From the streets to the sanctuary

From the streets to the sanctuary

Kayla Steinberg

Don Abram (left) and other protestors at a Black Lives Matter Event (Photo/Brianna Lawrence)

Don Abram was something of a prodigy growing up in his church in Chicago. As a 14-year-old in an oversized pinstripe suit, Abram preached from the pulpit of the Greater New Mount Eagle Missionary Baptist Church for the first time. When he finished, the crowd was on its feet.

But after he publicly came out as queer, Abram, 27, said he lost speaking invitations from pastors. One person even revoked an invitation.

Abram said the pastors offered seemingly innocuous excuses, like scheduling conflicts. But he thinks they silently were uncomfortable with his expression of his sexuality. “They just don’t say the quiet part out loud,” said Abram.

Elements of the Black church certainly have a problem with individuals who identify as LGBTQ+. But after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis policeman and the nationwide protest movement that resulted, Abram believed there was an opportunity to help his community.

“I saw a renewed interest among the Black church to start having conversations around intersectional justice,” he said. “I thought that it was an opportune time for the Black church to recommit itself to freedom, liberation and justice for all of God’s children, including LGBTQ+ folks.”

So, Abram took to the streets.

He trekked to protests across Chicago, feet hurting, carrying a cardboard sign that read, in black letters, “SILENCE IS VIOLENCE.”

Abram refused to be silent. It was his spiritual beliefs — his belief in human dignity, a belief that all of us are children of God — that brought him to protest.

“It’s not just a cis, straight Black man who needs to be advocated for,” said Abram, who earned his Master’s of Divinity at Harvard but was never ordained by a church. “It’s also women, it’s also queer folk, it’s also differently abled folks.”

He wanted to make an effort to include them in a space he knows well: the Black church.

In March, Abram launched Pride in the Pews, an organization dedicated to the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the Black church. For its “Can I Get a Witness” project, Pride in the Pews is collecting 66 stories of queer Christians in the Black church, corresponding to the 66 books of the Bible. Abram hopes those stories will inspire change.

And change might be happening elsewhere. Earlier this month, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the largest Black Methodist denominations in the world, voted to create a committee that will study LGBTQ+ matters.

Dr. Teresa Fry Brown, the fourteenth historiographer of the AME Church, said the church has been discussing LGBTQ+ issues on-and-off for a number of years. Now that the AME General Conference passed the resolution, church leaders will look deeply into them.

The committee will study texts that discuss sexuality, hear testimonials from Black LGBTQ+ people within and outside the AME Church and propose legislation addressing the rights of LGBTQ+ people in the AME Church, all by the church’s 2024 General Conference. Abram and Dr. Jennifer Leath, a co-author of the resolution and the pastor of Campbell Chapel AME Church in Denver, spoke about a possible collaboration for the testimonials, though nothing is set just yet.

Leath, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, sees encouraging conversation about how the church views LGBTQ+ individuals as a “defense of my own dignity.” And, she said, “there are many, many others who are like me.”

Don Abram and Pastor Frederick E. Wilson, Sr. Greater New Mt. Eagle M. B Church in Chicago

The typical Black church stance toward LGBTQ+ people has been “don’t ask, don’t tell,” said Ronald Hopson, a professor of psychology and pastoral care at Howard Divinity School who teaches about sexuality and the Black church. Of course, he added, LGBTQ+ individuals have always been in the church.

“There’s a kind of anecdotal lore that the Black church would not have music without gay men,” he said.

But being gay has historically been considered a sin, said Hopson. At some churches, those who are openly LGBTQ+ could be ostracized or asked not to participate in a church role. Some LGBTQ+ church leaders might alternatively seek forgiveness from the church and ask to be allowed to continue in their leadership roles. Other LGBTQ+ church leaders might leave altogether, like the late writer James Baldwin, who ministered as a teenager.

Hopson attributes change to Black women in theological education, womanists (who see society and the world through Black women’s experiences) and young people who he said “have not been socialized with the same prejudices and bigotry that two generations of earlier people were raised with.” He considers BLM to be part of this larger, preexisting effort to create change.

The Rev. Vanessa M. Brown also credits young people with shifting the conversation in the church. The pastor and founder of Rivers of Living Water UCC, an LGBTQ+ affirming, “radically inclusive” congregation in the Upper West Side and in Newark, New Jersey, said before the Black Lives Matter movement was born, churches saw an exodus of young congregants who did not want to be part of an institution that wasn’t more inclusive.

“I don’t think Black Lives Matter is driving change,” she said. “It is young people who are helping churches to see that if you can’t open up, if you can’t really be inclusive, then I don’t want to be here.”

Brown, 50, knew she liked girls at around 12 but still married a man. She’ll never forget a conversation with her dad on her wedding day. “My own father said to me, ‘You look beautiful, but you don't look happy,’” said Brown.

She worried about what others would think of her and how it would reflect on her church if she walked away, if she left her fiancé at the altar. So she didn’t. Amid the divorce, which came just months later, Brown decided to leave the church.

But her friends encouraged her to start her own.

“The more you exclude, the more you run people away,” said Brown. “And people are looking for inclusive places to be themselves, whatever that looks like for them.”

