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So long Circle of Hope, and thanks for all the songs
I've been a part of the same faith community since I was an undergraduate at Temple. It has grown me into the person I am today. I go in peace with gratitude and fondness.
I was 19 years old when I walked up the stairs at 2007 Frankford Ave. to attend my first public meeting at Circle of Hope. I didn’t realize that on that day, but the course of my faith and life would change. Since that fateful Sunday, I became a cell leader for Circle, served on its Leadership Team, and for nearly thirteen years, as one of its pastors. I am deeply indebted to Circle of Hope for how it shaped me as a Christian and for giving me the call to be a pastor. There was a time where I thought I couldn’t be a Christian or a pastor outside of Circle of Hope, but in part to how the community shaped me, I learned that I could be. It blessed me with faith and with my vocation. It has left an unmistakable mark on me, and I am forever grateful for that. Now is the time for me to step away from the community, find some rest, and begin a new charge as pastor at West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship. My last Sunday is Easter, and it is a fitting end to a blessed tenure. It wasn’t without its peaks and valleys, but what parts of our lives aren’t? In fact, both the joy and the adversity I have faced in Circle shaped me as a pastor, and thus, I leave with fondness, gratitude, and cherished memories. I’ll never be the same, and for those that I had the honor of serving, I hope that you’re life changed too.
I’m especially grateful for Joshua Grace. The person that called me up as a leader, mentored me as a pastor, and believed in me, even when I didn’t myself. Joshua’s passion for peace and justice shaped me, and shaped our church, and I am indebted to him for his mark on me. Joshua is irreverent, yet gentle, he blessed me and I will continue to shepherd because of how he discipled me.
Julie Bitterman Hoke has been a wonderful ally in our pursuit of antiracism. She has molded and formed me, and I pray I have done the same for her. She’s steadfast and faithful, and has become one of the best pastors I know. I’m so proud of her courageous and bold leadership, but also her friendship with me. What a blessing she is.
Over the years, there have been countless leaders and volunteers who served alongside of me, sacrificed their time and energy for the cause and mission of the church. I could not have been a pastor without them and their help. There are too many to name, but for all the people who led cells, led cell leaders, led worship, and wrote songs, I am so grateful for you.
I also want to extend gratitude to my seminary professors and Palmer Theological Seminary. The seminary’s diverse student body and its brilliant professors expanded my mind and imagination for church and for Christianity. Donald Brash, Debbie Watson, Debbie Winter, Diane Chen, and George Hancock-Stephan are a few of my many great professors that helped me serve in Circle of Hope and helped me understand who I was could be next.
Of course, I am grateful for the Brethren In Christ, and for Bryan Hoke and all my other bishops, for blessing me with this opportunity. Even though we parted ways at the end, I am still very glad to have communed with you. I will continue to think of the denomination and pray for it.
I have to also thank a bunch of weirdos I met on the Internet through the /r/Christianity subreddit and an absolutely bizarre offshoot of Facebook groups we created. The variety of traditions that came together to form those groups shaped me as a Christian and pastor, but more than that, so did the rich community we made together.
Over my time, though, I have fallen and failed. I have not protected the most vulnerable and I have led them into harm’s way. I am deeply sorry for when I didn’t stand up for disabled people, people of color, and queer people. I want to learn to do better. For those who left the church or left their faith, I share responsibility for that. And for those who stuck around to call me out, I am grateful to have learned from you, and I wish I had done it sooner. For those who have left, but stayed close to me, I am blessed by your friendships. My mistakes and shortcomings were growth opportunities, but too often they burdened the most vulnerable. I am deeply sorry and I vow to learn and do better.
In the end, there was no shortage of pain that occurred in the community. Holding a body together while navigating a pandemic, pursuing antiracism and LGBT inclusion is challenging. I am sad for the pain we shared together, and for the pain I endured. If I could go back and do it again, I hope it would be less painful. But today, because of that struggle, I am better off, and I am thus in gratitude for even the conflictive moments that shaped me. Circle allowed me to see who I was and helped me to understand what is important to me as an individual. As a result, in a sense, it cultivated those changes, even though they sometimes came through struggle and pain.
Circle of Hope taught me to listen to the Body of Christ, and as of late, to prioritize the voices of the most vulnerable. Often, I learned these lessons both through triumphs and failures. Circle of Hope taught me that God can be seen in creation and in art together. It has blessed me with my best friendships, with powerful music, and even extended my gift of hospitality. It taught me to be a leader and it grew me from a very young adult into the pastor and person I am today. Farewell, Circle of Hope, I pray that you will move into what is next for you, just as I am.