Today as I reflect upon the call to serve as a congregational leader within the Christian context of “set apart” ministry, two major events in my history come to mind.
The first began before I was born, because I was born into a bi-racial, ecumenical, military family.
For the first 17 years of my life, I was exposed to a plethora of diverse life experiences which spanned the contexts of economics, social justice, the arts, class, race, faith tradition, gender, age and sexual orientation. These experiences took place in the continental United States as well as in Europe.
Years later; I realized how instrumental this background was to my pre-disposition to contexts of change on a number of different levels and within a variety of venues.
The second major event took place when I was first introduced to MCC. This happened when I was on active duty with the U.S. Navy in the 1980’s.
While in the Navy, an office mate of mine felt comfortable confiding how much she missed her girlfriend (who was deployed for 6 months on a ship). We had become good friends.
And she cared for my 3 children when I was sent away for training or had guard duty. It was she who told me about MCC and took me to my first service there. It was not a good experience.
The first MCC I attended was located in New England and showed little to no diversity or hospitality. The demographics of the congregation were all males of European descent between the ages of 20 and 50. And at no time was any effort made to welcome us. Because of this, I told my friend it would be OK with me if I did not go back to that or any other MCC church.
About two years later, I found myself looking for an MCC church in the Washington Metropolitan Area.
The reason I decided to look for an MCC was that my 9 year old daughter (who already looked to be about 16) indicated how confused and troubled she was about her sexuality. She was cool with guys, but she found she liked girls better. And because of some of the things she had heard from her friends at school, and sadly, at church, she was afraid she was going to hell because of her feelings. This concerned me because I did not want her to begin thinking negatively of herself, her feelings or her faith. In addition, I did not want her to be exposed to “street learning” regarding her sexuality.
Therefore, I looked up MCC in the phone book and started making calls. That’s how MCCDC became not only our new church home, but part of our extended family as well.
While a member of MCCDC, I joined the Gospel Choir under David North and became one of the primary members of the local EXCEL movement, and later became a Deacon. The founding pastor was one of my mentors. All of this occurred during the height of the AIDS crisis in Washington, DC. And as a deacon and active member, I became deeply involved with giving care to those persons living and dying with AIDS.
Because there were several other churches in the neighborhood, we at MCCDC became unexpected “ambassadors” of love, support, education and help to those pastors and members of churches with lay and congregational leaders being “outed” by their disease.
It was during these difficult times I realized how much of a heart I had for all God’s people. And also how grateful I was to MCCDC for taking my family and I in when we needed it most. To give something back to the community that gave so much to me and my family was one of my greatest desires. So I lobbied hard to be accepted and trained as a deacon. It was a big mistake. I was a miserable failure. And today, I know I failed because I “called myself” to something I really wanted to do, but that something was not within God’s will.
For years after that, I avoided taking any kind of leadership role at MCCDC. But after Rev. Larry died, I had a conversation with the new Pastor, Rev. Candace. During that conversation, I remember being told I was a long way from being prepared for set apart ministry, because I did not have a seminary degree.
By this time, I was out of the Navy and working for the Federal Government. After that conversation, I walked away again and decided to focus on my secular career.
Things changed at an unexpected time in my life. Because some years later at a time when I was “at the top of my career game”, I was also on the cusp of a promotion and re-location to a work site either in Haiti or South Africa.
Each day at lunch time I would go into my office, eat my lunch and read my little devotional book along with the Bible. Over time, my office became crowded with members of my staff and other staff members who were asking me questions and talking about the Bible. We even began to pray for and with one another. At no time did I turn anyone away because I was at lunch, had an open door policy, and was happy to share and engage in conversations about faith.
Being on Federal property, eventually someone complained to my boss that members of their staff were leaving their work stations in another part of the building to come to my office and “talk about Jesus”. The problem was that they did not have the same lunch hour that I did. And there was concern that I may have been initiating the whole thing. So I got called on the carpet by my boss and ordered to stop, which I did. After all, the source of my bread and butter was at stake.
After I stopped, I thought I’d be fine. But instead, I was miserable. And to top it all off, a co-worker of mine (whom I never really liked) started hounding me like “the hound from heaven” to get some seminary training. She said that if I was going to talk to so my people about Jesus, I’d damn sure better know what I was talking about, or I was going straight to hell. She would not shut up but nagged me every day until I promised to go with her to take an evening class at Wesley Theological Seminary, in Church History (she was taking the class because she thought it would help her teach an Adult Sunday School class at her church). To shut her up, I went. And when we drove up the driveway to the school and I saw that big statue of Jesus facing Massachusetts Avenue, I started to weep, and knew I was in the right place. The rest is history.
