By Alison Miller
July 9, 2023
photo above: Pastor Grant Myerholtz leads Mt. Hebron Baptist Church in Hartwell, Ga. His T-shirts and tattoos make for an unusual pulpit presence. His message of inclusivity is drawing people who say they have longed for a fully welcoming place to worship. (Will Crooks)
WN: All I can add is: a hearty Amen!
[pullquote]In God’s kingdom, it doesn’t matter what color we are. It doesn’t matter what party we are,” he said. “What does matter in God’s economy is how we treat one another.–Pastor Grant Myerholtz[/pullquote]HARTWELL, Ga. — At night, the worn sign looks like a beacon in the darkness out front of the modest, red-brick Mt. Hebron Baptist Church. The tired, it reads. The poor. And huddled masses. Welcome home.
In this small town in the rural northeast corner of Georgia, it’s the kind of message that assures Teri Massey she is loved for being who she is — a message 180 degrees from the one she heard in the Baptist church where she spent her teens into her 40s, where her grandfather, father and brother all held leadership positions.
…If it were up to me, a representative of every ministry in this town would be there with arms wide open. We have the easiest job on the planet as Christians if we want to accept it. That is simply to love everybody.–Pastor Grant MyerholtzWhen Massey came out in 2004, shortly after meeting the woman she later would marry, the congregation in that other small Georgia town responded by campaigning to send her to conversion therapy and holding prayer vigils outside her home.
She found Mt. Hebron a few years ago through a friend. Pastor Grant Myerholtz, whose usual preaching attire is T-shirt and jeans, met her and her wife at the door. They listened carefully as he stood in the pulpit and proclaimed: All are welcome.
“It was like this load was off of me,” Massey, 63, recalled last week.
At a time when many houses of worship are struggling to sustain themselves — with church membership and attendance both at all-time lows in this country — Myerholtz seems to be pulling off a miracle of sorts: Tiny Mt. Hebron is flourishing. Barely a dozen people showed up for his first sermons in fall 2020; these days, sometimes 100 faces are looking up at him.
Church members say his empathy and engagement are what draw them. His interpretation of scripture is not what is traditionally heard in a conservative community.[pullquote]He remembers what Myerholtz said when inviting him to Mt. Hebron: Come as you are, not as you should be. “I don’t do well with crowds,” explained [Jake] Duvall, who is 38. “But I really feel that my symptoms are tolerable when I go to that church.”[/pullquote]In April, for instance, Myerholtz gave the opening prayer at the Hartwell Pride festival — which already had weathered a backlash from area churches over a proposed spring drag show. “There’s a community of people that guard their religion and say, ‘It’s not for you. You’re a sinner. You can’t love God like that,’” said the organization’s president, Collin Graham, who is trans. “So I think it was important to have [Grant] out there to show people that you can be a Christian and you can be gay or trans.”
And on two Saturdays this month, Myerholtz will host a lakeside baptism for anyone who has been denied that rite for any reason. “If it were up to me, a representative of every ministry in this town would be there with arms wide open,” he says. “We have the easiest job on the planet as Christians if we want to accept it. That is simply to love everybody.”
His inclusive approach is the reason Jake Duvall said he was in the front row last Sunday — as he is almost every Sunday. A combat veteran who twice deployed to Iraq and still grapples with PTSD, he wore jeans, a black T-shirt and heavy black boots. He carried a diaper-filled bag for his year-old son, Rowan.
He remembers what Myerholtz said when inviting him to Mt. Hebron: Come as you are, not as you should be. “I don’t do well with crowds,” explained Duvall, who is 38. “But I really feel that my symptoms are tolerable when I go to that church.”
Well into its second century, Mt. Hebron remains linked to the Baptists, according to its name and the newspaper directory. But Myerholtz shies away from denominational categories and considers his an independent congregation.
He has not won over other Baptist leaders in the area. On the day that Myerholtz prayed at the pride festival, the Rev. Andy Buchanan of Liberty Baptist Church opened its doors and invited the community to pray for “those who are engaged in this evil.”
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