Introducing the New NEXT Church Blogging Cohort!

by Layton E. Williams

For the past several years, the NEXT Church blog has operated on a system of recruiting monthly volunteers to curate a series of blog posts from writers they have in turn recruited focused around a central monthly theme. This model has served us well and given us countless fascinating and powerful pieces from a lot of different faith leaders. But over the past several months we have been discerning a call to try out a new model. In considering what new model we should try, I was reminded of a blogging project that I participated in several years ago for Presbyterians Today. A group of us were organized into cohort and charged with each developing an ongoing theme or framework through which lens we would write a piece once a month. Each of us had our own focus, but we were encouraged to read, support, and engage each other’s work. It was a powerful experience for me and I’m excited to try out a similar project structure through NEXT Church.

After receiving an overwhelming number of very compelling applications, we have selected twelve faith leaders from all over the country and beyond who each have a unique voice and perspective to offer on the church of today and the church yet to come. This is a bit of an experiment for us, but we hope this group will be the first in an ongoing rotation of cohorts. For the next six months, we’ll be hearing from each of these writers as they offer their own stories and wisdom through their individual contexts and lenses. In the meantime, I ‘m excited to introduce them to all of you. Where I could, I’ve also included their brief summary of their particular focus. Our initial round of blogs, which will begin being published next week, will also allow them to offer an introduction to their ongoing theme. Without further ago, meet the inaugural NEXT Church blogging cohort!

Heidi Vardeman:

Over the course of her 40+ years in ministry, Heidi has served Latino, African-American, and white congregations in the Northeast, South, and Midwest, ranging widely in size and economic standing. She has also done faith-based justice work both in D.C. where she was a national executive for United Methodists lobbying for peace during the Reagan administration and in Tampa, where she helped found the Tampa AIDS Network during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Additionally, she has done doctoral work both in speech communications and theology. She currently serves a tiny church in the suburbs of Minneapolis that nearly closed due to conflict prior to her arrival. The grandmother of three and the mother of two grown daughters, Heidi lives with her husband Frank and his service dog Zest in a diverse urban neighborhood of Minneapolis in a very old house that is always falling apart. Her hair is often highlighted with grout, plumbers putty or paint.

Heidi’s focus: I write about how our religious tradition (Reformed Christianity) is relevant in a postmodern/post-Constantinian world. It takes guts to embrace a faith built on ancient documents that are often sexist, violent and even genocidal. (“Unaccommodating and odd,” as Brueggemann puts it.) It is a challenge to serve a church that too often kowtows to the rich and powerful and too often tells us to sit down, be quiet and behave. In the same way that Jesus could not be confined to the tomb, the Good News cannot be confined by bad theology or weak church leaders.
To quote the old hymn, “Although the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

Holly Clark-Porter:

The Reverend Holly Clark-Porter is an irreverent revered who adores people, even the annoying ones. In her work, she hopes to bring people back to Church by uplifting the importance of a joyful community, the strength of working together for justice, and by giving voice to the relevancy of faithful love over hate and destruction. She has a passion for preaching, writing, and nerdy church things. Holly received her B.A. in English at Schreiner University and her M.Div from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where she was a recipient of the Charles L. King Preaching Award and a member of the Scotch Council. She has served as pastor of Big Gay Church and Calvary Presbyterian, both of Wilmington, DE. She was also a funeral director and funeral chaplain at McCrery & Harra Funeral Homes (DE). Holly and her wife, The Reverend Kaci Clark-Porter, recently moved from Delaware to El Paso, Texas, where they serve as Co-Pastors of Grace Presbyterian. They love camping, travelling the world in search of food and wine, and spoiling their pitbull, Hazel.

Holly’s focus: Because of my past and accidental expertise, I’d like to write about death and grief and the many ways we experience it. Through death, I learned and experienced ways the Church has hurt people and how we, the Church, can counter that simply through enacting good theology. If I do this blogging correctly, I will hopefully be writing an epitaph, so to speak, to the ways we’ve dealt with death and grief and then balancing it with ways we can lift up hope.

