Stepping Stones

faith ministry Jul 06, 2020
Stepping Stones

My Personal Journey to and in Ministry 

 Ministry found me, as I most certainly did not seek it out intentionally. Having been born in South Africa and primarily raised in the U.S. by Black South African parents escaping apartheid, the religion of my upbringing was increasingly inconsistent with my life experiences and, I eventually came to realize, my sexual orientation and gender identity. I left the church in my early twenties as a result of never being able to reconcile the God I inherited and life happenings all around me. 

Occasionally, I’d go to different churches at my friends’ invitations and even on my own sometimes. It wasn’t until my late twenties that a guest speaker at a friend’s church I was periodically attending said the word ‘vocation,’ which activated an unshakeable call to go to seminary. Thankfully, I had a few mentors who could see more clearly than my confusion would allow as they affirmed my call and helped me navigate the ten months between my call’s activation and moving to a brand-new state with my nine-year-old daughter to start seminary.  

I went to seminary seeking God and instead found myself. Yes, I said that correctly. In addition to gaining more expansive ways to engage with the Bible, some of my key and enduring learnings: 

  • God is already in and around us all, including and maybe even especially those who the Church continues to harm. 
  • If I am to take seriously that God creates us in God’s image (and I do), then every part of who I am is divine and the continuing process of becoming is sacred. To not be authentic and whole is a violence against God. 
  • Shame is a tool of the oppressor and is antithetical to the gospel. Related, the shame I carried was never mine and it was blocking my blessings internally and externally. 
  • God chooses us even when we don’t reciprocate that choice (or, more dangerously, falsely equate our many intentional and unintentional idols with God and mislabel it as being faithful). 

These four things in particular have been essential in getting to know who I am more clearly, which has deepened my call into various iterations of ministry. In being who I am unapologetically and unashamedly, my very authenticity is at the core of my most meaningful encounters in ministry. While I am certainly not the person at the core of ministry, by faithfully tending to myself, I am able to meet people where they are and offer them the same kind of liberative grace I continue to discover in this evolving call to serve God’s people.  

Three years ago, I founded Salus Center, the only LGBTQ+ resource and community center in Lansing, MI. In addition to creating visible and accessible space for LGBTQ+ people in the Greater Lansing area, I’ve been collaborating and establishing partnerships with other local organizations; those that are obvious fits and those that seem unlikely. “Flying the plane while I build it” has been such an accurate expression of my entrepreneurial experiences, especially considering I’m neither a pilot nor an engineer. Nonetheless, I’ve managed to creatively and innovatively uncover possibilities and cultivate community in radical, life-giving ways, particularly for those who embody multiple minoritized identities. 

On the local church level, I’ve served in just about every setting possible: a thriving progressive church, yoked rural churches, a large suburban church, small churches deeply rooted in political and social justice, a new church start/nonprofit hybrid. I’ve served as a solo, associate, founding, and interim pastor. I’m also an active congregant in the local churches I’ve called home when I was not pastoring on Sunday mornings. At each iteration of local church, I’ve learned to remain open to the various kinds of connections that emerge, some of the most meaningful ones from the unlikeliest of places. 

Whether I’m serving an established church, a new church start, or an entire, non-religious community, my comfort with existing in liminal spaces enables me to invite folk into new perspectives, reshape realities expansively, and operate non-anxiously in the midst of other people’s change-induced anxieties. My coach training further equips me to investigate new, unexplored angles for overcoming individual and communal challenges. 

I’m thrilled to be two and a half months into my most recent call as the Ambassador for Innovation and Engagement in the Center for Analytics, Research & Development, and Data at the National Setting of the UCC! Since joining the denomination in 2007 when I started seminary, I’ve been loyal to the denomination and committed to faithfully responding to various injustices in the world. I’m most excited to be in a position to intentionally evaluate ways to help local churches do/be Church more relevantly in communities yearning for an embodied gospel of radical love and transformative healing. Like the miraculous feeding of the five thousand from one child’s lunch, I believe this particular role will indeed facilitate similar miracle-making in sharing innovative ideas from particular areas and helping translate them for exponentially more communities in other contexts.  

At every setting, I’ve participated in the area’s version of an interfaith group of clergy folk. Because I’m Black and queer and from an immigrant family and was raised in a vastly different Christian tradition, I never know how well my identities will help or impede my ability to engage in ministry in any and all of these settings. There are times when my intimate familiarity with otherness has helped me connect more deeply with folk who have shut down, giving them a glimpse of possibility where they otherwise cannot see it.  

There are also times when people of faith in particular have politicized my existence and required shame-filled silencing for the sake of “unity” in ways that continue to harm so many others. In those cases, I’ve learned how to keep showing up anyway, risking the few privileges I’m afforded to choose to live the gospel as honestly and authentically as I know how. Either way, I am unshakably clear about God’s innovative spirit that’s made a way out of no way since the beginning of time. I genuinely believe God continues to be radical in their abundance, ever yearning for humanity to choose Love even as we’re steeped in fear. My unashamed and unapologetic presence has been the most powerful aspect of my ministry, especially in the last few years. My growing ability to engage compassionately with those who are “other than” and who “other” me has been transformative for those I’ve encountered, myself included. 

Being in a time of pandemic, churches have been forced to engage with the very same technologies that have been reluctantly adopted at a snail’s pace. Now that this crisis has flung churches into adjusting everything they know about how to gather, share financial gifts, and live out their missions, they no longer have the luxury of time to more deeply explore these previously-suspicious technologies and are grabbing at whatever will get them through to the next week. 

My academic ponderments at this time reside somewhere between local church’s abilities to swiftly adjust their practices to be able to respond to needs in the community (whether an injustice or a pandemic) and the role of various technologies in that process. I’m especially interested in exploring the relationship between theology and technology. In my unscientific observations, technology is accepted as is without theological considerations. I might even go as far as to say technology can shape theology in some circumstances. How might it be, though, if we applied theological lenses to the technologies instead?  

In recent years, more people who are not white and male are exposing the biases built into different technologies (like social media algorithms, facial recognition software). Though I’m not certain how this exploration will end, I’d love to see what might happen if we applied the same justice-seeking lenses at the core of most theological beliefs in examining our use and acceptance of the very technologies that are an essential vehicle for ministry in the current (and future!) era. 

The photo "Stepping stones..." by Owen H R is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

This piece was prepared for a part of the admission process into a doctoral program.

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