It was the day after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, and the Rev. Derek Grier was in the pulpit of Grace Church, moderating a discussion for his new TV show, “Both Sides.”
As Hilary Shelton of the NAACP and the Rev. Derek McCoy, an opponent of same-sex marriage, debated the decision’s impact on the black community, Grier stayed above the fray. He listened intently and challenged both men about their points of view, but he would not take a side.
“Our goal was to help folks think through the political process,” said Grier, who also questioned Shelton and McCoy on other social issues, including abortion rights. At one point, he told the two men, “I take issue with supporting political party over principles.”
It was typical of Grier. During 15 years as head of Grace Church, a 3,000-member congregation in Dumfries, he has sought to be a nonpartisan, centrist voice on hot-button issues — on which many black pastors have weighed in heavily — while also providing his flock with religious leadership.
In many ways, he illustrates a new kind of high-profile African American pastor. He is well educated. He is not a member of a major religious convention. And he refuses toalign himself with the Democratic or Republican parties.
“I am politically independent,” said Grier, 48, who remarked that for too long African Americans have been blindly loyal to the Democratic Party or too quick to tilt toward socially conservative views. “I think it is important for people of faith to think through social justice issues on both sides.”
Traditionally, high-profile African American pastors are thrust into political debates and asked to take a side. Often they are members of the Democratic Party, or they take the lead on socially conservative causes, such as opposition to same-sex marriage.
“Because I am not in lock step with the Democratic Party, [many] assume that I am a Republican, but I am not,” Grier said. “On one level, the Democratic Party has kicked me out, taking God out of the platform, supporting same-sex marriage, but at the same time, I do see racism in the Republican Party. I also see racism in the Democratic Party.”
Although Grier opposes same-sex marriage, he doesn’t employ fire-and-brimstone sermons to condemn those who support it. His style is more conversational. He preaches in open-collar shirts and says he’s more interested in discussing political and social issues than promoting an ideology.
That is not to say that Grier does not want to have a long reach. Like generations of pastors before him, he uses television evangelism to send his message to a wider audience, and he also makes use of new online social media. His nationally televised broadcast attracts thousands of viewers each week.
According to the Rev. Al Sharpton and other prominent ministers, Grier exemplifies the way some pastors have become more sophisticated about delivering their messages or pursuing their goals while taking middle-of-the-road positions on certain divisive issues.
“I see activism using new technology,” Sharpton said. “Years ago, we were trying to get on a show, and now I have a television and radio show. I have 300,000 followers on Twitter.”
In many ways, Grier’s approach is a departure from the civil rights ministries of a previous generation, said Bernard Richardson, dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “influence has had a big impact on the modern-day pastor in the black church in ways that many people don’t think about, and Grier is simply an example of that.”
“Today, local churches feed the hungry, have prison ministries, AIDS ministries and do so many things that were not part of the traditional black church during King’s time,” Richardson said, “and these things were inspired by the civil rights movement. “
Richardson said the role of the pastor is more complex today because congregations have different expectations. “People want to see the application of faith to all aspects of life,” he said. “They want to know, ‘When I go to church, how will it impact my life, not just my personal devotional, but everything? How does it impact poverty, racism? How does it impact social injustice?’ ”
Grier said his primary focus, as a pastor, is on his church’s members. Social justice issues and politics are important, he said, but it all starts with the individual.
“People are the most important components in this ministry,” Grier said in an interview. “In everything thing that we do, we emphasize the point that people matter. My job as a pastor is not just to help you die right, but to help you live right. How do you have a marriage that survives ? How do you survive depression?”
Grace Church has nearly 60 ministries. There are programs for young men and young women, for married couples and people in need of food and clothing. There is a also a facility for young people called the Dumfries Youth Center.
Ronald Watkins, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, and his wife, Renea, are elders of Grace Church, and they lead a marriage-mentoring course. “Our focus is turned toward families and building relationships,” Renea Watkins said.
Grier said that the church is broken down geographically into “care groups” and that everyone is assigned to a care group, because of the importance of fostering strong relationships. “Television, radio is not the main thing,” he said. “The main thing is for us to love and serve one another and help people make meaningful connections.”
The congregation’s care group ministry is headed by Deacon Andre Milton and his wife, Deaconess Teri Milton. The couple first came to Grace in 2004, and at the time, they had no plans to join the church. “We came from a previous church. I was so wounded from my previous experience, I just wanted to come to church, hear the word and leave,” Andre Milton said.
He said Grier and his wife, Yeromitou Grier, are “genuine, real people,” who can relate to the struggles of working families in Northern Virginia.
As to why he has tried to separate himself from traditional denominations, Grier said: “My greatest sadness is a lack of leadership. We need servant leaders. We served God by serving other people. In the African American community, we are married to political parties, married to traditions. We keep doing the same thing and getting the same results.”