On a snow-streaked Sunday morning, it’s warm inside of Peace Community Church. Co-pastors Steve and Mary Hammond are stationed near the door greeting people. The pews are not packed, but they are well-populated. I sit in the back, seemingly the miscellany section, from which I can observe the elderly people’s section, the college students’ section and the young families’ section. We sing hymns, ask for the congregation’s prayers during sharing time and speak to God in unison: “You love us beyond our imagining, but we want to try to imagine some of it today.” The service passes quickly, and I’m ushered out while overhearing small talk about Nova Scotia and ExCos.
I interviewed Steve and Mary together for this column. During our conversation, the quietly familiar routine I had witnessed on Sunday began to take on significance. Out of the Hammonds’ modesty emerged a quiet pride in their church.
“So I guess I’m not surprised I’ve ended up pastoring,” Steve said. “I am very pleasantly surprised, I think, that the kind of things that we work on really are happening. At some point in time, that felt like just kind of this dream that could never really happen, but it really is happening in a lot of ways.”
The Hammonds’ dream sounds like the dreams I learn to dream in Oberlin.
Steve continued, “When I was getting ready to graduate from seminary...I was looking for places to go, and I had, you know, some very specific things I wanted to be doing, and one of them was involved with campus ministry, and another was to be in a church that was open to doing progressive things, and so—”
Mary interjected, “And I would say open to creative ways of doing church, you know, not just progressive.”
“Right,” Steve agreed. “And I didn’t know if any of that was going to happen.”
Steve and Mary came to Oberlin 26 years ago with their degrees untried, their family new and growing and their salaries meager. Their task was to revitalize a congregation of 11 people in a church that was on the brink of closing. They had two years to prove themselves, and prove themselves they did. Now they are an established facet of the community overseeing a congregation of nearly 65 people.
This is not to say that the tribulations of those first uncertain years are out of sight, and indeed it is likely that they never will be.
Mary told me, “It’s always been our decision to, you know, live with the financial insecurities of the position rather than live with a really staid, well-heeled church that was just either boring, or people were stuck in their ways or weren’t deep, you know?”
But “deep” means slightly different things to these two co-pastors. When asked what she enjoys about ministry, Mary responded, “I love watching people really grow spiritually. You know, ask questions, struggle with issues, that kind of thing.”
To the same question, Steve answered that one of his goals has been to “help people really understand how to make the Gospel not just something that’s about the hereafter, but about the here and now as well. How to get involved in the issues facing this world and people’s lives, you know: the peace issues, the inclusion issues.”
Inclusion, specifically of gay and lesbian people, was a recurring theme in our interview, and appropriately so, because Peace Community Church was recently suspended from its Ohio region of Baptist churches and added to a region in New York on account of the church’s active inclusion of gays and lesbians.
Mary told me that Peace Community Church makes an effort to practice “ministry with people that have been hurt by the church or disaffected by their Christian faith, you know, those kinds of wounds. I mean obviously LGBT people have been marginalized by the church historically.”
But Steve and Mary, along with their congregation, meet conflict with equanimity. All decisions are made by consensus at Peace Community Church, which Mary and Steve agree is part of the Baptist ideology to which they adhere. As Steve put it, “In Baptist churches, congregations make these kinds of decisions, because we believe as Baptists that the Holy Spirit is at work in us, that congregations can discern what their ministry needs to be about, and we honor that.”
Realized idealism is truly the source of Steve and Mary’s pride. This
idealism emerged most prominently when Steve ruminated, “There is so much
death in this world. And it’s not only physical death, but it’s the
oppressions of war, it’s the advantages that the rich people take against
the poor, that kind of stuff. It’s the broken dreams that people
have...and the church can often buy into those things. The church buys into
death, it supports war, you know, it does stuff like that. But Jesus is about
life, and to follow Jesus is to kind of be moved toward life.”