The senior pastor at College Park Baptist Church in Greensboro has no interest in saving my soul.
“I’m not in that business,” Michael Usey said. “Different people believe different things, but there’s often a good reason for what they believe, and I’d like to think that most are trying to figure out how to live life with grace and honor and a sense of dignity and integrity.”
I first met Usey, as our mutual friend Matt Cravey calls him, four years ago at the now-defunct Geeksboro, where the team from his church played trivia as the Non-Shitty Christians.
He laughed when I reminded him of that. “When Matt first came to our church, he was like, ‘oh, a liberal Baptist, that’s like a two-headed goat, I’ve got to go see this!’ But historically, Baptists are all about dissent.”
It saddens him that some Baptist churches seem to have forgotten one of their founding principles. “We’ve got kind of a brand problem, but it used to mean separation of church and state. That’s one of our most sacred beliefs. In fact, we’re the ones who influenced the Founding Fathers to keep references to Christ out of the Constitution.”
He also described how Roger Williams, founder of the first Baptist church in the American colonies, joined with spiritual leader Ann Hutchinson (like Williams, exiled from Massachusetts for “new, diverse, and dangerous opinions”) in welcoming Jewish refugees to Rhode Island, where the oldest American synagogue was built in 1758. “We have a noble tradition that’s been kind of co-opted.”
College Park Baptist Church, which is on the corner of Walker and Josephine Boyd across from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, is not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. “Our church family in Greensboro welcomes and affirms all persons without distinction regarding race, ethnicity, national origin, class, sexual orientation, gender identity or any other category created by humans,” proclaims the church’s website.
“American Baptists broke from Southern Baptists in 1845 over abolition,” Usey said. “Richard Furman, president of the first Baptist association, wrote a tractate stating the Bible supports slavery. So, American Baptists became the anti-slavery faction. I’m not saying we don’t need to connect, repent and reparate for the sins of our past and present, but I’m proud of our abolitionist history.”
I profess no faith, but before our conversation at Tate Street Coffee, I attended Ash Wednesday services at the church. When I stopped at a convenience store on my way home, another customer asked if the palm-ash cross on my forehead meant I was a Satanist.
Usey laughed when I told him that, but with a note of sadness. “Lent is an ancient Christian tradition. It’s spring-cleaning for the soul. Whether you’re a person in a faith community or not, you need to sometimes clean it up and slow it down, as my father said before I went to college.”
Usey described his father as “a Cajun naval pilot and lapsed Catholic” and his mother, who was Baptist, as a schoolteacher from Georgia. Both were huge influences on his life, as was the city in which he was raised.
Usey grew up in San Diego, where future Oscar-nominated actress Annette Bening was his date to the Patrick Henry High School prom. “In our prom photo, which the Tate Street Kinko’s lost when I had it copied there in 1996, she’s lovely and lithe and I, of course, look like a Neanderthal surfer.”
His first church greatly affected his future life. “It was just fantastic, embracing all the ethnicities and cultures of that city. It was certainly an all-comers church. I never had to unlearn anything that I learned there.”
He arrived in Greensboro in 1994, after completing his Ph.D. in Biblical Studies at Emory. “I was preaching, and my wife had worked for six years at the Center for Disease Control, freelancing as editor for the Morbid Mortality weekly report. I always knew this is what I wanted to do. It’s like being a reporter, right? You’ve got a front seat on life. People tell you their deepest secrets, and you’re with them in their holiest moments, whether those moments are good or terrible. It’s a really decent way to live. I don’t mean to put us on a pedestal. We’re just shamans, but to try to be a spiritual friend to a tribe of peoples, that’s a lovely thing.”
Pastor Usey often spends Saturday mornings volunteering as a patient escort at A Woman’s Choice of Greensboro—the city’s only remaining abortion provider. As previously reported, he has stated that the protesters (whom two city council members have observed harassing patients) “always walk away when a burly white dude like me steps in, whereas they like to get in the faces of escorts who are women, particularly ones of color.”
His passionate commitment to preserving women’s reproductive choices began in 1984 in Waco. “My first church out of seminary was there. The only people doing sex education there were Planned Parenthood, the major providers for health care for women. By any kind of matrix, Planned Parenthood is the number one preventer of abortions in this country, both by providing birth control and by talking so articulately about it.”
In Waco, his ministry was to young people and college students. “So that’s how I got connected with that. I grew up with strong women, and it just seemed like the dignity of women demands that they have at least 51% of the vote about their own bodies. I can’t understand why that’s not completely clear to people, particularly to Libertarian Republicans, who believe the government should stay out of other people’s decisions. I’m not sure why so many of my super-conservative colleagues are so pruriently interested in what goes on in people’s bedrooms.”
In Greensboro, Usey and his church have worked with local refugee communities, often in collaboration with Jewish and Islamic faith leaders. “I was talking with a local pastor this week, and he started condemning Islamic people. This is not somebody I know well, so I was surprised, but I told him the conversation was over.”
He believes that neither that minister’s intolerance is not characteristic of Greensboro. “This city is incredibly inclusive, as are most of its faith leaders. We are so fortunate to have Rabbis Joshua and Rebecca Ben-Gideon of Beth David Synagogue, Fred Guttman and Andy Corin of Temple Emanuel, and Imam Badi of High Point Islamic Center. Not to mention folks like Julie Peeples of Congregational United Church of Christ; the recently retired Jeff Pascal of Guilford Park Presbyterian Church; Pam Strader, who is most recently of West Market United Methodist Church; and Sadie Lansdale of Unitarian Universalist Church of Greensboro.”
In 2017, YES! Weekly reported on efforts by Usey’s church to help a Syrian refugee family after their youngest child was mauled by pit bulls. He said that the boy is doing well, and although he will need more surgery as he grows, money was raised not only for that but for his education. “I want to thank you for reporting on that, and the great writer Neil Gaiman for retweeting your article about the fundraiser, which hugely increased donations. Please tell Neil that we’re reading his novel Stardust in our book club next month.”
Usey is also proud of the success of College Park Baptist’s needle exchange program. “That came about when Melissa Floyd-Pickard, chair of the Social Work department at UNCG, asked if we’d be willing to hold a needle exchange. I said we absolutely would. As I’m from California, I know how effective and necessary those are. It’s a relationship between UNCG, GCSTOP, which is an arm of the Guilford County Health Department, and the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition. They just wanted a place near campus that students could come to. It wasn’t any problem. Churches whose buildings are near colleges tend to be more curious and open, and those are the kind of churches I’ve always served.”
Usey said that a retired police captain in his congregation was also very supportive of the program. “Good cops tend to be all for it. They have a 25% chance of getting a needle stick in the line of duty. I searched and could not find a police chief in North Carolina who was against the needle exchange because they are the people who are cleaning that stuff up.”
Usey is an enthusiastic apiarist (“or beek, as bee-keepers calls themselves”), who maintains four thriving hives. He’s also a soccer referee in local middle schools and high schools. “It’s fun, and a large guy getting paid to run is a good thing. My kids all played, and it’s a way to be connected and get back into the community.”
He has three children: Hannah, Nathan and Zachariah. “All named for troublemakers in the Hebrew Bible, and ready and willing to face down authority.”