Skip To Content
BuzzFeed News Home Reporting To You

Madeline Gray for BuzzFeed News

The Sort-Of Socialist Church Is Taking A Radical Approach To Christianity

Jubilee Baptist is a quasi-socialist, anti-racist, LGBTQ-affirming church conducting a bold experiment: focusing on debt, work, and freedom from oppression instead of fear and moralism.

Posted on December 12, 2019, at 11:27 a.m. ET

Every Wednesday night, right around 7 p.m., thousands of Bible studies are starting in churches across the country. The lighting is generally bad, the coffee weak, and the furniture aging. Everyone’s tired from the workday, and not necessarily ready for a close study of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. But the midweek Bible study is a standard of contemporary American Christianity, a spiritual and community check-in.

On Wednesday night at Jubilee Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a group sits around the same sort of rickety conference table you’d find in churches all over the town, the state, the country. In the cabinets behind them, there are old Baptist tracts and stacks of New Testaments with covers declaring GOOD NEWS AMERICA, GOD LOVES YOU. But no one’s reading Galatians tonight. They’re reading Karl Marx.

“Let’s go around and introduce ourselves,” says Joe Stapleton, the high school English teacher leading the class. “Names, pronouns, how you’re feeling.”

Everyone opens their handouts — a section of Marx’s Capital, with handy summaries and annotations. They work slowly through the idea of use value versus exchange value and commodity fetishism. It’s most people’s first time with the material, and it’s admittedly a slog. At one point, after a particularly theoretical passage, someone exclaimed, “What the hell did I just read?”

But Stapleton is a clear and patient teacher. On “deskilling,” he explains: “It makes it so that any worker can be plugged into any job, so that if you want to unionize, they can say, ‘Oh, fuck off.’” On the way we talk about “the economy,” as if it were a natural force, he elaborates: “People make it sound like it’s some monster living in the woods that you have to make sacrifices to, but the economy is just us. How am I doing? That’s how the economy is really doing.”

When he says that the way capital works in our lives is outside our individual control, but not our collective control, there’s a soft shout from across the room: “Someone should say an amen!”

The room explodes in laughter, but it’s a reminder: This class all comes back to church. At various points, John Thornton Jr., one of the co-pastors of Jubilee, asks, “So why is this important to us, as Christians?”

The intro to the Marx reading packet — cheekily called “Financial Literacy Class” — makes it explicit. “At Jubilee, we know our Christian faith has something to say about our whole lives,” it reads. “God cares about our race, gender, sexuality and class. God wants us to live full lives with each other, to provide for one another and to struggle together, bearing one another’s burdens. Because our lives depend so heavily on money and our money comes from our jobs, we think we should have a good understanding of how our economy works and who it works for.”

That’s one of several straightforward ideas at the heart of Jubilee, a church guided by the overarching premise that if God does, indeed, care about our daily lives, then he also cares about the ways that we currently suffer in them. And the way so many of us suffer has to do with money, and debt, and all sorts of intersecting forms of oppression. To ignore these things is to abdicate the church’s role in society — and cede its place in daily life. The leaders of Jubilee — Thornton and his two co-pastors, Heather Folliard and Kevin Georgas — are determined not to let that happen.

A year ago, the congregation, then called Ephesus Baptist, had dwindled from a solid membership of several hundred people in the ’90s down to just twelve regular attendees, the youngest of whom was in his fifties. The church had half a million in savings, but its demise seemed imminent. Then Georgas, the pastor at the time, had a wild idea: What if the church started over entirely and used the savings to help repay the debts of its members — and others in the community in need?

This September, Ephesus was reborn as Jubilee Baptist: a quasi-socialist, anti-burnout, anti-racist, LGBTQ-affirming church focused on debt forgiveness and worker solidarity. When I spent a week at Jubilee this October, it felt vital, and alive, in a way I have not experienced in over three decades of attending church. It doesn’t feel like a social justice club or particularly cool in any way. It just feels like a place where people genuinely care about other people — which, in the current landscape of American Christianity, can feel incredibly radical.

Madeline Gray for BuzzFeed News

Members of Jubilee Baptist Church sing during a Sunday service in Chapel Hill.

Around the world, church leaders wonder why attendance has fallen off a cliff — especially among millennials. The number of Americans who describe themselves as Christians has gone down 12% over the last decade. Seventy-six percent of boomers identify as Christians, compared to 49% of millennials. “Regular church attendance,” according to one pastor, used to mean around three times a month. Now, “regular attendance” means once a month. It makes sense, even outside of spiritual considerations: The (Christian) Sabbath is no longer a day off for most people. And if you work all week, and chase your to-do list and kids’ activities all day Saturday, chances are you just want to spend Sunday actually, well, resting.

Leaders have tried to make church cooler, the music less stodgy, the language more accessible. As Thornton put it to me, “They ask the question ‘Why don’t people go to church?’ Or ‘Why don’t people come to our church?’ But very few of them are asking ‘Why would someone come to church?’ Or thinking of how to offer an answer that actually matches what people want and need.”

