The Progressivism of the Vine Street Christian Church is a “Continuing Process”
Reflecting its 200-year heritage, Vine Street Christian Church is proud to have earned a reputation as a relatively progressive church.
But to maintain this title in the future, leaders and lay members recognize that there is still much work to be done.
“What I find most progressive about us as a community are our attitudes towards big issues,” said Thomas Kleinert, Senior Minister for Vine Street. “We don’t fall back on doctrine. We never do. We always engage with people. We always answer questions and engage with honesty and vulnerability.”
Followers of the Disciples of Christ Church, some younger and some older, echoed Kleinert at a bicentennial festival on Wednesday. Members hopped in a cart to tour a site where the church once stood, at Church Street and 7th Avenue, then returned to its current location, along Harding Pike, where the church unveiled two historic markers for the first time.
Those who attended were joyful as they marked the history of the church, but that did not stop talking about difficult topics.
âIn the future, I hope we can work more on race relations,â said Ed Cole, who joined the church after moving to Nashville in 1972.
Eva Evans, who joined the church in 1974, said the same. She said she only knows one black person who attends church.
On other issues, the church stood out for taking certain positions at the time. In the 1960s, the then senior minister preached against the Vietnam War. In the 1970s, leadership opened up to the ordination of women, although women did not hold leadership positions until later.
In 1994, the church began fighting for LGBTQ rights after a devotee asked to marry her partner. This led to the launch of a survey that allowed lay members to share their perspective, Kleinert said. In these conversations, an older woman came out as a lesbian. Soon after, the church took an open and assertive stance, even though it caused many members to leave, Evans recalls.
Today, some church children have become non-binary, and two women are in leadership positions on church staff.
Tackle the race slower for the church
But race is the issue the church has made slower progress on, members acknowledged. As a 200 year old church in the South, this has always been true. Kleinert said that slaves attended church in his early years.
Ideologically, the church is progressive on certain issues of racial justice, such as reparations and affirmative action. The diversity of its members is the problem.
Teresa Smallwood, associate director of the public theology and racial justice collaboration at Vanderbilt Divinity School, whose job it is to engage local religious communities, said she sees Vine Street trying.
âIt’s not that people don’t care and it’s definitely not that they aren’t engaged,â Smallwood said. “It’s hard for people who are genuinely hospitable and whose hearts are really in the right place to take a stand in a place like Nashville, even in a place like Tennessee.”
Vine Street has strong ties to Vanderbilt Divinity, whose students will intern at Vine Street for ministerial training.
Smallwood said Vine Street’s intentions to address race issues in their community are genuine, but “that doesn’t mean you are effective.”
Kleinert does not disagree. âOur worship traditions are rooted in the traditions of Western Europe,â he said. âIt’s very, very hard to imagine that suddenly, just because we’re welcoming it, African Americans are going to come in and feel welcome and feel at home. Because I know they wouldn’t. “
That’s a myriad of factors why a church that wants to be diverse is not, said Lisa Thompson, professor at Vanderbilt Divinity and author of the forthcoming book “Preaching the Headlines.”
âLocation matters, and even how people love it, makes community, finds community,â Thompson said. According to 2020 census data, 90% of people who live in the same census tract as Vine Street are white.
That said, Vine Street is involved in various community outreach projects, such as Room in the Inn and Something to Eat, in which members involve Nashville residents from various socio-economic backgrounds.
Further, Thompson said, âIf you want a more diverse congregation or community, does your leadership reflect the kind of diversity you want? “
The considerations Smallwood and Thompson mention are what some members of Vine Street hope for the future, the same day they reflect on their past.
Cole said, “I think it’s an important part of our heritage here to ask these questions, to deal with these issues.”
Liam Adams covers religion for The Tennessean. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @liamsadams.