Bob Kalayjian, spry as he is, took Tom and me around the church building for a quick and yet immersive history tour of this glorious old building. The three of us clambered up the stairs and step ladders into the tower, took in the 360 view, and marveled at the construction. Bob had a wonderful photo of all the workers who built this church building. They are sitting and standing in front of the building…centuried at the beginning of the twentieth. In the photo, thirty or more young men sit frozen, many suspendered and posing as people always have for a group photo. When we were in a stairwell heading up into the tower, I noticed three small stained glass windows, plain and unadorned by figures. They had, at the bottom of each window, a name – Keys, Fetzer, and Fertig. I asked Bob about them, and he wasn’t sure who or what they were. My thesis, yet to be researched, is that these names are connected to the workers in that photo. For centuries workers have carved or painted or glassed their names into the buildings they constructed. I remember an article I read about the Washington Cathedral and how the stone carvers made the gargoyles look like the master sculptors on the building. I wonder about those names. The past is often an undiscovered country calling to us from the corners of the buildings we inhabit. A past we take for granted and even believe we understand but things are rarely what they seem. And really, what is truly what it seems?
The more I discover about these names – the more I will share.
It’s winter 2019. I’m serving as the pastor of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Watertown, South Dakota. This small-town congregation is deep in discernment about becoming Open & Affirming of people of all genders and sexualities. Like many communities who go through the ONA process, they’re figuring out how to connect their historic faith to a deepening commitment to progressive Christian values. As a proudly bisexual man with many LGBTQ beloveds, I have a personal stake in every church becoming ONA. I bring this up to my therapist, wondering how I can best support the church in their discernment. “Well, you’re a musician,” she says. “Why don’t you try writing a song for the congregation to sing on Sunday mornings? You’re in a unique position as their minister to put words (and music) to their process.”
When I get back to the church, I sit down at the ivory-white piano in UCC Watertown’s sanctuary, taking the church’s motto as my jumping-off point: “We resolve to love, agree to disagree, and unite to serve, for GOD IS STILL SPEAKING.” By the following Sunday, we’re singing a new song called, appropriately, “God Is Still Speaking”:
In the midst of new dimensions
In the face of the unknown
In the space between what’s yet to be
And the faith we’ve always known…
God is still speaking in this place!
Let us serve one another and embrace
Every child as God’s beloved
Find Christ in every face
God is still speaking, God is still speaking
God is still speaking in this place!
You might recognize it – we sang it here at First Church on Pentecost! Now, I would never be so big-headed as to suggest that my song played anything but the most minor of roles in UCC Watertown’s vote to become an ONA congregation in September 2019. Yet music is powerful magic that works on us in secret ways – perhaps the song did make an impact, in its own melodic way. Certainly, it impacted me as the author, drawing me into deeper relationship with my congregation. I suspect, too, that it impacted the eight-year-old girl who requested it every Sunday: “I love the music,” she told me. “It makes me feel like everyone belongs here.” (Talk about a compliment!)
This coming Sunday we’ll celebrate God’s open and affirming love and set the stage for our Rainbow Reconnection LGBTQ+ youth event on Saturday, July 17. My anecdote about a small-town church in South Dakota reflects, I think, one of the gifts that worship has to offer in our efforts for social justice. When we think of justice work, we often think of the public, political side of things: advocating for our undocumented neighbors, showing up to the Pride festival in full rainbow regalia, marching in the streets to demand racial justice. All of this is good and necessary – after all, Church isn’t somewhere we go on Sunday morning, it’s something we are every day of the week. But as a seminary professor of mine, the Rev. Dr. Jay Emerson Johnson, likes to say: we are constantly being spiritually formed by the communities of which we are part. Systems of oppression spiritually form us to build walls and erect barriers, to construct hierarchies of “good enough” and “not good enough,” to act from places of fear and scarcity. Worship on the other hand can be a place of re-formation and counter-formation. By coming together to seek the presence of One Who includes and transcends all our differences, real and imagined, we catch a glimpse of God’s imagination for the world as it could be. We remember Who We Are, and Whose We Are, and what we are called to do.
All of which is to say: I am so delighted to be back in the sanctuary with you, being spiritually formed with you for love and liberation in person. I can’t wait to create new and beautiful music with you.
This Sunday you’ll get to hear my dear friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. Isabel Call, preach from our virtual pulpit. She’s an economist, disability advocate, and Assistant Minister at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, OH – plus she preached at my ordination, so I can vouch for her homiletical credentials! I’m excited for her to share her wit and wisdom with us. Don’t be surprised if the two of us team-teach a course on God and economics somewhere down the road!
Perhaps you already knew that First Church’s Accessible to All (A2A) committee is currently undertaking an “accessibility audit” of the church. As we reenter our campus at the corner of arts and justice, we want our welcome to people of all abilities to be as beautiful as the building itself. The pandemic shift to virtual church made worship, meetings, and classes more accessible to folks that wouldn’t have been able to attend in person – and made them less accessible to folks without the equipment or technological know-how to plug in. Isabel often likes to say we are all only “temporarily able-bodied.” I love that. Bearing that brilliantly imperfect human reality in mind, we’re invited to design our spaces – and our communities – to draw the circle of hospitality ever wider.