Most people, Jubilee leaders believe, don’t actually want the best praise music, or a pastor who tells them who they can or can’t love, or a book that tells them how God wants them to be rich. They want a church that believes that the way things are, especially in terms of oppression — financial, racial, and otherwise — doesn’t have to be the way things will continue to be. That life can, and should, be dramatically different. And that the church should have a central role in making that happen.

Jubilee is not about changing the world in the “we’re gonna win the war on Christmas,” soldiers-in-the-culture-war sort of way, with its focus on rooting out any element of society that could be considered “secular,” from Harry Potter to queer people. Nor in the “we’re gonna collect change for overseas missions” or “volunteer once a month at a soup kitchen” sort of way. Not even in an “I’m going to try to be a kinder person” sort of way. Jubilee believes that truly following Jesus’s teachings, especially in the contemporary, capitalist world, requires a radical reconsideration of wealth and work and power. It means working toward revolution: political, economic, and social.

“All the sermons I’d heard before were always so inward-looking, like, talk to Jesus all the time and you’ll get rich and prosper. But Jubilee addressed the precarious position we’re all in — the general feeling that we’re all fucked,” Josh Fugate, an early church member, told me. “I mean, I got laid off, I’m in debt. What happens if I get sick? Most of my problems aren’t actually spiritual. Jubilee is fixated on working people. On keeping our hands in the dirt.”

Madeline Gray for BuzzFeed News

Co-pastor John Thornton, center left, hands Hazel Keck, far left, payment to forgive some of her debts during Sunday service at the Jubilee Baptist Church.

Getting to Jubilee Baptist, located in what’s known as the North Carolina “Triangle” of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, involves a winding trip on Ephesus Church Road. Today, that road is flanked by Italianate pop-up mansions tucked into tiny lots. But when Curtis Booker was growing up, it was all farmland. The roads were dirt until the 1960s. The original plantation, owned by his great-great-grandfather, grew cotton and then, after the abolition of slavery, tobacco. And like most plantations out in the countryside, they’d built a “chapel of ease,” where itinerant preachers would speak to those within walking distance.

In 1891, the chapel of ease became a Baptist church, but it wasn’t until 1950 — when the area began to fill with soldiers who had returned from war and their new families — that construction began on the structure that stands today. Church members went to the decommissioned barracks at Camp Butner, salvaged timber, and built what Booker still calls “a little country church.”

“This church is an example of beating swords into plowshares,” Booker told me, an allusion to the Book of Isaiah. “And turning war into peace.” A retired high school teacher, Booker cuts an unassuming figure: Like many men of his age, he’s partial to tucked-in golf shirts; he is lovingly referred to across the church as “a talker.” But his memory is tack-sharp, and he’s become the history-bearer for the church whose pews and coffers had, until recently, been filled by members of his extended family. Booker remembers every pastor who has preached there, every disagreement that tore the church apart. He remembers getting baptized as a young child, so small for his age that they put a cinder block in the baptistery so he wouldn’t drown.

Booker remembers each of the booms at the church: in the ’50s, when he was born and church membership across the country hit a nationwide high of 69%, and again in the ’90s, when services were packed and medical residents would regularly show up for Sunday service in their scrubs. He also remembers the money that was raised with the hopes of building a rec center, which would hypothetically attract young people with families, and when that idea was put on hold, year after year, as membership numbers at Ephesus continued to decline over the course of the 2000s. In 2007, the longtime pastor left the church, cleaving the remaining congregation in two. Various warring factions in the congregation made it impossible to find a replacement pastor, even on an interim basis.

"I got laid off, I’m in debt. What happens if I get sick? Most of my problems aren’t actually spiritual." 

When a search committee was finally formed in 2013, Ephesus had found itself in a place familiar to thousands of Protestant churches across the country. Attendance, already on a decline for decades, began to bottom out. As part of their status as 501(c)(3)s, churches don’t pay property taxes, but the combination of the Great Recession and the decline in membership has made it increasingly difficult to cover pastor salaries and health care — let alone upkeep for structures dating to the early 20th century, if not before. Attracting new members takes money, but churches need new members to get that money. Newly minted pastors come into dying churches filled with energy and plans, only to leave a few years later, disillusioned and, more often than not, still deeply in debt from divinity school.

That was Kevin Georgas’s likely trajectory when he interviewed with Ephesus. He was fresh out of Duke Divinity School, married with a young daughter, and only moderately daunted by the prospect of reviving a tiny congregation of 19 people, several of whom were caregivers for elderly members. He assumed he could get some friends to come and gradually grow the church’s membership. Plus, he had the benefit of a solid foundation: The church had no debt, the building itself was in good shape, and there was $600,000 in the bank, held over from the building fund.

But even with Georgas’s significant skills as a pastor, reviving the church was always going to be an uphill battle — especially after the 2016 election.