But Rivers of Living Water is an exception. Many Black churches today, like Ebenezer Gospel Tabernacle in Harlem, do not fully affirm LGBTQ+ people. That’s a stance they attribute to several Bible passages, like Leviticus 20:13. “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them,” the verse reads.

The Harlem church welcomes everyone in prayer but not in leadership, said Jonathan Springer, a minister.

“If you’re preaching or teaching or in a position of authority, and you’re not living a lifestyle that’s consistent with the word, you have to go through a period of reconciliation or you have to step to the side,” Springer, 32, said.

Black Lives Matter has not changed Ebenezer Gospel Tabernacle’s stance on LGBTQ+ issues.

“I don't think that Black Lives Matter has influenced our church to think more reflectively from a theological perspective or from a sociological perspective about LGBT rights,” said Springer.

Hopson interprets Bible passages on sexuality differently. Considering the Hebrew, he said, can make the Leviticus verse about what distinguishes Jews and non-Jews rather than about homosexuality as an abomination. Hopson said some pastors understand that the verse doesn’t necessarily pertain to homosexuality but thinks they don’t want to disrupt harmony in their churches.

Abram hopes to create change on a larger scale — not through the Bible but through a different set of stories, those collected in Pride in the Pews’ “Can I Get a Witness” project. He imagines congregants will sit and listen to the wisdom from the stories, learn from them and create change.

“The same way that those texts and stories teach us about God and how we should relate to one another, the stories of queer and trans folks will teach us about God and how we should relate to one another,” said Abram. “Because our stories are sacred, too.”

Abram said he never believed homosexuality was bad though he recognized there was shame associated with it. He said he had tried to embody a sort of toxic masculinity. But it was more to secure his safety, he said, than because he believed being queer was problematic.

As time passed, he wanted to stand up for the LGBTQ+ community. Abram said so many people can’t be fully who they are because they have internalized anti-LGBTQ+ theologies. “For me, that is not what God has called us to do,” he said. “It is not the life that God wants for us.”

High Life: Christians and Cannabis Legalization

High Life: Christians and Cannabis Legalization

Jessica Mundie

(Photo/Chmee2, Wikimedia Commons)

When the Rev. James T. Roberson was a defensive tackle for the James Madison University football team he took part in his school’s pro day, when NFL scouts travel to recruit new talent. But, during tryouts, he pulled his hamstring and had to drop out.

“After that I just started reeling,” he said. Roberson turned to cannabis to numb the pain. Before he would go out for dinner with his friends, he would smoke. Before he went to the movies, he would smoke.

“It got to a point where I was doing it every day,” Roberson, 44, said.

Eventually, Roberson, a pastor’s son, began to examine and question the role faith could play in his life. He was skeptical, he said, mostly of Christianity’s racist and patriarchal elements, but as he read the Bible, he started to pray and grow in his newfound faith.

Eventually, Roberson ended up becoming a pastor at a church in North Carolina. Now he runs Bridge Church NYC in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which he has branded as a “a church for people who don’t go to church.”

Roberson is using his platform as a church leader to talk about the legalization of marijuana and other important cultural issues that are not usually discussed in faith spaces. He does not use marijuana anymore or encourage others to partake, but he, and an increasing number of Black church leaders, see efforts to legalize the controlled substance as a path to religious redemption for Black Americans.

Earlier this year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the New York State Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which legalized recreational use of cannabis for people over 21 and made New York the sixteenth state to permit the possession of the controlled substance. The law also allows for those who have been convicted of marijuana related convictions to have their records expunged.

Amid the legalization discussion, Roberson is one of many pastors reconsidering their message about marijuana. Of course, pastors don't want to push a controlled substance from the pulpit, but they see opportunities for economic development in hurting communities, a remedy to historic injustices and a new way to reach lost souls.

For Black religious leaders like Roberson, legalization is an important stepping stone in the fight for racial justice. A report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that in 2018, even though white and Black Americans consumed marijuana at the same rate, Black people were almost four times more likely than white people to be arrested for possession. That disproportionate ratio has not changed even as the overall number of arrests for possession has gone down in the last decade.

“From a legal standpoint, this is a good thing for the Black and brown communities to no longer have this as one of the primary reasons we see Black men disappear into prison,” said Roberson.

His position contradicts how most American clergy feel.

According to a LifeWay Research poll, the majority of Protestant pastors say getting high is morally wrong. Since before legalization, mainstream Christian denominations have had differing opinions on cannabis legislation.

Certain denominations approve the use of medical marijuana, like the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church, and United Methodist Church. The Roman Catholic Church considers drug use an offense if it is not used “on strictly therapeutic grounds.” Other religious organizations, like Concerned Women for America, an evangelical Christian group, and Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian ministry, oppose legalization under any circumstances.

Roberson is not the only church leader in New York City considering the importance of social justice and equity in legalization. The Rev. Anthony L. Trufant, senior Pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, said he sees the legalization of recreational cannabis as an opportunity for his community to thrive.

In February 2021, the Baptist megachurch held its second annual cannabis summit. The two-day Business of Cannabis Summit discussed how Black and Latinx communities can benefit from the growing cannabis industry through business opportunities while also addressing issues of social justice and reinvesting in communities.

This year’s summit participants heard from Niambe McIntosh, whose father Peter Tosh played guitar with Bob Marley. Tosh was severely beaten by police after lighting a joint and advocating on stage for legalization. She spoke about her brother who was arrested and served time for cannabis possession. While the summit was remote this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, it still attracted over 2,000 guests, Trufant said.

