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The First Baptist Church of Christ, founded in 1826, is one of the oldest congregations in this central Georgia city. Its towering red-brick sanctuary, dedicated in 1887, occupies a hilltop between downtown and nearby Mercer University — a physical prominence that evokes the stature of the church in local history.

So it was front-page news in the Telegraph, Macon's daily newspaper, when First Baptist called an Aug. 27 meeting of its membership to decide whether its stated policy of welcome and inclusion should extend to the celebration of same-sex marriages.

I'll admit that my first reaction, on coming across the story, was surprise that a Baptist church in the Bible Belt reached this crossroads so soon after the Supreme Court's 2015 ruling on equality in civil marriage. Even in the digital age, church time tends to run slowly. After paying a visit, I think there's something more to learn from this story: how to foster respect and civility even amid disagreement.

The news that hit driveways in Macon that Sunday morning had, in fact, been brewing a long time inside the church. First Baptist is one of about 2,000 congregations that have chosen to leave the conservative Southern Baptist Convention over the past 25 years. For the roughly 47,000 churches that remain in the SBC, same-sex marriage is a nonstarter; no church that condones such unions can participate.

But freedom to weigh the subject did not make the weighing easy. When I met with Pastor Scott Dickison and the chair of the church deacons, Bonnie Chappell, two months after the decision, they still spoke gingerly of an "exhausting" years-long "journey" that could yet split their membership.

The voyage began with a series of discussions on the Christian ethics of homosexuality even before Dickison's arrival in Macon from a church in Dallas five years ago. Bible verses in both the Old and New Testaments define marriage as a monogamous relationship between a man and a woman, and other verses condemn sexual activity outside of that relationship. Yet for many believers, strict application of those verses conflicts with Christian ideals of outreach and respect — especially for the outcast or downtrodden of society.

For several years after those sessions, First Baptist wrestled with the issue without confronting it head-on. A key moment came when an openly gay man was nominated to become a deacon. The congregation's vote to ordain him was a big step away from Baptist tradition — but the step was taken without an explicit airing. "We had talked about this subject in hushed tones for so long that it was difficult to make the discussion formal," Chappell told me.

Then the world pressed in. When the Supreme Court took its step, Dickison wrote approvingly on his blog. After last year's terrorist attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, the pastor confronted the subject from the pulpit. His topic that day was baptism, the sacrament that signals acceptance into faith. Dickison praised the strides his church had made toward recognizing the universal equality of this sacrament — not only in terms of sexuality, but on questions of race and gender as well.

And he mapped "where I hoped we would go."

Whispered conversations gave way to communal soul-searching, through which the pastor and deacons were determined to maintain a spirit of mutual respect. To assure that every view was heard, one meeting was designated solely for the expression of each participant's thoughts: No one could respond, favorably or unfavorably, to another's statement.

And a discussion of Scripture focused on the Bible passages most cherished by church members. The same verses came up again and again, and none dealt with sexuality. "We reminded ourselves why we listen to Scripture in the first place: not to be a battleground, but to bring us together," Dickison recalled.

Perhaps most important, the church gathered to hear often-wrenching testimony from church members marginalized by teachings on sexuality. "One of our older members said to me afterward, 'I've been wondering why we are putting ourselves through this, but now I get it,' " the pastor told me.

Dickison and Chappell had hoped to avoid voting on a resolution — "there is something distasteful about taking a vote on someone's humanity," the pastor observed. But Baptist churches are democracies, and the congregation wanted clarity. In a secret ballot of some 230 members, more than 70 percent voted for inclusion.

A few on the outvoted side left over the decision, a result that has the pastor "grieving," he said. His hope is that others will stay long enough to find that the essentials of the church experience have not changed.

Indeed, with patience they might discover an even deeper appreciation for a faith large enough to span gulfs of difference — and for a nation large enough, too.

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