Chris Dela Cruz:

Rev. Chris Dela Cruz is the Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, a diverse, immigrant Queens, NYC congregation with over 30+ nations represented. His role includes building a co-working space for young adult entrepreneurs, coordinating kids and family ministries, and helping in community organizing efforts. He has written for NEXT Church, Presbyterian Outlook, and other outlets. Prior to being an ordained pastor, he was a journalist for the Star-Ledger in New Jersey.

Chris’s focus: Chris will be writing about the intersection of faith, cultural trends, and American life in a blog called “Seven Minutes in Heaven and Hell”/”This Christian American Life” (precise title to be determined…)

Rafael Vallejo:

Rafael Vallejo started his theological career at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and San Francisco Theological Seminary and from there continued on with a Master in Theological Studies from the University of Waterloo and a Master of Divinity at the University of Toronto. From 2011-2016, he travelled extensively and studied with indigenous communities in Peru, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina as part of his PhD dissertation (2018) on “Faith Perspectives of Mexican Migrant Farm Workers in Canada”. He serves as affiliate faculty at the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion at the University of Notre Dame.

Rafael’s focus: Refugees and Resistance: Enacting God’s Mission in Liminal Spaces. This blog explores the role of refugees in enacting God’s mission in the world. The dominant neo-liberal narrative portrays refugees as illegals that, if allowed entry can potentially bring in with them disease, criminality and threats to national security and the dominant culture. Refugees resist these practices that are based on oppressive ideas around sovereignty and power of nation-states. The author argues that this resistance is theologically significant. It resonates with resistance literature in the Hebrew Bible and in the stories of Christian origins. The category “resistance” will be discussed using both social scientific studies and biblical narratives. This will be done alongside stories of how refugees perform their faith on the ground through acts of everyday resistance. The author concludes with the proposal that the refugee crisis of 2015-2016 will mark the trajectories of major world religions like Islam and the next christianities in traditional and post-secular societies in years to come.

JoJo Gabuya:

JoJo is a soon to recieve their M.Div from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. Before coming to California in 2016, they worked with the United Nations Development Programmes, as Regional Coordinator for its Bottom-up Budgeting Project in Mindanao, Philippines. Prior to this, they worked as VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) Volunteer, as Results-based Management Advisor for the Ministry of Gender in Zambia, Southern Africa.

JoJo’s focus: During my almost four-year stint in this country, I have experienced multiple layers of oppression, such as color on color violence, discrimination based on gender, microaggression, racism, and xenophobia, which has intensified during this pandemic. So, I have been wondering what Jesus – the Crucified People and the boundary crosser, would do and say about these oppressive acts if he were alive today. Thus, I’ll be blogging along this theme, if given the opportunity to do so.

Robert Hammock:

Robert Hammock is Ruling Elder at Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. Although seminary-trained, the last 20 years of his career have primarily have been focused on affordable housing and community development efforts, primarily in urban contexts. He recently rolled off of his Session after a 3 year term, but during his time on the Session, he chaired the Christian Formation Committee and Co-Chaired our Discovery and Engagement Committee. The former was focused primarily on child and youth faith development whereas the latter was focused on congregational innovation to better engage people at the church. He remains currently active in a leadership role through his church’s development of affordable housing through the re-purposing of part of their campus.

Robert’s focus: I haven’t figured out what I’m writing about yet, but it will certainly include the intersection of the church as it seeks to do justice around community development and affordable housing issues.

Whitney Fauntleroy:

Whitney is a North Carolina native. Now in her sixth year of ordained ministry, Whitney is grateful to have experienced ministry in many contexts. Whitney has served as Director of Youth Ministry at University United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, a Designated Solo Pastor at Chestnut Street Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, NC. In the Spring of 2017, she began serving as Associate Pastor of Youth and Young Adults at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Virginia.

Whitney’s focus: Whitney hopes to write at the intersection of popular culture, identity, and theology.

