Ready for resurrection: Pastor Jim’s Eastertide column

This column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on March 27. It was also printed in the April Messenger.

I’m ready for resurrection: new life, meaningful life, new beginnings, and hope in place of despair, love that is stronger than death. And Easter is this week!

In anticipation of Holy Week services, the choir at the Congregational Church of the Peninsula, where I am the pastor, has been rehearsing pieces from the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” so it’s embedded in my mind. As a child, I stereotypically and shamelessly acquired the habit of memorizing every word to every original cast recording I could lay my hands on. My musical tastes were promiscuous: from “Carousel” to “Fiddler on the Roof” to “Hair” to “Godspell” — to this one, my very favorite, with its memorable chorus: “Jesus Christ, Superstar, who are you, what have you sacrificed? Jesus Christ, Superstar, Do you think you’re who they say you are?”

This musical always filled me with hope, even though the question of whether or not Jesus is resurrected from the dead is never actually addressed. It’s been over 50 years since I first heard the musical Mary Magdalene scandalously sing, “I don’t know how to love him.” These words still capture both my ambivalence and my desire to find meaning in the Easter story. While I lost faith for some years in the church as a credible institution to proclaim liberation, the musical planted seeds in my spirit that nurtured my hope that somehow love would prevail even when human beings disappoint.

I learned about the power of Easter and resurrection when I was the pastor of the historically gay congregation at Metropolitan Community Church-San Francisco, located then on Eureka Street in the Castro. I worked there through the 1980s and 1990s during the most challenging years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Today MCC-SF continues its ministry in another location (in St. Mary’s Chapel at Trinity-St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 1620 Gough Street, at Bush), focusing on celebrating queer identity and spirituality. In those days though, MCC-SF was described in the press as the “pink and purple church where AIDS funerals take place,” and “the church with AIDS.” We proudly reclaimed that nickname and said, “We are the Church Alive.”

In the height of those years, we sponsored a theater company, Metropolitan Community Theater. We presented musicals and dramas — and we had a lot of drama, on and off the stage. Though we never really said this at the time, probably half or more of the actors, musicians, and even the audiences had HIV. This was before medications we have today had become available. We were partly able to stage these elaborate productions because of the volunteer energy of a community where so many were on disability. We turned our suffering into art and music. And “Jesus Christ Superstar” was one of the musicals we presented to the community. We channeled all the intensity and passion of our lives into the production. There was no resurrection at the end of the story, but we achieved resurrection while working together as a community.

In Christian practice, we narrowly focus Easter and resurrection on the life and crucifixion of Jesus, a revolutionary lover of humanity who demonstrated that love is stronger than death. In those years I learned to enlarge the meaning to apply it to our own lives. Acts of love that evoke our best selves and community spirit that result in beauty, generosity, and inspiration are tangible signs of resurrection. When I hear the music of “Jesus Christ Superstar” today, I still remember several cast members who are no longer alive; and I can hear their voices. I remember Walter, who lived long enough to leave Leyland House, one of the local hospices, because new medications turned the trajectory of his disease around. People leaving hospices became a regular occurrence at one point, which had been unimaginable a few years earlier.

There are still signs of crucifixion all around us. The impulse to separate transgender and nonbinary people from the gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer struggle is a betrayal as deep as the one depicted in the Bible accounts of Holy Week. When Anita Bryant emerged from Florida and stormed America with her gospel of hate in the 1980s, we rallied together to turn the tide of prejudice; we need to do the same today — especially for transgender people in Florida, Missouri, Texas, and other states. It’s time to summon the same commitment to civil rights generally, and transgender rights and women’s reproductive health care specifically, as we demonstrated in the past. Advocating for peace abroad and the release of hostages and political prisoners, and working for racial justice at home and for migrants exercising the human right of migration at our borders are the best way to say “No!” to crucifixions and “Yes!” to resurrections here and now. Preventable starvation is a crucifixion. Sending food to the starving people in Gaza and other places where famine threatens is resurrection. My favorite synonym for resurrection is solidarity.

I invite you to look for signs of resurrection and to make it real. Listen for voices that remind you that you aren’t finished yet and that more unprecedented life awaits. The ancient story portrayed in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and the events of Easter still invite us to the possibility of new life in our own day, because resurrection is about life before death and our ability to live and love each other into abundant life.

Belmont church’s cease-fire banner vandalized

The following article appearing in the San Mateo Daily Journal on March 23.

Church sees 2nd vandalism incident targeting its signs over the past year

By Alyse DiNapoli, Daily Journal staff

The Congregational Church of the Peninsula, located off Alameda de las Pulgas, decided to hang the sign outside its building earlier in the month after several discussions by its leadership council and congregation.

“The pastor brought the suggestion to us because he had been with a group of religious leaders from around the Bay Area, and they had discussed it and thought it was appropriate that churches speak out in favor of simply peace, on both sides,” Micki Carter, chair of the church’s communications board, said.

Carter said both leadership and churchgoers understood the potential risks given the nature of the tragic situation, but said it was meant to show a stance for peace, rather than taking a particular side on the conflict.

“Churches are not immune from serious violence. We’re aware of that, but we also stand pretty firmly in the position of testimony, or what it is we stand for,” Carter said. “We saw this as a way of expressing our concern with the massive loss of life … [the message] was to simply stop fighting.”

The incident occurred some time between 5 p.m. on Tuesday, March 19, and 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, March 20. Despite reviewing surveillance footage from the surrounding area, no suspects have been identified. Some time in the early afternoon on Wednesday, photos were added to the sign depicting three Israelis held hostage by Hamas. The sign reads “Love and Life Demand a Permanent Ceasefire Now.”

For the most part, Carter said the outreach and comments the church has received since displaying the sign have been mostly positive. The Rev. Jim Mitulski said it’s a way to facilitate much-needed conversation in the community. 

“This banner has already brought largely positive feedback, especially, but not solely, from our Muslim neighbors, one of whom offered to help us replace it. I pray for the people who vandalized our church and invite them to engage us personally in dialogue,” Mitulski said in a press release. “I made the same invitation to the person who vandalized our rainbow flag some months ago. This is what I believe Jesus would do.”

The incident is the second time within about a year that someone targeted the church’s banners. Last March, its pride banner was cut in half and, although it’s been replaced without further issue, no suspects have been identified in either case. 

“We’ve had a number of banners over the years, and no one has ever vandalized them or taken them down so this is certainly an escalation of interest in what we’re about,” Carter said.

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