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PC(USA)’s ‘The Scattered Church’ broadcast spotlights three faith communities where connection and belonging are treasured

A trio of faith leaders share how they’ve overcome challenges and pain to serve communities that need them and love them

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Chris Montgomery via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — As a lead-in to next week’s hybrid Evangelism and Immersion conferences, three people heading innovative ministries spoke Tuesday in The Scattered Church series, which provides Presbyterians with theological reflections and practical resources for socially distanced ministry.

The Presbyterian Mission Agency’s 1001 New Worshiping Communities and the Office of Vital Congregations put on Tuesday’s hour-long gathering, which featured these three faith leaders:

The Rev. Carlton Johnson, Vital Congregations coordinator, and the Rev. Nikki Collins, coordinator of 1001 New Worshiping Communities, hosted Tuesday’s gathering.

Kinnison described the CATCH worshiping community in Columbus as “tiny, but there’s no judgment. We all think of ourselves as beautiful hot messes.”

Worship participants are given modeling clay and other items to help them stay busy during the service. “You don’t have to come in and be good,” Kinnison said. “I make as many mistakes as anybody else in worship and we just laugh.”

The Rev. Reggie Avant (Photo courtesy of Madrona Grace Presbyterian Church)

Avant said he was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 1993. He left the church three years later when he came out publicly and was at the time precluded from ordained ministry. Instead he worked many years in the restaurant business. Later Avant returned to ministry, first in hospice and palliative care and later as a staff chaplain at a hospital.

As he looked to return to parish ministry, Avant heard many hurtful statements from church committees, including “You know, you have a few strikes against you. You’re African American, gay and you have a partner who’s white” and “We don’t know if we are ready to have a Black person on staff. We are still praying about that.”

“I was extremely hurt by this denomination. I felt naïve and stupid. I thought I would be accepted with open arms trying to find a call, and that wasn’t the case,” Avant said.

“I’m sorry that’s your story,” Collins told Avant. “But I’m so grateful to you for persisting through that pain.”

Mathieu converted to evangelical Christianity while in high school and later work as a campus minister and was in the ordination process for a megachurch when “a long and painful breakup occurred.” He married a feminist and made friends with two Black men “who patiently helped me think about race in a meaningful way for the first time” in his late 20s.

Jon Mathieu (Photo courtesy of Harbor Online Community)

He landed at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, where he started meeting with “a small group of friends leaving the church I was leaving. We studied Scripture in a much more progressive way” without “needing certainty with our answers.” When the pandemic struck, the group moved online and expanded with participants from other states, eventually becoming Harbor Online Community, an independent ministry that partners with both the PC(USA) and the United Church of Christ.

Members of the community have suffered “extensive spiritual trauma,” Mathieu said. “We are figuring out how to be the church together.”

After witnessing that level of candor, Johnson suggested those gathered take a deep breath or two. “It’s so normal for us to look at church through rose-colored glasses,” Johnson said. “We think of these as isolated incidents. We thought it was stuff that happened in the 1970s and 1980s, and certainly not in the PC(USA), and yet here we are.”

Where, Johnson asked the three guests, is the good news? How do we provide genuine welcome to people with religious trauma?

The Rev. Katie Kinnison

“We begin with the first truth of who we are, that we are beloved of God,” Kinnison said. Worshiping community members who have been sex trafficked “show up real, and the community has poured grace and affection on them … That’s what church is supposed to be. If [Alcoholics Anonymous] groups can do it, we ought to be able to learn to do that,” because “each of us is on a journey of becoming.”

Then Kinnison delivered what was perhaps the hour’s most colorful line, describing ministry this way: “It’s Katie-flavored Godness that I’m trying to unleash.”

“Jesus said the kingdom of God is at hand,” Kinnison said. “We have everything we need if we show up, work our stuff and have each other’s backs.”

Avant sees hope “in God’s people” at Madrona Grace Presbyterian Church. “The church wanted me,” Avant said. “They said, ‘We wanted all of you: your gay self, your Black self, your 62-year-old self.’”

“These people said to me, ‘There’s hope, and we’re choosing you.’”

During Harbor’s online gatherings, “there are no sermons. Everything is dialogue based,” Mathieu said. “We present a little content and read Scripture, look at queer or womanist theology, and then go into breakout rooms and answer prepared questions,” letting the conversation go where it wants to go, Mathieu said.

Mathieu finds himself “obsessed” with the teachings of Willie James Jennings of the Yale Divinity School, who teaches that God desires “joining together with us and joining us together,” Mathieu said. “That has become the theological underpinning of Harbor. We desire badly to belong. We weren’t able to belong in our previous communities, but we can find it here.”

“If you want to belong, you belong,” Mathieu said. “That’s the only prerequisite.”

“Our table is long enough and wide enough,” Avant said of Madrona Grace’s philosophy of welcome. “Our words of welcome are the same words Christ would say: Everyone is invited to the table. Even the homeless population? Absolutely. You are welcome here the way you are.”

“Jesus would ask people, ‘What do you want from me? What do you need?’” Kinnison said. At CATCH, “We always ask, ‘What do you need? Does this work for you?’”

“I love the way you have each layered the conversation,” Collins told the panelists. Those to whom they minister “know they’re loved, and they know they have agency.”

“So much of what you have said is knowing your community, people feeling known and seen, and feeling safe about being known and seen,” Collins added.

While pastors “can do immense harm” by “opening their guts and pouring it out” for parishioners, “we have to show up as real people with real struggles,” Kinnison said. “I let people see some of who I am. How else do we connect with each other.”

The next edition of The Scattered Church, this one on Theology and Worship, is scheduled for 5 p.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, Nov. 8. Another, on Presbyterian Youth and Triennium, will occur at 5 p.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, Nov. 15. The Zoom link for each of these conversations is here.

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