Freda Marie S. Brown:

The Rev. Freda Marie Brown is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland currently serving as Associate Rector at The Church of the Redeemer, Baltimore. She formerly served as the Executive Director of St. Vincent’s House in Galveston, a 501(c)3 non-profit and Jubilee Ministry of the Diocese of Texas. Prior to coming to the Diocese of Texas, she was the Associate Rector at the Episcopal Church of the Annunciation in the Diocese of Dallas. She received her undergraduate degree from Xavier University of Louisiana and was employed as a clinical laboratory director for 21 years at St. Paul Medical Center in Dallas before saying “yes” to God’s call to be ordained priest in His Church. She earned a Master of Theological Studies from Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, Dallas and a Master of Arts in Religion (with a concentration in Anglican Studies) from the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, TX. For 7 years she served as a Palliative Care chaplain in hospice and hospital settings and has spent many hours serving the dying and those who love them.

She loves her work among God’s people and is constantly amazed by the many disguises of Jesus Christ —especially among the marginalized. She enjoys yoga, gardening, cooking, hiking, reading, writing, and listening to jazz. She loves good food, good wine, and good conversation. She is Crystal’s Mom.

Freda’s focus: At this time, I believe we are called to shift into a new paradigm for LIFE and the Church already has the foundation for that paradigm as do many others who are seekers of Truth. I plan to pursue the intersectionality of Christian spirituality with what may commonly be called energetics or specifically energy medicine.

Catherine Neelly Burton:

Catherine serves as the pastor of what is most easily categorized as a ‘traditional’ PCUSA congregation, even though that era is gone. She serves at Grace Presbyterian in Wichita, KS. Grace has about 350 members and is an amazing congregation with wonderful people. She is married to John, and they have a four year old daughter and a nine year old dog.

Catherine’s focus: I’m writing about churches in the Presbytery of Southern Kansas. Wichita is a city with about 1/2 a million people. Most of the presbytery is rural. Most of our congregations don’t have paid pastors. There is only one installed associate pastor in the presbytery. It’s not just churches that are dying, it’s towns. Still, the work of the church goes on, and some of the churches are quite resilient and do amazing ministry in their communities. I want to tell some of their stories. I’ll write about a different community in Kansas each month and share their church story.

Holly Haile Thompson:

The Rev Holly Haile Thompson, DD is a blood member of the Shinnecock Nation, Long Island, NY, studied at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, IA, was graduated in 1985, ordained by the Presbytery of Western Colorado in 1986 becoming the first Native American Woman to become Minister of Word and Sacrament/Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Holly served congregations in Colorado and in New York state, is a member of several churchwide committees including the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee (REAC), the Native American Consulting Committee (NACC), and serves on the Doctrine of Discovery Speakers Bureau, all of the PCUSA denomination. Currently, Holly volunteers with the United Methodist Church’s northeast Native American Ministries Committee – supporting the UMC ongoing ‘Act of Repentance’. Holly most recently concluded her service with 1st Presbyterian Church Potsdam, NY as Transitional/Supply Pastor to explore what an “Anti-Racist Church” might look like. She works with the Poor Peoples’ Campaigns of Northern New York and of Long Island. Holly is married to Kahetakeron Harry Thompson of Akwesasne, and together they share 7 children, 16 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren. “May our paths lead us to a time when we shall live together in Peace on Good Mother Earth.”

Holly’s focus: I shall follow the gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary Year A. Sometimes I land on theological points that preachers might wish to consider from a Native perspective – and so when I use the framework of the lectionary – it can be all the more relevant. My last congregation and I enjoyed a focused year of specifically anti-racist sermons as each gospel lesson has – historically – not been something that is Good News for People of Color in this (and in other) nations. Being able to center one’s weekly sermon prep can help provide a more familiar framework to share what is mostly lacking in our PCUSA churches’ spiritual life.

Gary Swaim:

Gary D. Swaim holds a Comparative Literature and Philosophy and a post-doctoral M.S. in Counseling Education/Therapy, but he prefers to be called Gary. He is a Ruling Elder and has served two churches as Pulpit Minister, sales representative for I.B.M. and over 55 years as a professor and two-time Dean, including his last 10 years at S.M.U. He is a widely published writer and painter with 5 solo exhibits.

Gary’s focus: The Arts as Glorification to God and Edification for Humanity: Analysis and exploration of a widely accepted premise with consideration of what this means as to possible applications in the church of changing times.


NOTE: This cohort previously included Commission Lay Pastor Victoria Barner, but she had to step down due to time constraints. We appreciate her contributions!

