Usually CST’s Distinguished Alumni/ae Award honors one person. But Rev. Al Lopez (MDiv,’15), Rev. Nora Jacob (MDiv,’14), and Rev. Stephen Yorba Patten (MDiv,’16) are not living out their ministries in the usual way. All three were recently ordained as Disciples of Christ clergy, working toward ministerial partner standing in the United Church of Christ (UCC), and together they have created a unique “ministries collective” at UrbanMission, their church plant in Pomona. So it’s only appropriate, and especially fitting, that they receive their honor as a team.
The seeds of their collaboration began when Al was inspired by the book The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations. He shared his vision of a co-pastored missional way of doing church with Nora and then Stephen, his classmates at the time. Together they decided to “co-labor with God and our neighbors” in making their Pomona community the best it could be. After five years together, the three are now a solid, trusting ministry team. Each of their specialized ministries is self-contained but also deeply interdependent with the others’. They flexibly share Sunday-morning worship-leading duties at UrbanMission Pomona (www.umpomona.org), and provide ministry and fellowship opportunities to their congregation and the constituents of their intertwined ministries.
Although their decisions are collaborative, Al functions as the lead pastor. He holds a full-time, paid position with the Southern California Nevada Conference of the UCC, which called him to transform its formerly abandoned property at 810 S. White Ave. into the base for the “new way of being church” that he envisioned. Al focuses on prophetic preaching, graphic design, community outreach, and (more recently) fund development. He also handles the church’s audio-visual needs, and many of the nuts-and-bolts administrative issues that arise when so many partners are involved. The on-site partners include a satellite branch of the Inland Valley Hope Partners food bank; a university health and nursing program that has trained community members to go out into the local non-English-speaking neighborhoods to teach basic health skills; an Open Closet, which provides gently used clothes to those who need them, and much more.
One of Al’s first contacts in the neighborhood, Dennis Perez, was suspicious at first, but became more and more impressed with what Al, Nora, and Stephen were trying to do. As a skilled carpenter and contractor, Dennis has now volunteered thousands of dollars’ worth of his time to begin to turn the run-down facilities into a thriving ministry collective, one room at a time. Like the pastoral team, he is committed to sustainable re-building and has been instrumental in finding used materials that can be recycled into what is needed for the church. He has been a much-needed blessing for the ministries there.
Nora specializes in programs for individuals and communities affected by incarceration. To that end, five years ago she co-founded a collaboration of community organizations – now including local parole and probation officials – that provides a “one-stop gateway” to facilitate reintegration of those who have just been released from prison or jail. Employment, housing, medical services, substance abuse prevention, community navigation, and other services are represented at a monthly reentry resources fair. Two of UrbanMission’s members along with Nora are starting a basic “How to Cook” class for formerly incarcerated people who haven’t learned basic life skills like how to cook for themselves. In addition to coordinating reentry for parolees, Nora also facilitates restorative justice circles inside prison and arranges exhibitions of art by incarcerated artists as part of her nonprofit UrbanMission Community Partners work.
Stephen, who has made his living as an educator at Damien High School, has a passion for food justice, community wellness, and sustainability work. He specializes in urban agriculture and has established the South Pomona Community Garden on the UrbanMission lot, as well as UrbanMission’s Open Table Community meal, which attracts 50 to 100 people every Sunday at 5 p.m. All are welcome to these gatherings, where community members come together to share food, concerns and celebrations. (Sound like church? Exactly!) Those who are food insecure are encouraged to take home the leftovers, as well as needed items from the food bank.
Another recent CST graduate, Rene Martin (MDiv,’18) recently became UrbanMission’s Community Outreach Minister as a part-time volunteer, making its CST connection stronger than ever.
UrbanMission’s ministries have now begun to blossom, thanks to the co-pastors’ dedication, their partners, and support from congregations like First Christian Church Pomona, First Christian Church Orange, East Whittier Christian Church, Diamond Bar UCC, Claremont UCC, St. Denis Catholic Community, and River of Life Community Church. Damien High School parents and students continue to be regular volunteers at the Sunday evening “Open Table” meal.
