Will Americans of faith choose progressive values of compassion over the gospel of prosperity and power?
Chris Avell, who leads a church named Dad’s Place in Bryan, Ohio was charged for using his church to house the homeless.
By Sonali Kolhatkar
Pastor Eligio Regalado in Denver, Colorado, is being charged with multiple counts of fraud and other illegal activity after convincing members of his congregation to buy millions of dollars of worthless cryptocurrency. Regalado and his wife pocketed nearly half of the $3.2 million they raised and used several hundred thousand dollars to remodel their home.
Justifying his actions, the pastor claimed that “the Lord” told him to do it, and that, “We took God at his word and sold a cryptocurrency with no clear exit.” In attempting to explain the charges he now faces, Regalado said, “Either I misheard God,” or “God is still not done with this project and he’s going to do a new thing.”
Compare this story with that of another pastor in trouble. Chris Avell, who leads a church named Dad’s Place in Bryan, Ohio, was charged with violating zoning laws for using his church, which is classified as a business, for residential purposes.
But Avell wasn’t engaged in some nefarious scheme to trick his congregants or the city. Instead, he too was adhering to what he thought was God’s word by opening up his church to unhoused people in the dead of winter in order to help protect them against the cold. “This is what the word of God teaches,” said Avell.
According to Common Dreams’ Julia Conley, “Dad’s Place is located next to a homeless shelter, but overcrowding at the facility led Avell to begin offering space to unhoused people.” The church is in the habit of welcoming unhoused people into its space to keep warm in the winter. Ohio’s winters are so cold that the state’s health department has an entire page on its website offering advice on how to survive the potentially deadly weather. And no, there is no guidance for those who have no homes.
While these pastors are claiming to have heard two wholly contradictory messages from God, most individuals of faith might conclude that Avell’s version of Christianity is the one that is true to religious ideals grounded in compassion and care for one’s fellow human beings.
But Pastor Regalado’s version of Christianity is tragically far more consistent with what many Christian leaders in the U.S. have embraced: the idea that God wants people of faith to be wealthy at all costs. Regalado is convinced that “God is going to work a miracle in the financial sector.” His only misstep appears to be that he didn’t know what he was doing when he sold his congregants a cryptocurrency that wasn’t solvent.
But for those Christian leaders who are financially savvy, the Church is akin to a bank. Eight of the top 10 wealthiest pastors on the planet are based in the U.S. and are worth anywhere from $20 million to $300 million. There is no contradiction between scripture and the pursuit of wealth for those who see Christianity as a capitalist enterprise. As per Rodney Stark, who was a Distinguished Professor at Baylor University, Western dominance of the Americas and other colonies was enabled by capitalism, a set of ideals that stemmed from Christianity. “The rise of capitalism… was a victory for church-inspired reason,” he wrote in 2005, in apparent praise of capitalism, colonialism, and Christianity.
Misuses of Christianity aren’t merely a thing of the past. Today, Christianity, especially under the euphemism of “religious freedom” is used to justify all manner of injustices: abortion bans, attacks on LGBTQ children and especially transgender youth, and even Israeli settler colonization of Palestine. The Catholic church, in particular, has offered sanctuary to pedophilic priests.
Evangelicals helped Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential race in spite of Trump’s moral character being so obviously at odds with the basic tenets of Christianity. Far from the election resulting in a weakening of conservative Christianity, many white Trump supporters who weren’t initially church-goers were drawn to the church during his presidency. Now, evangelical conservatives are once again supporting Donald Trump in full force, threatening to return this nation on a path toward fascism through the 2024 race.
Within such a national context, it’s no wonder that Ohio Pastor Avell is facing criminal charges for being so out of step with the American version of Christianity. Kindness, compassion, sacrifice, and love are at odds with a capitalist Christianity that prefers individual wealth accumulation and the control of vulnerable humans.
The only silver lining is that Americans as a whole appear to be ending their love affair with Christianity, according to several recent Pew Research findings. A 2019 update found that fewer Americans were identifying as Protestant or Catholic and that those who identified as “nothing in particular” rose to 26 percent, more than a quarter of all Americans. That number is now peaking at 28 percent of all Americans.
Moreover, more Americans are embracing an identity of “spiritual” rather than “religious,” a seeming rejection of organized religion. The U.S. also appears to be enjoying greater religious diversity, perhaps in line with a demographic shift in the U.S. as 61 percent of Americans say they have friends who are of a different faith than themselves.
The 2020 U.S. Religion Census showed a shifting religious landscape tied to politics. Political scientist Ryan Burge summarized the results of the census saying, “Democrats are making gains in areas where religion is fading.” While Republicans are increasing their hold over some states like Texas and Florida via surges in conservative Christian populations, Burge predicts that “Democrats will continue to gain ground in suburban counties that are predominantly white and where religion is fading in size and importance.”
Although there has always been a strong progressive tradition among some sects of Christianity, the progressive church has been traditionally less successful in rallying voters to the polls based on faith compared to their conservative counterparts. But that may be changing. For example, a coalition called Faithful Democracy is organizing around the idea that “only a healthy, well-functioning democracy has the capacity to attend to any of the issues our faith calls us to address: systemic racism, climate change, hunger, violence, poverty, healthcare and more.” And a decade ago, Reverend William Barber in North Carolina began leading “Moral Mondays,” which are political faith-based protests seeking economic justice.
Regardless of how one identifies when it comes to religion and spirituality (or lack thereof), the core question is: Will Americans choose the ideals of collective well-being that drive Pastor Avell, or the individual selfishness that motivates Pastor Regalado?
Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her most recent book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization.
Independent Media Institute
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.