“As things were disintegrating in the 2010s, a lot of churches tried to hold on to the center,” Georgas told me. “The idea was that the world’s really unstable, so the church needs to be a place where Democrats and Republicans can find common ground together. But 2016 just exploded that.” It did so in churches across the United States — and Baptist ones in particular, which had been working for years on “racial reconciliation.” At Ephesus, for example, three longtime members left after Georgas requested that American flags not be placed on the communion table on the 4th of July.

And then elderly members started dying. Georgas officiated five funerals in two years. Three more people went into assisted living. Ephesus was down to eight members. Something transformative needed to happen — even if that meant shutting down the church entirely.

Madeline Gray for BuzzFeed News

Kevin Georgas, a co-pastor of Jubilee Baptist Church, sits in the pastors’ office.

When Georgas first came to interview for the pastor position at Ephesus, one of the members of the search committee saw him enter the church and asked, “Why is there a rabbi here?” Georgas’s maternal grandmother and great-grandparents had fled Poland during World War II and ended up in camps in Russia before eventually making their way to Brooklyn. But Georgas, who has curly auburn hair and a robust beard, didn’t grow up religious in any way, at least until his first year of high school, when he went to youth group to be near a girl.

At that point, Georgas’s family had moved to North Dallas, and seemingly everyone went to church in some capacity. Soon his sister started going to an elite Christian private school, and eventually the entire family became Christian. As a high school senior, he was asked to plan chapel and became a regular speaker. In the heat of his evangelistic fervor, he attempted to convert his aunt, who is Muslim. “I thought I was being bold, and unashamed of the gospel,” Georgas recalled. “And she said, ‘You’re clearly very sharp, and thoughtful. But be careful who you let influence you, because a lot of people are going to want to.’”

But there was always something that placed him, and his approach to Christianity, apart. A speaker at a high school “leadership institute” argued that “Abercrombie & Fitch was the devil because they used a photographer who’d taken suggestive pictures of children in Europe,” Georgas recalled. The overarching thesis of the talk: Abercrombie was just the beginning of the sexual perversion that would be opened up by the acceptance of marriage equality.

“I was like…I’m not really sure what the connection is to the gospel?” Georgas said. “I realized that connection was one that was trained into people … that it was a whole constructed ideology.” There was the culture and ideology of American evangelicalism, in other words, but it wasn’t necessarily the “natural” or the most righteous outgrowth of Christianity.

That realization was at the core of Georgas’s subsequent faith journey and has become foundational to Jubilee. Christianity is a belief system — Jesus is the son of God and died for our sins — but it’s also a larger ideology: a political worldview and a way of conceiving of the church’s proper place in that world. And every denomination, every church, every pastor, helps shape what that ideology will be.

Madeline Gray for BuzzFeed News

Programs with the Jubilee Baptist Church’s guiding principle on the front sit in the entryway of the church’s Chapel Hill location.

Georgas spent the following years at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where he met a skinny kid named John Thornton. Like Georgas, Thornton grew up in the Dallas suburbs; unlike Georgas, he’s never known a life without church at its center, in part because his dad, who’d converted to Christianity as an adult after growing up on the edge of poverty, was always the pastor of one.

“Growing up, the driving theology from my dad is that the church only exists to radically change lives, particularly those who are hurting, or broken, or excluded,” Thornton told me. “And I did not realize that that is not a prevalent way of approaching church for a lot of people.”

On Twitter, Thornton jokes a lot about “Youth Pastor Energy” — an aura of dorky enthusiasm mixed with a genuine sense of care, most recently ascribed to Beto O’Rourke — and he’s full of it: He’s a classic extrovert who thrives on more conversations, more coffee meetings just to chat. But he’s funnier, and far less dorky-dad, than your typical youth pastor. He’s also a raging socialist who wrote his first divinity school paper on how the church should focus on debt forgiveness, and he hasn’t shut up about it since.

In Waco, Georgas and Thornton started attending an established Baptist church that was in the midst of a profound transition. In a preview of what would happen at Ephesus, “there was a leadership vacuum,” Georgas explained, “and we just kinda started doing what we wanted.”

Georgas set up an arts program in a vacant apartment in the church’s neighborhood, while Thornton began tutoring at a local elementary school. “It certainly wasn’t perfect,” Georgas recalled. “Here were these privileged white boys from Baylor going into this neighborhood.” But the church had prided itself on being a “neighborhood church” — and no one from the low-income housing right around the church was actually going.

When they did start coming, Georgas and Thornton saw what happened when “very good liberals” were confronted with following through on their professed belief system. “That’s when the racist and classist stuff really starts to come out of these nominally progressive spaces,” Georgas said, especially over concerns around “liability” for when neighborhood kids hung out at the church — questions that somehow never came up when it was middle-class white kids hanging around.

Still, they learned a lot about what’s possible if you just start doing the thing you think you should be doing. “People will try and stop you by kind of complaining about it on the back side,” Georgas said. “But there’s no reason, if you have an idea of what church should be like, that you can’t just go for it.”