During seminary, the doors to serving an MCC church did not open. So I was a “free agent”. One of the final requirements at Wesley was to serve as a ministry intern at a church for at least 8 months. In order to graduate, some congregation had to take me under their wing. So I looked on the church bulletin board for churches seeking interns, picked one and called them. That local church ended up being my ordaining congregation in 1998. My call to ministry was in the area of pastoral care and counseling. And I worked as a resident chaplain at Georgetown University Hospital.
It was at Georgetown, I realized how much I missed preaching and serving a local congregation. So when my contract was soon to be renewed, I had lunch with a friend of mine on staff at Wesley, and asked him to keep his eyes and ears open for anyone interested in hiring a Pastor.
About a month before I was to renew the contract, I got a call from my friend at Wesley who told me he had lunch with a friend of his who knew a United Methodist District Superintendent (DS) who was looking for someone comfortable serving a multi-ethnic church in Central Pennsylvania. The church he had in mind used to have an all White congregation till they merged with an all Black congregation in the 1980s. Because of “White Flight” in the neighborhood, the church was struggling and in danger of closing. The DS had plenty of Pastors who would be excellent candidates for the White churches, and a few for the hand-full of Black churches. However, they could find no one who could comfortably and effectively navigate the waters of both ethnic groups in the same house of worship at the same time.
Within three months, I was the Senior Pastor of that Central Pennsylvania church. And after three years, I was asked by the Bishop to consider serving beyond the local church level by entering their clergy candidacy process. Because I was already ordained in the Baptist church and in good standing, I had no need to work toward ordination, so I was not interested. In addition, I had no problems with my ordaining congregation and did not want to turn my back on them by changing my affiliation. The Bishop persisted, and told me I would not have to give up my original orders, and by successfully completing their candidacy process (slightly shortened because of my experience and ordination), I could become recognized as a full Elder in good standing in the United Methodist Church with dual credentials. Once assured I would not be required to give up my original orders, I said yes.
Upon obtaining standing as a full Elder, I was available to be called to serve churches beyond the local church I was currently serving. Because of this new status, after three years, I was appointed to a number of other churches with unique and challenging situations. In all but 2 of these churches, I was the first Black, the first woman and the first person living and traveling solo. It was during these appointments, I thanked God and my family for exposing me to such diversity and change growing up. It did not prepare me for everything, but it did give me the kinds of experiences that helped me to be strong, compassionate, gentle, courageous, flexible, bold as needed and humble in the face of success.
Each appointment was a serious challenge. And though I left each church in better shape than I found it, no appointment was longer than three years. Because of this, I became concerned that my “track record” would look (on its face) as if I was some kind of a misfit. During a meeting with my DS, I shared this concern. His response was to hand me a brochure about certification training in New Jersey for Intentional Interim Specialist Pastors (IISP). This was very unusual, because United Methodist polity does not support such a position. Nevertheless, I went to the church sponsored training and as a result, found my “niche calling”.
There were about 20 participants from various back-grounds at the training. And we were all people who “colored outside the lines” naturally. It was good to learn I was not alone.
At a gathering of senior clergy, he asked a colleague of his (who happened to be one of my Intentional Interim instructors during certification training) if he knew of anyone who could serve a church he had in mind, located in mid-state New York. His friend gave the DS my name, the DS contacted my former Bishop, both Bishops had a conversation, and I was invited to come to New York State and serve another church in deep transition. I accepted.
After my work was completed at the New York Methodist church, I was approached by the Bishop of a Lutheran church in the area and asked if I would be interested in serving a church in their denomination. After applying, and undergoing several interviews, I was offered the position. But because of the severe winters in that area, and because I deeply missed my family, I declined and moved back the Washington Metro Area.
Because of a conversation with Rev. Elder Darlene Garner, I was asked to serve MCC Baltimore as an IIPS. In October of 2010, I accepted the offer of a position there, and completed my work as their IIPS in April of this year.
The Board of Directors has asked that I accept a new contract as a part-time Church Consultant for the next three months. And I agreed to do so.
Today, I have accepted the call to serve another MCC church as an IISP. On Sunday, September 8, 2013 I began as Pastor of NEW Light MCC in Hagerstown, MD.