The summit is a partnership between the church and Women Grow, an organization that hopes to connect, educate, empower, and inspire the next generation of cannabis leaders, said Gia Moron, President of Women Grow. Trufant said their partnership was formed based on their shared understanding of what the possibilities of legalization meant for communities of color, the Black community in particular. They see it as an opportunity for economic justice.
“Pastor Trufant had the foresight to understand that this was information that needed to be shared with his congregation and with the greater community,” said Moron, who is now a member of Emmanuel Baptist Church.

While the summit was an opportunity to address issues of social justice, Trufant also wanted it to be an opportunity for members of his community to learn about how they can benefit from the growing cannabis industry. There were sessions about career and business opportunities involving cannabis and real estate, CBD products, investing, and health and wellness.

According to the Rev. Alexander Sharp, founder of Clergy for a New Drug Policy, the church is an important place for conversations to start around cannabis policy, and the bigger issue of drug addiction.

“Churches are shamefully silent,” said Sharp.

He explained that they should be used as places for education and debate about drug policy. Hopefully, he added, if a church is seen as welcoming, those who suffer from addiction or want to change their dependent relationship with marijuana, will find a welcoming and nonjudgmental community within a congregation that could help them change.

Founded in 2015, Clergy for a New Drug Policy aims to bring clergy across different faiths together to join the fight to end the war on drugs by promoting education, safety, and treatment. Sharp, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, started the organization because of his background in theology and public policy. Sharp’s overarching goal is to mobilize religious leaders to think of drug use as a health issue and not a criminal one.

Sharp offers several different reasons why religious organizations should advocate for drug policy reform. He writes that at the center of Christian faith “is a loving God of mercy and forgiveness, seeking always to heal and yearning for us to be united as brothers and sisters in God’s love.”

To him, the war on drugs does not meet these criteria. Through Clergy for a New Drug Policy, Sharp supports policies that aim to decriminalize all drugs and shift the culture of punishment to one centered on public health solutions.

In terms of marijuana prohibition, Sharp argues that it “stigmatizes people; it brands and marginalizes them. It stands in opposition to God’s love, healing, and forgiveness.”

Not only does legalization help correct historic injustices against minority communities, but Sharp says it is a distinctly religious stance – one of forgiveness and compassion.

Before Emmanuel Baptist Church’s first summit in 2019, Moron said there was some hesitancy within the congregation. She said some members thought it meant people would be consuming and selling cannabis on the property. But after congregation members heard keynote speakers and attended discussions with political leaders, doctors, nurses, entrepreneurs, and advocates, the majority of them Black people, they changed their tone, she said.

Trufant said even though some members of his 4,000-person congregation were skeptical of the summit, the church was proud to address an issue that is pertinent to its community.

“Emmanuel Baptist Church has always been unafraid to step into the public square, and address issues that others might find to be taboo,” said Trufant.

While the Business of Cannabis Summit at Emmanuel Baptist Church was an opportunity for congregation and community members to gather and discuss social justice issues and business opportunities, it was not meant to open discussion on the moral or religious reaction to legalization.

Roberson said he is hesitant to say Christians should start consuming cannabis. While the Bible does not explicitly forbid the use of cannabis, Roberson said, it does offer a framework for avoiding intoxication as it relates to alcohol and entering states of mind that would alter your relationship with God.

In the Bible, the use of alcohol is celebrated, explained Roberson. The Lord’s communion and Jesus’s first miracle, turning water into wine, are indications of how Christians should consider alcohol use in their lives.

“The principle is everything being done in moderation,” he said. But he admits he’s not 100% positive that the same rule applies to marijuana. “Now, can you smoke weed in moderation? I don’t know.”

Todd Miles, a theology professor at the evangelical Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon suggests other areas of ethical concern when considering cannabis use in his book Cannabis and the Christian. Christians are not to be mastered by anything other than God, he writes. Cannabis also can dampen a Christian’s dedication to discipleship and stewardship as well as their responsibility to their faith, he said.

Miles and Roberson share similar views on the religious use of cannabis. “I do think that the case can be made that the biblical prohibitions on alcohol intoxication apply to marijuana intoxication,” said Miles.

He also believes that while the Bible may not have the answer to every potential ethical question answered explicitly, it does offer all the divine words that a Christian needs to live faithfully before God. The framework he offers for ethical decision-making on cannabis consumption in his book takes biblical wisdom and discipleship into consideration.

Some of the questions he asks Christians to consider are: is there any reason to smoke pot recreationally other than to get high? Can you be sober-minded while you're using marijuana? Will THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, diminish my ability to live a life that honors Christ?

The legalization of cannabis will continue to be a nuanced issue for Christians, said Miles. While the legislation will be beneficial for communities of color and offer economic opportunities for those historically affected by prohibition, Christians need to consider if this substance will bring them closer to God. Roberson offers an answer to the question, should Christians consume marijuana. He concluded that without moderation, weed becomes a master.

“We want the spirit life to be our life,” said Roberson. “Not the blunted life, not the stoned life, not the high life, not the baked life. If a Christian tells you it's cool to get high all the time, they’re wrong.”

