After the hate-cake blitz: It may be time for reporters to visit the Church of Open Doors

Let's pause, for a moment, and set aside in-depth discussions of Whole Foods security-camera footage and the strategic location of UPC labels.

Ditto for the zoomed-in analysis of high-definition photos that may show clashing colors in cake icing and the width of the letters on top of what is currently America's most controversial "Love Wins" cake.

There is also the irony that this story is unfolding in the people's republic of Austin, which is both the official capital of the state of Texas and the proudly weird Mecca of folks who want to live in Texas, without really living in Texas.

What I want to do is meditate, for a moment, on the difficulty of covering totally independent, nondenominational churches. During the blitz of hate-cake coverage yesterday, very few journalists paused to ask any questions about the Austin pastor at the center of this controversy and his "church plant," the Church of Open Doors.

One of the convenient things about covering large religious institutions, and religious denominations in particular, is that they offer reporters a chance to verify key facts when a minister and/or a congregation hits the headlines, for positive or negative reasons.

This basic reporting work is harder to do with independent congregations (and there are thousands of them and that number is rising all the time). Right now, it's clear that hardly anyone knows much of anything about the Rev. Jordan Brown and his flock. And let me ask again: Why do so many journalists decline to use the normal Associated Press style -- "the Rev." -- when dealing with African-American pastors?

There is Facebook, of course, where one can learn, in addition to the fact that 27 people have visited, that the church's slogan is: "We've taken tradition and religious doctrine and thrown them out the window."

Brown is apparently from Pittsburgh, grew up as the son of a pastor (no church tradition is mentioned) and, at a young age, began working as a youth minister and preacher (no church tradition is mentioned). The church's own website, which contains few specifics, notes:

We're a non-denominational, non-traditional, Christ-centered, welcoming, LGBT-friendly, worshiping church! Our mission is to build people’s lives through the teaching and preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Church Of Open Doors stands to tear down racial and denominational walls, destroying the spirit of poverty, providing unity within the community, giving encouragement and strength for families, and providing a place for Spirit-filled and anointed worship.

Apparently, this church has some Pentecostal roots. But how large and stable is this congregation and how is it doing, in terms of finances and numbers?

It's hard to learn much about the church in this YouTube video of Brown preaching, since it never shows the congregation in what appears to be an office or classroom of some kind. Note that, in this video, there are no responses by members of the congregation to key points in Brown's remarks, which would be normal in an African-American church.

Is the religion element all that relevant in this story, other than being linked to the pastor at the center of the drama?

Frankly, I don't know. But if I could get to Austin, this is what I would be checking out.

As yesterday's viral coverage rolled on -- after our early post by Bobby Ross, Jr. -- I found myself thinking about the final chunk of the coverage at Texas Monthly, a famous progressive magazine in the Lone Star state. It noted:

At the heart of the story, regardless of who’s telling the truth about what happened, is a lack of motive for anybody to make this up. It’s hard to understand why Brown would fabricate a slur on a cake from Whole Foods that didn’t contain it; it’s hard to understand why Whole Foods would deny that a rogue employee might have written a slur on a gay customer’s cake. The entire story is extremely weird, and barring a security video that shows the cake clearly upon the exit -- or empty tubes of blue icing in Brown’s trash -- it’s hard to know for sure what happened. At the moment, though, Whole Foods is veering sharply from the usual PR playbook, and Brown is suing them as a result.

And now, of course, executives at Whole Foods are suing Brown and his attorney, right back. And there have been other developments. Here is a slice or two of the most recent coverage in The Austin America-Statesman:

A day after it was accused of selling a cake with an anti-gay slur written on it to a gay Austin pastor, Whole Foods Market on Tuesday responded with full force — filing a counter lawsuit against its accuser, releasing a video that it said refutes part of his claim and adamantly denying any wrongdoing.
The accusations made by Jordan Brown, pastor of Church of Open Doors in Austin, “are fraudulent,” Austin-based Whole Foods said.
Brown on Monday said he purchased a cake from Whole Foods’ headquarters store on North Lamar Boulevard, and asked that the words “Love Wins” be written on it. He says that a Whole Foods employee also wrote a homophobic slur on the cake. He alleges that the employee sealed the box and that he didn’t notice the slur until after leaving the store.

And then later on:

Whole Foods said Brown admitted that he was in sole possession and control of the cake until he posted his video, which showed the UPC label on the bottom and side of the box.
“After reviewing their security footage of Mr. Brown, it’s clear that the UPC label was in fact on top of the cake box, not on the side of the package,” Whole Foods said. “This is evident as the cashier scans the UPC code on top of the box…”
The company said it continues to stand behind its team member.
“We stand behind our bakery team member, who is part of the LGBTQ community, and we appreciate the team members and shoppers who recognize that this claim is completely false and directly contradicts Whole Foods Market’s inclusive culture, which celebrates diversity,” the company said.

It's easy to assume that Brown might have had a financial motive of some kind. I am sure reporters are thinking about that.

But what about another issue -- publicity. You see, I keep returning to basic questions about his church.

I would assume that there may be press coverage of the next Sunday service at the Church of Open Doors.

Then again, the congregation may not want another burst of publicity.

Then again (again), it's possible that -- with this burst of publicity -- lots of edgy Austin folks may show up for the service who, until now, had never even heard of this unorthodox flock and its shepherd. As the old saying goes, there is no such thing as bad publicity, if the goal is to get noticed.

This raises more questions: Are the lay leaders of this church happy about this burst of publicity? Since this is a nondenominational church, there is no way to check on its status with its overseers. In fact, its valid to ask if Brown is, himself, the only leader of this church. Does it have a board of elders? A parish council?

Lots of churches in Texas still hold services on Wednesday nights. I'm thinking that reporters may want to check out this church. It's safe to say that it's time to go knock on the open door. Reporters can ask to speak with the deacons or the elders. It would be good to find out if there is an organization, other than Brown as an individual, that is "planting" this church.

In other words, let's see if there is any chance that this drama has a religion angle or not.


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