Mixing Jesus and Justice:
An Ethnography of The Underground Church
Research Team: Camille Calisch, Tyler Clarke, Kevin Mazzella, Cierra Ray, Scott Williams, Sara Wilson, and Heath Wooten
Tony & Missy Caldwell
Tony Caldwell was born in 1974 and grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi. Caldwell is the founder of the Underground Church. Tony and Missy are clinical social workers/therapists in Oxford, Mississippi. Missy Caldwell was born in Pontotoc, Mississippi and grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi. In the interview they discuss the founding of the Underground Church, their religious backgrounds, and social justice issues.
Debra Moore was born and raised in Tupelo, Mississippi. She has a PhD in psychology and was a member of the University of Mississippi faculty. In the interview she discusses her religious background, her experiences at the Underground Church, social justice issues, and the African American experience.
Framing the Picture:
The Underground Church and Progressive Christianity
By Camille Calisch, Tyler Clarke, and Heath Wooten
Oxford and Tupelo counselors Tony and Missy Caldwell, co-founders of The Underground Church in Oxford, Mississippi, like so many, found their faith communities unwilling to accept their unconventional convictions. “When we left Tupelo, it was a death,” reflected Missy in our recent interview. A narrative many of us are familiar with, the Caldwells found themselves in an uncompromising position following their departure from Tupelo, Mississippi. Through a series of events, they found themselves called by God to establish a new progressive faith community in Oxford, Mississippi. When Tony texted long-time mentor Debra Moore with the name “The Underground Church,” Moore compared it to the Underground Railroad--a comparison that captures the ethos of the Underground Church perfectly.
Our names are Camille Calisch, Tyler Clarke, and Heath Wooten, and we represent a group of undergraduate ethnographic researchers at the University of Mississippi. The Oxford-Lafayette community, home to over 100 churches, recently welcomed a new church to the fold when The Underground Church held its first service on August 26, 2018. The Underground Church wrote on their now-defunct website, “We are a reconciling community committed to true justice and equality in matters of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual identity, sexual orientation, and any other label that has been used to divide us.” The church's Facebook page reads, "The Underground Church is a progressive Christian community in Oxford, Mississippi. We are an affirming, multicultural, justice-oriented community. We meet once monthly for a message, music, and more. All are welcome here." This broadly-stroking progressive declaration is what originally caught our class’ eye shortly after the Caldwells and the church opened their doors.
While our initial intention was to explore how The Underground Church challenges traditional Christian values of identity, upon attending the church’s September gathering, we realized this community was something far more unique. Here was a church that directly challenged not only traditional Christianity, but also the United States’ political climate and general narrow-mindedness. Here was a church that unabashedly displayed photos of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi during their services. Here was a church that held events for survivors of sexual assault, that organized evenings of protest songs, that was unashamed of referencing Jesus in the same breath as Donald Trump or Sinead O’Connor.
Needless to say, we realized we had something completely new on our hands. We needed to revamp our original research plans. We expanded the project to explore a broader swath of Oxford’s religious landscape, planning interviews with representatives of four additional congregations in addition to representatives of The Underground Church in order to understand the necessity of this unique progressive church community and what sets it apart from other churches in Oxford.
Our process of collecting this data was multifaceted. Our primary source of information came from conducting eight separate interviews with representatives from three churches and two campus ministries in Oxford. These include Shuler Griffin, the interim minister at the Fountain Anglican Church; Eric George, the pastor of the Orchard Oxford; Tony and Missy Caldwell, co-founders of The Underground Church, and Debra Moore, a member of The Underground Church; Allison Wehrung, the campus minister of UKirk, a Presbyterian USA campus ministry, and Daniel Payne, a student that regularly attends UKirk and also attended The Underground Church. Payne was also responsible for writing an article about The Underground Church for the University of Mississippi’s newspaper, The Daily Mississippian. Finally, we interviewed Casey Coston, the campus minister of Rebels for Christ, which serves as a Church of Christ campus ministry. These eight interviews collectively served as the foundation for our understanding of the religious scene in Oxford. For example, both the Orchard Oxford and UKirk presented more progressive sides of Christianity, whereas the Rebels for Christ and the Anglican Church presented more conservative or traditional sides. Interviewing individuals across this spectrum provided invaluable insight in understanding what makes The Underground Church different from other churches in Oxford. Moreover, we attended a summation of four events hosted by the Underground Church. These events included the September, October, and November monthly meetings, and an event titled, “Lauren Stennis & Songs of Freedom,” an event hosted by the Church to bring attention to Lauren Stennis’ proposal for a new Mississippi state flag. Attending these events provided perspective for the ways in which the Church marketed itself in contrast to the ways they executed their events.