“We also learned that churches are really complicated political spaces,” he continued. “And that once you do what you want to do, it doesn’t necessarily go simply or easily after that.”

Madeline Gray for BuzzFeed News

Heather Folliard, a co-pastor of Jubilee Baptist Church.

With Ephesus down to 12 active members in 2018, Georgas sat down with Curtis Booker, and the existing leadership board of the church, and presented three options. One: Shut down, sell the property, and fund other nonprofits in town. Two: Find a young church that’s meeting somewhere temporary, give them the building, and graft the remaining members onto that congregation. Three: Have conversations about what’s been good at Ephesus, and not so good — and rebuild the church around, in Georgas’s words, “what the world needs from us now.”

Georgas remembered Booker saying something that would stick with him: “For the longest time, I thought that faithfulness looked like carrying on what we’ve been given here. But maybe faithfulness looks like what my family did when they started the church: making something new where there wasn’t anything before.”

But Georgas also knew what he didn’t know (like how exactly one goes about replanting a church) and the areas of ministry that others did better (community-building, outreach). He signed up for an online class on church planting and began serious conversations with Thornton, who was about to resign from the church he was pastoring.

There aren’t a lot of perfect fits for a socialist Baptist right out of divinity school. But Thornton had $45,000 in student debt and needed a job. He was called to a series of positions, but found himself running up against the same church politics he and Georgas had encountered back in Waco, largely around the implicit biases of otherwise well-intentioned, well-off white people, with specific ideas of what church looks like, and where conversations about money and politics should remain. Specifically: outside the church.

Like so many pastors, Thornton found himself burning out slowly, then all at once. More and more seminarians are graduating with more and more student debt, but due to declining attendance and church funds, fewer pastor positions pay enough to make ends meet, let alone cover loan payments. Pastors often take on second jobs, live with roommates, and struggle to support their families — while also trying to figure out magical ways to grow the church on tight budgets without alienating existing members.

“Those people are the decision-makers for the church,” Heather Folliard, who spent several years as an associate pastor elsewhere in the Triangle before joining Jubilee, told me. “Anything new you wanted to do, it’d be a little too political. Even people who seem to have a heart for change, I found, didn’t really want that change — or at least not in a way that really would be beneficial to others.”

“Anything new you wanted to do, it’d be a little too political." 

Folliard has long blonde hair and a calming Southern drawl that belies the boldness of her theology. At the church where she landed after seminary, the dividing tension was attitudes toward LGBTQ members — and, as at many Baptist churches, attitudes about women actually preaching. “Churches are very ready for women to be associate pastors,” Folliard told me. “They want someone to be nurturing and organized. They want somebody who can kind of fill in all the gaps. And that’s the reason women are brought in — not because of their theological training or pastoral abilities.”

When the senior pastor at Folliard’s church went on sabbatical, Folliard preached nearly every Sunday for four months. “It was the one time in my life in the church where I didn’t have to ask permission to do something,” she said. But then the four months were up, and she was relegated back to the support role. And then there was the question of LGBTQ members’ place in the church.

Like many mainline churches whose national bodies have resisted official “open and affirming” policies, Folliard’s church had included LGBTQ members for years with the implicit understanding that their sexual identity remained unspoken and unacted-upon. “You couldn’t be ‘practicing,’ whatever the heck that means,” Folliard said. You didn’t hold hands with your partner. You didn’t serve communion. And you couldn’t get married, at least not in the church.

But that wasn’t Folliard’s personal theology. And when two queer members of the congregation fell in love, they asked Folliard to perform their backyard wedding ceremony, which forced the church to come to terms with its unspoken policies. After 18 months of private, public, and painful deliberation, the congregation narrowly voted against allowing LGBTQ couples to get married in the church building, and against allowing pastors to remain on staff after performing an LGBTQ wedding. Over the course of the deliberation, a third of the congregation — including Folliard — decided to leave the church.

Folliard thought she might start a new church, working in partnership with the old one, that could “honor the theological convictions of all.” She decided to enroll in an online church planting class — which just happened to be the same one Georgas was taking.

Georgas and Thornton had always known they’d need a third co-pastor for what Ephesus would become, and they knew it shouldn’t be a man. Everything had come together, at exactly the same time, in just the right way. It was almost, Thornton joked, as if someone — Someone! — had planned it.

Madeline Gray for BuzzFeed News

Thornton delivers a sermon.

On February 22, 2019, Ephesus had three co-pastors, 12 active members, and a solidifying plan for rebirth. Folliard started talking with some of the people who’d left her previous church. Thornton invited leftist friends who’d been searching for a church. And the pastors continued conversations with the remaining members of Ephesus. “Part of the reason we were able to do this was that I had spent the last three years doing their family members’ funerals and being with them in the hospital,” Georgas explained. “I had built up that trust with them.”

