Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Church in the Basement

1,828 Words 
Kalamazoo Gazette Faith Section
The Church in the Basement
            About a quarter of a mile down Winchell Avenue, there is a large brown-brick church with a wooden cross in the yard facing all who drive by. Inside the door, there is a grandfatherly greeter named Richard handing out bulletins and hugs. To the right of the foyer, there is an imposing sanctuary with rows of hard wooden pews and another cross standing behind a raised pulpit. The sanctuary is completely empty, and this often confuses first-time visitors, until they are directed downstairs by Richard.
            Travelling down the two flights of stairs reveals a basement lit by fluorescent lights where thirty or so gray-haired men and women are milling around and finding seats as a younger man with an immaculately-trimmed beard plays guitar, fingerpicking his way through one of today’s hymns one last time before the service. There are plenty of battered, mint-colored chairs arranged two-deep in a half-circle, flanked on both sides by large white banners painted in a wide array of colors with people, rainbows and all manners of LGBTQ pride symbols. At the center of this explosion of color is a table covered with a pristine white cloth holding two candles with a tasteful bronze cross in the center. Off to the side, there is a miniature statue of a rainbow-colored phoenix rising from the flames.
            There’s a man behind the altar, about fifty, bald, with glasses. He’s clad in a dark-blue shirt with a blue-striped tie and grey pants, and he would look like a well-dressed accountant were it not for the fact that he is standing behind an altar wearing a rainbow-colored stole emblazoned prominently with custom gay pride symbols.
            That man is Ken Arthur, pastor of Phoenix Community Church. He is gay, and so are about eighty percent of his parishioners. Most members of his flock are between fifty and seventy, and they are a delightful cast of characters.
            On the left side of this semicircle of chairs is Marvel, a retired woman after left behind her Bible Baptist upbringing because she “hated getting in trouble for thinking” and came to Phoenix twenty-five years ago.
            Mark is sitting behind Marvel. Mark is a gay man in his forties and a former Catholic who left the church in disgust one Sunday after the priest gave a gay-bashing sermon from the book of Leviticus. The experience soured him on faith, and he considers himself an agnostic now, but that hasn’t stopped him from coming to Phoenix for twenty years. He still sings hymns and asks for prayers during the service despite his agnosticism.
           Myrna walks in five minutes before the service begins. Myrna is an older woman in her seventies with laugh lines that testify to her readiness to smile. She came here years ago to learn more about gay people, and, in the process, learned that she was a lesbian herself when she fell in love with another member of the congregation.  
            At six o’clock every Sunday night, they meet in this basement, a space they rent from the Kalamazoo Church of Disciples, a faith community brave enough and liberal enough to accept Phoenix’s community with open arms. No one seems to mind meeting in the basement; after all, a basement beats a closet every time.
            Besides, basements are nothing new to Phoenix’s parishioners. In fact, they started out in a basement. On Ash Wednesday in February of 1988, eighteen people met in Pastor Cyril Stevenson’s basement for Phoenix’s inaugural service. Cyril had been dismissed from the United Church of Christ for being gay, and he decided to start Phoenix with co-Pastor Melanie Morrison in order to provide a safe place for LGBTQ men and women to worship. For a long time, theirs was the only church that accepted LGBTQ people.
            After that initial meeting, the church bounced from basement to rented room to basement, staying on the margins of the faith community until acceptance began to prevail in the mid-nineties, and Phoenix was accepted back into the United Church of Christ after a long process of accreditation. After the leadership of other UCC churches in the area examined Phoenix under a microscope, there was a vote, and Phoenix was welcomed back into the fold with open arms.    
            Despite finding a degree of acceptance, they continued to stay in rented spaces for financial reasons. Small churches always live on the edge when it comes to making rent and paying salaries, and Phoenix is no exception. Even at their height of membership, the community never numbered more than sixty, so it was always a struggle to make rent. Inevitably, disputes over money began to arise, and a gulf that was too wide to be bridged grew between two groups within the church. In 2007, a third of the congregation left to form another church.
            But it’s a difficult to kill a phoenix, and the church clung to life, continuing to provide community to those who had been ostracized for the sexual orientation. One person who sought out that community was current Pastor, Ken Arthur. Ken left his faith behind when he went to college because he was unable to reconcile the idea of a loving God with the idea of hellfire and damnation. After coming out at age thirty, he came to Phoenix in 1996 seeking a support system to aid him in his self-discovery. Over the course of four or five years, Ken’s skepticism gradually melted away, and he came to affirm the divinity of Jesus Christ.