An organist for the king

An organist for the king

Pablo Argüelles Cattori

Organist Daniel Ficarri on the steps of St. John church. (Photo/Pablo Argüelles Cattori)

On a Sunday in early July, 10 minutes before the 10 a.m. mass, a murmur fills the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, a Roman Catholic parish in midtown Manhattan. It is not the distant sound of rain; It’s sunny outside. It’s not the whispers of the parishioners, as the pews have not yet been filled. It’s the murmur of a pipe organ’s blower.

Hidden below the main altar, it is a gigantic machine, more suited to a steamship than a church’s basement, and it’s pumped a steady amount of pressurized air into the lungs of the towering instrument standing still on the apse.

The murmur announces music to come, and signals that Dan Ficarri, a young, thin man wearing an ocean-blue shirt and dark-grey pants, is about to sit down at the organ’s console and play for Mass. When he does, the nave fills with music, and the organ begins to breathe.

Ficarri, 25, has been an organist since he was a boy. While other kids his age were playing ball in middle school, he was already playing music at funerals and weddings. He quickly learned to accompany the happiest and saddest moments of people’s lives.

“Playing music at church is different from making music in a concert hall or outside in an amphitheater,” he said. “There’s a certain solemnity and spiritual quality to it.”

Ficarri is quick to acknowledge that his profession can sometimes be seen as obscure. He's had to defend it, even from classical musicians who think that pipe organs are nothing more than old instruments to play slow hymns in half-empty churches.

Ficarri knows better. Organ music is alive and thriving. Later this month, he will become the next Associate Organist at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the seat of New York’s Episcopal church in Morningside Heights.

Beyond denominations, Ficarri has faith in organ music.

Mozart called the pipe organ the king of instruments. Pipe organs are, in a way, omnipotent. They are capable of producing the softest and loudest of sounds, and the highest and lowest of pitches. Its pipes can be as large as trucks and as small as pencils. They can produce voices that mirror the world –there are even pipes meant to imitate a human singer’s voice. If needed, they can replace a full orchestra.

They are also kings in an atavistic sense. Up until the Industrial Revolution they were among the most complex machines ever built. They’ve also been around for a while, since Hellenistic times, well before the birth of Christ. Thanks to the powerful sounds they produce, pipe organs have been used in arenas, fairs, and theater halls, and it was not until fairly recently –five centuries, more or less– that pipe organs slowly found their ways into churches.

And a Catholic church in Franklin Park, a suburb north of Pittsburgh is where Ficarri expressed his talent for music. He played the violin there every Sunday and started playing the church’s digital organ around middle school. It was a tough place to learn the obscure art of organ playing, so he relied on his own work and instinct. He listened to recordings and watched people play on YouTube. It was a more n instructive than inspiring period.

Then, when he was 15 years old, Ficarri had an epiphany. Paul Jacobs, a Grammy Award-winning organist and Chair of Juilliard's organ department, performed at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Memorial Chapel. It was a French Romantic program, with pieces by Louis Vierne and Maurice Duruflé. Ficarri listened in awe. “I had a realization of what the organ could do.”

He found Jacobs’ email and contacted him. Jacobs, an organ apostle of sorts, offered to give Ficarri a lesson. In 2014, two years after he discovered the organ, Ficarri became a student at Juilliard, with a partial scholarship. He arrived at a small department, with only a dozen students, most of whom were already finishing their master’s degrees or getting their doctorates.

Ficarri was taken aback by the bright lights, big buildings and diversity of New York City. But the city also captivated Ficarri in a more personal sense. It is one of the most densely populated cities in the world when it comes to pipe organs. According to the American Guild of Organists’ New York City chapter, there are pipe organs in at least 100 Christian and Jewish houses of worship across the five boroughs, from the Armenian Church of America and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Manhattan to Greek Orthodox churches in Queens and Moravian congregations in The Bronx.

The list is an impressive, multifaceted testament to the religious history of the city, born of waves of immigrants bringing their lives and faiths. A wealth of treasures, most of them hidden, was waiting for Ficarri to find them.

“One of the things that organists often do whenever they're in a new place is to go around and see and hear all of the different pipe organs,” he said. He found his favorite instruments at St. Mary the Virgin, a Catholic parish near Times Square, at St. Ignatius Loyola, another Catholic parish on the Upper East Side and at St. John the Divine.

Meanwhile, he found his first job as an organist at Hitchcock Presbyterian Church in suburban Scarsdale. His tenure there prepared him for his arrival to St Paul the Apostle in 2015.

Ficarri knows St. Paul the Apostle better than any other church in the city. It’s located on Columbus Avenue, two blocks away from Juilliard and Lincoln Center, and it was one of the first Catholic churches to welcome him as a gay man.

The church of St. Paul the Apostle, built in 1859, is administered by the Paulist Fathers, the first men’s religious order established in the United States, now known for its progressive stances. He plays for its parish regularly, when he’s not studying his craft.

The instrument at St. Paul is not old in comparison to other organs in the city, but a 1964 Möller with a four-keyboard console, plus the pedals. It’s a workhorse that, blowing, puffing and huffing, gets the musical job done. But Ficarri knows that it can falter at any moment. Parts of the organ have been held together by duct tape for years.

To the untrained ear, though, the organ sounds superb in the hands of Ficarri. Five minutes before a Mass begins, Ficarri sits down at the Möller’s console.