Due to the semester-long length of our study, there are several limitations our group encountered along the way that we were unfortunately unable to eliminate. The most obvious of these limitations is the compact time-frame we had to gather data, complete fieldwork, and interview appropriate individuals. Because this project was carried out as part of a semester long class, we were only able to conduct eight formal interviews. Also due to time constraints, we were unable to attend every church from which we interviewed representatives.
Though we attempted to include representatives from a diverse range of denominations and backgrounds, we were unable to or simply overlooked setting up interviews with more people of color. Debra Moore was the only person-of-color we interviewed. We were also unable to secure interviews with people of the younger generation barring Daniel Payne, and together with Debra Moore, the two are the only congregants directly uninvolved with the creation or management of a congregation. Additionally, we did not speak with anyone representing the LGBTQ+ community, and the representatives from each congregation reported that their congregations were mostly white. While we acknowledge this project’s limitations, we believe that we have the beginnings of more substantive research regarding the topic and encourage future researchers to broaden their gaze to the communities we have underrepresented. We want to communicate that it is not our intention to use one person of color’s narrative or one student’s narrative to speak for the entirety of the community.
Comparisons: Inclusive Politics & Social Justice
Of the five churches that we interviewed, The Underground Church could be labeled as the most openly “political.” Eric George, the pastor of the Orchard church in Oxford, describes politics as a “tricky thing” in our cultural climate. Shuler Griffin, the interim pastor at the Anglican Church, had a similar stance in terms of politics. When asked about his opinion on politics in church, he said, “We’re to pray for our leaders no matter if we agree with them or not…” UKirk minister Alison Wehrung reported that she did not explicitly bring up social justice issues with students. While she also mentioned that they were free to talk about whatever they wanted, Daniel Payne explained that while the congregants often agreed on the issues, politics were seldom brought up, and the service instead typically focuses on understanding the Bible.
In contrast, The Underground Church has a different relationship. Missy Caldwell, co-founder of the Underground Church, expanded on this relationship in our interview with her. “When Tony says he struggles with Trump, he’s not kidding. It’s a bitterness in him for how things are going, and to be able to talk about that in church and not worry about what supporter’s not going to tithe, or who’s going to be offended… So, I think social justice - being able to talk about the truth, [and] talk about racial discrimination, to talk about homophobia, to talk about the racism, and the flag.” Instead of seeing politics as something that has the power to divide, like many of the other churches that we interviewed, The Underground Church sees politics as something that has the power to unite.
Demographics & Population
As mentioned under our limitations, the five churches that we have samples from were primarily white. While Tony Caldwell often brings up racial issues such as police brutality in his sermons and encourages diversity via inclusive rhetoric, the non-white percentage of his congregation is in the minority based upon our observation; however, interviewee Daniel Payne shared his observation that The Underground Church was more diverse than other communities such as UKirk and the First Presbyterian USA Church of Oxford he has attended. Tony Caldwell himself described the first two meetings in August and September as “diverse racially, sexually,” further explaining that he believes The Underground Church roughly represents the demographic breakdown of Oxford. White people, however, are still the primary demographic based on our field research. In order to have a more holistic understanding of this, we would need to conduct a more comprehensive quantitative analysis of the more widely ranging religious scene in Oxford.
