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. 

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