They were essentially in beta testing for the church to come. They figured out the hierarchy of the leadership: There would be none. The three co-pastors would rotate preaching, and if they disagreed about something, it would be referred to the advisory council, made up of a mix of longtime and new members. Working with LGBTQ and nonbinary members, they put together a statement proclaiming the church’s identity as open and affirming, and placed it in the entryway — in a spot where, if someone was peering in the window, it would be the first thing they’d see.

And they decided on the name, Jubilee — for the year in the biblical tradition when, as the pastors put it on their new website, “God commands freedom for captives, citizenship for immigrants, the return of stolen land, and the cancellation of all debt.” Society was restructured and reformed, and true justice was done. “Today, when a lot of us find ourselves in the lonely wilderness of debt, exclusion, and subjection to power that grind our lives down, we think God calls the church to love as if a world like the Jubilee is possible.”

Madeline Gray for BuzzFeed News

A rough draft design for imagery depicting the Jubilee Baptist Church’s core values.

The church also decided to remain Baptist. In the months to come, it would be quietly disinvited from the local Baptist association — which, given Jubilee’s various stances, was not altogether surprising. But there’s no copyright on the name “Baptist.” If you say you’re a Baptist church, then that’s what you are.

“We know a lot of people hear the word ‘Baptist’ and think of stuffy legalism or maybe a man in a suit thundering hellfire and brimstone while a flag waves triumphantly in the background,” the website explains. “But at Jubilee, we want to reclaim an older, more interesting meaning of that word.” The first Baptists weren’t rich, or educated, or elevated in society. Their “free churches” dissented from the world as it was, built on the hope for something radically different.

One of the primary ways that Jubilee would be different, and attempt to remake the world, would be its focus on debt forgiveness. “Debt Liberation Grants” would be allocated once a month to a member of the church, while the Jubilee Fund would be directed toward lifting two to four people out of poverty in a given year. For the last three months, the fund has been directed toward a 37-year-old woman who cares for five children while working two jobs — and whose landlord has recently started eviction proceedings. A church member referred her to Jubilee, and the cooperative council, which controls the fund, committed to paying three months of her rent and bills, and $400 a month for groceries for three months afterward.

“We want to respect the fact that she doesn’t owe us anything,” Thornton told me. “Not showing up to church, not her story or her kids’ story. If anything, we owe her everything. We want to be respectful of her story and what we do with the Jubilee Fund in a way that’s not exploitative. Capitalism put her in a bind, and as a church we need to do what we can.”

Thornton also drew up plans for mutual aid teams, where groups of four or five would work to pay off each other’s debt, round-robin style. First, a group would allocate extra money to one person with a high-interest debt, and pay it off entirely. Then they would shift their focus to the next debt — the person whose debt was just paid off would still pay what they would’ve allocated to their own debt. The end goal: Everyone’s debt is paid off in less time, meaning less time paying accumulated interest.

That was only the beginning of what’s planned for the liberation-oriented components of the church. They want to partner with organizations like End Poverty Durham, with serious plans for reparations. They’ll be a presence at Pride. They’ll show up for events, rallies, and marches — for Black Lives Matter, for refugees, for immigrants. When a member’s union goes on strike, they’ll show up there too. Instead of adult Sunday school, there’ll be Workers Anonymous meetings, where people can talk frankly about their struggles, and a class on gender inclusion and identity.

"Capitalism put her in a bind, and as a church we need to do what we can.”

There were questions in the church’s planning stages, especially from older members: “Is this even what a church is supposed to do?” As the pastors see it, that’s because so many churches, especially Protestant ones, have taken on a perspective informed by financially stable members. Those churches have worked to create a clear separation between the prophetic and the pastoral. The prophetic is any discussion, particularly from the pulpit, that invokes politics or larger systems of social injustice. The pastoral meant attending to very personal hurts and needs: a family crisis, an illness, a crisis of faith. The macro, big-picture stuff versus the micro, individual stuff.

“But in this church, I’m having coffee with someone, and we’re talking about not having enough money for insulin,” Thornton explained. “Or I’m visiting an older member who’s buried in debt after a knee surgery. It’s a pastoral visit, but we’re also talking about the ills of capitalism.”

“If you’re talking to someone who’s working class, the prophetic is the pastoral,” he continued. “Those two things aren’t split. They’re only split for people who don’t have to worry about that shit — and who understand the church as maintaining an existing class dynamic.”

After all, Jesus was a worker! The original Baptists, they were workers. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “Social Christianity” spread across denominations to address and confront the bleak reality of working people under the massive inequality of the Gilded Age. The precepts of Social Christianity were simple: Individuals could be sinful, but so could systems — especially capitalism and white supremacy. Within this framework, it’s incumbent not just on the individual but the church itself to try to advocate for a better and fundamentally different world.

What Jubilee Baptist is doing isn’t new. It just might feel that way because so many other churches, specifically the churches that have catered to the bourgeois and the comfortably middle-class, have not prioritized that obligation for years.

