First United Methodist Church has withdrawn its membership from Together Baton Rouge, church officials confirmed this morning.
The church’s board made the decision Monday evening to leave the organization so it could “focus fully” on the church’s mission, says Senior Pastor Rev. Brady Whitton in a prepared statement.
“The mission of the United Methodist Church is to ‘Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,’” Whitton says. “The Church Council’s decision was not based on TBR’s merits or whether we agree or disagree with TBR’s position on issues in our community, but on our desire to remain focused on our mission. We support much of the work TBR has done in our community and encourage individual congregants who are so led to continue their support of and work with TBR.”
Still, several sources told Daily Report that First United’s congregation has been divided about the church’s membership in Together Baton Rouge for several months and concerns have grown as TBR has gotten increasingly vocal about the Industrial Tax Exemption Program.
The loss of such a large organization, like First United, strikes a blow to Together Baton Rouge, which draws the majority of its membership base—and earns much of its credibility—from local religious congregations.
The organization, a frequent critic of ITEP, has topped headlines in recent weeks with its strong positions against the tax-break program in general as well as its outspoken criticism regarding two specific ITEP requests from ExxonMobil, which the industrial giant withdrew after the East Baton Rouge Parish Public School Board rejected them.
Together Baton Rouge released a report questioning ITEP’s impact on the business tax climate, and yesterday came out strongly against plans by two lawmakers to file legislation that would return full ITEP authority to the state.
In a prepared statement, Together Baton Rouge Executive Committee member Rev. Lee T. Wesley compares the church’s departure from the group to an excerpt in Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which he describes the difference between “a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, and a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.”
“A few congregations in our city will feel the tension of this moment in history more than others,” Wesley says. “My colleagues and I are praying for their clergy, as they struggle to discern which peace is the peace of Christ.”