“All are welcome here.” Visitors to Forest Park Church’s website will see those words in bold. This is familiar language many churches use to foster a warm and welcoming environment. However, Forest Park in Northwest Roanoke, strives to make those words the core of their beliefs and atmosphere.
Associate Pastor James Foutz-Vega grew up in the Forest Park congregation and was ordained last June, and has served in ministry for a little more than a year. “I always had a call to ministry,” Foutz-Vega said. Pastor Foutz-Vega is a gay man serving in church leadership, a position that many to this day would claim he is unfit to do. However, Foutz-Vega recognizes that although he and his congregation may not see eye to eye with other churches, they are still able to put aside differences for the sake of ministry.
The mission group that would become Forest Park began in 1952. Forest Park Church began officially in 1970 with about 94 members. According to Foutz-Vega, since its inception Forest Park Church embraced a legacy of inclusion and love as one of the first churches in the Roanoke Valley to desegregate and become racially diverse. To this day, Foutz-Vega suggests that Forest Park is “an extremely mixed group of people.” While the congregation is relatively small – consisting of about 40 people – the group is a racial and socioeconomic cross-section of the Roanoke community.
Forest Park has Southern Baptist roots and now considers The Alliance of Baptists its denomination. The Alliance of Baptists, founded in 1987, is a relatively new denomination. The organization describes itself as “a group of progressive Baptists and Christians committed to enacting God’s love and justice in the world.”
Love and justice seem to be at the heart of what Foutz-Vega is trying to accomplish at Forest Park. Joining the Alliance of Baptists was one of the church’s latest efforts towards affirming its progressive practices, a move that many churches in the area and even some former congregants could not support. “We try to partner with people that believe in that inclusiveness of everybody. Not all churches are as open as we are,” Foutz-Vega said. “We still try to come together for ministry; for people in the community.”
Forest Park does its best to enact its loving credo toward the poor, African Americans, LGBTQ, and other marginalized communities. According to Foutz-Vega, the church accomplishes this through services including food and clothes pantries to serve those in needy. “We try to meet the needs of anyone who comes to our doors,” Foutz-Vega said. Forest Park’s example seems to be in line with the current trend of American Christian churches. According to a Pew Research Center Survey, “a majority of U.S. Christians (54 percent) now say that homosexuality should be accepted, rather than discouraged by society.” At the root of all their actions and outreach, Foutz-Vega and Forest Park Church believe that “God’s love is for everybody.”