Adapted from a conversation with Ellie Stewart, pastoral intern.
How did you come to know God or come to faith?
Well, I grew up in the church and I think I came to know God through the people I encountered in the church. In particular, I had an associate pastor when I was in high school who just was such a role model for me. She was really progressive, and she really cared about marginalized people and changing our society and structures and justice. I started to look at the people in a church that I grew up who were lovely and just sort of realized that this community of people together have the values that I want to have and are the kinds of people that I want to be. So I came from a religious upbringing, and learning how to stand, and what to say, what to do, you know, but how I came to know God was through these people.
How long have you been at First Pres, and what brought you here?
We started coming in 2016, after we bought a house in Tallahassee. I grew up Presbyterian, so I wanted to look at Presbyterian churches, but we had also gone to a Methodist church in Miami. So we came here and liked the music, the singing, I was sold! Like we stopped searching because, especially back then, I mean, we’re saying, like, counting them up was like seven hymns or so. I mean, we would sing so much, I know, which is like, my favorite part and the music was just so good. And I’m sure the sermon was lovely, too [laughter]. For me, it was just like the high church liturgy, all the singing, the organ, that, that was it. I joined the choir. . . maybe like a year in.
What parts of your journey at First Pres and/or generally in faith have been formative?
Well, I think here, especially, I went from being kind of a passive recipient of worship to being more involved in the leadership. And part of that was, you know, joining the adult choir and taking that role on, as well as ministry teams and joining the session. So for me, integrating more into the life of the church, what it means to help that life flourish.
What parts of life at First Pres bring you joy?
It’s the singing! I mean, there’s a lot more than the singing, but, you know, the singing is just my favorite thing. It’s how I connect to God. And I think with congregational singing, you’re connecting to one another as well. So that, to me, is the most joyous or the most intensely emotional part of worship. It’s incredible the ways that having a church family has given me people to lean on. I took a pro bono case, I won’t go into details about it, but I used my church connections to help with several things on that case. The church really came together because I had people that could reach out to here. And then Dan was sick with Covid for a while, right when the pandemic started. You know, he got, like, notes from people he didn’t even know that well, and he just really felt the support. So, yeah, it’s having this group of people. It’s, it’s different than friends. I mean, they are friends. But it’s a different kind of community that shows up for one another in a different way.
What do you see as needed for the future of this congregation?
I think if we can find ways to really commit to the work of following Jesus, which is standing in solidarity with oppressed people, it’s dismantling systems of oppression, it’s doing social justice work. I mean, not only has that been the identity that this church has been embraced for a long time, but I think it’s, it’s why we’re called to be the church. It’s to be the hands and feet of Jesus in this community.
How do you see yourself participating in that work for the future of this congregation?
The whole reason I sort of pitched the idea for Guns to Gardens was because I saw that need in our church and our community to kind of rally around a mission. With the pandemic and everything that was going on, it felt like there wasn’t that same sort of sense of mission, you know? Uvaldi had just happened. I was, I took that really hard. I mean, I take a lot of them hard, but that one was just. . . horrible. My grandpa lived near Uvaldi, so it was a place I was familiar with previously and had family from the area. So, yeah, I just thought we need to do something, and I’ve been following Raw Tools for a long time, and gun violence is something I have cared about for a very long time. I just saw this as an opportunity for the church to start doing the type of work that I think the church should be doing. And the Compassion and Social Justice Ministry Team rallied around it and supported it. Almost all the Presbyterian churches in town have volunteers participating, as well as Good Shepherd Catholic and Temple Israel volunteers. So to go from that very low point with Uvaldi and being able to bring this to the community, all the steps it took to get there and some heartaches, I think to finally have some of the tools was just, it’s an overwhelming and powerful thing. The whole process has made me, like, really recommit to peacemaking and non-violence.
Where have you seen a Triune God recently?
After the most recent execution, there was a memorial service at the Capitol that was incredibly powerful. I always find it really powerful when we sing “We Shall Overcome,” but while we were singing, I saw someone from the Sergeant’s office walk by, and I could tell he was singing along. And as he walked away, he, raised his fist, like that solidarity power fist. And I just thought about the significance of that song, how you’re connected to this history of people who are striving for justice in different ways. So again, it was singing, and it was in another person. And those are the places that I see God.