More than a decade before the Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare,” was fully implemented, the Rev. Joseph Washington helped found and lead an organization, SharedCare, that identified and helped roughly 30,000 Horry County residents who had been shut out of the insurance and health care industry.
In 2009, he founded Hope Academy, a year-round charter school, to help close “both the race and class achievement gaps in the United States,” he said at the time, by maximizing “the potential inherent in every student by building character, promoting critical thinking, encouraging intellectual curiosity, cultivating entrepreneurship and instilling a sense of global responsibility.”
He resigned from Hope Academy a few years later after a dispute about the direction of the school before taking on an international role in the Methodist church that had him spending a lot of time away from Myrtle Beach and his wife, Dr. Dode Washington. (Full disclosure: Dr. Washington delivered my second child.) He was Executive Secretary for the Africa, Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, managing relationships with bishops, missionaries, schools and hospitals, and all of the church’s projects in South Africa, Botswana and 10 west African countries.
This Easter weekend, he will be resurrecting his Myrtle Beach ministry to help those too often placed on the margins of society, with the official kickoff of Hope Church at 10 a.m. Sunday at Carolina Forest Elementary School.
That includes an unapologetic embrace of the LGBT community, even as Americans throughout the nation debate the efficacy of “religious freedom” laws some interpret as protecting a person’s faith rights and others view as a license to legally discriminate. (Many legal analysts have said the laws did not allow discrimination, despite the uproar.)
While things have improved for gays and lesbians in the Myrtle Beach area, this is still a state whose most powerful officeholders kept wasting taxpayer money to stop same-sex marriage even after federal courts declared it legal, and many (if not most) residents believe homosexuality is a sin and that any deviation from that belief makes one either anti- or non-Christian. Years ago, a former Myrtle Beach mayor was up at arms because a gay pride parade was planned for the area.
“I am not going to fall prey to that litmus test, that status quo,” Washington said of the possible pressure he’ll receive for his nonjudgmental approach to that and other issues. “It would be antithetical to what God has called me to do. Jesus loves everybody. I think there are a whole lot of people who think like that but are afraid to say so.”
The church won’t be about or cater to any particular group, but will primarily be about welcoming all people. Washington’s job is to minister and love and teach people — and let God do the rest.
This isn’t Washington’s first time leading a church. He’s been a minister in the United Methodist Church for 40 years, earned a master of divinity from the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, and was a pastor in Boston and New York.
While in Boston, he was a senior adviser to the mayor and chairman and CEO of the Organization for a New Equality, a non-profit which promoted economic opportunity for “women, people of color and economically distressed communities.”
His community work continued when he moved to Myrtle Beach in 2002 and included establishing a mentoring program for Coastal Carolina University students and a local chapter of The First Tee.
Hope Church will be Bible-based and Bible-centered, including a commitment to tithing. Washington’s focus will be more about following the teachings of Jesus than fighting the culture wars.
Service and excellence are his two watch words.
He held a preview service last weekend which attracted 55 people and 5 who joined. He plans to build from there on what he calls “The Five I’s:”
- ▪ Inclusive
- ▪ Interdenominational
- ▪ Intergenerational
- ▪ International
- ▪ Interracial
“Our concern is with the development of the person and his or her total existence,” Washington said. We do not judge anybody, which is not our job. Our job is to love each other unconditionally and let the Holy Spirit be the judge. We welcome anyone regardless of race, creed, religion, gender or sexual orientation.”
“Go into all the world and preach the gospel,” Washington said. “That’s the mandate, and that’s what we are going to do.”