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A Ministry of Emboldening LGBTQ+ Students

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Susan Young Thornton is curating a series highlighting ministry on the Pacific coast — a diverse, rapidly changing, and dizzyingly complex part of the country, and home to our upcoming 2019 National Gathering. We’ll hear from individuals serving in a variety of ministry settings about the struggles and blessings of living into God’s call on the West Coast. What is it really like to serve in this region? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Erin Green

I grew up in the Evangelical church and suppressed my being gay until my early thirties, when I had a very spiritual and cathartic moment that would change the course of my life forever. I was thirty-two when I came out as gay and Christian, fully affirming myself and LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church.

Photo from Brave Commons Facebook page

I have been passionate about Scripture since I was a child and never lost that passion, even while being ignored as a woman and marginalized as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. I became a member of the PC(USA) shortly after coming out, and decided to return to academics to achieve my Bachelor of Arts in Biblical Studies. I went to Biola University and led their underground LGBTQ+, non-school sanctioned affirming group, Biolans’ Equal Ground. We held several demonstrations, events, and protested on campus when a lecture on campus endorsed conversion therapy for LGBTQ+ folks as a way to “heal” from their “sinful identity.” While training in biblical studies, I was also involved in The Reformation Project, a Christian, intersectional non-profit which focuses heavily on the Bible, inclusion, and racial justice. I did an extensive leadership cohort training with them and worked as a faith advocate and activist for other nonprofits as well.

In 2016, I transferred to Azusa Pacific University to complete my Biblical Studies degree and helped consult APU’s underground LGBTQ+ movement, called “Haven.” I spent my senior year negotiating a controversial policy removal that previously banned “romantic same-sex relationships.” The policy was reinstated by the school’s Board of Trustees once they received public criticism and backlash from conservative constituents and donors. I am currently working on action to protect LGBTQ+ students at APU and holding Christian institutions accountable by not allowing them to further marginalize and “other” our community within Christian university spaces.

Brave Commons, the current organization I help lead, is a new organization structured to unify and converge all LGBTQ+ underground and overground student groups at Christian universities across the U.S. Our specialty is understanding the dynamics of specific school regions, institutional politics, and emboldening LGBTQ+ student group movements. We employ a horizontal model of leadership with three co-executive directors strategically located in critical regions of the U.S. with non-affirming Christian universities nearby. Each one of us is trained in biblical exegesis, hermeneutics, intersectionality, pastoral care, racial justice, and direct action organizing. Along with my colleagues, Michael Vasquez and Lauren Sotolongo, we are also members of the Latinx community.

Brave Commons seeks to provoke a movement of faith and justice within Christian institutional and faith community spaces that oppress LGBTQ+ folks and Queer People of Color. Our Sermoncast series is a movement of homiletical activism and resistance where we utilize the common lectionary to preach to those on the margins and on the peripheries. We grieve the trauma imposed on our community and we seek to restore it, build it up, ignite it, and invite our LGBTQ+ siblings to take their seats at God’s table as beloved children of God.


Erin is an M.Div student (class of 2021) at San Francisco Theological Seminary. You can learn more about her and her brave initiatives at bravecommons.org. This article was originally published in the Winter 2018 edition of SFTS’s Chimes Magazine.

Ministry in the Fields

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Susan Young Thornton is curating a series highlighting ministry on the Pacific coast — a diverse, rapidly changing, and dizzyingly complex part of the country, and home to our upcoming 2019 National Gathering. We’ll hear from individuals serving in a variety of ministry settings about the struggles and blessings of living into God’s call on the West Coast. What is it really like to serve in this region? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Suzanne Darweesh

Did you ever wonder how fresh food and produce appear in your grocery store? I confess as a young woman, graduating from Union Theological Seminary in 1959, I didn’t. I took a summer job with the California Migrant Ministry (CMM) and was assigned to Sebastopol. We visited camps and showed films with religious themes as well as nutritional and public health messages. As summer came to a close, I was offered a permanent job in Corcoran doing similar work.

Rev. Doug Still, CMM Director, applied for a grant to train us in community organizing skills. Our staff learned the techniques of community organizing from Fred Ross, Cesar Chavez, Delores Huerta, and others. We learned through house visits what farm workers really wanted: safe, affordable housing; good education for their children; health care; to put down roots in a community and not be forced to migrate from town to town. A campaign for low-cost housing was launched and incredibly, we won! Almost immediately, the Presbyterian Church of Corcoran withdrew its support of the Migrant Ministry. The church membership included growers who did not relish the responsibility of providing education and health care for farm worker families. Presbyterian minister Chris Hartmire, then of CMM, spoke to the Session, but could not persuade them to change their decision.

