Every now and then someone comes along who surprisingly changes the game about something we thought we knew about. Suddenly, things look a little different and we either buck against that change or willingly embrace it like a breath of fresh air. Rev. Dr. Benjamin Boswell is that breath of fresh air. At least for many. For others, he’s an agitator they wish would just go away.
Born in Lynchburg Virginia, Boswell went to high school in Kannapolis and moved back to the area seven years ago to become Senior Minister at Myers Park Baptist Church. Also a military veteran, educator, author and activist, he was prompted by a friend and the church’s reputation for engaging in social justice to bring his skills, lived experience and passion to MPBC. Parishioners there receive inspiration from the inclusive environment Boswell fosters. As an ally, he is a warm, witty and easy person to talk to.
But make no mistake, he takes his role as a minister seriously, and he’s well aware of the privileges he experiences as a cisgender and heterosexual white male. He believes strongly that it is his job to speak with marginalized and oppressed people, ask what needs to be done and follow their lead.
When he’s not delivering sermons or providing guidance to his friends and church family Boswell is spending his time trying to be the best father, husband and couch potato he can be. He enjoys reading, running, working out and “watching an unreasonable amount of TV.”
During this interview, we learned a lot about his life, his social justice ideologies and what makes him the guiding and sometimes disruptive force he’s become.
L’Monique King: Pardon the pun but, we know you’re a minister. When did you become a father?
Rev. Dr. Benjamin Boswell: A little over 13 years ago. My wife [at the time] and I could not have children of our own. The [adoption] agency asked us what races of children we were open to adopting, which seemed like a strange question to us. We were open to adopting all children.
My daughter Lucy is 13 years-old, she’s adopted and she’s amazing. She plays basketball, talks about teenage things like friends, boys and all that stuff. Every moment I get to spend with her is precious.
LMK: Any challenges with being a blended family and having a Black daughter?
BB: It is a journey we did not set out intentionally to take. However, we had a really great relationship with Lucy’s birth mother and we were there when she was born. Yeah, of course there are challenges. I think there’s suspicion on both sides of the racial divide. White folks look at us and see us as traitors and Black folks look at us and wonder “where’d you get that child?”
The black community has a history of raising their own regardless of what has occurred. Obviously, as a white father raising a Black daughter in this time in America it’s hard, very hard and I take it very seriously. I’m learning about Black hair, making sure she has access to that and taking a lot of care in making sure she can fully participate in Black culture. I’ve worked hard to make sure she has a community of Black people, particularly women (models, people who look like her in leadership positions), showing how much we value her and her Blackness. To a great extent, it’s about understanding the truth of American history, having conversations on experiences and what she can expect in policing encounters.
LMK: Do you ever tire of questions about your interracial family structure?
BB: Yeah, it does get tiring because people can be insensitive about it and ask questions that can be exhausting to describe. I worry more about my daughter than I do myself; her constantly having to explain, “Yes, that’s my dad. Yes, I know he’s white.” Watching her have to go through that is hard. She has enough challenges to deal with being a Black girl in America.
LMK: You mentioned earlier that you adopted your daughter with your wife at the time. Are you currently married?
BB: I’m divorced from Lucy’s mom and am remarried. My daughter is with me quite a bit, during holidays and for most of the summer. She doesn’t live only with me, we share custody. Lucy’s mom and I have a great co-parenting relationship. We had to work on it. We had to decide that we had to put our own desires and our own history on the back burner and stop being so self-oriented and focus on her and do the work, with our own therapists. Once you make the decision to have a child, especially in an interracial relationship, you have to prioritize the child and that means you gotta get whatever [angst] you have with each other out of the way. You’ve gotta be patient and work on it. My current wife is very supportive. She’s a high-powered nonprofit consultant with a career. We’ve been married about a year and a half.
LMK: Obviously your personal life shed light on what it means to be inclusive. In your pastoral life, what does it mean for your church to be inclusive and how important is it?
BB: The inclusivity of our church is historic and it is the life blood of our community of faith. It is the distinguishing and unique marker of who we are. We first began our journey of inclusivity in the ‘40s and ‘50s. At that time, it meant having an open baptism policy that allowed for people to join the church [no matter their previous or current baptism status]. Then in the ‘60s inclusivity expanded to include race. That continued to evolve (around the ‘70s and ‘80s) to include women in leadership and it also began to include women clergy (hired and ordained by the church). It then continued to evolve to include LGBTQ inclusivity.
We’ve been on a journey of becoming officially welcoming and affirming for a long period of time. Everyone thinks they are welcoming, but then some people who are actually LGBT, come [to a church] and are told they need to change who they are. At our church, we have moved away from the toxic theological malpractice of associating God given diversity of sexuality with sin. We believe there is nothing sinful about the beautiful diversity of sexuality that God has given to creation.
LMK: How’s that practice working out for you?
BB: This type of inclusivity has become so important to us that it is now a part of our mission statement. It’s on our website and the front of our building. We even changed our logo to include rainbow colors. Not just for [representing] the LGBT community – but also for race, gender, sexuality, economic status, religious affiliation or religious belief. This got us evicted from the Southern Baptist convention years ago.
We have members of our community who are atheist, agnostic and a variety who believe in different religious traditions; being Jewish and Buddhist. We have a deep relationship with Temple Beth El and have even renamed a space in our building Shalom Hall in honor of that historic relationship. Since my tenure, we’ve had new areas of focus with an ever-expanding commitment to inclusivity. Meaning, we don’t stop, freeze ourselves in time and pat ourselves on the back. As we learn more and discover more, we stand in solidarity with trans and non-binary folks and [spiritually and financially] assist trans folks in their journey of gender transition.
LMK: This is the second year that you’ve organized and held your Confronting Whiteness Conference. What inspired you to do this?
BB: Well, I created this course called Confronting Whiteness in 2019 as part of a degree program. I piloted it with a congregant. What I had come to realize through pastoral work is that people who are racialized as white continue to have conversations about racial justice and racism [viewing these issues] as abstract constructs and struggles that are not their own. This comes from white supremacy. If they could see themselves through the eyes of someone else and see what whiteness is, they could begin to… <thoughtful pause>. I thought if I could introduce my congregants to the writings of people like W. E.B. Du Bois, Toni Morrison, Malcom X, Bell Hooks, James Baldwin and more modern writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kelly Brown Douglas and Kimberly Crenshaw that they might begin to see themselves through someone else’s eyes; through the eyes of Black people – that they would see themselves.
LMK: That’s a tall order. What’s been the reaction from white fundamentalist ministers, if any?
BB: I think the most visceral one has been from those who have driven by, seen our Black Lives Matter sign and emailed me or called us to leave nasty messages of why we have a Marxist sign out front. I find it sad because I can tell by the way and words they use that they are just using talking points by Fox News commentators. I’ve had people tell me that I am obsessively focused on race and that I’m not a Christian or a legitimate clergy person because of the work that I’m doing.
LMK: As a minister with a Black daughter, diverse friends and an inclusive church; what do you say to folks who are having difficulty navigating a world that does not honor them for simply being who they are?
BB: I say, I’m so sorry, you don’t deserve this. You are a beloved child of God and this is not what Jesus, God or any other religious deity would say how anyone should be treated. But you get to tell your story and in your own way.
LMK: Do you see this recognition, this way of apologizing to the marginalized as your job to do?
BB: My job is to be an encourager and inspiring. To help people develop the tools that they need in this time of horrific violence. People at the intersection of more than one form of oppression are the people who know the way out. And it’s my job to speak to those people and ask what we need to do, what the pathway out is and follow their lead.