The Rev. Roger Joslin, vicar of All Saints Episcopal in Bentonville, and Cole Truitt, a parishioner, at the Arkansas Capitol for a hearing about new prison standards. • Diocese of Arkansas/Instagram
By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
The Rev. Roger Joslin has heard what scores of Episcopal congregations want to become: larger, more diverse, and more influential for justice. And he’s convinced his experience as a church planter in Walmart’s backyard can help them reach those goals.
From his vocation as vicar of All Saints Church in Bentonville, Arkansas, Joslin has written School of Love: Planting a Church in the Shadow of Empire (Morehouse, 2015). He tells the story of a congregation that’s grown from zero to 225 in 10 years in the town where the retail giant is based. In his telling, the church has already helped shape policies from the county jail to the Walmart board room.
“Planting a church in Bentonville, Arkansas, at the home of the largest corporation in the world, presents all kinds of social-justice issues,” Joslin said. “That’s really why I started to keep a journal about my work here. I knew it was going to be interesting.”
Before diving into activism, however, Joslin would first need to earn a hearing and establish a spiritual community. He quickly discovered the power of visible presence. Showing up in his clericals at all manner of public events helped the congregation take root, win trust, and gain stature.
“Being an Episcopal priest in a clerical collar gives you a great advantage in terms of visibility,” Joslin said. “People will come up and want to know what you’re about. That happened all the time.”
Anyone curious to meet the new priest might get an invitation to visit All Saints, which at first worshiped in a middle-school auditorium and now rents space from Christ the King Lutheran Church in Bentonville. Takers would encounter the only local church with a “progressive theology,” as Joslin describes it, including affirmation of gay and lesbian sexuality.
“We’re the only game in town for that,” Joslin said.
In being distinct from the surrounding cultural landscape, All Saints embodies what Joslin preaches: an alternative way of living in response to the gospel. He’s found a measure of acceptance even in culturally conservative northwest Arkansas, as long as he stays within certain limits.
“I kind of realized early on that just blasting away at Walmart was not going to be very effective,” he said. “By pointing out the avenues in which they could be a force for good in the world, I could be listened to more. So I adopted that strategy both publicly and privately.”
As an activist, Joslin finds he needs to pick his battles if he’s going to maintain credibility and trust. He used to go into local Walmart stores and ask employees if they had ever considered joining a labor union. But that practice put him fiercely at odds with the local culture.
“The reaction I get from that; I’ve stopped because it’s abject fear,” he said. “They’ve been so indoctrinated about the evils of unions that they just go into spasms. They’re suddenly looking around and afraid they might be fired just for talking with me.”
Instead, Joslin joined parishioners in nudging influential people inside Walmart to consider the merits of paying employees higher wages. When Walmart announced plans in January to boost entry-level starting pay (after training) from $9 to $10, he felt his strategy had been vindicated.
“We played a role in that,” Joslin said.
In another case, parishioners prevailed on the Benton County jail to drop a policy of serving only cold meals to inmates. In a region where such “tough on crime” measures are routinely cheered, All Saints seized the chance to bring a different type of Christian witness to bear.
Meanwhile, by offering a Spanish-speaking mass as well as two services in English, All Saints has become a 40-percent Hispanic congregation, which makes it uncommonly diverse for Benton County. That level of diversity has a strong pull, Joslin says, especially for newcomers who work for Walmart’s vendors and have relocated to Bentonville from spots around the world.
G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a Massachusetts-based reporter and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul (Basic Books, 2010).