He starts with a prelude and an opening hymn. Then, following the reading of scriptures, he accompanies the congregation for the Kyrie, the Gloria, the responsorial psalm, and the Alleluia, which preceded the reading of the Gospel. After the homily, he plays the offertory hymn, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei. He finishes with the postlude. The music fills the whole ceremony. And in turn, Ficcari wraps his entire mind and body around the music.

“You're always thinking about how you're operating the instrument mechanically, how you're executing the music, technically, with your fingers and with your feet,” he said. “Then, of course, you're thinking abstractly, musically, with your mind. And the brain obviously controls all of those things. Different parts of the body are always doing different tasks.”

Performing for mass is only a small portion of Ficarri’s duties as an organist. He also conducts the choir, planned weddings and funerals, and organized concerts.

Ficarri plays, but he also listens: both to the capricious Möller organ –which needs constant care and calibration– and to his fellow musicians, as well as to the church’s parishioners.

“He’s incredibly easy to work with,” said Luisa Torres, a soprano and former cantor at St. Paul. She now sings for the Archdiocese of Newark. “He anticipates where I’m going, and I know where he’s going.”

For a recent funeral at St. Paul the Apostle, he sat down with the family members of the deceased. He talked to them about the different options of music he could play, and then they shared with him the music that was special to the deceased. “I worked with them on planning something that was meaningful to them,” he said.

In the last week of July, shortly before finishing his tenure at St. Paul, Ficarri got a call from Kent Tritle, the Director of Cathedral Music and Organist at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in uptown Manhattan. He wanted Ficarri to audition for associate organist. He got the job.

“I'm still in disbelief,” he said. “It's as wonderful an opportunity as I could have ever imagined.” He will start his tenure on August 20.

According to Paul Jacobs, Ficarri's former teacher at Juilliard, to be appointed Associate Organist at St. John the DIvine is an honor. The Episcopal church is a New York City landmark and one of the most famous cathedrals in the world.

“Involvement in such a robust, visible music program will require extraordinary musical and personal skills,” said Jacobs. “Fortunately, Dan possesses them."

Juilliard organ students hold the strongest record for job placement immediately upon graduation. Some of them go to teach at college level, and others are appointed to posts at houses of worship in the United States and abroad. One year after graduating from Juilliard, Ficarri got one of the best positions available.

While happy for the opportunity brought by St. John, Ficarri has never been overly worried about the prospects of finding a new job.

"Obviously, everybody has certain worries and anxieties," he said. "But the perk to being an artist is that when you're in doubt, you just create."

Indeed, Ficarri decided to leave St. Paul to bring balance to a prolific and versatile career. He performs regularly, his work is published by Morning Star and E.C. Schirmer, and he self- publishes through Sheet Music Plus, an online retailer of sheet music.

He also writes organ pieces on commission for churches of all denominations.

"I try to make music that is inviting and not something that's just for an exclusive group or only speaks to people of a certain kind or a certain background or religion."

As a church organist, he knows that the music he plays is universal.

“It creates incredible vibrations in the building,” he said. “And whether you're conscious of it or not, you're always surrounded by it, and can feel to a certain extent those vibrations. There's a mystical quality to the organ because it can be incredibly loud. For a long time in history it was one of the loudest sounds that anyone ever heard. And while it's being played, outside of the keys moving, the pipes are just standing still.”

And perhaps that’s why, after the mass had ended last month and people had left the building, Ficarri kept playing the old, puffing Möller organ. After all, for him, playing is a matter of faith.

Faith in Women

Faith in Women:

COVID-19 forces a faith-informed reproductive justice nonprofit in Mississippi to work towards online organizing in one of the most unequal states for women in the nation.

Kate Cammell |

In April 2018, Reverend Anna Flemming-Jones and Ashley Peterson arrived for a workshop on compassionate care at the opulent Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Jackson, Mississippi, the former King Edward Hotel – now a state historical landmark and political center. There, beneath the high ceiling, crown moldings and spiraling marble staircases, Rev. Flemming-Jones and Peterson joined more than two dozen activists and clergy from around the country to discuss and practice ways to tend to the needs of their congregants. The duo are the program coordinator and executive director, respectively, for Faith in Women, a nondenominational religiously-informed reproductive justice nonprofit working across the state of Mississippi. Flemming-Jones and Peterson co-led the workshop on how to be, as their blog put it: “both a compassionate presence and prophetic witness for reproductive health, rights, and justice in their communities.”

In one exercise during the training, participants had to arrange themselves on a reproductive health and justice spectrum. As different issues like abortion or birth control access were discussed, they had to position themselves in the room, moving to spots along a line of strong disagreement to strong agreement. It was one of Rev. Flemming Jones first events with the organization and one of the first times she remembers finding community. She noted, “I remember realizing that I was a lot more liberal than I had understood myself to be. It felt subversive to be in a training that mentioned abortion rights in such a conservative city and state.”

Ashley Peterson, Executive Director of Faith in Women

Peterson added, “Being a progressive person in Mississippi is often an isolated and isolating experience. In coming together for training sessions or advocacy events someone might experience strength in numbers for the first time.”

