“You Can’t Love God Like That” – Well, Maybe You Can – A Congregation in Rural Georgia Defies the Odds and Flourishes by Welcoming Everyone

The preacher begins his Sunday sermon with, “Anybody ever have a week that just sucks?” Several hands go up. Gesturing with heavily tattooed arms exposed by a short sleeve T-shirt, he continues: “Ever been hit so hard that you’re questioning God? That doesn’t make you a bad person.”

In the Rev. Grant Myerholtz’s congregation you’re not a bad person if you ever question your faith. Nor are you a bad person because of your color, your politics, your gender or your choice of people to love.

Coming around a bend on Mount Hebron Road in the rural Georgia hamlet of Hartwell, one first sees a parking lot with an old lit marquee-style sign announcing, “THE TIRED THE POOR AND HUDDLED MASSES WELCOME HOME.” The words are off-center, but the message is clear. When one enters the 134 year-old red-brick Mt. Hebron Baptist Church one may expect—as it’s Facebook page proclaims—”No judgement No hostility No rituals. Just real people loving God and each other. All are welcome!”

Myerholtz’s congregation is taking the opposite direction of many houses of worship where pews are emptying with no signs of the trend reversing. By contrast Mt. Hebron Baptist Church’s faithful doubled from the dozen or so attendees at his first service in 2020, then doubled again, and yet again and has continued to grow as word spreads of the inclusive house of worship that welcomes those who are rejected elsewhere.

This month, Myerholtz will celebrate lakeside baptisms for anyone who has been denied that rite. “If it were up to me, a representative of every ministry in this town would be there with arms wide open,” he says. “We have the easiest job on the planet as Christians if we want to accept it. That is simply to love everybody.”

Reverend Myerholtz, a Hartwell native, began his clerical career steeped in traditional Baptist doctrine, serving at several small churches in South Carolina and Georgia. After a time though, he tired of dogma being a hindrance rather than a help toward following Jesus. He sought his own path, joining the National Guard in 2011. There, while recovering from injuries incurred from a training exercise he came across “The Ragamuffin Gospel,” a book by a former Franciscan priest which argued for one simple principle: unconditional grace.

Inspired, Myerholtz decided to build his world around that one premise. Back home in Hartwell, a serendipitous meeting with one of the Mt. Hebron deacons led to an invitation to lead that church. Since then, the church—which despite its Baptist roots, prefers not to be pigeon-holed in a denomination and considers itself independent—has been wide open and welcoming.

Jake Duvall, a combat veteran suffering from PTSD from two tours of duty in Iraq, recalls the reverend telling him to come as you are, not as you should be. “I don’t do well with crowds,” explained Duvall. “But I really feel that my symptoms are tolerable when I go to that church.”

Terri Massey, the daughter, granddaughter and sister of higher-ups in her local Baptist church—was rejected by that church when she came out in 2004, shortly after she met the woman she would later marry. Her fellow parishioners responded to her news, not with love but with calls for her to undergo conversion therapy and with prayer vigils outside her home. With Mt. Hebron she feels loved for being who she is. “It was like this load was off of me,” she remembers.

Reverend Myerholtz, whose Sunday best is T-shirt and jeans, and whose sermons contain almost as many pop culture references as those from Scripture, recently gave the opening prayer at the Hartwell Pride festival, an event that garnered sharp criticism from area churches concerning a possible spring drag show.

Of the backlash, the festival’s president, Collin Graham, who is trans, said, “There’s a community of people that guard their religion and say, ‘It’s not for you. You’re a sinner. You can’t love God like that.’”

Reverend Myerholtz and his growing congregation at Mt. Hebron are proof that one can indeed love God like that—and many will.