The “leaderless organization” model of UrbanMission has been both liberating and challenging for the three pastors. Without a hierarchy, personal accountability and flexibility are absolute necessities. They have learned to expect the unexpected. One client who they were helping to get much-needed mental health services, for example, broke in during the night to leave a “water offering” of thanks. He placed a bowl filled with unique items he had collected by the altar and then brought in the hose to fill it. But he accidentally left the hose running. By morning the main building was flooded. Fortunately, the carpet needed to be replaced anyway. So the building’s original cement floors are now exposed, and look (and serve) the better for it.
As Nora puts it: “UrbanMission’s official three-word identifier has always been: Faith. Justice. Relationship. We like to say, unofficially, that it should be: Authentic. Messy. Sacred. Nothing ever goes as we plan it. Sometimes our community gatherings look and feel somewhat chaotic — because life for so many of us is somewhat chaotic. There can be a lot of brokenness among people who live on the street, people who are hungry, those who struggle with mental illness or addiction(s), those locked away in mass incarceration … and everyone else. We do our best. We carry out tasks based on our strengths and availabilities, rather than on our job titles. And most of all, we offer each other a lot of grace.”
We asked Al, Nora, and Stephen four questions about their UrbanMission experiment, including what their CST education did right, how it could improve, and what advice they would give CST students and alumni/ae who are interested in such a ministry. Their answers:
- What in your CST experience prepared you for this ministry?
Stephen: I will be honest up front and say that seminaries need to focus more in equipping students to take on non-traditional roles in ministries — roles that require one to act as an entrepreneur. This takes a very specific skill set. That said, what CST did was to help me to radically take inventory of my theology, which proved to establish my focus in ministry. Prof. Phillip Clayton’s Systematic Theology was absolutely pivotal in this. Along with Prof. John Cobb, their work on climate catastrophe and sustainable solutions helped to put ecology and eco spirituality front and center in my theology. My work with them was instrumental in laying the groundwork for my current ministry in community wellness, small urban agriculture, and church as the “Center of Sustainability.”
Al: The entire CST experience prepared me for this ministry. The interaction with professors and students of other faiths and traditions equipped me with a clearer set of lenses from which I could discern my personal call. The course materials challenged, widened, and strengthened my faith and convictions. The interfaith and interdenominational interactions equipped me to appreciate the many aspects of life in which I can genuinely and safely hold the tensions and uncertainties that come with proclaiming a life-giving, liberating, and counter-imperial Gospel.
Nora: I did not grow up “churched.” I had only a few years of being a layperson in a great congregation — First Christian Church of Orange. I had related skills and experience to offer — nonprofit and public-sector leadership, fundraising experience, a journalism background that made me comfortable about my conversation, writing, and photography abilities — but there were so many ways I’ve been uncertain about whether and how I could do what we’re doing at UrbanMission. [Fortunately] the faculty, staff, and fellow students at CST really listened to me as I shared my growing clarity and amazement that God was calling me into restorative justice practice. Prof. Kathleen Greider blessed me with the stance and skills of “reverent curiosity.” Profs. Najeeba Syeed, Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook, Helene Slessarev-Jamir, and Duane Bidwell guided my deconstruction and reconstruction around urban ministry, racism, white privilege, and multi-cultural multi-faith possibilities. St. Joseph Hospital of Orange strengthened me in chaplaincy. And Prof. Frank Rogers inspired and guided my independent studies and experiences related to prison and jail ministries, both inside and outside the walls.
- What words of advice and encouragement do you have for current CST students and other alumni/ae?
Al: I would encourage current students to maintain a healthy relationship with vulnerability. The seminary experience can be fulfilling and enriching, but it requires more than a degree or working toward meeting a denomination’s requirements for ordination. Allowing ourselves to truly be open to new possibilities and ways of thought requires a certain level of uncomfortable openness and vulnerability that faith leaders are seldom encouraged to pursue.
Nora: Practice self-care — regularly! Never assume anything. And remember what the angels said: Be not afraid.