Tony Caldwell provided more concrete insight into the religious background of the congregants of The Underground Church. Caldwell recognized many of those in attendance from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Oxford. Debra Moore stated The Underground Church is, “a safe place for people to come and love each other...you can be an atheist. You can be whatever. You can be just curious…” In terms of sheer numbers, The Underground Church has anywhere between 50-75 participants at a given service. In comparison to the other two churches that we interviewed (excluding the campus ministries), this is right in the middle. The Anglican Church has about 30 people on a Sunday while the Oxford Orchard has about 200.
Congregating & Service Format
The Underground Church employs unorthodox methods in comparison with other churches we observed. The format itself is described by Tony Caldwell as “typical” in his interview, but there are certain key characteristics that set it apart mostly regarding content. For example, Caldwell told us that “the first service my wife [Missy Caldwell] read a poem by Rupi Kaur.” Beyond Rupi Kaur, the Caldwells have shown that they are not hesitant when engaging pop culture, spending several minutes at the church’s second meeting discussing what meaning Sinead O’Connor’s “Black Boys on Mopeds” carries. No other interviewee mentioned pop culture in their interviews. As previously explored, The Underground Church is also unique in that it tackles social justice and political issues head-on rather than talking around them or completely ignoring them.While The Underground Church meets only once a month and the other churches meet once or more times a week, the actuality is that each of the churches (not including student ministries) we interviewed follow a very similar basic framework. Shuler Griffin of the Fountain Church said about different denominations that, “The things that divide are almost really negligible.” This statement has proven true in our research in regards to structure of service. There are several aspects of The Underground Church’s service that we observed in other denominations such as interspersed music, readings from the Bible, a sermon based upon those readings, some form of prayer, some form of communion, and a closing statement.
Reflections from the Field
I: From Tyler Clarke
My name is Tyler Clarke and I worked as a field researcher on The Underground Church project. This was an interesting experience for me, as I came into it with a great deal of theoretical religious knowledge, but very little practical experience with religion, having grown up in a very agnostic household and never attended a church service of any kind before my college career. The Underground Church provided what I would consider my first positive experiences with any form of organized Christianity, while several of the interviews we conducted, particularly that of Debra Moore, were deeply impactful in a personal sense. As a non-Christian, non-conservative, non-heterosexual man, I am not often made to feel included or welcome in public spaces in Mississippi.
II: From Camille Calisch
My name is Camille Calisch, and I was one of the researchers on this project. Researching The Underground Church had some personal appeals for me because I came in with some degree of background knowledge. Namely, I was familiar with Red Letter Christians and Jonathan Martin, who was the speaker at The Underground Church’s October meeting. Moreover, prior to this semester, I had been heavily entrenched in the religious scene in Oxford for two years. For most of my active religious life, which spanned from when I was about 14 to when I was 20, I spent most of my time positioned against the traditional system. Objectively, I was always in conservative and oppressive church environments, but I was always fighting for more inclusivity - especially more roles for women. Through the process of my own disenchantment with the system and trying to distance myself from the many evangelicals who voted for Trump, I found progressive Christians like Jonathan Martin on Twitter, and I had actually met him last year when he came to Oxford to work on his book.
This made The Underground Church into something very personal for me. It was a platform of people that I had been following for the past year, which I had not previously known existed in Oxford. Though religion plays a less central role in my identity right now, there is something fulfilling to see the familiar narrative of Christ being used in a positive context - especially in Mississippi. I am looking forward to seeing their impact on the community.
III: From Heath Wooten
My name is Heath Wooten, and I was one of the researchers on this project. Though all of us worked enthusiastically on this project, The Underground Church had a particular appeal to me right from the beginning. I grew up in Corinth, Mississippi, and was raised in a primarily Catholic family. I began to pull away (perhaps even recoil) from my faith in my later teenage years after coming out as gay to my mom. As such, I’ve only been to church in Oxford three times. All three times were for this project. There is something charming and unique about The Underground Church to me. There were many moments during their services that I forgot I was at church. The social justice vein was that present.