Now, as COVID-19 forces people to stay home or change how they can legally gather, Rev Flemming-Jones and Peterson are reimagining how to achieve their mission of bringing together a community centered on bodily autonomy together in an era when many people have little control over both the movement and wellbeing of their bodies. Faith in Women’s work was already challenging to begin with; the organization fights for reproductive justice in a state where topics like abortion and comprehensive sex education continue to be taboo for many people, and where a history of racism has created some of the greatest health disparities in the nation.

Mississippi is the worst state in the country in health affordability, prevention and treatment, according to the Commonwealth Fund, a nonprofit conducting independent research on national healthcare issues. More than 58,000 Mississippi women, or a quarter of the state’s female population, lack access to insurance or Medicaid coverage, jeopardizing their access to reproductive health services. The state has the third-highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation and a single licensed abortion clinic still operating.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), which provides both letter grades and a numerical state ranking system of how women fare in each state with categories ranging from poverty to reproductive rights, ranked Mississippi as the worst state in which to be a woman navigating health, wellbeing and poverty. Its highest letter grade in any category is a C-.

However, Mississippi does appear at the top of one list. It’s tied with Alabama as the most religious state in the nation.

Peterson saw this as an opportunity. She was born and raised in Mississippi, where she noted matter-of-factly: “You can’t do anything without acknowledging that faith is going to play a huge role in the conversation.” The organization is a cultural liaison of sorts between church leadership and congregants, and between the religious and secular worlds. They know how to speak the language of each group and act as translators using words that resonate in both faith and secular advocacy spaces like “compassion” and “dignity.”

The organization started with an attempt to provide clergy with comprehensive sexual health resources for their female-identifying congregants. Having grown up in the Methodist church, Peterson knew that “many churches host one-off conversations with youth about the importance of abstinence, or even teach a denominationally-sanctioned curriculum, but very few churches treat sexual and reproductive health as part of the full picture of the spiritual lives of their members.” Instead, Faith in Women connects clergy to comprehensive curricula, like a program from the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Our Whole Lives.

Dr. Nakeitra Burse, a leading public health expert in Mississippi and CEO of Six Dimensions health consulting firm, noted that these health disparities have historical origins, which is why the intersectional and long-term cultural organizing work Faith in Women is doing is so important. “Faith is a big part of Mississippi's culture,” Dr. Burse continued, “We’re in the heart of the Bible belt, so the faith-based community is a very strong community in Mississippi. Those are the leaders that people look up to.”

Anna Fleming-Jones, Program Coordinator of Faith in Women

Faith in Women expanded from the educational sphere to organizing women across the state, advising policymakers and partnering with secular organizations, including Planned Parenthood, to provide a religious perspective to women’s healthcare issues. They’ll offer biblical interpretations and justifications for reproductive health and coach organizations on how to better connect with religious women.

The organization serves a core group of about 20 clergy members, nearly all women themselves, along with a wider community of just over 100 women and church leaders. Most of the clergy are located in and around Jackson with some in the Delta and Gulf Coast regions of the state, and mostly represent Protestant congregations, encompassing United Methodist, Cooperative Baptist, Presbyterian USA or Episcopal churches. However, a large part of Faith in Women’s work brings together diverse communities to provide space and opportunities for like-minded people, religious or not, to gather.

For progressive clergy who work in more fundamentalist religious spaces, especially in the Deep South, where even conversations surrounding reproductive topics from birth control to abortion are often socially unacceptable, these advocacy spaces are welcome respites. Rev. Susan Chorley, a Baptist minister who journeyed from Boston for the Space for Grace training session said, “The depth of the conversation among participants and the facilitation allowed us to create connection and community in a very short amount of time. I left the training feeling hopeful and invigorated by the work ahead of us.”

Now, downtown Jackson looks so abandoned that “The Walking Dead” could film in the empty streets, according to Rev. Flemming-Jones. As COVID-19 continues to sweep across the globe and many states are under stay-at-home mandates, organizing events like the compassionate care workshop are indefinitely on hold. Peterson said that nearly 90 percent of Faith in Women’s work took place in-person before the pandemic and the group is finding it difficult to recreate the level intimacy that is so crucial to their efforts on Zoom. The group’s primary work— organizing— is typically rooted in physical communion and drawing together diverse perspectives which they’re finding harder to coordinate online.

Reproductive justice is a framework that is based on an intersectional approach to sexual health equity. The term was coined in 1994 by a group of black women social justice leaders who gathered in Chicago and were later called Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice. Forward Together, a social justice network, defines reproductive justice as, “all people having the social, political, and economic power and resources to make healthy decisions about their gender, bodies, sexuality, and families for themselves and their communities.”

This framework is crucial in Mississippi where black women face particularly adverse reproductive health outcomes, as do other communities of color and LGBTQ individuals. In just one glaring example, the mortality rate for black women is 40 deaths per 100,000 compared to 12.4 deaths per 100,000 for white women according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet, in response to the state’s history of reproductive inequality, there is also a long history of social justice organizing, of which Faith in Women is now a part.

As COVID-19 causes this organizing work to shift, Peterson and Rev. Flemming-Jones are coming to terms with and uncertain future. Peterson lives in the coastal city of Biloxi, Mississippi about three hours south of Jackson, where Rev. Flemming-Jones lives. Pre-pandemic, Rev. Flemming-Jones felt their organizing events were “almost like a friendship movie when people feel all alienated and meet up and are like, aw these are my people.” As she spoke toddler arms reached into her Zoom camera frame. Peterson nodded her head in agreement adding, “that opportunity to just get together and be ourselves, that's what I'm really struggling to reconcile with this COVID situation.” Behind her, a hand-drawn rainbow arced across the whiteboard of her home office.

