First Baptist Church of Palo Alto is a progressive church. There’s a giant banner welcoming refugees strung across the front steps. The bathrooms inside are gender-neutral. Recent sermon titles include “Listening to the Earth” and “Empathy and Economic Equity.”
In other words, the righteous judgment here is more likely to be lobbed from the political left than the right. And lobbed it was, by a 28-year-old associate pastor named Gregory Stevens.
"I've come to find that Palo Alto is not only wealthy, but extremely wealthy, and so the arguments that happen here are between millionaires and billionaires. Then on Sunday, at First Baptist Palo Alto, we are singing and worshipping about a homeless Jew," he says.
Stevens resigned from First Baptist after a series of tweets he wrote criticizing the people of Palo Alto came to light. But he’s not really apologizing for calling the city “disgusting” or an “elitist shit den of hate.”
"I'm making a moral claim against Palo Alto, and so for those people who think buying Teslas is going to save the world, [and they] want to make a moral claim to me because I used the wrong word? I mean this is exactly what I mean by elitist Palo Alto liberalism. In a liberal’s mind in Palo Alto, it's civility that you're supposed to have, and not a passion and a fire for equality, for equity and for justice," he explains.
Stevens was fresh out of the Claremont School of Theology in Southern California when he arrived in Palo Alto nearly three years ago. He says he found many locals in this gilded city of 67,000 souls profess to care about social justice, but fail to walk the walk.
Even though, at 28, you could say he’s young enough to know he should have been using Snapchat, Stevens says he felt safe tweeting with brutal candor to what he describes as a “small group of leftist ministers and radical organizers, activists.” He adds, "Those are actually the people I've come to know, I've come to love, and those are people I'm going to miss the most."
His disdain for the progressive liberals of Palo Alto came to light during a City Council discussion on May 14 ahead of a vote on non-religious activities at First Baptist, like singing lessons and dance classes.
Like many houses of worship in Palo Alto, it’s tucked into a residential neighborhood where homes now sell for $1 million to $14 million. Not too long ago, some neighbors complained about the noise and traffic, and the city’s planning commission cracked down.
That led the broader religious community to rise up in protest. Renting out church space helps shrinking, aging congregations all over the country cover their costs, but in Palo Alto, where it’s increasingly impossible for many community service providers to operate at all, many churches feel renting out space is a form of community service, too.
The matter headed to the City Council. Someone submitted screen shots of Stevens’ tweets into the public record.
What happened next didn't sink the church's hopes before the council, but it did stir up some hard feelings.
The Rev. Rick Mixon has led First Baptist for the last 12 years.
"It's kind of a big rookie mistake that he'll learn a lot from," Mixon says. "I don't know. It’s easy to jump on the poor choice of words and the bad use of language, and miss that there might actually be a critique here that’s worth looking at."
He adds, "I don't think it's ever really appropriate — or it's rarely appropriate — to talk about hating. You know, that's not what our tradition is about. Our tradition is about love."
But ... "I work in the most expensive neighborhood in Palo Alto. I walk out my door and, you know, it's billionaires. The challenges of doing Christian ministry -- given what Christianity is about as I understand it in a neighborhood, in a community like this -- are enormous."
Others aren’t so sure. "My friends and work here is with authentic people, and this gives me hope," former Palo Alto Mayor Nancy Shepherd counters.
One commenter in the Palo Alto Daily Post wrote: “A pastor with hate in his heart, filth in his mouth, and contempt for the place he lives and the people he serves does not deserve to be a member of the clergy.”
Shock over the tweets notwithstanding, the council allowed First Baptist to continue hosting non-church activities -- for now. It’s a relief to Mixon, even though that permit comes up for renewal in five years, and gentrification continues to refashion Palo Alto with no let-up.
"The ironic thing is that, because this has now blown up to international proportions, his message is getting a whole lot more play than it ever got when he was just trying to labor away in the vineyards of the Lord," Mixon says.
As for Stevens? He has relaunched his temporarily shuttered Twitter feed, for one thing, featuring links to the flurry of stories about recent events.
He's currently working in Palo Alto on a project called Mosaic South Bay, an interfaith community, and he plans to move to San Francisco when his Palo Alto lease is up in a few months. He says he thinks he’ll find more class diversity there.