge of operations, to a group of volunteers who act as greeters at the church’s 9 a.m. service.

“We anticipate having an increase in the number of people visiting and attending Freedom House over the next few weeks,” she wrote in the email. Then, after writing that “first impressions matter” and that the church wanted “the best of the best on the front doors,” Pennycooke wrote this:

“We are continuing to work to bring our racial demographic pendulum back to mid-line. So we would like to ask that only white people be on the front doors.”

In the statement released by A. Larry Ross Communications, Freedom House Church leaders said the email was prompted by the church’s desire to be inclusive and open to all races. Pennycooke, the statement said, “noticed our front door greeting team was no longer reflecting the racial diversity of our entire congregation, and she wanted potential visitors to see people like themselves upon entering our church.”

Former Charlotte City Council member Greg Phipps, who is black and has been on the church’s usher team since its founding, said he met with Troy Maxwell and other leaders of the church to get an explanation for the email, which perplexed him.

“An email like that is highly volatile and potentially explosive,” he said. “(Maxwell) explained that it was a mistake and no reflection of his heart.”

Phipps, who recently retired from the U.S. Treasury Department, called the email “disappointing” but said he’s sticking by the 3,000-member church and the Maxwells, whom he’s known since the 1990s, when they and he lived in Richmond, Va.

“It’s unfortunate that this happened,” said Phipps, who is seeking the District 4 seat on the Charlotte City Council. “But I am confident we will move forward and get past this, with God’s grace.”

Phipps said he did advise Troy Maxwell that, even in a growing church such as Freedom House, “being more hands-on when it comes to communication that is outgoing” would be wise.

Other members were also upset by the email, Phipps said, and they, too, talked it over with Maxwell and others at the church.

Freedom House Church has grown steadily since its 2002 founding. After years of holding its services in schools, the church began worshipping last year in its first building.

From the beginning, the church leaders’ plan was for a multiracial, multicultural church that reached out especially to young people.

In 2005, Troy Maxwell told the Observer that part of the church’s vision was to have racial reconciliation in Charlotte and to have all ethnicities represented in the church.

“Everything we do is centered around bringing different nations together,” he said. “That’s the way heaven’s going to be, so that’s what the church is supposed to look like.”

Pennycooke, who wrote the controversial email, echoed Maxwell in 2011, when the church broke ground on the building.

“We want the church to reflect heaven, and heaven is going to be full of all generations,” she said then.

Phipps said he has seen Freedom House grow increasingly diverse over the years, and now – despite Pennycooke’s suggestion that the pendulum had swung one way – appears to be a church with roughly equal numbers of blacks and whites, with Hispanics and others, too.

“It’s like a melting pot, really,” Phipps said. “When you walk in, you see the diversity. … Now we need to get past this potential storm and make sure it never happens again.”

Funk: 704-358-5703

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