Avondale's Saving Grace
Beloved Community Church in Avondale is hidden in plain sight. It stands tall, but not prominent next to a popular corner of the community filled with thriving hotspots for young people: Post Office Pies, Saturn, Avondale Brewing Co., and Cookie Dough Magic. It’s safe to say that Beloved Community Church is a little out of place.
And the church itself isn’t the only thing which appears to be a little out of place.
Rev. Jennifer Sanders grew up in northern Georgia, and lived between the country and the big city of Washington, DC as she grew older. Her grandfather was a Methodist pastor, and he greatly influenced her life and her call to ministry: “I know that he would have been proud of what I am doing.”
Being constantly between the deep South and the streets of Washington, D.C., Sanders lived an interesting childhood. She even attended a Quaker-affiliated middle and high school, which had a focus on social justice action. Sanders remembers protesting against nuclear weapons with her school in front of the White House.
Despite these opportunities to experience diversity, Sanders was unable to express her individual identity until much later in life: “I was a queer kid living in small-town Georgia in the 1970s. It wasn’t even about homophobia – there just weren’t words for how I felt.”
Because of this, Sanders says, she was closeted to her friends and family for a long time: “I didn’t come out until my 30s.”
Now that Sanders is a pastor at Beloved Community Church, her identity is of much interest and publicity. She is regularly marketed as “that LGBTQ pastor in Avondale.” And considering that Sanders’ church is located in none other than Birmingham, AL, she garners a great deal of attention, not all of which is positive.
In October of 2016, when Sanders was first hired as a pastor of Beloved Community Church, a protester and his family stood outside of the church holding a megaphone and a picket sign that read “Repent or Perish.” This was his way of responding to the church’s hiring of an openly lesbian pastor.
Sanders’ response to his protest took a different tone. Sanders approached the protester and they discussed their interpretations of the theology. She told her congregation to “Be kind to him.” The following Sunday she preached on Romans 2:1-3: "Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things."
But none of this controversy and attention was surprising to Sanders.
When Sanders felt the call to ministry, she argued with God. By that point, she had been in Birmingham for over 20 years, and had worked in occupational therapy as well as educational positions at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. She found herself asking: why now? Why here? Why me?
But Sanders already knew several things for certain: She loved the South, and she was a Southerner through and through.
“Whenever I have lived somewhere outside of the South, I’ve always just felt like a Southerner living outside of the South.” If she was going to minister anywhere, then, it would be the South.
Most importantly, however, she knew that she could not argue with God. As difficult as it would be (and is) to be a queer woman pastor living and ministering in the South, this does not disturb Sanders: “I live in the certainty of my calling.”
And when it comes to opposition, Sanders is confident in her theology, and does not let patriarchal and exclusionary interpretations crowd her beliefs: “Every interpretation [of the Bible] is just that – an interpretation…A trans woman of color is just as much made in the image of God as a straight white man.” Sanders believes that just as the Bible was originally written for a specific time and for a specific group of people, it is incumbent upon Christians to find meaning in the Scriptures that speaks into the lives of us today.
And Sanders brings not only this message to the pulpit with her every Sunday, but she makes sure to carry along an entire life’s worth of experiences and concerns and missions. To Sanders, the bounds of her ministry do not stop at Scripture, but reach out far beyond the walls of the church.
Sanders is not simply a brave woman who dons a collar every weekend, but one who has seen real urban plight while protesting in the streets of DC, gentrification in Birmingham communities, and the poverty of the deep South. These experiences inform and mold Sanders’ approach to ministry, and her life’s mission as a whole.
Sanders is particularly involved in issues like economic injustice, gentrification, and the effects of our economic system on our culture and social life.
She was very involved with the protests against the formation of the World Trade Organization, regularly delivers lectures on the issue of gentrification in Birmingham, and even has a church-run training program to teach participants how to effectively volunteer in the surrounding communities.
But the thing which disturbs Sanders the most, and is most evident in her sermons and ministry, is how economic structures and the advancement of technology have degraded interpersonal relationships and how communities come together.
She focuses on the challenges of neoliberal capitalism and the way it changes everything. “[Our culture] revolves around an economic analysis that reduces all relationships to transactions, and reduces the value of people and land. Everything relies on economic value rather than the fact that it was created by God.”
When relationships are reduced to mere transactions, people become isolated and separated from one another. To Sanders, this goes directly against God’s plan for his people. “The call to Christianity is the call to community.”
Sanders believes that our culture has taught us that individualism is the necessary route to freedom, but according to Sanders, “If you’re rooted in this individualism then you’ll never find that thing that pulls you out of yourself, and you’ll never be fulfilled.”
Thus, it’s important to Sanders to focus on the ways in which Christians can make a difference in their communities. It is only through being selfless and giving to others where one finds fulfillment. “If the goal of the Scripture is the liberation of all people, then that needs to be realized through our actions.”
“I don’t spend every Sunday hammering away at political issues… But these are systems that are causing harm to people, and to God’s creation. If they are causing harm, then that’s sin. When we don’t speak out against these systems, we’re saying that it’s okay to treat people like this. I try to argue back against the commodification of everything.”
While there are many things which seem out-of-place and controversial about Sanders and the church, the most radical thing about Beloved Community Church is that it puts emphasis on community and fellowship in a culture that is becoming increasingly isolationist. It makes church about the people, instead of rules, doctrine, or tradition. One might think that Sanders is out of place in the church because of her personal identity, but the truth is that Sanders is exactly where she needs to be.
A couple weeks after interviewing Rev. Sanders, I attended one of the church services at Beloved Community Church. I was welcomed with a hug, and given a name tag. Everyone at the church, newcomer or devout member, is to wear a nametag. There were several hymns, a Scripture reading, a sermon, and some announcements. Everything about the service was rather traditional, but one thing stood out to me.
Before the sermon, the congregation does prayer requests. Instead of individuals listing out their concerns and having them simply written down on a page, the whole congregation follows each request by saying, in unison, “This is my prayer.”
One woman thanked the congregation for their care and attention of a sick relative, and she prayed that he would heal soon.
Congregation: “This is our prayer.”
Another woman prayed for her granddaughter, who had been born with significant disabilities.
“This is our prayer.”
I did not have a request, but I was grateful to know that should I have had one, it would not have been mine alone.