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Red Emma's Anarcho-Methodist Church By: Mark D. Tooley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, December 14, 2007

Red Emma's, an anarchist bookstore and café in Baltimore, has come to the rescue of struggling St. Paul's United Methodist Church, whose originally female pastor now claims to be a man.

The Baltimore Sun published an entertaining piece on November 27 about the new anarcho-Methodist partnership, though it omitted the transsexual angle. "Anarchists and Methodists may seem like unlikely business partners," the Sun reported understatedly. But this "quirky venture" has brought "new energy" to the small congregation, whose doors might otherwise shut without the infusion of anarchist funds.

"It's a crazy little project," anarchist Kate Khatib of Red Emma's explained to the Sun. "There are not many churches that would reach out to a bunch of crazy anarchists, and there are not many anarchists that would reach out to a bunch of crazy Methodists."

Named after early 20th century anarchist radical Emma Goldman, Red Emma's is a "collective" owned by the "workers" rather than a capitalist overlord. "Worker ownership and control, at least to some extent, subverts the logic of capitalism (based on domination, hierarchy, and exploitation) and it's for this reason that the Red Emma's 'business mode' works the way it does," the collective's website explains.

Red Emma's appears to be mostly a venue for faux radical yuppies to express their interminable angst about leaving in repressive capitalist America. Its programs tend to involve "fair trade" coffee, vegan menus, and lots of lectures against the World Bank. It's all mostly just big talk and very little actual revolution. And seemingly the anarchists are financially better organized than the poor Methodists of St. John's Church and their transsexual pastor.

Oddly, the Sun article declined to mention that St. John's Church pastor the Rev. Drew Phoenix was, until last year, the Rev. Ann Gordon. The Sun's religion reporter over the last year has reportedly extensively about Phoenix's spiritual, hormonal and surgical journey. "Fortunately, today, God's gift of medical science is enabling me to bring my physical body into alignment with my true gender," the Rev. Phoenix explained in June to the local United Methodist Baltimore Washington Annual Conference. "I am making this transition under the care of an excellent medical team. I am grateful for their expertise. They have been instruments of God's grace for me."

The former Ann Gordon embraced the name "Phoenix" to symbolize the rebirth from woman to man, like the ancient Greek mythological creature that arose anew from the ashes. Local United Methodist Bishop John Schol enthusiastically reappointed Phoenix/Gordon back to St. John's Church, making Phoenix The United Methodist Church's first openly transsexual minister, and one of the very few of any denomination in America.

In a speech to United Methodist colleagues, Phoenix boasted that St. John's Church member had "quadrupled" and financial giving had "tripled." Full of excitement under its transsexual pastor, the congregation "has plans to begin renovating its old, historical building in order to be more efficient, effective, and relevant in its vision and mission," Phoenix announced, without referencing the anarchists.

Phoenix also failed to mention that St. John's "quadrupled" membership still numbers only a few dozen who, despite "tripled" giving, still cannot afford to maintain their building. So help from Baltimore's anarchists has become vital. Like many inner city mainline churches, St. John's imploded when its white middle class members fled to the suburbs in the 1950's and 1960's. These emptied mainline churches could not attract inner city blacks or Hispanics, who preferred a more dynamic Christianity than what left-wing white Protestants could offer. So many desperate city churches resorted to ever more radical political and sexual causes to stay afloat, and even then just barely.

A 1981 fire devastated St. John's Church, which even now has not been fully rebuilt. In the partially restored church, the dwindling congregation during the 1980's became active with a pro-Sandinista missions project in Nicaragua and also declared itself to be a "sanctuary" church, offering its protection to "undocumented workers" from El Salvador. The church formally aligned with homosexual causes and began to march in Baltimore gay pride parades. St. John's also opposed both U.S. wars against Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Of course, St. John's church celebrates "inclusion" and "diversity" centered around "age, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic status, work and educational experience, physical and mental abilities, and spiritual needs." Churches that boast of all their "inclusion" are almost always dying. Neither its frenetic political energy nor even the excitement of its pastor's professed sex change has evidently been enough to sustain resolutely radical St. John's Church. Apparently not willing to try preaching the Gospel, the congregation instead turned to their anarchist friends at Red Emma's. The anarcho-Methodist partnership was "born out of necessity," the Sun reported. Last year, St. John's desperately needed new money to avoid having to sell its partially restored sanctuary. "We'd gotten to a place of financial desperation," the Rev. Phoenix told the Sun. "Some people wanted to just sell and leave."

At the same time, Red Emma's was thriving and needed expanded space for its "progressive events." The anarchist collective had already rented the church for a book signing by Ralph Nader. The Rev. Phoenix offered the anarchists the century old sanctuary. Anarchists and Methodists beautifully joined together to form "Project 2640," named after the church's address. The project is a "noncommercial, cooperatively managed space for radical politics and grassroots culture," according to Red Emma's website. The anarchists pump $1,500 a month into the church to pay the utility bills and are raising additional money for renovation. In return, the anarchists host radical book signings and movie showings in the church. Of course, some of Phoenix's small but presumably equally radical flock happily attend the anarchist events.

"There is an incredible energy that wasn't there a year ago," Phoenix told the Sun. "Just the presence of the collective and 2640 has generated a lot of excitement." The church, which once accommodated hundreds of church goers, is now full of chipping paint, water leaks, and falling plaster. Church pews disappeared decades ago in favor of folding chairs and sofas. "It's all perfectly safe," Red Emma's Khatib assured the Sun. "It's just not the glorious space it once was. ... It was the jewel of Baltimore Methodism." Khatib hopes that in the future St. John's Church will become a bastion for the progressive community. "Right now, we're all really happy," she told the Sun. "We're all getting along really well. We're enjoying sharing the space."

No doubt. In October, the anarchists hosted a "radical" book fair at St. John's Church. One workshop was facilitated by a chapter of the Northeastern Federation of Anarchist-Communists (NEFAC), "a cross-border network for anti-authoritarian class struggle." Another workshop came from "Unconventional Action," which is planning to "disrupt" the upcoming Democratic and Republican National Conventions. Still another workshop was run by "Spread" magazine, which "confronts various stigmas surrounding sex work, raises awareness of legal and political issues affecting sex workers, and encourages support for the rights of all people working in the sex industries." A concluding speaker for the day of fun at the church was Ashanti Alston Omowali, an anarchist and former Black Panther Party, who was in prison for 10 years after "government forces captured him (and the official court system convicted him) for armed robbery." He currently chairs the National Jericho Movement "to free U.S. political prisoners."

Red Emma's anarcho-Marxist celebrations probably would not gain the approval of St. John's Church's pious 19th century Methodist founders. But then, neither likely would its transsexual minister. But at least the anarchists, unlike Rev. Phoenix's small flock, can apparently attract a crowd and pay the utility bills. Even disapproving Methodists might respect that.

Mark D. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He is the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church.

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