I had a recent dialogue with someone online about my blog. It went something like this:
“Progressive Redneck Preacher? You have got to be kidding.”
“I kind of am kidding, but why do you say that?”
“Well, you know, there aren’t any progressives down south.”
“Actually, there are several. I am one, after all. Let me tell you about some others.”
And then I began to share about some of the people I now am posting about in my Country Fried Chicken feature.
“Country Fried Chickens” are individuals who, like me, are children of the south. They were born to southern mamas, and grew up hearing the cry of the whip-poor-will. They grew up swimming and fishing in its rivers. Sweet tea runs through their veins and you can still see the shimmer of fried chicken grease sticking to their fingers. Yet like me they have seen the damage that approaches to the stranger, to the other, and to violence can produce and how ingrained they have become in our culture. These Country Fried Chickens are working to transform our culture to live out the best of our values, and truly be a place all are welcome at the family table as one.
One of the points I raised to this person that didn’t know there were southern progressives was that, not only do we have individual southerners raising their voice, but we also have movements for progressive values that have begun in the south and continue to spread like wildfire throughout our country. The Country Fried Chicken for today is the chair and co-founder of just such an organization, Rev. Jarrod Cochran. Cochran is a Georgia minister who helped co-found the Progressive Christian Alliance.
The Progressive Christian Alliance began through conversations between Jarrod Cochran of Georgia, Roger and Melissa Mclellan of Alabama, and Terry McGuire of Florida. These southern ministers looked around and saw how the Christian faith in which they had encountered the living and liberating Jesus had become high-jacked by individuals using it to push extreme political agendas. They also so how many had begun to feel that the Christian faith was irrelevant in their day to day lives, joining the late Mahatma Gandhi in saying We love your Jesus, but not your Christianity.
Jarrod also wrote the book Finding Jesus Outside the Box, in which he writes a sort of manifesto for the progressive Christian, outlining key principles for progressive Christian ministry. These principles become foundational in the work and vision of not just the Progressive Christian Alliance, but many progressive Christian movements.
Beginning in the southeast of the United States, the Progressive Christian Alliance burst forth, and now helps sponsor ministries the world over. Its website calls the Progressive Christian Alliance “post-denominational in that while we actively seek to build bridges between clergy and laity of existing churches and ministries regardless of denominational affiliation; we also seek to, as a community, affirm God’s calling on the lives of God’s children and establish new ministries.” As such it acts as both a network for progressive Christians in all denominational settings, and as an association that sponsors new church plants, new ministries, and new clergy that are committed to progressive expressions of the Christian faith.
Today you can see its work present in churches such as Loving Hands Fellowship of Rochester, New York, which has a thriving ministry and whose pastor Heather Marie Janes is an out-spoken advocate for the rights of transgendered persons in her community. You can see it in my congregation Diversity in Faith: A Christian Church for All People, which serve the Fayetteville-Fort Bragg area of NC, and is a multi-racial, multi-cultural congregation that includes singles, straight couples, and same-gender couples. Diversity has been active in speaking out for the rights of GLBT people, those with disabilities, and the homeless in our community.
You can see it in Open Doors Community Church, pastored by Rev. Daniel Payne, the first English-speaking church in Seoul, Korea to be focused on affirming same-gender couples with the love of Christ. These three churches are examples of church-planting work of the Progressive Christian Alliance, and they consider the Progressive Christian Alliance their “home”.
Yet also the Progressive Christian Alliance acts as a network for leaders in existing denominations. In this role it has partnered with individuals such as Mark Sandlin of the God Article, a Presbyterian minister, and Roger Wolsey of Kissing Fish, a United Methodist minister.
In a previous interview with Patheos, Rev. Cochran summarizes the vision of the Progressive Christian Alliance well, saying “As I and my fellow brothers and sisters in the Progressive Christian Alliance have always advocated, the Church is not a four-walled institution, but but a ministry without walls that surrounds and encompasses everything, everywhere we go. Church does not begin only when there is a pulpit or when the message of Jesus is conveyed through spoken word; it extends to all places and is conveyed by our actions.”
In this interview, Rev. Cochran shares his thoughts as he ends his term of service as Chair of the Progressive Christian Alliance, and prepares for new leadership to be elected for the organization in its upcoming general conference in mid-July.