Shortly thereafter, I accepted a job with Church World Service in Algeria. While I was living abroad, Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta, aided by Fred Ross, established the United Farm Workers, launching the grape and lettuce boycotts. Returning to the US in 1975, I found many of the same conditions persisted. The most noteworthy change was the presence of portable bathrooms in the fields.

Farm workers have long lived at the bottom of our socio-economic scale. Even today, their pay is abysmal. Farm workers are usually paid by piecework, meaning they work as fast as they can to make as much money as possible. They do backbreaking work under a hot sun for long hours; injuries are frequent and pesticides are often sprayed in the fields while they work. They are excluded under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 because FDR needed southern votes to pass this legislation and most farm workers and domestics were African-Americans in the south. California recently enacted overtime pay for farm workers, the first state in the nation to do so.

Fifty-three years ago, the Orange County Interfaith Committee to Aid Farm Workers (OCICTAFW) was founded – the oldest support group in the nation. Today, we advocate for farm workers around the country, for overtime pay, pesticides protection, safe working conditions, and we fund raise for the UFW and the National Farm Worker Ministry. Orange County supporters were actively involved in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers struggle with Taco Bell. The coalition asked growers to pay a penny a pound more for tomatoes and to sign the Fair Food Agreement, establishing guidelines and an enforcement mechanism for decent working conditions, specifically to eliminate sexual harassment and violence. Over the years McDonalds, Burger King, and other major fast food corporations plus large catering companies have signed on. Wendy’s has not, precipitating a boycott of Wendy’s and a letter writing campaign in support of better working conditions for farm workers.

The work continues. A struggle is being waged against the Reynolds Tobacco Company for exploiting tobacco farm workers in its supply chain. Ruby Ridge Dairy Farm in the Northwestern US is accused of allowing pay theft, unsafe working conditions, (two men have drowned in manure ponds), and sexual harassment. Workers who protested were fired. Ruby Ridge is part of the Darigold Cooperative, which has refused to get involved in the dispute. The UFW is asking Starbuck’s and Costco, two of the largest purchasers of Darigold products, to intervene on behalf of workers.

A majority of farm workers are undocumented. The threat of deportation and loss of work is a constant concern. OCICTAFW does not support the proposed expansion of the H2A program to address farm labor shortages. Workers would have no power to negotiate working conditions, leaving them at the mercy of their employers.

The establishment and expansion of the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) marks progress in the Farm Worker Movement. Growers and large corporations such as Costco are concerned about exposure to pathogens in the food products they sell. The premise of the EFI is to achieve better working conditions as well as food safety. The number of participating farms is growing and is cause for celebration! You can support this effort by looking for their certification logo.

Being informed consumers is one of the best ways we can impact the lives of farm workers. Exploitation needs to end. Farm workers deserve dignity, respect, and justice in the honorable work they do feeding us.


Suzanne Darweesh is a ruling elder and chair of the board of directors of the Orange County Interfaith Committee to Aid Farm Workers.

Ministry at the Border

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Susan Young Thornton is curating a series highlighting ministry on the Pacific coast — a diverse, rapidly changing, and dizzyingly complex part of the country, and home to our upcoming 2019 National Gathering. We’ll hear from individuals serving in a variety of ministry settings about the struggles and blessings of living into God’s call on the West Coast. What is it really like to serve in this region? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Minda Schweizer

Abigail and Minda

Last week I accompanied my high school daughter to Tijuana. Abigail, a volunteer teacher with Little Brushstrokes, a program for refugee children, wanted to bring art to the migrant caravan children. And since she has been in Spanish immersion classes since elementary school, she could teach in Spanish.

Abigail talked with World Relief Southern California, a provider of immigrant legal services, and arranged for us to go to Tijuana with them. While World Relief provided asylum counsel to migrants, Abigail would do art with children waiting for their parents. I was Abigail’s assistant and got to witness first person the border situation; invaluable to me as founder of a non-profit called Home for Refugees which helps faith and community groups partner with refugee families to welcome, help resettle, and create new homes here in the United States.

The week before, we saw that tear gas had been used at a border demonstration and that the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry had been closed temporarily. Abigail and I wondered what it was going to be like.

  • Would we see crowds of migrants when we entered Tijuana?
  • Would we find space to set up our art class?
  • Would it be chaotic?

