Guest commentary by Brett Webb-Mitchell
Spread before us on a table in Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church’s fellowship hall were 50 white paper lunch bags, embellished with displays of red, pink and sparkling hearts. Our group, Community of Pilgrims Presbyterian Fellowship, met on a Sunday afternoon before Valentine’s Day for a combined time of worship and a service project. Into each bag we placed a decorated pencil, a large bright eraser, chocolate candy, a small bouncing ball and other odds and ends that young students would enjoy. After we stuffed each bag with fun materials, on red paper hearts pasted on white doilies we hand-wrote “Happy Valentine’s Day!” and placed one card into each bag. The festive bags went to students at Markham Elementary in Portland, Oregon, a school with children from many different races, ethnicities and nationalities. This was our way of letting the children know that they are loved. Weeks later, we heard from one of the school volunteers that the children were delighted and enjoyed these bags of goodies.
What made this Valentine’s Day bag project unusual was that it was part of worship of the Community of Pilgrims. After we finished packing the bags (our sermon that week), we continued our worship together, recalling the story we read earlier in the afternoon. Simon’s mother-in-law, who was ill and healed by Jesus, turned around and miraculously served Jesus and the disciples (Mark 1:29-34). After discussing the story in light of our service project, we continued with Holy Communion around the tables, which, minutes earlier, had been covered with Valentine bags. We concluded our time together with our festive weekly potluck. With a simple charge given – to serve others as we would wish to be served – we sang our closing hymn, shared a blessing and went home, back into the community, reminded of how the Spirit calls us to serve others as we walk our daily pilgrimage, following Jesus, the Pilgrim God.
In September 2017, 30 people gathered to begin regular weekly meetings in the small chapel at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church in Portland. The new Community of Pilgrims Presbyterian Fellowship, one of the 1001 New Worshipping Communities imitative, is sponsored by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Mission Agency and the Presbytery of the Cascades in Oregon. Our motto is simple: “Following Jesus, embracing all.” After all, the earliest Christians were called people of “the Way” (Acts 9:2), following Jesus, who called himself the “way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). We believe we are still called daily to be on a pilgrimage with God as people of “the Way,” following Jesus as a community of faith, doing justice, loving kindness and moving humbly with our Pilgrim God (Micah 6:8), wherever that may lead us. Because of this higher calling, we reach out, welcome, include and embrace all others whom we meet along the way, inviting them to join us on this journey of faith. Led by an openly gay pastor, we welcome all: those who are LGBTQI and straight allies; people from both the hearing and deaf communities; people from all socioeconomic and educational backgrounds; people of all ages; people of all races, ethnicities and nationalities; those who are single as well as those from various family configurations (biological, adopted and chosen); and those who self-identify as people who are able-bodied or with a disability. Along the Way we strive to create and be a faith community where everyone is engaged in individual and communal acts of service, worship, prayer and the study of Scripture. In terms of service, each member of the community spends at least an hour a week in voluntary service somewhere in the Portland area. Some volunteer at Outside In, a 24-hour shelter for young people (ages 17-24) who are homeless, many of whom are LGBTQ; others work at Neighborhood House, providing food for the hungry; still others knit prayer shawls; and one participant joins a weekly street protest for justice in Portland. We gathered Christmas gifts for families in need at Stephen’s Creek Crossing residential complex and Outside In. Our dedication to service involves the entire faith community, and we periodically substitute a communal service project for a sermon. As a group we wrote letters in support of clean air in Oregon and to Dick’s Sporting Goods and Wal-Mart in support of gun control, along with a letter in solidarity with the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. We have packed meals for homeless shelters, and along with Valentine’s Day bags, we made “spring bags” for persons living in adult foster care facilities in Portland.
In terms of prayer, worship and study of Scripture, on Sunday afternoons we gather together and begin with an opening hymn, check in with each member of the community and participate in a community-building activity, aware that creating and living in healthy, healing relationships lies at the core of who and whose we are. We have an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter who makes it possible for all to participate. Next, we move to a time of worship and prayer. After reading Scripture together in unison, one of the pastors in the community preaches a short homily that is then opened up with a question posed by the pastor for the community to respond to. This is followed by a time of shared prayers of concern and celebration, ending with the Lord’s Prayer in ASL. Central to our worship is sharing Holy Communion together weekly, which is followed by a delicious potluck. It has been amazing to see how the unstructured nature of the potluck gives people time to follow up on a sermon topic, discuss the news in one’s family or engage in a conversation regarding a current event. At the end of the meal, following the singing together of one more hymn, a charge is given, and then a blessing and we are off to wherever the Spirit leads, accompanied by Jesus Christ, the Pilgrim God, who walks with us on our pilgrimage of faith in the world.
Brett Webb-Mitchell is the organizing pastor of the Community of Pilgrims Presbyterian Fellowship, a 1001 New Worshipping Community, located at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church’s Chapel in Portland, Oregon. He is also the LGBTQ+ advocacy coordinator for the OR-ID United Methodist Church Conference, based in Portland.