Now both women are busy juggling their full-time work and childcare from their respective homes. Peterson has a two-year-old son and Rev. Flemming-Jones has two sons, a six-month-old and two-year-old. Many women in their networks are mothers in similar positions. Peterson also said that “a very real and practical roadblock is that not everyone has access to stable internet or reliable computers/phones that can handle video conferencing. Especially in more rural parts of Mississippi, like the Delta, high-speed internet is harder to come by.” Another concern for the group is privacy as they talk about bodily trauma and sensitive topics online. Rev. Flemming-Jones added, “effective organizing in this realm comes from trusting relationships. Those kinds of relationships are so difficult to build online.” Faith in Women’s virtual organizing struggle reflects a broader challenge faced by many advocacy groups across the globe.

Peterson and Rev. Flemming-Jones know that reproductive justice might not be at the forefront of people’s minds because of the pressing concerns of illness and death amid the pandemic. They worry that the coronavirus crisis will only exacerbate reproductive health outcomes in the state. Peterson worries for Mississippi women trapped in abusive homes and young people cut off from “school- and community-based resources like confidential STI screening and testing, contraception, and sexual health information.” She continued, “The very technologies that we’re so dependent on right now, such as telemedicine, have always been heavily restricted in Mississippi when it concerns reproductive health. The danger now is that our state administration is able to pass further restrictions, such as designating abortion an ‘elective’ procedure, while people are distracted by the virus.”

Indeed, in late March Mississippi governor Tate Reeves called on state healthcare officials to stop performing abortions during the pandemic. Texas and Ohio officially banned abortions, calling them non-essential procedures. Though Mississippi’s clinic remains open and is continuing to perform the procedure, reproductive health advocates warn that restricting abortion access during this time creates a path toward abolishing it permanently. Rev. Flemming-Jones said, “The only way this pandemic might somehow be a cause for positive change would be if Mississippi expanded Medicaid. Which seems unlikely.”

Faith in Women is attuned to this changing landscape. Flemming-Jones and Peterson are talking with community members to hear what their current needs are and hoping to partner with a counselor in their network to provide free mental health services. And, while the conference rooms of the King James Hotel where they met in the fall sit empty, they’re figuring out a way to do similar workshop exercises on Zoom.

Pandemic Partnerships

Pandemic Partnerships

A Megachurch so comfortable online that it’s sharing its technological know-how with others

Kate Cammell |

As churches remain shuttered in the wake of COVID-19, many have moved services online indefinitely. For some, it’s posed new technological challenges. But for Ada Bible, a 9,000-person megachurch in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the transition to virtual pastoring has been one of the more feasible parts of shifting operations.

Ada Bible has been live streaming their sermons since 2008 and it’s become an integral piece of their weekly worship model. The church has a sophisticated and salaried, eight-person production team, led by Service Programming Director, Jeff Abbott. The team is comprised of a technical director, production director, production coordinators, a live video director and a few weekend volunteers. Abbott said that “the pandemic didn’t change [Ada Bible] radically, our values stayed the same, [to] keep people connected to God and his church.”

Now they’re sharing their technological know-how with churches across the denominational spectrum. The church is donating equipment and their years of digital expertise to smaller congregations. They’ve purchased production kits for a handful of parishes that include a camera, live stream box and mics. Abbott noted, “Barriers that once separated us have helped to draw us together.”

Ada Bible’s praise band recording their socially distanced Easter performance/Photo by Ada Bible Church

With a trimmed beard and shoulder-length brown hair pulled into a low bun, Kyle Pierpont has an uncanny resemblance to the Western iconography of Jesus. Pierpont is in charge of the church’s pastoral care and often opens the in-person services at Ada Bible’s Cascade Campus, one of the churches four physical locations throughout the 200,000-person city of Grand Rapids.

Before the pandemic, people trickled into the auditorium in cotton tees and with cups of coffee in their hands. There was limited regard for punctuality, and between the flashing lights and pop hymnals accompanied by electric guitar, the services also have the feel of a low-budget rock concert.

The casual vibe Ada Bible cultivated in person and virtually over the years is both strategic and rehearsed. Before the pandemic, producing a weekend service took 8 to 10 people and hours of meetings between the pastors, skill development sessions with the production team and rehearsals where the pastors’ movements were blocked out on stage. Now, Ada Bible is producing the services with just two crew members socially distanced in the homes of the individual pastors.

Pierpont recorded his first virtual message to his congregants while sitting in front of the bright green frond of a banana plant his wife got from Costco. His colleagues teased him about his tropical background after Ada Bible’s first fully virtual service stream aired on March 14, 2020. But Pierpont said the hardest part about going virtual isn’t filming recorded messages, it’s been the realization of how much he relied upon the physical spaces of the church for moments of connection with congregants.