Rev. Layton E. Williams is the NEXT Church Communications Specialist. She will serve as editor, coordinator, facilitator, and liaison for the NEXT Church Blogging Cohort. 

The Grace of Achieving Nothing

by Adam Ogg

In the past month, I’ve been a part of multiple discussions that have asked the question “what do you want to get out of this? What’s your plan? How are you going to capitalize on this time?” I confess when I hear that question, I feel a sudden exhaustion, accompanied with guilt and embarrassment for not having those questions figured out. Maybe you have as well.

Pandemic or not, the work of the Church is to proclaim the Grace of God most fully known and seen in Jesus. As we’re all collectively operating more online in the time of quarantine, the Church is called to proclaim a word of Grace to fit the times. And a word of Grace the Church can proclaim for this time comes from the middle of the Sermon on the Mount:

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

I’m especially grateful for this word because right now the world wants to proclaim an extremely subtle word contrary to this Grace. This word is so enticing because it can appeal to us on a deep existential level, it can stave off boredom and make promises to help us be some place other than where we find ourselves in this time. And that word is “opportunity”.

Thought leaders, motivational speakers, leadership gurus, and yes, even church leaders and pastors talk a big game about this time during a Pandemic, when the world is flipped upside-down, as an “opportunity”.

Photo by Vladislav Muslakov on Unsplash

This so-called “opportunity” may be the chance to learn a new skill, or start a side-hustle, or do whatever it is you haven’t had the time to do, because if you’re of a particular privileged class, you’ve got tons of time on your hands. Never mind that this is a collective trauma we’ve gone through together and it’s harder to focus and function. Never mind that this only applies to people who work at home or don’t have young children to constantly take care of, feed, and educate. Never mind that people are trapped with whatever domestic abuse, or mental health struggles, or crippling isolation by themselves. This is an opportunity to maximize and increase and grow in ways corporate and individual, economically and spiritually.

There are churches in this time- on the Holy Saturday when I write this- who are responding to this pastorally by connecting and worshipping and caring for one another. Others rightfully see this as the time to speak out prophetically against the injustices in our healthcare, economy, and privilege to self-quarantine and social distance. And these are injustices that were always there, but being highlighted and revealed even more.

And yet, church leaders may very well be tempted to see this as a chance to start something new, and do something big, or use that strange word “opportunity”. It’s an opportunity to reach new people, it’s an opportunity to launch new ministries, it’s an opportunity to really grow the church. Those are all great things, but if we’re honest with ourselves, how many of us actually have the capacity to do something new right now?

In the best case scenario, many are pivoting: moving to Zoom, getting familiar with technology, trying to get our kids educated, learning how to teach and conduct business online. Yet for the millions who have filed for unemployment in the last month, or are struggling to live day to day, we’re not pivoting, the goal is survival.

I don’t think the word of Grace here is “opportunity”. I think the troubles of today aren’t “opportunities”, they’re apocalypses. “Apocalypse” as in: an uncovering, an unveiling, a revelation. The faults in our society and our systems, our need to consume, how we do or don’t spend our money and what we all rely on as so fragile- all of that is being revealed.

But the apocalypse isn’t just about revealing what’s wrong, but a revelation of God to us as well. On Good Friday, Jesus proclaimed from the Cross in John “it is finished”. I can’t help but hear the flipside of that in Genesis 2, when God finishes creating and “finished the work”. Proclaiming Grace is about pointing to God’s revelation to us about what God has done, and what God is doing.

In light of God’s Grace, perhaps the question isn’t “what do you want to get out of this” or “how do you want to maximize on this opportunity”, as if a pandemic is something that we extract value and meaning out of. The Grace of God asks us instead “what is being revealed?” What do you see? What do you hear? What have you experienced? What are you going through?

There’s a very important distinction there, because there’s no wrong answer. The focus moves away from planning one’s way through a pandemic, and more on what God is doing right now, and bearing witness to it in the past tense- today has enough troubles, so how did you see God today?

Even if you’re like Job and the place of God in a tragedy is absolutely confounding, the Grace of God takes the emphasis off of what you have to do to “succeed” through a pandemic. Again, it’s an apocalypse, not a writer’s retreat, a hackathon, or Shark Tank.