The A2A committee will report its findings to the congregation after the service on Sunday, July 25. I hope this Sunday’s service primes the pump of your imagination for truly extravagant welcome at First Church. As I keep saying, let’s not just go “back to normal” but take this reopening as an opportunity to re-open our hearts, to be more hospitable, more accessible, more generous, more courageous than ever before.
Packing Snippet Week Two/Day One: Boxes are in short supply. Home Depot was sold out two days ago, but got a shipment in this morning. Utility sign-up online doesn’t recognize my address in Long Beach, so I must call and wait on hold for 45 minutes. I hang up to try again tomorrow. My current landlord in Santa Rosa tells me that I must move my refrigerator from the wall and clean the grease I find there before I can get my deposit back. Really? Is that true? Everything is in disarray. A friend comes by who is going to take all my plants and patio art. She has been wanting to fix up her courtyard for so long and now she can. My brother comes tomorrow for a few days. He has been in the Sierra hiking with friends. He lives back east and we haven’t seen each other for three years. He wants to drive to Bodega Bay and Jenner. I have to carve a place for him to sleep. Tuesday I made pastoral calls and met on Zoom with the Senior Coffee group. In the afternoon, more meetings and emails. I pay bills and start the list of all the places that need an address update. I have waaaaay more to do than I even realize…arrrrgh.
So that’s my snippet. Any one of you who has ever moved understand the Higglety Pigglety of it all. I am in between places, neither there nor here. There is a word to name this place I am in. It is a liminal space – a threshold. You can recognize it by the uneasiness and the anxiety. All of us coming out from covid restrictions are in a space like this. We are vaccinated and ready to be with others, unmasked and fearless. Yet, it is not so easy a transition. Not everyone is vaccinated. There are those who have autoimmune diseases and whose medication means that vaccines don’t work for them. There are the children who are yet unprotected, and the variants and mutation stories circulate. It is perhaps a time to stand with some reasoned faith in the moment and just be with each other and recognize the uncertainty of this moment. Its liminality and threshold quality. We will cross through and be with each other soon.
Your church leaders are working to organize a safe and positive return to this beloved sanctuary. I know you miss the sound of a live organ and the choir and the look and feel of everything “normal” and “home.” We will get there. Committees are meeting and your Council will announce it all next week. I hope you are all well and caring for each other and ready to step through the doorway into life together again.
And I know that here, in my space, everything will get packed, movers will come, and the great unpacking will begin. Until then, see you on Zoom!
In 1888, the same year this church was founded, a young woman named Mary Austin came across the plains and into the desert of southeastern California. She, like Georgia O’Keefe, found the desert to be an instant home. Austin was a feminist and a writer. Her prose is full of the hues and contours of hills and trees, animals and folktales. Today, in Independence – along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, off of 395 – is a small museum to the history of the region and to Mary Austin. If you are ever near there, I highly recommend its charm and novelty. Austin wrote several extended essays. The two I am familiar with are “The Land of Little Rain” and “California, Land of the Sun.” In the latter she wrote the following ode to the sequoia.
But there is one tree that for the footer of the mountain trails is voiceless; it speaks, no doubt, but it speaks only to the austere mountain heads, to the mindful wind and the watching stars. It speaks as men speak to one another and are not heard by the little ants crawling over their boots. This is the Big Tree, the Sequoia.
I am a gardener, and I love the colors of the desert and the succulents and the trees and mountains and vast valleys of California. Driving on the 5, heading north yesterday, I came to the final chute through the Grapevine and there was the great Central Valley spread before me, all squared up by greens of fruit and nut trees and alfalfa. Just about took my breath away.
I am an east coast Jersey girl who spent more years in New York City than anywhere else, and I am just wild about California. I came here first in 2007. I worked for a time as the Communications Director for the Legislative Ministry of the Unitarian Universalists in California. Because of that job I got to know a bit of California history; studied its long battles over water and resources; learned about Starr King and, along with his journey, the reforming spirit that led to the mooring of Congregational Churches in this vast, diverse, and larger-than-people-realize state.
After years in the Central Valley and the North Bay, I am so lucky to be able to experience Long Beach. I hope that my enthusiasm for this place will remind you of what nature and history may teach this new century and how the Gospel speaks to this time and place. I hope we will find our way through thinking out loud about this complex system that is this church and this complex system that is Greater Los Angeles and how we live and breathe and move and have our being here and now.
More about interim ministry in future newsletters. I’m back in Santa Rosa, working part-time at a distance until the movers pick up my stuff June 30 and deposit my books in the office and everything else at Falcon and 1st where my new apartment awaits.
Much love to you all…see some of you on Zoom…my email is firstname.lastname@example.org.