Madeline Gray for BuzzFeed News

Folliard (right) hugs Keck as she arrives at Jubilee Baptist Church.

“The Catholic Worker Movement has a phrase borrowed from the Industrial Workers of the World, and it really gets to what we’re doing here,” one Jubilee member told me. “Rebuild the world in the shell of the old.”

The first time I stepped into Jubilee Baptist, it felt like that shell of the old. There’s a feeling that churches accumulate with time. It seeps into the aging carpet, the little tables in the Sunday school rooms, the toys and books and Bible stories held over for years, if not decades. Since relaunching, Jubilee’s torn out some of that rose pink carpeting and replaced the uncomfortable benches with chairs. But the service is not a crowded sing-along held in a converted movie theater. There’s no elaborate AV system, no snazzy church-produced YouTube videos on a loop.

It still feels like a church, refreshing in its shabbiness.

It’s possible I feel that way because, like many former evangelicals, I’m allergic to anything to do with the church that feels glossy or emotionally manipulative. I don’t need swelling praise music where I repeat the words “my Jesus, my savior” until everyone’s crying and pledging not to have sex until marriage. Especially at this point in my life — I need something else.

That’s part of what Josh Fugate was after when he first heard about the plans for the church via Thornton’s Twitter account. I met him on the steps of the church after he’d spent the morning unpacking the dozens of new chairs that had arrived to fill the sanctuary. He didn’t grow up Christian. But around age 30, he started tagging along with his girlfriend, now fiancé, to her nondenominational church. “It felt meaningful to me, but I realized under the cool vibe it’s still pretty conservative,” he said. “And I’m not seeking out conservative voices in any other part of my life, so why would I seek them out at church?”

Fugate had been laid off from his job at a campus bookstore, where he’d worked for six years. He was struggling to find another job and didn’t have health insurance. And he was slowly accumulating credit card debt. What Thornton and the church were talking about — the weight of debt, the precarity of contemporary American life — felt very, very real to him.

Fugate started attending services at Ephesus in the months before it was reborn as Jubilee, and Thornton approached him with a proposal to be one of the first people to have their debts paid off by the church. He was hesitant: Aren’t there other people who deserve it more than me? He’d internalized that whatever he’d used his credit card for, it was unworthy.

“Last month we paid off the debt of someone I knew, and I felt nothing but joy for them,” he explained. “But I still feel like getting my own debt forgiven, it’s a cop-out, and I don’t deserve it.”

Fugate still won’t be entirely debt-free — the church would just pay off one credit card. “But I did the math,” he said, “and realized it would’ve taken me 36 years to pay off.” He told me there’s zero expectation that he show up on a day like today and help unpack the chairs. And yet, “I’d come over here and clean out the toilets, if they needed it.”

I asked him what about the church made it feel different, and he told me that he keeps thinking of the plot of Stephen King’s It. “There are these kids who are being terrorized by an evil clown,” he summarized, “and the clown is just kicking their asses. But they eventually figure out that the clown’s power is keeping them afraid and divided. And as soon as they realized that, they knew how to fight back. And I realized that that’s what we’re doing with the church: We’re beating the shit out of those evil clowns.”

Madeline Gray for BuzzFeed News

HL Holder-Brown (left) talks to Madison Edwards following a debt forgiveness service.

When the pastors talk with people outside of the church about their plans for debt relief, the first question is often a pessimistic one: “Aren’t you scared that people will come just to get their debt paid off, then leave?” But Thornton had to encourage, coach, and reassure every single person who’s had or will have their debt forgiven to even apply for the church’s help. That’s how great the stigma is, and how much people think of debt as a personal failure.

“We somehow expect everyone to behave like a CEO,” Thornton said. “CEOs load up companies with debt and dispose of them and the people who work there like it’s nothing. But everyone else is really, really nervous or ashamed about debt. I’ve found so much joy sitting across from someone like Josh and saying: ‘It’s okay. You’re a part of us, and this is how we’re going to live our lives together.’”

What will it look like when a half dozen, then a dozen, then 30 people in the church have watched this happen — or have participated in small groups that have done this for each other? How could it change the character of an entire community?

Amy Brown and HL Holder-Brown were among the first people in the church to agree to have their debt paid off. Brown grew up in nearby Burlington, faithfully attending the local Presbyterian church alongside her family. Her junior year in college, she came out as gay to close friends — but this was the early ’90s, and she was not, in her words, “out in the community.” When she moved to Chapel Hill in 2005, she began going to the church where Heather Folliard would eventually become associate pastor. She taught Sunday school for first- and second-graders. “People who knew me knew who I was,” Amy told me. “But I’ve never really been one to advertise, you know?”