A week and a half ago we experienced a…strange Easter about the other thing God has done, by resurrecting the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. The disciples couldn’t plan their way from Friday to Sunday, they simply did the best they could, and God revealed Jesus in completely unexpected ways. And the next Sunday, many churches heard the story of the disciples hiding with their fear and trauma, and that is exactly where God reveals Jesus as alive.

I’ve seen friends vulnerably and beautifully documenting their lives in real time, reflecting on what they’ve learned and the struggles they’ve overcome in this time, and I think that’s a good option. But the Grace of God says that even if that seems too much, if you don’t have the time and emotional resources to do that in public, that’s okay. We can reflect and grow, we can do interesting and cool stuff, but if just getting a load of dishes done after feeding the kids, or making human contact was enough for the day, God will still meet us.

The apocalypse of God shows us that God is at work, and the Church can point to the present instead, and echo with Jesus “Today has enough troubles of its own”.

 Adam Ogg currently serves as the Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry at Burke Presbyterian Church in Burke, VA.

Fighting Racism and Xenophobia in a Time of COVID19: We Overcome Together, Not Apart

by Shani McIlwain

My friend Candy is 20 something year old nail technician from Korea.  When we first met about a year ago, she thought I was a hair stylist because I would come in the middle of the day and she would ask “Are you off today?” I would reply, “No, I work for myself?”  She would respond, “Do you do hair?” To which I would reply, “No, ma’am, I did not get that gift. I write books and pray for people.” This exact conversation would repeat itself at least 3 or 4 times over the next few visits. And, then one day, unexpectedly Candy asked me what were my books about, and I shared my story, my faith journey, I won’t bore you with the details here, because this blog really isn’t about me, but it’s about relationships and community. But what happened that day as I shared the Good News was scripture coming alive.  First chapter of John in The Message translation says, “and the word moved throughout the neighborhood.” That is exactly what happened at Sky Nails and Spa that brisk fall afternoon. And that is the day Candy became part of my community.  

If we take a quick stroll down history, the Spanish Flu is said to have originated in Kansas not Spain, Ebola doesn’t even come from the Ebola River. Yet, in 2020 we are still having debates of how to classify and name global diseases.  Calling COVID-19 the “Chinese flu” is hateful and wrong for so many reasons. Many health organizations have openly admitted that naming a disease or virus after a country or region in the past was not good. Diseases are now supposed to be named after their symptoms, characteristics, and the cause of the disease if known. COVID-19 (coronavirus discovered in 2019).  I refuse to argue with people who want to debate in ignorance with, “Well, it did come from China!”

Edward Cho, newly named president of Bread for the World, condemned the President’s remarks, Mr. President: This is not acceptable,” he wrote in his tweet. “Calling it the ‘Chinese virus’ only instigates blame, racism, and hatred against Asians — here and abroad. We need leadership that speaks clearly against racism; Leadership that brings the nation and world together. Not further divides.”

To date, there have been over 1,000 xenophobia related hate crimes against our Asian sisters and brothers. I watched a video of a woman on the bus being told violently to go back to China. I thought, that is someone’s mother, grandmother, friend, spouse. We must do better. We must hold our friends facing these acts of inhumanity in light. We must be better allies. There are times when we have shown up mightily and united in the face of adversity. We can do that again.  We are in uncertain times and the aftermath will last for years to come.   

I texted Candy the day I watched the video. I wanted to know how she was doing. She said they closed her job indefinitely in light of the slow business. This was before it was mandated to close.  I offered her prayer and told her I will be to see her as soon as the stay at home order was lifted. We will get through this pandemic – together, not apart. We will overcome together, not apart.  As we head into Holy Week navigating through a new normal for our churches, I think about how Jesus entered into a city that would crucify him days later. I think about His ultimate sacrifice, and how He came to set captives free, and to love unconditionally. He came to teach us how to live. And, how through the saving grace of Jesus we can extend that same grace to each other. Together, we will be better.

Shani McIlwain serves as a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team. She is also a 5x bestselling author, radio show host, speaker, executive coach, She is a ruling elder at Faith Presbyterian Church where she has served for over 10 years leading various ministries and committees. She serves NCP as well as a Young Adult Volunteer board member, Spiritual Formation team, and CPM.