            To further explore his newfound spirituality, Ken decided to enroll in the Chicago Theological Seminary in 2007. While he was there, he received a Master’s in Religious Studies rather than a Divinity degree, because he “definitely didn’t want to be a pastor.”
Within a year, Ken became Phoenix’s pastor.  Because of the split, Phoenix needed an interim pastor, and Ken was asked to step because of his time at the Seminary. His congregation liked him so much that they made him the full-time pastor in 2010. Because Ken was a member for so long, there isn’t much of a hierarchy between pastor and flock. The congregants are quick to mention this, often excitedly. “Feel free to talk to Ken. He was one of us for a long time.” There are no divisions here. He might be the head, but he is still a part of the body.  
            Because of this, Ken doesn’t appear perturbed when the clock reads 6:00 and people are still chatting and making their rounds. He waits patiently, going over notes until people find their seats. When things settle down, he motions to Frank, an elderly gentleman wearing a conservative blue dress shirt, and Frank uses a candle at the end of a long golden handle to light the candles on the altar, signifying that it is time to begin.
            The service begins with a call to worship based on Psalm 148. Pastor Ken exhorts his congregation to “Praise the Great Spirit from the Heavens” and they respond “Praise the Holy One from the skies above.”
            It’s the Sunday after Arbor Day, so Ken invites Jim up to read the poem “Let the trees be consulted” by John Wright. Jim, a former paramedic in his forties, reads beautifully. With passion evident in his voice, he recites “Let lumber be treasured like gold/let chainsaws be played like saxophones,” setting the tone for the environmentally-focused service. Everyone raises their voice to sing a few hymns that celebrate the divine beauty of nature.  
            After a few songs, the hymnals are set on the floor and the members of the congregation share their joys and concerns for the week. This week, the joys outnumber the concerns. There is celebration of retirement, of children being born, and flowers budding. Though there are fewer concerns, they are heavy. The piano player, Linda, had to kick her alcoholic brother out of her house because he recently fell off the wagon. People are hurting and dying, and the members of Phoenix share their grief freely with one another. There is no filter, no effort to put up a front and disguise hurt here. As Myrna later puts it, “The prayers are so much more real here.”
            Once the sharing ends, the prayers commence. Everyone closes their eyes and joins hands, giving thanks to God for their joys and entreating God for help with their sorrows. This prayer can last for a hand-crampingly long time, but no one minds. Cramped hands are just a side-effect of caring.
            Once every joy and concern has been addressed, the Phoenicians recite a gender-neutral adaptation of the Disciples Prayer. Their voices are strong, though people read at different speeds, giving the prayer an off-kilter feel.
            Ken calls up Katy and Mona to sing a song, and they give a spirited rendition of the Indigo Girls tune “A Hammer and a Nail,” accompanied by Jonathan, the guitarist. Such rapid switchbacks between religious and secular happen often at Phoenix, often rapidly enough to give an unaccustomed visitor whiplash.
            As the last note dies out, Ken walks up to begin his message. Ken doesn’t have the prototypical preacher’s voice. His is a wispy tenor, not a booming baritone, and he speaks without amplification because the soundboard has been acting up lately. His is a voice that is easily drowned out by anyone with a microphone, or even just a determined, loud man holding a sign on a street corner. He is not loud enough to compete with the Pat Robertson of the world. Yet when he preaches the Gospel, he still grabs you. The quiet passion in his voice is palpable, like a cup running over quietly.
            In fact, overflowing is the subject of Ken’s message. He reads from the Book of John, emphasizing Jesus’s call for his disciples to “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Let love overflow. Work to realize the Kingdom of God here on Earth. Work for peace and hope and justice. It is stirring. People are moved, in spirit as well as body: a construction paper poster with a crude tree glued on it boasts 254 hours of community service, 11 trees planted, and 4 letters written as a part of the church’s Arbor Day campaign for environmental stewardship. This is a place of dirty fingernails and grass stains.
            Ken closes his remarks, and Frank extinguishes the flame on the altar candles as everyone sings one more song, a hymn penned by a former member that reminds the members of Phoenix to be the light in the world even as the ceremony ends.
            Ken gives his benediction, and everyone passes the peace. There are no awkward handshakes and mumbled peaceofChristbewithyous here; only hugs and conversation. People linger a little, chatting for twenty or thirty minutes until it’s time trickle out, ascending the steps out of the basement back into the world.    

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