Our day was different than we imagined. When we walked over the PedWest pedestrian crossing with the World Relief legal representatives, fewer people than we expected occupied the square. The plaza was calm and orderly. Looking around, I noticed border guards set up about 100 feet from the entrance to the U.S. and in another corner a group of migrants listening to numbers being called out one at a time.

Jose Serrano, the director of Little Brushstrokes and Senior Legal Services Specialist of World Relief Southern California, pointed out what was going on around us. He said, “See that door over there to go back to the U.S? Legally anyone is able to go up to that that door and say ‘I’m afraid’ and ask for asylum.” Then he pointed out the border guards set up about 100 feet from that door and shared that the guards were checking IDs and allowing only people who are permitted to go into the U.S. past them. The guards directed the migrants to another part of the plaza where numbers were being called.

Jose explained that twice a day, morning and afternoon, 100 numbers are called out. Roughly 10 numbers represent a family group, which means about 20 families get called a day, allowing them to start the process of asking for asylum. Some days the number calling sessions are arbitrarily cancelled. That happened in the afternoon. Jose explained that the migrants themselves created this system. The migrants elect representatives from their group to organize the system and the number caller is a migrant. Seeing this, I wondered, “What is going on behind the scenes here?” “Is this arranged to get around the federal law that guarantees the right to seek asylum?”

I couldn’t dwell on speculating. Abigail and I had a job to do: making beaded bracelets with the migrant children. Jose told Abigail to set up next to the group of migrants listening for their numbers. As Abigail and I set up, Jose stood up on the curb to gather a crowd and to explain their rights as asylum-seekers and the procedure to follow to make a solid case for asylum. Sadly, most migrants don’t have the benefit of legal counsel before applying for asylum, which often results in not having the right paperwork and disqualifying them from passing the initial stages of seeking asylum. The World Relief legal representatives worked their way through the group hearing individual stories and giving counsel.

The children were happy to string bead bracelets. The potential craziness that Abigail and I wondered about never happened. The children were polite, taking turns picking out beads. Parents came over to see what was happening and got big smiles. Some of the parents sat with their kids and helped them finish their bracelets. One of the children said he made it for his mother and asked me to tie the bracelet on her wrist.

I have sometimes observed God’s tangible and loving presence in marginalized and vulnerable populations, those Christians are called to come alongside. I certainly felt that presence on this day. To be able to interact with the children and make bracelets with them was one meaningful and empowering way Abigail and I found to show our support to the migrants in Tijuana.


Minda Schweizer holds an M.Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary and is the founder and president of Home for Refugees U.S.A. You can learn more about their work at http://www.homeforrefugeesusa.org

A Ministry of Listening to Stories

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Susan Young Thornton is curating a series highlighting ministry on the Pacific coast — a diverse, rapidly changing, and dizzyingly complex part of the country, and home to our upcoming 2019 National Gathering. We’ll hear from individuals serving in a variety of ministry settings about the struggles and blessings of living into God’s call on the West Coast. What is it really like to serve in this region? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Robin Clardy

Ministry takes different forms. As a Presbyterian pastor in a validated ministry, I provide pastoral counseling, spiritual direction, and church consultation on end-of-life issues. In my elected position as moderator for the Presbytery of Los Ranchos, I moderate business and committee meetings, install pastors, and represent and speak on behalf of the presbytery at ceremonies and special meetings. In all of this I am called upon to preach, teach, and present at workshops and retreats. No matter the setting I find that people desire to be known, accepted, and loved. We want to know that our actions serve a purpose and our lives have meaning.

I am grateful to listen to people tell their stories, which can be messy, disorganized, or in transition. They can be filled with pain, tragedy, longing, and loss. They come from people who have known great wealth or scrape to get by. They come young and old alike. How we tell our stories and own our stories matters. How we are allowed to have our stories matters. It takes time to unpack our stories.

I hear many stories. Los Ranchos just celebrated 50 years of stories in grand style at one of our churches. We worked hard to tell stories of our successes and challenges. We invited churches to tell their stories. They highlighted where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going. These many and different voices told our collective story.

Photo from Los Ranchos Presbytery Facebook page

I also visit our churches and new worshipping communities, where I hear the stories of their hopes and their challenges. I have found faithful 90-year olds who still serve and care for others in the congregation. I have discovered deacons who maintain relationships with members long past their ability to attend church. I have heard from pastors challenged by their aging congregations and saddened by the continual stream of memorial services they officiate. I talk with pastors, elders, and members who are committed to rolling up their sleeves to pitch in and build houses for those needing sustainable, affordable housing. I’ve listened to those who are doing jail ministry, refugee resettlement, shower ministry, after-school programs, working on behalf of farm workers’ rights, ending gun violence, rights for the mentally ill, #me-too movement; this is just scratching the surface.

