Skirting the Issues: Transformation

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me to accompany him to Sunday service at All God’s Children, a church on Park Avenue South in Minneapolis.

It had been a long while since I attended an actual church event that wasn’t someone’s funeral. I was raised Catholic, something which didn’t work out so well. About six years ago, I became a Buddhist, which is my usual Sunday morning activity.

Still, because my friend had asked, I went.

The thing about All God’s Children–AGC?

It’s predominately a gay church. I’m sure straight people belong, too, but for the most part, GLBT people are in the majority. Pastor Kevin, the minister, is gay. Many of the church leaders are gay, lesbian or transgender. The church was filled with coupled men and coupled women, and quite a few trans folks.

In other words, the place felt like home, a place where I belonged.

There were some other surprises. For one, I had forgotten how beautiful a choir can sound. The AGC choir was backed up by a drummer, violinist, brass section, pianist and orchestral bass. Putting aside that most of the songs centered on God and Jesus (I know, what did I expect?), the harmonies were wonderfully rich, vibrant and warm.

I also didn’t expect communion to be an emotional experience. As a Catholic, I was used to the mechanical—and austere—process of standing in line to receive a tasteless wafer. It always reminded me of herding sheep.

At ACG, communion is something entirely different. One gets their choice of actual communion—a wafer and wine, along with a big hug—or simply a prayer and hug by a lay minister. Time and again, I watched people—singles and couples—go forward and touch. (Another thing that Catholics don’t do.) It made me consider what the world was capable of: true acceptance as human beings regardless of sexual or gender orientations.

Isn’t that really what Jesus wanted before straight white people went and screwed up everything tied to religion?

The biggest surprise was the sermon, given by a guest named Brian Mogren, a former Target advertising executive who turned his life upside down in response to a “message from God” in 2007. Mogren, white and Catholic, sold his upscale Roseville house and moved to North Minneapolis, where he took in inner-city (read Black) youth. Later, he bought a multi-unit building which he turned into Alfia Place, housing to support emerging community leaders.

One of the leaders that Mogren and Alfia Place support is Mary Johnson, the founder of From Death to Life, an organization dedicated to helping mothers and their families who have lost children to homicide.

Johnson has been featured in the national media because of what she did with the man who murdered her 20 year old son, Laramiun Bird. That man, Oshea Israel (a teenager at the time of the murder), was at first hated by Johnson. For years, hatred ate away at Johnson’s core. She then did the near-unthinkable: she forgave Israel. From forgiveness flowed acceptance, and from that warmth—to the point that Johnson came to embrace Israel as her “spiritual son.”

Incredibly, after Israel was released from prison, Johnson agreed to Morgren’s suggestion that Israel be allowed to move into the apartment next to Johnson’s apartment in Alfia Place.

As he spoke, Mogren repeatedly made the point that the only way to transform society—and give marginalized communities reason to hope that generational poverty, violence and loss can be overcome—is through “human contact.” Mogren and his story, as well as that of Johnson and Isreal, are examples of what near-miracles can be achieved when we view others as human beings instead of as symbols of violence or class.

It was a truly inspirational speech. I hadn’t fathomed that a random invite to ACG would be so meaningful.

As the service at ACG wound down, I found myself crying. No, it wasn’t God touching me, and I certainly didn’t feel some out-of-body religious experience. Instead, it was simply my heart reaching out to people willing to give their—and my—community their all.

In that church on Park Avenue South, on a sunny Sunday in March, I was reminded of something incredibly important: that it’s possible to transform the world.

We need only to transform ourselves first.

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