James Hopkins was born into a fundamentalist Southern Baptist family in a Chevron company town in Colorado. His parents left the Southern Baptist tradition because it was becoming too liberal. James felt that his family setting was, in general, one of love and support even though was it rather homogenous. LGBT people were not even on the moral landscape of the churches in which he grew up. The main concern was the threat of communism and the counterculture that was growing in America.
As a child James was taught about the love of God and the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, along with the inerrancy of the Bible and hell as the destination for those who did not live a holy life. The purpose of faith was to save your soul; to make sure that you got into heaven. Even as a child that he began to perceive that there was some contradiction between the threat of hell and the idea of a loving God. In sixth grade he was playing golf with a classmate who asked James if he really believed that their church were the only people who were correct. James answered that he did believe that. However, his classmate said that she thought the world was much too large for that to be true. That moment remained in his mind as he grew into adulthood.
During his junior year of high school James and his family moved from his small town into Salt Lake City. That added to his feeling of an ever-growing world around him. When he went to college--first at Jetson Baptist College in Portland and then at Fresno Pacific College--his ideas about faith and the world expanded. Fresno Pacific College was a particularly different faith experience--from a Mennonite tradition that emphasized the peaceful mission of the church in this world. James began to feel a call to ministry while in college. However, the call was not to save souls as he had been taught in his childhood, but to change this world. He saw that every major movement within the United States had some sort of component of it that was religious. Peoples' faith shaped the way that they saw the world--and that allowed for faith to shape history.
After college he moved to Portland and started attending an American Baptist church. When he shared his vision of going to seminary, the pastor suggested that he go to American Baptist Seminary of the West in Berkeley. The classes he began to take there profoundly affected his view of the Bible. Whereas previously he had still ascribed to his literalist interpretation, he was challenged to become more nuanced in his reading. He began to think that literalism was a way to cram all of one's ideas into the Bible, rather than just accepting the Bible for what it was. During his stay in the San Francisco Bay Area he interned at a congregation in San Mateo.
His time in seminary also began to change his perspective on LGBT people. Of course, coming from a conservative tradition he heard many negative teaching regarding gay and lesbian people. Even though he had seen gay people on television that seemed to not follow these negative stereotypes and judgments, he had not known any LGBT people in his religious life. While at seminary he met the leaders of American Baptists Concerned, which was the group that worked for the acceptance of LGBT people in the American Baptist Church. Once again his worldview grew as he became closer with these people, realizing that they were just as true to their beliefs as his straight peers were. James then began a process of conversion and repentance from his former beliefs. His experience with gay and lesbian people who were wonderful, loving people went a long way toward changing his mind about homosexuality's sinfulness. In keeping with his Baptist heritage, gay and lesbian people's testimony was an important part of his process of acceptance. Along with his changing understanding of the Bible, these people convinced him that LGBT people were children of God who should be treated with acceptance and grace.
Following seminary he worked for six years as an associate pastor at the First Baptist Church in Los Angeles. His interaction with the diverse population there reaffirmed his faith in the importance of diversity within the church as something to be lauded. In 1989 he became the pastor of Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland. Although there were some worries about a new pastor accepting the LGBT congregants, those tensions were relieved by James' ministry there. Two years later, at the American Baptist Convention in Charleston, West Virginia, a statement was adopted that condemned gay and lesbian people, saying that their orientation was a sin and that gay and lesbian people had no place in the American Baptist Church.
James saw the intra-denominational arguing as being similar to how a family works. Those in favor of acceptance of LGBT people might have to struggle for a while, but, in the long run, he believed that the church would come to accept its LGBT members. He belief led him to present an alternate viewpoint to the one written at the convention. His solution was to form the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists in 1993, as a collection of congregations that were accepting and affirming of LGBT parishioners. Originally James thought that creating the organization would have little effect in the larger church given that Baptist polity allows for a great deal of difference between congregations with relatively little direction from the regional and national bodies. However, the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists did cause controversy. The regional body, American Baptist Churches of the West, chose to 'dis-fellowship' or expel congregations that were part of the Association. After a three-year process the American Baptist Churches of the West added a sixth criteria for belonging to the region: one which specifically excluded churches that were open to LGBT people. With the options of being dis-fellowshipped or ending their acceptance of their own congregants, Lakeshore and James decided to leave the region.
Lakeshore has remained within the American Baptist Church, but affiliated with a different region. The church has not come into conflict with the regional authorities again, although James has officiated at same-sex weddings and the ordinations of gay pastors. James still sees his Southern Baptist upbringing at work in his current ministry: he simply took the love that he was taught about God to its logical conclusion. He sees the inclusion of LGBT people into the Baptist Church not as a rejection of the Bible and Christian theology, but as a fulfillment of it.
(This biographical statement written by Joel Layton with information provided by James Hopkins.)
Biography Date: August, 2012
American Baptist/USA | Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (formerly American Baptists Concerned) | Activist (church change) | Ally | Church Trials | Clergy Activist | California | Oakland
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