I let these stories inform me as I help lead the presbytery. I learn from those who live a different life, speak a different language, have a different culture, and face different challenges. I hear, and I learn. I‘ve learned that we are the same: we need to be respected, listened to, appreciated, equipped, resourced, and allowed to do what God has put in our hearts. I’ve learned the importance of stepping aside so that someone else can step in. I have learned to be silent so that someone might speak up. I’ve learned to slow down and consider that which I see with my eyes, but have no understanding of. I’ve learned to let people tell their stories in their way and to speak up when it is helpful and needed.

I pray that we all take time to listen to the stories of those around us, those in our church, presbytery, community. Listen for people’s longings, hopes, desires. Listen to how they want to belong. We all can do this, pastor, moderator, elder, layperson alike. And may our horizons be broadened by our understanding and learn from these stories. May we build bridges to cross the divide that separates us.


Robin Clardy, a pastoral counselor, spiritual director, and former hospice chaplain, is moderator of the Presbytery of Los Ranchos.

Unexpected Learning

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Susan Young Thornton is curating a series highlighting ministry on the Pacific coast — a diverse, rapidly changing, and dizzyingly complex part of the country, and home to our upcoming 2019 National Gathering. We’ll hear from individuals serving in a variety of ministry settings about the struggles and blessings of living into God’s call on the West Coast. What is it really like to serve in this region? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Candie Blankman

A woman was visiting some very good friends of mine and they brought her to worship. My friend had told me that this woman was largely un-churched. Her father was an atheist, a controlling husband who forbid his wife to bring her and her brother to church. Knowing this, I was very curious about how this woman experienced our worship service. When I asked her what she thought, she responded surprisingly fast. “Kind of preachy,” she said.

I was taken aback, to say the least. I am a preacher. She was a guest in a gathering where preaching is the centerpiece of the service. My insecure, autopilot, preachy self almost kicked in. Somehow, the Spirit of God prevented me. I suddenly realized that this woman may have a whole lot to teach me. In a moment of spiritual openness I realized this woman was the kind of person that the church — disciples — was given the Holy Spirit to go and proclaim the good news to. I wanted to hear about what that was like.

We connected via email to begin a conversation where I was the student and she was the teacher. I told her I wanted to learn from her “un-churched” experience. She was very receptive. She said she had wanted to talk to someone about her experience related to the church and faith for a very long time. So often as Christians we are so afraid of offending people. We are so sure they are so hostile or so uninterested that we don’t even bother to try and have a conversation. I have learned this is hardly ever the case. When I approach others with honest curiosity about their experience and take time to listen, they are not offended or put off. They are eager to talk.

This woman had more “church” in her than I could have ever imagined. Her mother was a Christian and had an uncle who was a Methodist minister. She doesn’t remember exactly when it was but she described the event in vivid detail. Her mother took her and her brother to a forest preserve near where they lived. The Methodist minister came along. In a small clearing in the woods was an old bird bath. There in the middle of the forest preserve with the only other witnesses being birds and ground squirrels who lived there, in the birdbath, the Methodist minister baptized her and her brother. Yes. You read that right. She and her brother were baptized in a birdbath in the woods.

I was without words, a rare occasion for me. The silence lasted long enough that she finally broke it with a question. “Does that count?” she asked. More silence. But now it was not silence caused by surprise. It was silence caused by awe. Finally, I realized she was interpreting my silence as disapproval. I broke the silence with an excited and enthusiastic, “Does that count?! Does that count?! That is one of the most powerful baptism stories I have ever heard!”

And that was not the beginning or the end of her story. I have learned so much from her. And I do not know it all yet! But what started out as a seemingly judgmental response about preaching turned into the opportunity of a lifetime to learn how God was at work in the life of another person who had spent very little time inside a church. I have since learned to listen more carefully, respond much less quickly, and ask as many questions as a person will tolerate. I have since learned many more lessons from the most unexpected people about how God is about the business of calling to people to experience his love and grace and mercy. And, I have learned that sometimes I am being called on to be a part of that work and sometimes I am just the student learning how it has been done. Funny thing is I think that learning this has also made me a better preacher. Ha! Who knew?!


Candie Blankman is Minister of Discipleship and Care at San Clemente Presbyterian Church in San Clemente, CA. You can visit her website to learn how this and other similar conversations have become a congregation wide ministry of listening, learning and presence called Groundings.