One of my very favorite episodes of this show has been the conversation I had in May 2017 with Pastor Joe Phelps of Highland Baptist Church. We had never met in person before we recorded our interview, but we jumped directly into the deep end with the story of the unexpected loss of his son. But lest you think the entire conversation was somber, let me say that we followed that up with a kind of crazy adventure that Joe had with Bruce Springsteen long ago in Austin, Texas. This is how Joe Phelps operates: with honesty, directness, and an appreciation for all the ups and downs of life.
So when I heard that he had retired from his position at Highland Baptist, I wanted to talk to him again and see what life was like. He refers to himself now as “former (not retired) pastor of Highland Baptist Church,” because he still sees himself as a pastor-at-large, for whoever needs him. We spoke last fall, just after the midterm elections when politics was very much on people’s minds.
On what prompted him to think about stepping down from his church:
“I began to notice that my battery, if you will, would not recharge. It just would not take a charge like it did back in the day, when I could kind of keep going and keep doing the work that was required. And so I knew the time was coming, and it took some time to get there, but it was a decision that seemed right and it continues to seem right.”
On the definition of “political” and his activities in that area:
“I’ve never been political in the sense of trying to be partisan, but this is a really tough time. Let’s just say that it’s almost impossible to even quote the words of Jesus and not sound political, because Jesus’ words are political. When he says, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me,’ if you quote that, then you’re saying something political, partisan. Well, I’m quoting Jesus.”
On the social justice work he’s doing now:
“I’m very interested in helping people awaken — white people, especially white males, especially white Baptist males, people just like me — awaken to the ways that our lives have been blessed, and — I know this is kind of an incendiary word — privileged. Not as a way to shame us, but as a way to invite us to a life of generosity. Men have had such privilege, and my goodness, if we don’t see it now — well, we are having opportunities to see it now. I’m sorry we’ve not seen it sooner.”