“Read with a Queen” leads to Distinguished Alumna award

A few years ago, the Rev. Dr. Sarah Halverson-Cano heard about drag queen story times and was intrigued. The gatherings – often at libraries – promote inclusivity of diverse gender expressions, as well as literacy for children. 

Thinking it would be fun, she created the Read with a Queen: A Gorgeous Drag Queen!” program at Fairview Community Church, the congregation she then served in her hometown of Costa Mesa, California. 

Recently, Claremont School of Theology honored Sarah as a Distinguished Alumna for her community outreach, particularly “Read with a Queen.”

Getting the venture off the ground wasn’t easy.

“We had an incredible experience despite the protesters who behaved poorly and tried to threaten us and scare the kids,” Sarah said. “More than once, they infiltrated our event.”

The protesters shouted at the children whenever they left to use the bathroom. When Sarah’s son, then 1, toddled in front of the church doors, she heard them yelling, “Get that baby! Save that baby!” 

“My stomach dropped,” Sarah said. “Hearing people shout about taking your child is scary.” The protestors called Sarah a witch and posted pictures of the church online, along with the words, “Time to take Orange County back!”  

“They came inside the church, intentionally used my name and later trolled my Facebook. It was an invasion of privacy and a way to inflict terror upon us by showing us they were already in our sacred space. We had no idea what they would do.” 

Yet, Sarah and the congregation were undeterred. “The meaner and scarier the protesters got, the more people would come to protect the kids (and our church and queen). We had such a remarkable outpouring of love.” 

Interestingly, Sarah grew up in the congregation she now serves: Irvine United Congregational Church. 

“I was there almost 20 years before I left,” she said, “having been baptized, confirmed, and ordained there, only to return just over 15 years later to become the first female senior pastor. 

“I am the oldest of three children,” Sarah said. “My father died when I was 14 and my youngest brother was 7. His death had a huge impact on me and, ultimately, helped shape my theological perspective.” 

Sarah earned an undergraduate degree at Chapman University, Orange, California. 

“I loved the study of religion,” she said, “and began an interest in the Jesus Seminar in the early ’90s. I majored in religion and was thrilled to be accepted into a Ph.D. program in the New Testament at Claremont Graduate University. All the while, I was working at my church as a youth leader, then as Sunday school coordinator – increasing responsibility, even as I said I wanted nothing to do with church. 

“Ultimately, I secretly began to realize I might actually want to go into ministry.” 

After a CST dean told Sarah he recognized the call in her, she decided to take a couple of non-degree, exploratory classes. The dean laughed and said “No; you are getting a Master of Divinity.” 

“I started classes that night,” Sarah said, “applied to the school the next day and got financial aid by Friday. It was incredible. I never really looked back.” She earned her Master of Divinity degree in 2005.

Sarah has served many ecumenical, interfaith, and community organizations, such as the Beacon of Light Celebration, a celebration she founded to honor social justice seekers in the community and Fairview’s commitment to justice and community. She was honored by the Orange County Labor Federation, the Los Angeles Chapter of the Council of American Islamic Relations, and the Orange County Human Relations Committee. 

“My ministry has always been heavy on the social justice end,” Sarah said. “I have been an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. I work with Planned Parenthood and chair the Clergy for Choice group in Orange County. 

“This made me a good fit for IUCC because they wanted to lean into their legacy of justice.”

Sarah and her husband, Markyce Halverson-Cano, have a daughter, 7, and a son, 4. “I love being a pastor,” she said, “because I feel like it’s the last renaissance job left – we do so many different things. I pop back and forth between worship planning, administrative duties, and meetings, meetings, and more meetings, and try to be responsive to needs in our community.” 

She appreciates making a difference. “That motivates me,” Sarah said, “whether it’s working with labor to get people a living wage, or trying to better the lives of my own staff members, or just comforting someone.”

Balancing work and family is tough. “I am so grateful that I started at this church in the Zoom era,” Sarah said, “because I’m in meetings three or four nights a week, and that’s really not conducive to parenting.”

It’s also hard to be a lightning rod, she acknowledged. “I don’t mind so much if I get a rise out of people for standing up for social justice, but it is hard on the soul when your own church people get caught up in petty complaining. The pandemic has done a number on all of us, and it’s been exhausting. I sometimes say it’s like pushing a boulder uphill, singing and dancing the whole way.” 

Still, Sarah loves her job and delights in meeting people where they are.

My role,” she explained, “is to be a positive voice that isn’t afraid to speak out, break out of boxes, hold the tension of joy and sorrow, seek justice, embrace joy, and remind people they don’t have to dumb down to be a Christian.”