Religion

SC megachurch pastor defends meeting with President Trump at White House

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with inner city pastors in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018.
President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with inner city pastors in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018. AP

Less than a day after visiting the White House, the pastor of a South Carolina megachurch was fielding criticism after sitting next to President Donald Trump.

John Gray, the head of Relentless Church in Greenville, issued a long statement on his meeting with Trump on social media.

Gray was part of a group of black religious leaders from across the United States who met with the president for what the White House called Trump’s “Meeting with Inner City Pastors.”

Gray previously was a pastor at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Texas. He also is the star of a reality TV show on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network, which wspa.com reports will resume shooting in Greenville.

He justified his attendance and admitted the decision to sit, speak and pray with Trump was not an easy to make, saying he was aware of the “optics” of the situation.

“My wife told me ‘If you go, no one will hear what you say. They won’t understand why you’re there. And any good that could come out of it will get lost in translation,’ ” Gray wrote on Facebook. “I had not one thing to gain by being there. Not. One.”

So why did Gray go?

According to his Facebook post, which included a video that has been viewed nearly 200,000 times on Gray’s page and the Facebook page for Relentless Church, he did it to help people by speaking about prison reform.

“That could greatly end up benefiting many people who look just like me,” Gray wrote, but added his initial reaction was to turn down the invitation because of how divisive and controversial the Trump administration has been. “The pain of so many is too real. The hurt. The isolation. The sense of disenfranchisement. The real hate that has bubbled to the surface of the national discourse. I myself have been vocal about my personal disagreements with key policy decisions of this administration.

“I have everything to lose. Credibility. Reputation. Every natural inclination says stay home. Don’t get played.”

But he did attend. He spoke, and he led the opening prayer. He sat immediately to Trump’s right.

When he was given a platform from the president, Gray said he was grateful for the opportunity and emphasized “the very best principles of scripture call us to fight for the poor, for the oppressed, for those who have made mistakes,” according to White House transcripts.

While sitting next to Trump, Gray invoked the name of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Dr. King said we cannot influence a table that we are not seated at. And so we pray that this conversation will be fruitful and productive, and honoring of the best traditions of this nation,” White House transcripts show Gray saying.

In reflection, Gray does not waver in his decision. But he is reaching out to those who were upset by it.

The two Facebook posts have a combined 6,000-plus reactions, nearly 3,000 comments and close to 5,000 shares.

And Gray wants those who are critical of him, as well as those who supported his visit, to be heard.

“The pain of those who have been hurt is real. And I would be a dishonorable man not to acknowledge that,” Gray posted. “But I will honor what I believe was the mandate on my life to be there and available to God should He choose to give me voice. This post is in no way attempting to invalidate the visceral reaction of those who can’t imagine why I would be in the room.”

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President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with inner city pastors in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018. Andrew Harnik AP

Gray was not the only pastor in attendance who was criticized. Phillip Goudeaux of Calvary Christian Center in Sacramento, California, received blow back for his attendance, which some viewed as an endorsement of the president.

Pastor Darrell Scott of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, was critical of Barack Obama at the meeting. Among other things, he said Trump was going to be “the most pro-black president that we’ve had in our lifetime.”

Gray closed his Facebook post by making sure followers knew he was not the pastor who made those remarks: “(OH YEAH, the pastor who said the current president was the most pro-Black president ever WAS NOT ME-so get that STRAIGHT) love y’all.”

Gray arrived in Greenville in May. Prior to being known as Relentless Church, the megachurch was called Redemption Church and was led by Ron Carpenter Jr.

Carpenter moved out west when he took over Jubilee Christian Center in San Jose, California, but not before introducing Gray, The State reported in May.

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