After hateful comments, First Church UCC responds with love

Members of First Church UCC sing during a Sunday service. The church was visited by protesters who oppose some of First Church UCC's positions on social issues. (Harper Speagle-Price/DD)

It was harsh words and tense feelings during the second night of the White Privilege talks hosted by First Church UCC. Despite the backlash, it’s congregation considers itself to be an “open and affirming” church.

After hosting several social justice programs, such as the White Privilege talk series, they received negative comments in person and on social media.

“We have been called the fake church,” Senior Pastor James Pennington said at last week’s service. He said he has been called “Pastor Satan” and other expletives, but the church stands by its mission to start conversations on social issues and act as a forum for all people

Jerry Heikens, the church’s senior outreach and development director, said protesters showed up to the second week of the church’s discussion series on white privilege. When the conversation turned from productive to disruptive, those same protesters were asked to leave, which caused a protest in front of the church complete with chants and megaphones.

The objection didn’t end there. First Church UCC was bombarded on social media regarding their controversial talks.

The church’s services extend beyond a series on white privilege. Its services include a weekly homeless feed, a pet ministry which provides food to pets who live with owners that face economic challenges, and an immigration task force that works with issues such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The church is involved in the LGBTQ community with groups, such as Rebel & Divine which provides resources to less fortunate LGBTQ teens.

“We support issues of justice wherever we see them,” Teresa Blythe, spiritual director and the church’s visitation pastor said. “One of the problems is that we see so much injustice.”

However, congregation members view the protests in a positive light. Yvonne Harrison, the church’s light to the world moderator, said she and the church are constantly asking social justice questions.

“How do I show love and compassion for humankind?” Harrison said.

Harrison said the protests have been a learning process for the church.

“If we didn’t get any kind of push back, what are we doing?” Harrison said. “We get to put our faith in action. We need to move in love, not move in fear.”

Blythe agreed, saying the protests were an opportunity to spread the church’s values to others outside of their community.

“We have to confront the protesters in a graceful and loving way,” Blythe said. “If we treat them with kindness, perhaps lives will be changed.”

The same reasons people protested the church are the same reasons people have joined. John Jacquemart, 68, started going to the church nine years ago when he moved to the area and was looking for a church with diversity.

“It makes me a better person,” Jacquemart said. “I may come in as a jerk, but I’m less of a jerk when I leave.”

Another, Carson Hawks, joined the church shortly after the 2016 presidential election.

“I had almost given up hope of ever finding a church that I could call home and would accept no matter who I am,” said Hawks, who now works there part time as a welcome coordinator. “The church really represents light in the world,” Hawks said. “I’ve never seen a church walk its talk like this one does.”

Contact the reporter at hspeagle@asu.edu.