But what I came to appreciate most about The Underground Church and what I think sets it apart from other churches is that nothing ever came off as aggressive. Nobody, even those who do not agree with the church’s progressive mindset, were ever disrespected or treated without human decency. Ultimately, however, what also set it apart from other churches is that it simply did not feel like church. There were familiar elements, like communion and Bible readings, but it felt more like a bible book club comprised of respectful, forward-thinking individuals than it did a congregation. The Underground Church is a bible book club I would definitely attend though.
Ultimately, there were many components to this research. It is evident that The Underground Church utilizes the complexities of politics as something to create a common denominator rather than framing politics in a way that omits certain demographics from the picture. On the other hand, several of the churches that we spoke to refrain from discussing politics in any context. Daniel Payne described his religious background as subdividing moral issues and political issues, but The Underground Church dissolves that boundary and instead chooses to face the moral implications of every issue head-on. This straightforwardness is ultimately the ethos that positions The Underground Church as an outlier in comparison to the other churches we researched in Oxford. We hope that this research will be continued as the Oxford religious community continues to shift and develop. While this project presented limitations, we believe that it accurately portrays the small set of lived experiences we were able to compile. Moving forward, we wonder if The Underground Church could perhaps represent a further evolution of Christianity towards more progressive and inclusive ideals.
A Progressive Christian Community
By Kevin Mazzella, Cierra Ray, Scott Williams, and Sara Wilson
On their Facebook page, The Underground Church describes itself as “a progressive Christian community in Oxford, Mississippi. We are an affirming, multicultural, justice-oriented community. We meet once monthly for a message, music, and more. All are welcome here.” During his interview, Tony Caldwell said that The Underground Church has no official mission statement. However, he said that “informally I think it’s to be a safe space for people who don’t fit in traditional spaces, and to be a place of authenticity and a place of healing for a lot of people and to sorta radiate that out into the community.” This echoes one of the reasons he gave for starting the church in the first place, which is to provide a Christian community where everyone feels that they are welcome. Tony’s wife, Missy Caldwell, also gave an informal definition of what she believes The Underground Church’s mission statement is. She said in her interview that the mission statement is “justice. Social justice. Giving Christ justice, too. Not settling for this lukewarm Christ that speaks old in my opinion behind so many pulpits.”
The December service was held at The Powerhouse. It started with Tony welcoming everyone to the Underground Church and asking his "mom," Debra Moore, to come up and pray. After Debra Moore led everyone in prayer, Effie Burt, a jazz singer here in Oxford, MS, sang a few Christmas songs. Tony Caldwell and Missy Caldwell’s son Silas then led everyone in prayer before Effie went back to singing. Afterwards, Tony led the congregation in a sermon. At the end, a member of the congregation read some spoken word poetry that he had written. The service was then closed out by Silas Caldwell saying a prayer and dismissing the congregation.
The December service’s sermon focused on Christmas. But instead of having a cheery, light message, it brought the plight of Jesus into a modern point of view. The sermon pointed out that Jesus was a refugee crossing a border. The overall message was that the way that we as a country are currently treating the refugees at our border is not right. Tony also focused more on racism- explaining the term black lives matter, saying that Jesus would point out marginalized groups and say that they matter because it is important to recognize those marginalized by society. While the overall format of the service is similar to that of other churches, it is the message that makes it unique. Many churches shy away from political and social justice messages, while The Underground Church has made these issues the main focus.
The Underground Church thus far has proven they are taking strides to becoming a safe haven for all types of people no matter how different their identities may be. The church, as well as Tony, illustrated these progressive steps taken through their unwavering stance on certain social justice issues. Tony is truly not afraid to tackle these issues head on. From his interview back on September 25, 2018, The Underground Church was just budding and Tony already had thoughts about creating sermons along the lines of social issues. He said, “I’ve been doing a lot of racial work and writing around [social issues] and also around LGBTQ equality, so …now it’s the tricky business of merging that with religion in a way because that’s a game changer for a lot of people on every side of every issue it's my intent to bring all that, to reconcile it all to the…as best as is possible, you know, and to, to let it be weird and awkward and uncomfortable—whatever it needs to be, and just be there.” It is eye opening, Tony is not afraid to come out full throttle attacking the issues head on.