The Rev. Jess Cook speaks with host the Rev. Sara Hayden
by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service
“This might be our most radical podcast episode,” says the Rev. Sara Hayden, host of the “New Way” podcast, a production of 1001 New Worshiping Communities that was started in 2019. During episodes 9 and 10 of the newest season, Hayden talks with the Rev. Jess Cook, founder of Every Table, a new worshiping community in Richmond, Virginia, about meditation, cannabis, embodiment and the real gift that “trans folk have to offer the church” in breaking open the cracks that empire, capitalism and white supremacy have inflicted on the institutional church to heal the diverse and beautiful bodies within the Body of Christ.
“I was taught the same thing in different ways: ‘Love others. Ignore yourself.’ But think about that self-denial that’s happening there. Think about what we’re being taught about others versus ourselves, even in terms of difference,” Cook said. “What’s interesting is that we do love others as we love ourselves, regardless of whether or not we realize it. And that’s just the obviousness, that the people who are the most hateful are the ones who really hate themselves. And hateful can look a whole lot of different ways.”
A lifelong Presbyterian, Cook was ordained in 2019 as the first openly nonbinary trans person ordained in their presbytery. Cook has over a decade of experience working with LGBTQIA+ youth and working with congregations and agencies to ensure all are affirmed for who they are. Their work with these youth invited Cook into greater authenticity and a journey to be and love themselves more through spiritual and somatic practices.
Episode 9 delves into the spiritual practices and philosophical underpinnings that Cook embraced during the pandemic and amid their gender identity journey. They described a further awakening to how following Jesus and living the gospel is simply a “way of being,” and how the strange bedfellows of empire, capitalism and white supremacy have estranged us from being fully in our bodies and in loving relationship with ourselves and others.
Contemplative practice and Communion are at the core of the worship at Every Table, as is an approach to outreach, which involves discipleship over coffee and a “mobile meditation” bus.
“God really is all that is,” Cook told Hayden and then explained the ways we miss that God is within us, a key insight into the love of self and love of neighbor. “I’ve found that when I am able to sit down and be present with what is, I cultivate a certain love for myself. … I start to feel and to understand that I am part of all that is. I belong here,” said Cook, who described how becoming attuned to this union of self and creation in being present to the world allows a sense of working in collaboration that parallels what happens when they are truly present with another person. “In the same way that if I sit down and share a meal with my neighbor, I cannot help but leave with some love for them.”
For all the critique of Christian institutions, Cook remains “very committed” and active in the Presbytery of the James, has served as a pastor-in-residence at Camp Hanover in Mechanicsville, Virginia, and acts as interim pastor to a congregation in addition to their work as a co-founder of Every Table. In Episode 10, Hayden and Cook discuss the ways the church from the time of Emperor Constantine and onward laid out a “cracked” foundation that set up a “false understanding of who God is, who Jesus is and by extension, who we are.” Cook described the church’s foundation as having “been cracked for 2,000 years and is now breaking open.” Cook works within the church and on its margins to break through those cracks to “the church Jesus told us to establish.”
“For me, when I think about my connection with the institution, it is as a way of inviting people into a new practice, into a way that is simpler,” Cook said. Through their coaching relationship provided by 1001 New Worshiping Communities as part of its support for new leaders, Cook recognized they are both a “death doula and midwife” in their ministry.
“When I think of the institutional church, I think of that rich man who has been very devout. He’s like, ‘I’m doing all of the things I’m supposed to be doing. I am here. And yet, I just don’t feel it,” said Cook, who wondered if the existing church will fail to be healed and called as the rich man failed. “Can we trust God more than we trust our money? And what does that mean practically, you know?”
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