At an Ash Wednesday service in 2017, Folliard introduced Amy to the person who would become her partner. HL, who is nonbinary, grew up attending a fundamental Baptist church that preached biblical literalism, that marriage is between one man and one woman, and the idea that, in HL’s words, “everyone else is basically going to hell if you don’t believe this specific set of things.” “I would try and ask questions, but that wasn’t allowed,” HL recalled. “You were told, ‘Oh, you’re questioning God and the Bible, and that shows your lack of faith.’”

HL left for a small fundamentalist college nearby and decided to minor in biblical languages, taking classes in Hebrew and Greek. “I was thinking, if I can just get more knowledge of God and the Bible, then my questions will cease.” That didn’t happen, but with time, HL did start acquiring language for their sexuality. But then, during the 2016 election, they wrote a post on Facebook: “I said, Trump is dangerous to LGBT people. He’s dangerous to people of color. He’s not a Christian. How can you endorse him?” In response to one of the hundred comments that accumulated on the post, Holder-Brown admitted they were part of the LGBTQ community. HL’s parents weren’t on Facebook, but someone from the church printed out the post and gave it to them.

“I was basically excommunicated, which was fine,” they told me. “But these were the people that raised me, and I lost all of that. It was a grieving process.”

Madeline Gray for BuzzFeed News

Buttons sit in an offering plate in the entryway of Jubilee Baptist Church.

HL first heard about Folliard’s former church from some friends. “When I met Heather, I told her, ‘Look, this is what happened to me in my previous church,’” they said. “I’m gay. Can I be part of this church? Not just sitting in the pews, but actually doing things?” Folliard said yes, and the senior pastor agreed — even though he didn’t interpret the scripture as affirming of queer people.

That summer, HL served as an intern for the church. HL and Amy weren’t public in their relationship until the end of the internship, which coincided with when the senior pastor, who’d been on sabbatical, returned to the church.

“And we told him, ‘Look: We’re both members of the church,’” HL recalled, “‘This is our church family. We are engaged. Are we still welcome, or do we need to leave?’”

“This church had welcomed me in with open arms when I arrived,” Amy told me. “But that was when I was a single individual. And I was single for 12 years because I had been in a relationship that had really messed me up. So then I meet someone, and I’m finally willing to open my heart, and they say: ‘You gotta leave. You can’t teach Sunday School.’”

Amy continued: “When you say ‘open and affirming,’ does that mean we can walk in the door? That we can greet people and serve, but we can’t be in leadership? Open and affirming doesn’t just mean that our presence is accepted, but that we are fully accepted, as our whole selves, and able to serve in any capacity.”

They left the church and found another. But then Folliard reached out to tell them about the idea of Jubilee, and the sort of space it would be. “I told her, ‘I love the talk this church is talking,’” Amy said. “‘But I want to see it walk this walk. I want to see my wife, as a nonbinary, queer married individual, standing in front of this church.’”

This fall, HL is one of Jubilee’s two student pastoral interns. They’re teaching a Sunday school course on gender inclusion and identity. Along with another nonbinary member of the congregation, they have helped shape the church’s LGBTQ language and policy and best practices, from an all-gender bathroom space to pronoun buttons available at the church entrance. When Georgas got up to preach the first Sunday at Jubilee, he said, “I’m Kevin, and my pronouns are he, him, his.”

And when Amy had her debt forgiven last month, she stood in front of the church and served communion — the first time she’d been able to do so.

Amy has had Type 1 diabetes since she was 10 years old. Even with insurance, her meds and glucose monitor cost upward of $1,700 a month. When her father was alive, he’d pay for her groceries so she could make ends meet. But when he died, she had to figure out a new plan. She ate popcorn for dinner. She sold her road bike and her dad’s guns. But she gradually began to rely on credit cards, including to cover the costs of their backyard wedding. And even though Amy works a good, steady job, it costs $450 a month to add HL to her insurance. Amy’s weekly medical costs only go up. Eventually, their credit card debt reached $60,000. The church agreed to pay off $4,500.

“It might seem like a drop in the bucket,” Amy said, “But we had been paying off about $200 a month on that card. Now that $200 goes towards paying off something else.”

“I don’t have words for the feeling when my debt was forgiven,” she said. “But Jesus taught us to love one another and to take care of one another. He didn’t question who you were, or who your parents were, or how much money you had, or who you are. You are another human, and you are supposed to help and care for other humans. And I just don’t understand where people are missing that.”

Madeline Gray for BuzzFeed News

Georgas closes the front doors of the church.

Earlier in the week, Fugate had admitted to me that there was, indeed, a risk of “all of this becoming, like, middle-class white guys scratching their beards” — a risk of the Jubilee congregation itself not mirroring the diversity and inclusion it preaches. And while a woman co-pastor is a big deal in a Baptist church, all three pastors are white and grew up middle-class, educated, cisgender, and straight.

Jubilee’s other student associate pastor, Leah Reed, is black. She knows all the historical reasons why the church was and largely remains segregated. But she’s also currently taking a class at Duke, taught by theologian Valerie Cooper on the past and present of “segregated Sundays.” “She believes the segregated church is an abomination under God,” Reed told me. “And God’s kingdom isn’t segregated, so the church shouldn’t be either.”

