What a youthful face, I thought. A neighboring newspaper, in Statesville, must have found a teenager to write columns.
Actually, he was a college student. Still, coming across a fellow hometown newspaper columnist so close by and so young caught my eye.
I checked in on Rob Lee’s columns from time to time over the years. Nothing in particular sticks in my mind about his early writings. He seemed like a nice kid who at least didn’t focus on teen angst, fusses with parents, the Saturday-night date scene and such.
Instead, the young man to our south wrote about faith — not a common topic among the young and/or the non-clergy. Lee wrote about serious, adult topics like the goodness in people. Nothing controversial.
After a time the newspaper updated his photo and showed him wearing a clerical collar; you know, the white strip under a shirt collar that’s worn in place of a necktie or bow tie. Lee had become a minister, I learned.
I had not checked in on the 24-year-old Rev. Lee in quite a while. I don’t know him from Adam, and I’m not part of a church where the preacher wears a clerical collar.
Things had changed. The nice young man with a penchant for newspaper columns had honed an edge and gotten in hot water after just five months into his first pastorate.
Following a Washington Post column last year on racism and then a speech during a public forum in Statesville in January, the recent Duke seminary graduate got some attention in liberal media as a descendant of Confederate army commander Robert E. Lee who denounces racism.
Then MTV, the youth-oriented cable TV network, invited Lee to Los Angeles to present one of its video music awards on TV.
Before leaving for LA, Lee told his hometown Statesville ‘paper that “it goes to show that if you make a stand for something people will notice.”
He got noticed.
“Today,” Lee said on the Aug. 27 MTV broadcast, “I call on all of us with privilege and power to confront racism and white supremacy head on.” He praised Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March against President Trump in January and the young woman who died in the violent Charlotteville, Va., protest Aug. 11. He called his ancestor Robert E. Lee “an idol of white supremacy, racism and hate.” Racism, Lee added, was “America’s original sin.”
Now, think about hearing that your preacher did something like that. And think of what your church would do.
It wasn’t long before Lee abruptly resigned as part-time pastor of Bethany United Church of Christ, in a rural community between Winston-Salem and High Point, prior to a church vote on him.
He said the church had split, as “a faction of church members were concerned about my speech” and were “uncomfortable with the attention the church was receiving.” He described his feelings as “deeply hurtful.”
Church attendance on Sunday mornings numbers “a couple dozen,” the Statesville ‘paper said.
“I’m quickly realizing that I have quickly become a lightning rod,” Lee said in his column following the TV show. Then in his next column, after his resignation, he cited the immigrant Dreamers and Moral Monday leader the Rev. William Barber and said “this message isn’t about a person who resigned, but about not being afraid to have the tough conversations surrounding racism.”
He elaborated on The View TV show and said “let’s get some church leaders in the news who are doing Christianity right.”
I’ve witnessed church splits over the pastor. They are nasty. Separating fact from gossip is nigh impossible. People who had appeared saintly can turn very out of character during a church controversy.
After all, church is next to family. For some, church is family. And family squabbles are the toughest.
“It just breaks my heart,” Bethany member Brenda Jones told The Associated Press. “That is all I have to say about it.”
Reader comments on Lee on the big Winston-Salem ‘paper’s web site were biting.
“It’s been scary and hard to bear,” Lee said in his most recent column.
Pastors don’t just present fine oratory on Sundays. Pastors represent the congregation. They lead the congregation. They are one with the congregation. An impossible task, to say the least.
And when pastors no longer reflect the congregation, they go. And they go quickly.
It’s during such times that the Lord’s admonition to “love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” faces its greatest test.
May the Lord show mercy when we fail.
By the way: My compliments on the newly opened Elkin Rock Facade park downtown and its greatest attraction — its public restrooms. Now I don’t have to hold it.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.