I think the story of Jarrod Cochran and the Progressive Christian Alliance is a powerful story of what we southern progressives can do when we move forward in faith, following the example and calling of Jesus.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie here!
Your progressive redneck preacher,
Where do you live? Where does your ministry or progressive work happen?
I live in Atlanta, Georgia. My ministry is focused in “MetroAtlanta”, but I travel throughout the Southeast, occasionally, to guest preach.
Tell us a little about your ministry/work.
I wear several hats. I work at a food and clothing ministry for the needy in my community, I am starting a fledgling church/community in my neighborhood that feeds the homeless, I contribute to several religious publications, and I am currently the Chair of the Progressive Christian Alliance, an interdenominational organization I co-founded with Rev’s. Roger and Melissa McClellan, and Rev. Terry McGuire.
What would you say is the focus of the ministry you do?
Attempting to live up to the lessons learned in the Sermon on the Mount.
How did you begin this ministry?
It started in talks over coffee, phone discussions, emails, and a desire in my heart to create something that would reach out to those in church who felt they were left in the margins.
How does your work promote progressive values?
We’re inclusive, so everyone has a seat at the table and no one is left behind. We stand up for justice, in private matters and in the public square.
What are some key lessons you’ve learned through this work?
When you attempt to truly live out the radical teachings and example of Jesus, you’re going to make people angry on both sides of the fence as well as receive the ire of fellow ministers and political leaders. But I’ve also found that to reach out and love radically, as Jesus did, is completely worth the price.
What are some key concerns progressives need to be aware of which your work has brought up?
We must be mindful and ever vigilant to never create a leftist version of the Religious Right. I’ve been a part of a few groups that eventually became just that, and as a result, they are either now defunct or irrelevant.
One of the things I focus on in Progressive Redneck Preacher is the relationship between Southern culture and progressive values.
Did you grow up in the South? If so, what are some of you most positive experiences of “the South”? What are parts of it that you struggle with or struggle against? Do you see in any particular connections with your work and southern culture?
The generosity of those in South has always been in the forefront anywhere I go. The struggles I have experienced in the South is the mindset of many people. Most appear to be extremely conservative in thinking and believe that the American flag and the Republican Party were baptized in the blood of Jesus. Linking God with any particular political faction disturbs me.
One thing I discuss a lot on the Progressive Redneck Preacher is the influence of what I call “slaveholder Christianity”, methods of interpreting Scripture bound up in prejudice which aim to exclude people. How have you experienced that legacy?
I was “run out” of my first Church for preaching a message of inclusion and active peacemaking. This was my childhood church, too. My father was the minister and he had passed away. I felt the call to be a minister and I imagine that the elders of that church thought they had a minister they could “mold”. Boy were they wrong. After preaching about social justice, poverty, and violence, I was told they didn’t want to hear me preach about those things ever again. I ignored this warning and continued until they eventually kicked me out.
What are ways your ministry confronts this?
We attempt to focus on the message of Jesus, how his message and example echoes that of the prophets that came before him, and how we can display that radical love and grace to others today. We are also a public advocacy group for inclusion.
In addition to the influence of “slaveholder Christianity”, we discuss how positive movements that grew out of the South, such as the Civil Rights Movement, influence us today. Can you see ways this or another movement has shaped the work you do?
The Civil Rights Movement had a huge impact here in the MetroAtlanta Community. The King/Gandhian doctrine of nonviolence is one we attempt to embody when we are confronted with hostility.
Do you have any advice you’d give to young people sensing a call to do progressive work like yours?
Patience, compassion, and grace. We are not against people; we’re against mindsets. The only way we can truly change the world is through love.
Would you be willing to say a little about where you see your ministry going after the end of your work as chair? And what some of your hopes are personally, and for the Progressive Christian Alliance?
Sure thing! I see myself focusing on starting up “The Progressive Christian Worker”. A movement/church/communion where progressive Christians of all stripes can come and join in worship and advocacy in the style of Dorothy Day and Amon Hennacy’s Catholic Worker Movement. My personal hopes are to continue to grow in my faith, receive my phD in Theology by the end of the year, and maybe eventually be the pastor of a church. My hopes for the Progressive Christian Alliance are what they have always been: to continue to grow into a powerful force for change and goodness, to continue to listen to the Spirit, and to never forget the roots from which we came.