Looking for a City: A Ministry of Radical Love

UU-sources

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(This essay was written for my application for Meadville Lombard Theological School admission. I was accepted and will begin my first course this summer.)

    The deepest motive I can conceive for beginning a progressive ministry vocation in our world is to advance and expand the potential for creating a community of love on earth that embraces the rich and wide diversity of human creativity and the boundless fulness of all beings with whom we share this planet. The contours of this beloved community are revealed in the cries of the oppressed for justice, the magnificent creative labors of millions, and in the daily search for connection with one another and life itself. There are other motives included within this grand vision, such as satisfying my personal need for recognition and accomplishment. And yet, I always seek to keep the bigger picture in my heart, even as I undertake some of the more mundane duties of this life we live.

    The dream of ministry has been with me for nearly all my life. My father was a Pentecostal preacher who demonstrated the power of the spoken word to evoke and provoke transcendent experiences. He introduced me to the rich Christian tradition, filtered through his own lens as a native Texan and son of a preacher himself. In fact, my extended family is peppered with nearly a dozen preachers, including my own brother. It is practically the family business. I began life with a childish naivete that embraced Pentecostal faith and practice wholeheartedly, including glossolalia, faith-healing, and “dancing in the Holy Ghost.” However, in my pre-teens I began to chart a different path that would ultimately lead me beyond the well-marked boundaries of the “old-time religion.”

    The first of these divergent influences was the “Jesus Movement” of the early seventies. My father invited a group of these “Christian Hippies” to our small town church to give a folk-rock Jesus music concert in the local park. As I soaked up the groovy vibrations at the young age of eight years old, I wondered why church couldn’t always been this cool and fun! I was aware of the Vietnam War and our society’s racial tensions. I remember telling my father during the 1972 Presidential election that I wanted to become president so I could end all the wars. He responded with a measured but persistent questioning of that possibility which left me feeling discouraged. In the end, I came to identify as a pacifist following the example of Dr. King and teachings of Jesus. From the Jesus Movement I also learned about communal living and determined that I would live that way as an adult.

    At the age of 23, I moved my very young family from Dallas, TX to Evanston, IL to live with Reba Place Fellowship, a Mennonite intentional community. As we lived there for nine years my fundamentalist edges were worn off, and I opened myself to a diversity of spiritual paths that culminated for me in embracing universalism. I also entered therapy to treat recurring bouts of depression that often led to unemployment. I still struggle with post-traumatic stress reactions due to my difficult childhood. Consequently, I have developed an intense sympathy for those who experience mental illness or are recovering from trauma. Becoming a minister would give me far more opportunities to use those skills and talents.

    Reba Place Fellowship also introduced me to Liberation Theology and set me on a path of rethinking religion from the standpoint of the oppressed, exploited, dominated, and repressed. My understanding of the gospel shifted from an apocalyptic end-times view to one concerned with this life and the struggles of humanity against class domination, racial oppression, gender inequality, and political repression. Developing a multi-system 21st century liberation theology within the context of progressive and universalist religion is an important goal of mine. As I’ve studied and explored these theologies, I have come to a vision of transformation I call the “Communism of Love.” I currently lead a bi-weekly discussion group on this topic at Peoples Church of Chicago. My most faithful attendees of the group are a pair of young adult Evangelical Christians who are residents of the Jesus People USA commune in Uptown. It often feels that I have closed the circle, since JPUSA was the first intentional community I ever considered as a possible home. I have over time become very aware of a shift in the younger generation of Evangelical traditions away from conservative Christianity – sometimes into “none of the above” religious identification – but often they are quite eager for new interpretations of their existing faith traditions. As someone with both a background in Evangelical theology, but also consciously open to pluralism and meeting people where they are, my ministry is developing already in directions I did not expect.

    After nine years of living with Reba Place Fellowship, I underwent a fairly rapid experience of deconversion from Christianity. While I had once held to the orthodox and conservative doctrines of biblical inerrancy, deity and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, and other “fundamentals,” the combination of psychotherapy, antidepressant medication, and wide-ranging exploration of many theologies and philosophies, shifted my religious orientation dramatically towards an agnostic universalism. Though it seems even now to have been inevitable, it was unsettling to say the least to find myself drifting away from my Evangelical friends and Pentecostal family in such an irrevocable manner. My life at Reba Place Fellowship had accentuated for me the importance of forming deep healthy relationships and community. Now, I felt as if I had no choice but to find a new congregation to continue the next steps of my journey. Not least of all the relational shifts was the impact deconversion had on my wife, who remains a faithful Charismatic Christian. We learned over time to accept one another’s different paths, though we can never take even that base level of mutual acceptance for granted. Being intentional in building trust and love seem to me to be critical skills to apply to congregational ministry.

    When I departed from Reba Place Fellowship, I decided to explore both liberal Quakers and the Unitarian-Universalists. I first visited Northside Friends Meeting in Chicago and liked it well enough that I brought my young son with me the next Sunday. In the First Day School for children, he met his lifelong friend in one of the boys. My spiritual practice had shifted from an ecstatic energetic approach to a more philosophical introspective path, so Quaker silent worship felt like a refreshing and open-ended new journey. I had found my new religious home. Though I have felt called to a ministry vocation since I was a young boy, committing to Quakerism meant in part setting aside that sense of calling, or at least reinterpreting it in terms of the Quaker position that all members are ministers and are called to live out our faith in everyday occupations and activism for peace and justice. For over a decade, I was satisfied with this direction. Until recently, I have not explored further the Unitarian-Universalist tradition at a congregational level, though I have always continued my interest in UUs as a kindred religious path.