Reed told the pastors that it was one thing, a few weeks in, if she was the only black face in church. But it would be a different thing if six months or a year in, that were still the case. She believes that Jubilee’s commitment to progress and a different world can’t and shouldn’t focus so intently on money and class. “We talk a lot in the church about the struggle against all things that hold us captive,” she said. “That includes debt. But how can we think about the powers of whiteness as holding us captive as well?”

“I’m hopeful for real diversity in this church,” Reed admitted. “But planting the church with three white pastors might not be the right way to do it.”

That’s something the pastors at Jubilee haven’t stopped thinking about. “I hope that our excitement about what we’re doing hasn’t communicated that we think we’ve got it all right,” Georgas told me. “Or that what we’re doing is good enough. We hope we’re showing possibilities for dismantling capitalism and inequality. But we’re not doing that by ourselves. That will require a large-scale social movement — literally thousands of institutions showing how these kinds of institutions can be built. But on our own, we’re not good enough. Our racial makeup is part of that. If we get to a year from now and all the people benefitting from debt relief and all the people in our leadership look like us, then we are still not doing good enough.”

“And a lot of white Christians don’t realize,” Georgas added, “how exhausting at best, and dangerous at worst, relationships with white people can be for people of color.”

A similar sort of humility ran through most of my conversations at Jubilee — whether about debt, gender, race, or the very real ways that the church has hurt and excluded people. A willingness to see oneself and the world around us clearly, and an eagerness to change it, and not just in ways that make us comfortable.

“Jesus invites cataclysm as a result of struggle,” Georgas preached earlier this year. “That’s usually how change really happens — not by incremental adjustment, but radical breaks.”

“As members of Christ’s body, we are called to cancel debts. Will you give us the gift of letting us cancel yours?” 

When I sat down in Jubilee at a Sunday service in late October, there were some markers of deep familiarity. We sang the doxology; we attempted not to mumble a traditional call-and-response. Curtis Booker was in his Sunday best, sitting next to his wife in the front row. A 99-year-old woman, a holdover from the Ephesus days, had been dropped off by her daughter. Toddlers played in the back, periodically making a run for it down the aisles.

But there were new things, too, that made the service feel simultaneously tuned to this world and hopeful for a different one. A bell chimed the hour at the start of the service, and the congregation was invited to take a deep breath: a marker between one place, and one mindset, and another. During the “Prayers of the People,” the congregation prayed for the teachers of Chicago on strike. In his sermon, Thornton repeatedly, and unapologetically, invoked the consequences of capitalism — specifically the “ways it forces us to treat one another.”

And the young people the church had craved for so many years — they were there. People who’d heard about the church online, people who’d been going for months. People who weren’t there because they felt obliged, guilty, or like it was another thing on the endless to-do list — but because Jubilee, in the space of the church and its message outside, actually had something to offer them.

I was reminded of something Thornton had observed about his previous churches: “I used to have this Wednesday dinner at church with people I knew from the church,” he said, “and then afterwards I’d go down the street, and I’d have a beer and real food with my real friends. With Jubilee, I finally feel like those two groups aren’t separate.”

After the sermon, there was the litany of Jubilee: a call-and-response between the church and those whose debt would be forgiven. Fugate stood up front, his hair combed back and his dress shirt tucked in, along with Hazel Keck, whose credit card debts, accumulated after a knee surgery, were being forgiven as well.

“As members of Christ’s body, we are called to cancel debts,” Thornton explained. “Will you give us the gift of letting us cancel yours?”

“I will,” they each replied. “Thanks be to God.”

Many people struggle with the idea of Jubilee because they simply cannot imagine a different way. A different church, a different marriage, a different economy, a different way of caring for one another. Of course, it benefits the people and institutions in power to keep that imagination stifled, to keep those possibilities firmly in the realm of the impossible: We can’t forgive debts, because then everyone would spend frivolously. We can’t allow these people to get married, because what will happen to “real” marriage? We can’t interrogate racial hierarchies in the church, because what if white people feel bad? We can’t talk about the root of our despair, because real talk of work and money has no place in the church, and we need the people with money to keep the church running.

But that reticence makes for a theology and posture of fear, instead of one rooted in the radical, continuously challenging love that is modeled, over and over again, in scripture. A love that is cataclysmic — and defined by the tireless insistence, as the Jubilee motto goes, that a different world is possible.

This past Sunday, HL stood behind the pulpit and preached their first sermon at Jubilee. “There are many voices crying in the wilderness for things to change,” they concluded. “The question is, are we willing to listen and then do something about it?”●

Madeline Gray for BuzzFeed News

The building that now houses the Jubilee Baptist Church congregation in Chapel Hill was built with lumber from nearby Camp Butner and originally housed the Ephesus Baptist Church starting in 1891.


ADVERTISEMENT