The Nassar story has faded from the headlines since his dramatic sentencing in a Michigan courtroom in January. The disgraced doctor pleaded guilty and was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison. But Denhollander, now a 33-year-old lawyer and mother of three, has not gone away. Instead, she has turned her attention to another sexual abuse scandal—this one in her own evangelical community.
The alleged cover-up of a pattern of child sexual abuse within a large Protestant network now called Sovereign Grace Churches has been a major story in American evangelicalism since 2012. That’s when a lawsuit was filed alleging a pattern of sexual and spiritual abuse within the network—and not just abuse itself, but pressure to “forgive” those actions, internal policies discouraging reports to law enforcement, and ostracism for families who refused to help cover up crimes. The suit was dismissed in 2014, but a former youth leader, Nathaniel Morales, was convicted in a separate case of abusing three boys. In an attempt to move on from the thorny and slow-moving scandal, Sovereign Grace tweaked its name, moved its headquarters from Maryland to Kentucky, and replaced several of its top leaders.
To many of its critics, the organization has not done enough to repent and atone for its sins. Founder C.J. Mahaney, meanwhile, left the organization in 2013 but has successfully fought to retain his status as a leader in evangelical circles. Denhollander has spent the last several weeks speaking up about the case in a series of interviews and detailed public statements. She calls it “one of the most well-documented cases of institutional cover-up I have ever seen.” This has led to a tense series of dueling statements and accusations closely watched by Christian media outlets. Thanks to Denhollander’s activism, Sovereign Grace has been forced to explain itself more deeply in the last few weeks than it has in the previous five years.
This week, Denhollander got results. Mahaney, the group’s former president, announced Wednesday that he is withdrawing from a major upcoming conference that attracts thousands of pastors and church leaders. “Given the recent, renewed controversy surrounding Sovereign Grace Churches and me individually, I have decided to withdraw from the 2018 T4G conference,” Mahaney said in a statement, adding that “No one should interpret my withdrawal as an acknowledgment of guilt.”
In the last couple of decades, there had been signs, however modest, that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning might cease to be the most segregated hour in America. “Racial reconciliation” was the talk of conferences and the subject of formal resolutions. Large Christian ministries were dedicated to the aim of integration, and many black Christians decided to join white-majority congregations. Some went as missionaries, called by God to integrate. Others were simply drawn to a different worship style — short, conveniently timed services that emphasized a personal connection to God.
The fruits could be seen if you looked in the right places, particularly within the kind of nondenominational megachurches that gleam from the roadsides here in the sprawl of Dallas-Fort Worth. In 2012, according to a report from the National Congregation Study, more than two-thirds of those attending white-majority churches were worshiping alongside at least some black congregants, a notable increase since a similar survey in 1998. This was more likely to be the case in evangelical churches than in mainline Protestant churches, and more likely in larger ones than in smaller ones.
Then came the 2016 election.
Black congregants — as recounted by people in Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Fort Worth and elsewhere — had already grown uneasy in recent years as they watched their white pastors fail to address police shootings of African-Americans. They heard prayers for Paris, for Brussels, for law enforcement; they heard that one should keep one’s eyes on the kingdom, that the church was colorblind, and that talk of racial injustice was divisive, not a matter of the gospel. There was still some hope that this stemmed from an obliviousness rather than some deeper disconnect.
Then white evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump by a larger margin than they had voted for any presidential candidate. They cheered the outcome, reassuring uneasy fellow worshipers with talk of abortion and religious liberty, about how politics is the art of compromise rather than the ideal. Christians of color, even those who shared these policy preferences, looked at Mr. Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants, his open hostility to N.F.L. players protesting police brutality and his earlier “birther” crusade against President Obama, claiming falsely he was not a United States citizen. In this political deal, many concluded, they were the compromised.
“It said, to me, that something is profoundly wrong at the heart of the white church,” said Chanequa Walker-Barnes, a professor of practical theology at the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University in Atlanta.
Early last year, Professor Walker-Barnes left the white-majority church where she had been on staff. Like an untold number of black Christians around the country, many of whom had left behind black-majority churches, she is not sure where she belongs anymore.
“We were willing to give up our preferred worship style for the chance to really try to live this vision of beloved community with a diverse group of people,” she said. “That didn’t work.”
It has been a scattered exodus — a few here, a few there — and mostly quiet, more in fatigue and heartbreak than outrage. Plenty of multiracial churches continue to thrive, and at some churches, tough conversations on race have begun. The issue has long shadowed the evangelical movement. The Rev. Billy Graham, who died last month at 99, bravely integrated the audience at his crusades and preached alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but kept silent at key moments.
By Elrena Evans
From the time he was a young teenager, Scott Morris felt the call to serve God through the church. “But the thought of preaching 52 sermons a year sent shivers down my spine,” Scott says. Having thus ruled out the pastorate, Scott nevertheless decided to attend seminary. While there, he began to sense that perhaps God was calling him to serve in a different way.
“I read the Bible,” Scott recalls, “and I couldn’t help but notice everything in there about healing the sick. It is on every page.” But when he looked at the churches around him through this lens, he wasn’t satisfied with what he saw: “We pray for people on Sunday morning, the pastor is expected to visit people in the hospital, a few people visited the shut-ins, and that defined our healing ministry.”
This wasn’t always the case. Historically, the church has at times been at the forefront of the healing arts. In the early Middle Ages, the primary hub of medical care and scientific discovery was the Christian church. The twinning of faith and healing—caring for the soul and the body—is woven throughout the story of our faith. “We have this history; we’ve just forgotten it,” Scott says. “We build large hospitals that have church names on them, but they have absolutely nothing to do with worshipping congregations.”
Scott was determined to find a better way.
We have this history of caring for the soul and the body; we’ve just forgotten it.
After spending three years studying the church’s engagement with healing from both a historical and theological perspective, Scott was in the chaplain’s office at Yale School of Medicine, and saw a pamphlet on the chaplain’s desk that said “How to start a church-based health clinic.”
“And I go, ‘That’s it!’” Scott says. “That is what I want to do.”
“It was either that or pitch for the Atlanta Braves,” he chuckles. “And they never called me.”
o following seminary, Scott went to medical school, meeting people and learning along the way that others cared about the church’s relationship with health, too. Upon graduation, looking for a place to start his dream and build a church-based health clinic, Scott read that Memphis, Tennessee was the poorest major city in America.
And that was all it took for Scott to move to Memphis. “I was 33 years old,” he says. “I was too young and too dumb to realize that what I wanted to do had no chance to succeed.”
That was 1987. Now, just over 30 years later, Scott’s dream is not only surviving but thriving—as an organization named, aptly enough, Church Health.
The National Rifle Association has given more than $7 million in grants to hundreds of U.S. schools in recent years, according to an Associated Press analysis, but few have shown any indication that they’ll follow the lead of businesses that are cutting ties with the group following last month’s massacre at a Florida high school.
Florida’s Broward County school district is believed to be the first to stop accepting NRA money after a gunman killed 17 people at one of its schools Feb. 14. The teen charged in the shooting had been on a school rifle team that received NRA funding.
Denver Public Schools followed Thursday, saying it will turn down several NRA grants that were to be awarded this year. But officials in many other districts say they have no plans to back away.
The AP analysis of the NRA Foundation’s public tax records finds that about 500 schools received more than $7.3 million from 2010 through 2016, mostly through competitive grants meant to promote shooting sports. The grants have gone to a wide array of school programs, including the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, rifle teams, hunting safety courses and agriculture clubs.