The following is a reflection that Pastor Justin shared on his own personal Facebook page
and he wanted to share with all of you.
The Mountains are calling. And I must go. ~John Muir
2019 is here. To say that 2018 was a pivotal year in my life would be quite an understatement. As most of you know, I moved from the flatlands of the Mississippi Delta to the mountainous landscape of the Pacific Northwest in order to live a more full and robust life.
It was not an easy decision to pack up my life, leave friends and family, and move over 2500 miles; yet now, it seems that it was the necessary decision.
I almost hesitate to expose what I am feeling by writing this post. I have been told that if there is any hesitation in saying what you want to say, maybe you should not say it. I also feel like this is a tool that has been used to silence folks who have stayed silent for far to long. And so I write this because I must.
I decided in late 2017 that I would no longer be able to serve the wonderful church in Greenville, Mississippi where I had served since June of 2015. There were many wonderful folks in the church, and I received the grace of friendships with new and different people. In the midst of my time in Greenville, I also received grace in the midst of conflict and deep pain. Things happened that I wish would not have happened, things were said about me that will stay with me for a long time. I do not want to dwell on such things, but I will say that I was deeply hurt and felt deeply isolated for my last year in ministry. Because I was carrying wounds of my own, I decided what was best for the church and for my own recovery and relief was for me to step back from the church, take a sabbatical for three months (April—June 2018), and to rest and rediscover myself.
My time in Greenville was not for naught. I was able to experience life and love through the Greenville Arts Council and our community based recovery committee, Delta Force. With both organizations, I was able to use my gifts and to connect the ministry of the church with the ministry of art, community organizing, and recovery in the midst of devastating flooding we experienced in 2016.
My Sabbatical was incredible, as I spent time in Chicago, Seattle, Pensacola, Charlotte, Dallas, Durham, and Jackson, MS. I saw friends I had not seen in years. I made new connections with new folks. I studied with some of the best anti-racist, pro-lgbtq folx who are doing really good ministry around the world. I fell in love with someone and allowed myself to be happy for the first time in my life, even though we are not together anymore. And it was during this time that I was offered a church in the middle of nowhere, Mississippi where I was supposed to start serving in July.
It was this moment that I realized that the United Methodist Church in Mississippi was no longer the place for me. After the work I had done in Greenville, after the adversity I had faced, after helping to get over $200,000 from UMCOR into the community in Greenville; I was offered a job with a major pay cut, in a place where I would have been even more isolated than I was in Greenville. My perception, whether right or wrong, was that I was no longer of value or need to the church in Mississippi. I was also asked by someone in the “hierarchy” of the annual conference in Mississippi if I was actually called to be a minister of word and sacrament in the United Methodist Church, or if I should just be a minister of word and service and focus on justice ministry. It was a slap in the face as it also denied the fact that all ministers in the Methodist Church are called to justice ministry. I was faced with the decision to either turn in my credentials as a pastor (which is where I was headed) or to find a place and a space where I could be fully Justin and also do the work that God had called me to do. The message I was getting from the church was clear: there was no space for me in the church in Mississippi.
When my good friend who works in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference heard about what was happening, she asked me if she could pass along my information to the powers-that-be in her area. I said sure. The next thing I knew, I was talking to people in the PNW and offered two churches in the Puget Sound district. A few weeks later, I flew up and met the churches, made the decision to move, and here I am, nine months later, the pastor of North Mason UMC and Brownsville UMC in the Bremerton area of Washington State.
For the first time in my life, I feel alive in ministry. I am no longer scared, nor do I live in fear that people are looking over my shoulder to catch me doing something I shouldn’t do. I am fully Justin. I can breathe. I can be.
My first Sunday in the PNW, I was invited to take part in Seattle Pride with FUMC Seattle. As we handed out communion to all sorts of folx, and as people received the grace of Christ through bread and juice with tears in their eyes, I knew I was home. I did not know how liberating ministry could be.
There is a picture of me holding a chalice, and the joy on my face makes me happy; and yet sad. Happy; because for the first time I felt at home in my body and in my ministry. Sad; because I realized how much I had missed out on by not being able to be who I am in the place I was born and raised.
I am now part of two church bodies that welcome all people, regardless of who they are. We have space for all types. Are they perfect? Not at all. Do we struggle? Yes. Have I run into conflict? Absolutely. But instead of reacting in fear and pain, I have been able to react in love and grace, because the church seems to operate from the same place.
Instead of worrying about who can or cannot be in worship, or who can and cannot get married, or who can and cannot serve the church, the churches worry about things that actually matter!
We worry about the kid who parks in the parking lot and sleeps in his car because he has no home. We worry about those who need food and healthcare, and we try to provide as much as we can to meet their needs. We worry about our own budget and how we can keep the doors of the church open in a place where the church truly impacts the community. We worry about our seasoned friends who do not get around as well as they once did. We worry about the marginalized folx who feel as if they are on the outside, because society and even some churches have not let them come inside.
These are the beautiful things that we need to worry about.
And so I am here in this beautiful place, surrounded by water and mountains, and I am breathing deeper than I ever thought possible. I am loving in ways that I was always scared to love. I am serving openly, as a beloved child of God, not being scared of my own body in the midst of the church body. And this, my friends, is important to me.
God only gives us one life, and we are called to live it the best we know how. In her poem, “Summer Day”, Mary Oliver poses the question;
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
I plan to keep on breathing, living, and loving. Because I must.
Be Blessed Y’all