Stephen: We, as working clergy or any graduating seminarian, must find a place for ecology in our theology. I really do believe that if we rise to take on any type of ministry without having the eco piece firmly in place, then we will be in danger of missing a point of major concern: the growing need for the Church to address global climate change. Also, don’t be afraid to look beyond the traditional role of doing church. There is so much work to be done in so many possible ways. Even in traditional roles, churches don’t need to die, they need fresh young minds like yours to explore out-of-the-box ways of remaining relevant in the communities they serve. Lastly, self-care, self-care, self-care. For all the times you may have heard it discussed in seminary, it is real and needed. It gets real out there, real fast, and the potential for crash-and-burn is always a present danger.
- How did you come to work across so many different boundaries?
Stephen: If we are unable to see across lines and boundaries that may have traditionally separated us, we lessen our potential for the possibility in ministry. Everyone is a possible partner in ministry. As long as we can find a common ground, then Radical Partnership and Cooperation is possible; this goes for faith-based groups, nonprofits, secular institutions, etc. By this, you expand your resource potential tenfold.
Al: With the three of us having had such a rich interreligious formation at CST, reaching out to other communities was a natural progression of the work we’d begun within our own community. The skills and gifts that we each developed in our previous/current careers provided a framework for walking with our congregation as we stepped outside the traditional model of doing church.
Nora: Jesus sought justice, practiced loving kindness, and walked humbly with persons from all walks of life and all sorts of faith backgrounds. We strive to do the same, walking with those who are hungry, without shelter, living in poverty, incarcerated, and lacking adequate health care and/or education.
- Al is the only full-time paid clergy member and Nora and Stephen are, so far, volunteering most of their time with UrbanMission. Do you see part-time clergy members who hold other jobs to support themselves as the future for church pastors?
Nora: Being multi-vocational is not the future for church pastors — it is the present for many of us already. And it is a growing reality, because the Church as we know it is dying. One of the things we’re trying to do at UrbanMission is to model — with the church/ nonprofit/ entrepreneurial approach — how to be faith-based and missional as well as financially sustainable. Stephen and I don’t always get paid for what we do; we do it because we’re called to it. A new grant will soon generate a modest part-time monthly salary for each of us. Stephen also is certified as a California Master Gardener, and I’m a certified Coach-in-Training with the International Coach Federation (as Al is) — these are other prospective revenue streams for our ministry. We’re getting there. Al and I are both intentional now in devoting time and energy to fund development work.
Stephen: I remain bi-vocational by necessity. It is an exhausting uphill battle every day. I think the Church is still too focused on traditional ways of pastoring and doing ministry. Denominations, both regional and national, need to explore innovative ways of supporting Church done in new ways. We have benefitted greatly from such support, especially Disciples Seminary Foundation’s Seed Planters initiative and DOC’s National Benevolent Association. Yet, there still remains a paradigm shift that must happen if we are to see fewer churches dying and more churches thriving.
Al: [Being multi-vocational] is the reality for countless clergy across many traditions and demographics. People of color and those directly working alongside marginalized communities have been living in this “future” for many decades. I’m humbled by the way Stephen and Nora dove into this ministry knowing that it was very much an entrepreneurial endeavor. They each have invested a vast amount of time without compensation – I say this not only to lift up their commitment and passion to the call God has placed in their lives, but also to speak to the real challenge facing today’s Church – the current model of doing church is not sustainable. We are seeking alternative ways of churching because God’s people deserve our best.
It’s been challenging for us, but we are actively working at continuing to solidify our fundraising and development work. Since our model is not dependent on the traditional methods of raising funds through congregational worship, we are dependent solely on donations, grants, and consulting/coaching work with individuals and organizations.
I can’t overemphasize the power of seeking true partnership and collaboration. What has worked for UrbanMission in Pomona, California may not work in a different community, but a community seeking a similar approach to a counter-imperial church may learn and be empowered by what we’ve learned throughout these past five years – this is one of the main reasons we’ve invested resources in becoming certified coaches-in-training – so that we may more effectively live out our call to partner in love.