The recent establishment and expansion of a Charlotte-based megachurch in Winston-Salem has former LGBTQ members of the church concerned.
A Charlotte area-based megachurch has established a permanent residence in Winston-Salem and is expanding, raising concerns by some former LGBTQ members of the church who say they were discriminated against, and that the church’s policies on LGBTQ rights are too vague.
Charlotte area-based megachurch Elevation Church purchased the building that houses the Gateway YWCA on South Main Street in Winston-Salem about a month ago. The church has been a tenant in the building for the last two years, holding two Sunday services there weekly. A Forsyth County Register of Deeds filing shows that the building, which was previously owned and operated by the YWCA of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, was bought by EC Winston LLC on July 12. Business records show that EC Winston LLC is registered to James Brett Corbett, otherwise known as Chunks Corbett, Elevation’s chief financial officer, and the address on file matches the address for Elevation’s Matthews location.
Elevation Church was founded by Pastor Steven Furtick in Matthews in 2006 and has grown to 18 locations across the southeastern United States and one campus in Toronto. Most of its locations are in North Carolina, including one in Greensboro where the church meets at Western Guilford High School. Based on an annual report posted on its website, in 2018, the church boasted $77.1 million in revenue and close to 26,000 attendees at its physical locations. The church also live-streams its sermons online, where viewers from all over the world tune in.
The sale comes just months after the YWCA announced that it would not be re-opening its pool, a large draw for many of its members, after damage from flooding in August 2018 forced it to close.
Christy Respess, the president and CEO of the YWCA of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, said that the sale of the building to Elevation Church is a relief because of the amount of debt that the YWCA had accumulated during the recession.
“We had a strategic plan to partner with someone on the building that would allow us to stay here,” she said. “It’s a beautiful building but the recession hit, and we had $12 million in debt but we’re only a $3 million organization.”
The church paid $3.16 million for the property, according to the deed.
“This is just a business transaction, but we’re a complementary partnership,” Respess said. “We’ve coexisted nicely and to go from owner to tenant just made sense for us. We are not merging boards; we are separate organizations. Now that we are debt free, all of our revenue goes to our programs and the facility. It is a much better financial decision for the YWCA to be a tenant rather than cover the overhead for a building that large and to cover debt services.”
In a press release, Greg Basch, the campus pastor at Winston-Salem Elevation Church, said he’s excited about the partnership with YWCA. Basch did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls for comment.
“We have enjoyed an incredible relationship with the YWCA since we launched our Winston-Salem church here in 2017,” Basch said.
“We’re looking forward to establishing a permanent presence from which we can continue to reach and serve more people in Winston.”
During last Sunday’s 11 a.m. service, Parker Richardson, an employee at Elevation’s new Winston-Salem location, announced that the church will be expanding its presence in the city to include Sunday evening services at Goler Memorial AME Zion Church at the corner of Patterson Avenue and Seventh Street starting Aug. 18.
“We’re not gonna wait on a construction project to keep developing and expanding,” Richardson said from the stage.
The church is a predominantly African-American one, and was listed for sale at $3.5 million in April.
A spokesperson for Goler Memorial, who did not want to be named, confirmed the agreement to rent space to Elevation Church on Wednesday and said that they would continue to have their own services at the church. They also said that there no plans for Elevation to buy the church.
“They’ve never even approached us about that,” said the spokesperson.
When asked about the YWCA’s stance on the LGBTQ community, Respess said, “We are all-inclusive no matter what anyone’s background. We serve everybody. We never turn anyone away. They are welcomed and loved by us.”
Past members of Elevation say they were barred from taking on leadership positions within the church and were treated differently once they came out as LGBTQ to staff and volunteers.
One former member of the YWCA, who is heterosexual, said she wouldn’t be returning after learning that Elevation bought the building.
Nathanial Totten Green, a former Elevation Church member and a gay man, said he was discriminated against for being gay when he came out to his campus worship leader in Roanoke, Va. He joined Elevation in 2015 and became a part of the worship team, which performs on stage at the church. He was also the musical director and had an unpaid internship lined up when he told his campus worship leader that he was gay. Shortly after, Totten said, the leaders at Elevation called him and rescinded the internship offer and later told him he couldn’t perform on stage either.
“At the end of the conversation [with my campus worship leader, she] said that the church leadership had decided that anyone on stage, anyone on the platform was considered to be in a position of leadership and that now precluded me from being on the team.”
Totten left Elevation Church in summer 2017.
Elevation Church is listed as a part of the Southern Baptist Convention, which describes “marriage [as] the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime.”