Ada Bible’s multiple-site model is similar to many megachurches across the nation. The Beck Group, an architecture and real estate company, led one of the biggest surveys of megachurches. When the study was conducted in 2015, nearly 62 percent of megachurches had multiple locations and, like Ada Bible, 40 percent identify as nondenominational. Most megachurches draw their large crowds as the result of enigmatic pastors and Ada Bible is no different. Its membership grew rapidly in the 1990s and has coalesced around Jeff Manion, the church’s Senior Pastor. He’s known for a conversational and relational preaching style, using his hands to punctuate his message and often coming near tears as he talks.

As the church’s auditorium first began to fill to capacity, people had to spill through the doors into the church atrium. Pierpont said that instead of creating a bigger auditorium the church opted for the campus model because their concern was that if you build a bigger auditorium you have to keep it occupied. “If it ever doesn't fill up or struggles to stay full you struggle with morale issues, people wandering into a big room that feels empty even if there is a good amount of people,” he explained.

Before Ada Bible created separate campuses, leadership launched venues which were smaller rooms within the same campus building. Manion’s sermon was live streamed onto a screen from where he was preaching just feet away. There were some live elements like a host and live band, and church members could still see Manion in the hallways after the service.

Cheryl Jenkins, a 22-year member of Ada Bible and mom of three, was first attracted to the church because of Manion’s style. Jenkins began attending services in a venue known as The Studio when it opened. She said there was adjustment period at first, but the live elements helped bridge Manion’s virtual appearance.

Jenkins noted that, unlike the auditorium, The Studio has tables and chairs, and said: “It's one of the things that I, personally, like the most. It may seem kind of silly, but it's the truth! I enjoy the casual feel of being able to sit at a small table, while at church, take notes and have my coffee in front of me.” That relaxed feel is strategic.

Manion preaches at the original Cascade campus each week and his services are live streamed to the auxiliary locations and venues once on Saturday nights, and twice on Sunday mornings. Though it may seem unorthodox to drive to a building to watch a pastor preach live at another building, or from even just a few rooms over, approximately 5,000 people did it at Ada Bible every week pre-pandemic.

Aided by strong financial backing, many regards, Ada Bible runs like its own small production company. Now, the church is using some of its saved emergency funding to help others survive. In addition to purchasing production kits, they’re helping churches pay rent or salaries they can’t afford due to the pandemic.

The production team is also meeting with churches over zoom to help them transition. Abbott said, “I offer advice, experience and often just affirmation that their approach will work. I preach connection and care, not production quality. We have had years to develop the technical skills and the organizational skills to do what we do.”

The EDGE Urban Church in Grand Rapids is one of the parishes partnering with Ada Bible. The church reaches an underserved community and 70 percent of their resources come from the outside the church itself. They had a social media presence before the pandemic but were new to creating online sermons. Pastor Evans, The EDGE’s Lead Pastor, noted that his church “uses hip hop as our primary form of worship. It is extremely hard to translate hip hop worship through a screen.” They’re figuring out how to connect in new ways and Pastor Evans said that in this moment their “relationship with Ada has been a lifeline.”

An Ada Bible production team member records Senior Pastor, Jeff Manion in his living room for the church’s Easter service/Photo by Ada Bible Church

Ada Bible is learning along with the churches they’re guiding. For the first two weeks after the church closed, the clergy recorded sermons in the auditorium, splicing each part together to follow social distancing guidelines. Beginning with their Easter weekend service, the sermons were recorded by people in their own homes. Congregants joined Manion in his pristine white marble kitchen, Teaching Pastor Aaron Buer in his entryway and a three-piece praise band in a living room positioned in a triangle composed of six feet of space between each person. Pierpont said he got positive feedback from the congregation that they liked the familiarity of the being invited into their leaders’ homes. He called it, “meeting people where they are.”

For Summer Wetherbee, a 19-year-old college freshman, that’s in her pajamas. Wetherbee grew up going to in-person services at Ada Bible each week. Now, she’s been watching their weekly services on her laptop. While she hasn’t noticed a change in quality of the sermons, she does “miss seeing the smiling faces of people every Sunday.” Scott Edwards, a 67-year retired theologian and army veteran echoed this sentiment. He watches the sermons on his iPad and, like Summer, is skipping his usual church clothes for the outfit he wears to feed his horses.

On Pierpont’s end, he’s started reaching out more to congregants to create those liminal church hallway spaces online. He emailed congregants for the first time, sending out 2,300 messages. He received nearly 160 personal replies. His email opened by saying, “I wanted to let you know I miss you, and miss connecting with you as your Campus Pastor. I am thinking of you.” The message ended with his email and phone number. It was an attempt to say to people, “hit me up, if you need something or if I can be praying for you, let me know.”

He admits he’s not sure why he wasn’t emailing people before. The church building made it easier for him not to do so, but he noted that it’s a practice he’ll be sure to carry forward post-pandemic. He confessed, “[The church] will not be the same when we get back. If we get back, when we get back—we will not be the same.”

It’s taking a lot of trial and error, but Pierpont confessed, “everyone is kind of scrambling anyway.” Ada Bible is figuring out how to apply their years of virtual intimacy creation in sermons to sustained week-long connection. “Production success is all about vision, planning, preparation, and execution,” Abbott said.

They’re bringing this same rehearsal, adaptation and intention they’ve always relied on to reimagining the church in this moment, while uplifting other congregations. And, of course, they’re throwing in a dash of an ingredient that’s harder to come by in crisis—faith.