Departing Utah pastor: Everyone, even atheists, can follow Jesus' teachings
The Rev. Erin Gilmore, longtime pastor at Holladay United Church of Christ, has been an outspoken advocate for social justice, particularly equal rights for gays.
A Colorado native, Gilmore arrived in Utah in 2003 to serve a congregation that had experienced its share of pastor turnover and had lost some of its moorings. She helped restore a sense of identity to the historically progressive church, which has been known for its political stances.
After a decade, Gilmore is returning to her home state with her husband, Joe Norman, and 2-year-old daughter, Abigail to become the new pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Loveland.
Gilmore talked this week with about her time in the Beehive State:
What did you know about Utah before you came here? What were some of the surprises for you?
I had been here a few times and had friends here. I had a vague knowledge of Mormonism, but I had no idea how much it really is part of the culture, how much that would influence my time here and the issues the church would be involved in.
It is a very unique setting. Given that, I was surprised by how much activism there is here, how many alternative groups have emerged.
I also didn't realize that I would become a minority and how that would affect my experience here. I walked in as a white female, and, after about three months, I realized how much I am a minority [as a liberal Christian female pastor] in this state.
What did you know about Holladay United Church of Christ?
My friends grew up in the Holladay church. It was part of our regional conference. I had known something about the church and had fond memories of the former pastor. I thought of it as an extension of my family. I knew church members were active in community, and that attracted me. In terms of social justice and service, I knew that the church had a strong youth group, and that was important to me.
What were some highlights of your time at Holladay UCC?
I came as associate pastor and, within a short amount of time, became sole pastor. The church been through a series of transitions; it felt like it had lost its center. The first three years of my ministry were healing, reunifying, remembering our identity and why we're here. There had been some quick turnover in pastors, including conflict with some of them, and it had taken a toll on members' relationships with one another. So we had to spend a lot of time rebuilding the community and connections.
I also spent time translating our faith into action, finding language that speaks to people of other faiths, redefining what it means to follow Jesus today. We have people in our church who are professed atheists and Buddhists, but everyone even atheists can follow the teachings of Jesus.
That's really given some of us strength to stand for marriage equality and for the poor. We do it out of our faith, not in spite of it. It's common in the more-progressive church communities to spend a lot of time describing what we're not we are not literalists, for example but what are we? What do we stand for? To say, "I am Christian and I believe in marriage equality" has been freeing for some who had a hard time saying they were Christian because it's often associated with exclusiveness.
Where do you think the push for gay marriage is headed? Are you encouraged or discouraged?
I feel encouraged. State by state, it keeps happening happening faster than I expected. There's still a lot of work to do a huge uphill climb but I think we are on the right side of history. That's where the future is headed. I am optimistic, especially when I talk to the youth in my church. In our church, it's a nonissue. They want to get on to other issues like air quality, poverty and war.
In 10 years, I have seen such growth. [At] the first interfaith service on gay rights I attended in 2003, I was one of the only Protestant clergy there; in 2013, so many churches were there. I have seen a huge movement toward recognizing this as an issue of justice within faith communities. I feel there's been progress in Utah with Equality Utah and other efforts. This is one of those places where the conversation is important countrywide. A huge number of gay young people are still taking their lives, though. I hope that is waking people up.
What do you think were your most important contributions to the life of the church?
The congregation wanted me out there, working in the community and being a voice for justice.
In terms of church life, allowing ourselves to be authentic human beings, giving people space to be themselves, to be human together. Space for people to say, "I need help" or "I'm struggling," that's been an important part of my time.
In 2006, we started a service trip to Costa Rica. We have gone down and worked with leaders and built a medical center to bring a doctor into a community. More than 90 people, adults and young people from 80 to 15, have painted houses, murals, etc., to create a sense of pride in their community. We've been there consistently, not just in and out, but have an ongoing relationship with people. The fruits of that have been so rich.
The other highlight has been teaching an eight-week course called "The Light Within," to help people recognize the divine in each of us. It has been an experiential group, starting with a meditation, some kind of faith practice and then we use that as a launching discussion. People are hungry to find places where they can talk about what matters to them and to go beneath the surface, to get to a place beyond casual conversation.
What will you take away from Holladay?
I am going to miss the incredible amount of creativity and musical talent. They are willing to experiment and try new things. In a strange way, I am going to miss being the minority. It does create the desire to be together, recognition that you do need community. It is not a huge church, but when we stop and take stock of the number of leaders who come out of Holladay and what it does as a church together, stances that it takes, it is impressive. Just being itself and a space of refuge and safety have shown that a small group can do a lot of good in the world.
A lot of people leave the ministry after three or four years out of disillusion or being met with resistance, but my time at Holladay has made me more excited than ever to be in the ministry, and that is a huge tribute to them. I still believe the church can do a lot of good in the world.