According to ChurchClarity.org, a website that grades churches based on the clarity of their views on the LGBTQ community as well as women in leadership, Elevation got a grade of “unclear” for both. The website describes Elevation’s policy on those who identify as LGBTQ as “non-affirming” which means that the church’s “policies place restrictions on individuals based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity” such as not ordaining, hiring or marrying LGBTQ+ people.
Totten said that Elevation is deceptive towards those in the LGBTQ community because of its vague policy and overly welcoming nature.
“They’re not explicitly welcoming,” he said. “They’ll welcome anyone’s money. [Queer people] are given a presentation and a façade and it’s not representative of reality.”
Totten’s friend, Autumn Quinn, said she experienced similar mistreatment during her time at Elevation Church. Quinn, who is a lesbian, joined Elevation in 2013 and started attending the same Roanoke location as Totten. When Quinn began dating her wife, whom she met through Elevation Church, she said the staff and volunteers at Elevation started treating her differently.
“Some of the staff couldn’t even look at me,” she said. “They were not willing to even acknowledge that I was standing right there. It made me question trusting people and especially people who claim to be Christian who claim to follow Jesus and loving your neighbor, but they seem to do that with condition.”
Respess said that the YWCA does not reflect Elevation’s values and that the YWCA hasn’t found that discriminatory history to be a problem at the Winston-Salem location. She said that they vetted Elevation Church two years ago when they first started renting to them and didn’t find any issues. She also noted that YWCA members do not have to be members of the church and that the two are totally separate organizations and that Elevation’s policies would not affect the YWCA’s operations. The YWCA doesn’t open until 1 p.m. on Sundays so members may not interact with the dozens of congregants that meet in the building for the two services on Sundays at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m.
“We are incredibly diverse,” Respess said. “[The YWCA] is just a big open environment where people feel comfortable.”
Linda Sutton, a lifelong Goler Memorial member, said that she knew about the rental agreement between Goler and Elevation but that she hadn’t heard about Elevation’s LGBTQ discriminatory policies.
“When you think about a church, you think about a welcoming body of Christians,” Sutton said on Wednesday. “I didn’t know anything about their history.”
She said that Goler is a welcoming church that has had LGBTQ members on the payroll in the past.
“We’ve never had a problem like that and don’t think we ever will,” she said.
The YWCA’s stance of inclusion towards LGBTQ people appears to be at odds with Elevation Church’s doctrine restricting marriage to a man and woman and its history of discrimination. “It’s very deceptive to offer safety and shower [people] with love and affirmation and then some time down the road when those people want to step up or be baptized, or take a leadership position, to be told that we can’t allow you to do that and our church doesn’t allow that lifestyle,” said Matt Comer, who works as the communications director of Charlotte Pride and is a gay man. Comer uncovered Elevation’s policies on the LGBTQ community when he was an editor for Q Notes, a LGBTQ-led newspaper based in Charlotte.
“The YWCA is LGBTQ-affirming so I’m a little surprised that they’ve entered into this business agreement,” he continued. “They may be putting their employees and members in great spiritual and psychological risk.”
Respess said that the YWCA’s basketball courts will be converted into a youth ministry and a permanent space for Elevation’s worship services in January. She said that community members who used the basketball courts for tournaments would be moved to a new location, adding that the space was not used that much anyway.
She also said that a new fitness area and walking track would take the place of where the pool is.
When asked if the new partnership had affected memberships, Respess said that cancellations were down in numbers compared to last year.
At least one member said that they will not return now that Elevation owns the building.
ES Weiler, who didn’t feel comfortable giving her first name, said that she used to be a member at the Gateway YWCA for about six years, until they announced that the pool would not be re-opening. She said that she thought about rejoining the gym but after hearing about the new business deal, she decided not to go back.
“It sounded like a spin,” she said. “They misled people and they created a story that sounds like a win-win for everybody but really it’s a win for Elevation Church and it’s a loss for people like me. I just feel like it’s no longer a YWCA. It’s a church with a fitness area. That’s not really what I’m looking for. My own church has a multipurpose room with a gym.”
She said that as a person who supports LGBTQ rights, she wouldn’t go back to the YWCA because it shares space with Elevation.
“If they are not inclusive, that’s just one more reason not to go,” she said.
Elevation’s rapid expansion in places like Winston-Salem concerns those like Totten who say they have been discriminated against.
“Elevation has a very colonialist approach to church planning,” Totten said. “It’s kind of almost like this manifest destiny. They are trying to be a global church. It makes me uncomfortable that the church continues to amass power and leverage their financial strength into these kinds of real estate situations.”