A Great Religious Leader Spoke His Last Sermon on Sunday

No, I am not writing about the Pope, if this title caught your eye for that reason. The person I am saluting is a local church leader in North Carolina, Reverend Steve Shoemaker, a progressive Baptist minister. I did not attend his church and only met him in a group setting, but he was a community steward who looked out for those less fortunate and was inclusive in his ministry. He personified religion at its finest. Per The Charlotte Observer who reported on his last sermon, he was the kind of minister we should both applaud and follow.

However, his job eventually wore him down as he was counsel to many 24 x 7 without much down time to rejuvenate. He eventually self-medicated through alcohol to stave off some depressive impusles.So, through a very public process, he told his congregation he needed to go to a treatment facility and after he tried to return, bid his church adieu and retired. His compassionate leadership would become his eventual alabatross.

Shoemaker long advocated helping homeless families and individuals. He urged his congregation to be more than distant givers. He encouraged them to give of themselves to help people. And, they did. His church was renowned for its stewardship. Quoting Rabbi Judy Schindler who is of a similar ilk, “I admire the depth of Rev. Shoemaker’s scholarship and the strength of his moral leadership. He has been a courageous speaker for human rights for all and a fearless advocate for LGBT equality.”

On Rabbi Schindler’s second point, Shoemaker was all about inclusion. As the leader of a Baptist church, his church was not a member of the more exclusive Southern Baptist Convention. They were kicked out of that more conservative group for welcoming gays and lesbians and became members of the more progressive thinking American Baptist Association. Under his guidance, the church also formed partnerships with Jewish and Muslim houses of worship. So, he walked the talk. Per Schindler, “he was a solid partner in interfaith dialogue.”

A window into Shoemaker would be a choice of music he sang at his last sermon on Sunday. Ironically, I had just written a post about the song “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” from the musical “South Pacific.”  The point of the song is we are not born racist. We have to be carefully taught to become that way. He even coined a new verse which he sang:

“You’ve got to be taught to be afraid…of people with different DNA. And, people not born in the U.S .of A. You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

Many of the parishioners wore red this day to honor a saying he used to close his prayers. “God, take your hearts and set them on fire.” A church member was quoted as saying about Shoemaker. “Here it is OK to have questions. And, it’s OK to love everybody. You don’t get that everywhere.”  That is so true and is unfortunate. You should, but you do not get that kind of love and inclusion everywhere. Shoemaker will be missed. He loved many and loved them well. And, they loved him back and followed him where he led.

8 thoughts on “A Great Religious Leader Spoke His Last Sermon on Sunday

  1. This story moved me a great deal. In these days of “organized” religions becoming ever more limiting in their belief system, who qualifies for inclusion, and more importantly who doesn’t, its refreshing to see a church leader with arms outstretched wide in a welcoming gesture to all. I’m with amaya, above, in that I left an organized church for the exclusion messages; As I’ve written before, “What would Jesus do,” was replaced with, “What would My Jesus do.”

    Sadly, 3 years ago this month a minister whom I really liked and admired took his own life. In trying so hard to be all things to all 1,000 members of his congregation, and trying to live up to the impossible standards required of their varied pressures of what a successful pastor should be, he was overcome with severe depression of which he did not recover.

    Luckily for the congregation and more importantly, for himself, Shoemaker recognized the signs and took himself out of the game before it was too late.

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful story.

    • Barney, thanks for writing. I spared the details, but I am glad Shoemaker realized he was in trouble with his depressive episodes and self medication with alcohol. Another very good minister made the comment how hard it is to look after so many and you fail to take care of yourself. I am saddened your minister reached such a tipping point. Take care, BTG

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