    My early adulthood years at Reba Place Fellowship were plagued with depression and unemployment, as I mentioned earlier. Setting aside a grandiose sense of calling in favor of a more working-class life supporting my family of four felt like a responsible decision and I have no regrets for going beyond the dysfunction of my family of origin by learning firsthand the life and struggles of secular employment. I have been working with the same company for over twelve years. I have seen my two children launched into adulthood. I consider being a good enough father as both a great achievement and as crucial preparation for congregational leadership.

    My return to a sense of calling to ministry came from the very Quaker community where I had laid down that leading. I was named to be a representative of Illinois Yearly Meeting to the Central Committee of our national body, Friends General Conference. FGC represents several yearly meetings and a few independent local meetings and is the largest Quaker body in the liberal or progressive Quaker tradition. Not only did Central Committee service introduce me to a wider and challenging engagement with the larger body of Quakers, but also an opportunity to serve FGC through the ministry of the Christian and Interfaith Committee of FGC. CIRC acts as the ecumenical officer and interfaith representative of FGC. FGC is a member of the World Council of Churches and CIRC work with the WCC has given me an opportunity to renew and deepen my understanding of Christian theology and denominational differences. CIRC also supports the work of the Parliament of the World’s Religion, and engages in a variety of inter-communion conversations including with Pentecostals and Buddhism.

    As I have served with CIRC and FGC for the past 7 years, a rebirth of my calling to ministry has emerged strongly. My early adulthood difficulties with employment meant that I was unable to afford to finish an undergraduate degree. As my children began to be independent, I re-assessed whether I should complete my education and am now within a few credits of finishing my Bachelor’s degree in Political Science. While finishing my degree and considering what sort of graduate education to pursue, I was torn between political theory and philosophy or seminary. I feel strongly the call to be both an activist and parish minister. The decision to pursue parish ministry first of all became clear with careful discernment and support including from my beloved Quaker meeting. Although my meeting may not directly benefit from my becoming a minister, they support me with no judgment and much understanding.

    To pursue clarity and discernment, I informed my meeting that I would be taking a leave of absence from regular Sunday worship in order to attend other churches in the area. To be serious about this new direction, I could not simply rely on my memories of church that were over a decade and half old. I sought out new experiences that especially included congregations that were racially diverse, theologically progressive, and urban. My first exploration was regular attendance at New Dimensions Chicago, a congregation being formed a few years ago by former Pentecostal Bishop turned New Thought Universalist Carlton Pearson. As Pearson and I are both fourth-generation sons of Pentecostalism, we already shared a vast set of cultural understandings. I found that experience connected me to one of the most important leading edges of African-American religion, New Thought. Long a minority view, New Thought has reached celebrity status through persons such as Oprah Winfrey and Rev. Michael Bernard Beckwith’s Agape International Spiritual Center. While Bishop Pearson has had to relocate back to Tulsa OK to care for his aging parents, New Dimensions Chicago continues to meet monthly under his leadership. However, I felt that I needed to find a more consistent context for my congregational exploration.

    As I became certain that my future would be connected to Unitarian-Universalism, I looked over the churches in Chicagoland and settled on attending Peoples Church of Chicago. A key factor was their racial diversity and their inner-city location. I am now officially a member and am participating in the congregational life there attending worship a couple times a month, leading my biweekly group, liturgist service, choir, and support work for the recent ordination of Rev. Seth Fisher. Rev. Seth is committed to reviving Peoples Church and to creating innovative ministry. As I share the view that religion in our time needs to rethink itself, seeing what that looks like up close and personal is a great experience.

    As I alluded earlier, I seem to have a special connection with younger Evangelicals, but I also have developed an important connection to younger deconverted Christians. As fundamentalism often generates emotionally abusive families, many escape into the safety of atheism or alternative spiritualities. However, it is often hard for ex-Christians to ever feel entirely at home outside of the Christian Church, so I am now leading a meetup support group founded by an ex-Christian.

Through the ex-Christian support group, I became involved in the early formation of the Chicago Sunday Assembly. This “godless congregation that celebrates life” was founded by a pair of humanist comedians in London and has mushroomed into dozens of congregations in the US and UK. I still maintain contact with Chicago Sunday Assembly and see it as one of the unconventional models of “religious” life in our context of rising secularity and diversification of beliefs in the United States. Such experiences and developments press me to be aware that my ministry will be and must be unconventional.

    From my education at Meadville Lombard, I anticipate learning more deeply from the traditions of Unitarian and Universalist congregations. I am fairly well-versed in a variety of religious thinkers, such as Unitarian Henry Nelson Wieman and Jerome Stone’s work on Religious Naturalism, I believe I can best serve a congregation by fostering a participatory community that encourages each member to explore their distinct religious path with integrity and passion.

    

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