CHARLOTTE — The way two local churches reacted to anti-gay street preaching group Operation Save America’s presence at worship services Sunday couldn’t have been more different, as the anti-gay Central Church of God strongly denounced the group while the gay-friendly Myers Park Baptist Church welcomed them.

Rev. Flip Benham, Operation Save America leader, seen at a protest. Photo Credit: Mark Lyon, via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Operation Save America (OSA), based in Concord, N.C., is an anti-LGBT and anti-choice street preaching and protest group. They carry their message across the region and nation with illicit and graphic signs depicting anti-gay messages and photos of aborted fetuses. The group is holding its national gathering here this week, protesting at reproductive health clinics and public gathering spots.

OSA writes on their website: “We broke up the saints into two separate groups. One group went to a mega Evangelical Church called Central Church of God. The other went to an apostate Church called Myers Baptist Church. Care to wager which one received us and God’s prophetic rebuke in their midst? If you guessed the apostate church, you would be right. This synagogue of Satan, which houses workers of Planned Parenthood and allows for open homosexuality in their midst, actually had an open microphone to allow brothers and sisters in the Lord to share God’s word with them.”

Central Church of God is largely evangelical and conservative, playing host to Focus on the Family’s and Exodus Internationals “ex-gay” Love Won Out conference in February 2009. Myers Park was once affiliated with the Southern Baptist and North Carolina Baptist Conventions but was dismissed from both associations for their outspoken support of LGBT members and leaders.

Dennis Livingston, associate pastor at Central Church of God, said his church’s disagreements with the protest group have been building since at least February, when Operation Save America first attempted to attend worship and pass out literature.

“They asked if they could come and pass out their pamphlets, their information to our congregation,” Livingston recalled. “We told them they could not. We don’t allow anyone to do that here.”

Livingston — who said his church “believes in their cause” but thinks their “methods, ways and attitude are completely non-Christian” — said the February disagreement and protest has made Operation Save America more forceful.

“I think it has gotten deeper since we wouldn’t allow them in [the first time in February],” Livingston said. “I think they have become vindictive. They will say they are here just recruiting volunteers to help them, but it isn’t the right way to recruit people.”

Livingston said many church members and passers-by were upset by the group’s graphic signs.

“A lot of people were very offended by the signs they held out,” he said. “I got calls from people who don’t come to church here, who were just passing by, asking me if we allowed this. I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ We do not condone this. One lady called, in particular — her daughter is 4 years old. They rode by and saw the signs. She said her daughter stayed awake all night traumatized and had nightmares all night because of the signs.”

Central Church of God Senior Pastor Loran Livingston told FOX Charlotte his church does not condone Operation Save America’s tactics.

“We don’t think strong-arm tactics or belligerence or violence is in any way a method to bring people to know the Lord Jesus Christ,” Loran Livingston told the station.

Barry Metzger, Myers Park church administrator, said church services went smoothly, despite the protests outside and OSA’s attendance in worship.

“About 30 [of the protesters] came to the worship service and our Talk Back after worship where we discuss the sermon,” Metzger said. “They were invited to participate in that. It is an open forum. They presented their views and others presented theirs.”

Stephen Shoemaker, Myers Park’s senior pastor, said the church welcomed OSA members because they have a “calling in Christ” to keep their church “open to all, closed to none.”

“We made the decision to invite them to worship as long as they wished to worship with us,” Shoemaker said. “Had they begun to be disruptive in worship, we would have had to deal with it at that point. We decided to risk that because the call to hospitality superseded that.”

Shoemaker said part of the Baptist principle is freedom of conscience. “We respect not only that right, but honor that call as people who feel that call of conscience,” he said.

Any potential disruptions to worship were likely stunted by a blunt welcome at the service’s beginning, Shoemaker said. “I made a welcome at the beginning of worship to those at Operation Save America that after worship we’d let people respond to the sermon. Perhaps they knew they’d get a chance to speak then and it kept them from doing it in worship, but that just be guessing.”

Shoemaker said many of his church’s members have been active in protests of their own. He said welcoming Operation Save America was a “way for us to honor that freedom of conscience whether the whole of us agrees with them or doesn’t agree with them.”

Operation Save America, its leader Flip Benham and its members regularly protest reproductive health clinics, LGBT events and groups, Muslims and others, and are a staple at LGBT Pride events in Charlotte and Raleigh.

On Friday, the group plans to undertake a “Mosque Outreach,” although no protest location has yet been announced. The group’s claims that “Islam is a Lie” have already provoked ire in the Queen City’s Muslim community.

Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.