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BYOB Square Dancing, And Change, At First Presbyterian Church

The 195 year-old First Presbyterian Church in Broadmoor is growing. It's in no small part thanks to a new pastor, who is reaching out to new communities and luring more people with special events. Like a square dance. With red beans... and beer... in a church? 

Credit Laine Kaplan-Levenson
Follow the signs to the square dance.

The fellowship hall of First Presbyterian Church on Claiborne Avenue is lined with portraits of pastors dating back to 1818. Twice a month, the room fills with square dancers. Dan Wally Baker calls out the steps, like he learned how back home in North Carolina. He knew square dancing would be a hit New Orleans, but didn’t expect to host events in church.

"There are some stripes that say dancing in church might make people roll in their graves, but drinking in churches? Well, that might be First Presbyterian's got a corner on the market!"

Five bucks gets you in the door, another dollar gets you red beans, and host Justin Wood says you’re encouraged to bring your own beverage of choice.

"Just because we think this space is sacred, we don’t have a problem with somebody having a beer in it and dancing," Wood says. "We think that is a moment of fellowship that’s holy — whether or not they think it is or not — and we’re happy to have it here in our church."

First Presbyterian does things a little differently. Wood and his fiancée Amy Benson moved to New Orleans about five years ago, and hopped around a few churches looking for the right one. They landed here, he says.

Credit Laine Kaplan-Levenson
Dan Wally Baker calling a dance.

"The very first Sunday we showed up here — it was right before the fifth anniversary of Katrina — this guy Randy insisted we come to his house to party for his Katrina party, and we were like, 'I don’t know, this is so weird, this just might be the perfect spot for us.'"

They also liked that First Presbyterian is a More Light Church. That means the congregation and the leadership can be any gender, race or sexual orientation. It’s the only More Light Church in the whole state.

"Not that any church is any less welcoming, but this church is really really welcoming," says Wood. "Like, you could smell bad, you could show up with a Rolex on your wrist, you could show up drunk from the night before, tattooed, or the nicest cutest old lady, and there’s a place for you at this church."

This is interesting, considering the church’s history. In the Civil War era, prominent Confederate leader Benjamin Palmer led the congregation. He’s remembered today, and his portrait remains in the fellowship hall. But he’s not celebrated by members, like Mina Cray.

"He’s embarrassing, truly," Cray says. "He was sort of on the wrong side of civil rights, I guess would be the best way to put it. Which I don’t personally find very Christian."

Credit Laine Kaplan-Levenson
Church Elder Mina Cray in her home in the Marigny. Cray says the segregationist history of some of the church's pastors is embarrassing, but things have changed.

Palmer was eventually replaced by more open and accepting pastors, leading up to current pastor Fred Powell. "In the past 180 years we’ve done a 180-degree turn to become the most progressive church in Louisiana," he says.

Pastor Fred is openly gay, and Amy Benson says he’s the first gay head pastor in the South. Benson was on the committee that chose Pastor Fred, and says they had to convince some church members.

"The biggest issues I heard was like, 'Oh, well, he’s gay, can he do marriage counseling?' Actually yes, he’s a certified counselor, yes he can. 'Oh, well, what about relationship advice?' Oh, well, he’s been in relationships, so…"

This really tested the congregation — and despite being part of the More Light philosophy, some people left the church. Pastor Fred even received bomb threats.

Credit Laine Kaplan-Levenson
Pastor Fred Powell on the pulpit.

"Our secretary got several of those before I arrived," he says. "In some ways I loved it, because it made me think I was important enough or threatening enough to kill. I was like 'Whoa, so maybe it's powerful enough what we’re talking about here.'"

All but one church member has returned to the congregation, and now everyone supports Pastor Fred’s dedication to make his More Light church, well, even more More Light.

"We talk a lot about emerging churches in the Presbyterian church, ways that we don’t look like your grandmama’s church," he says. "I would say the gay and lesbian folks are sort of the poster child for that idea, but we are looking for ways we can go far beyond that."

Bring Your Own square dances may be just the beginning.

(read it on Nolavie)

The Old Time NOLA Square Danceis Monday night at 5401 South Claiborne Ave., beginning at 7 p.m. for a lesson with Dan Wally Baker, and 8 p.m. for square dancing.