Offering a ‘liberating tradition’ at a Cambridge church in the face of anti-LGBTQ discrimination
The Reservoir Church in Cambridge is generally described as centered on Jesus, originally associated with the Vineyard Churches Association. But Reservoir Church separates from the association in 2015 after being pressured to limit their involvement of LGBTQ+ people.
In light of Pride Month and the growing discrimination that gay people are facing right now, All things Considered invited Reservoir Church Senior Pastor Steve Watson to speak with host Arun Rath about bringing together an inclusive and diverse congregation and offering guidance in difficult times.
Arun Rat: Steve, thank you for joining us.
Steve Watson: It is a pleasure to be with you.
Rat : Now, Reservoir Church has finally made the decision to separate from the parent church. Tell us about the tension there, how did your church come to what must have been a difficult decision?
Watson: Sure. You know, our church isn’t really that old. We had only started in the 1990s, but had grown explosively and had grown into a large church fairly quickly. And like any large organization, you know, we’ve had a lot of views on a lot of things, including the range of what’s out there in the Christian tradition – from those who take more conservative or traditional perspectives on a small number biblical texts that are restrictive and do not embrace the full expression of LGBTQ love and relationships. As well as those who would assume that we are moving more and more towards some sort of liberating path for this community.
And we had to make choices about what kind of community we wanted to be, what kind of church we wanted to be, and what best represented our faith and our values. And as you said, it became important for us to say that our LGBTQ participants were going to experience a kind of full belonging and dignity and affirmation of their presence and their relationships like everyone else. And, you know, that involved making choices to be free to do that.
Rat : The church describes itself as centered on Jesus. Could you explain what this means in general, but also how your feeling of being centered in Jesus led you to this decision?
Watson: Yeah, that’s a great question, thanks, Arun. I think, number one, that means, I guess, we’re in the Christian tradition. But maybe the word “church” would have carried that. I think we are saying that Jesus centered himself to point out certain things. First, although we kind of take on a number of progressive social values - I guess people would call it – we are very interested in this vibrant spiritual tradition and life that we are a part of, and we are very interested in being a community that continues to read and pay attention to the ancient but timeless teachings of Jesus to guide us.
And I think for us, although there are things in the Christian tradition that are a barrier to becoming a fully LGBTQ inclusive community – I’m well aware that I serve within and live and practice a tradition which has been an oppressive force in a number of ways, including towards the LGBTQ community. But insofar as it is a Jesus-centered tradition, we see Jesus’ teaching as grounded in love, love for our Creator, God, love for our neighbor as ourselves and a tradition that at its best – historically and still today – is a liberating tradition that affirms that dignity and relationships and the possibility of loving yourself, loving your neighbour, loving God for all .
And so I think being in that tradition, at its best, centered in love and justice, has led us to be the kind of church that is fully inclusive for the whole community that we seek to be.
Rat : And tell us about your particular congregation. It’s very diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. Tell us how this congregation was formed. How did you come to be so diverse in your particular church?
Watson: Yes, I mean, thank you. I’m biased, I pastor the community, but I do [think it’s] a beautiful community. We say every week, as we do on our website, that it is a place where everyone, without exception, is invited to discover the love of God, the gift of community, the joy of living. And we take this “everyone without exception” very seriously. I think we do certain things in our personnel, in our curriculum, in our teaching to be explicit about the dignity, the value, the immense transcendent value of all of God’s children, as we would say. And I think we’ve had the grace to be in a city as diverse and rich as we are, and to not put any obstacles in the way of the full diversity of our city being expressed within our congregation.
“One of the great things that a healthy religious community can do that elevates people’s dignity rather than bringing them to shame or depriving them of it, is to give people a deep, deep sense of belonging. “
Rat : I was just in Oregon talking with a very dear old friend: there was a horrific hate shooting there. And one of the things that came up was that marginalized people need special counseling more than ever, right? I imagine it must be something you are going through. And could you talk a bit about that?
Watson: The last few years have been incredibly stressful. Admittedly, this pandemic period has been stressful for everyone. But let’s be real: the era of the Trump administration, that era of escalating culture wars, this time [for] various members of our community, both for issues of white supremacy, homophobic violence and anti-LGBTQ. These times have been threatening, unstable and frightening for so many.
Someone in my place – as a pastor in our own way, like others and the helping professions – we are called to be a good listener, to try to offer some kind of advice and friendship to others is very important this time. I would say what we see, primarily as a faith community, is how much all of us – and especially those of us whose identities are threatened in various ways – all need to live communities of a deep belonging. And I’m certainly thinking about all these things that we’re talking about: a pandemic, this deepening unveiling and awareness of white supremacy and racial hatred and violence, discrimination and anti- LGBTQ. All of these threaten many things, but they certainly threaten people’s sense of belonging. And one of the great things that a healthy religious community can do that elevates people’s dignity rather than bringing them to shame or depriving them of it, is to give people a deep, deep sense of belonging. And want [a] group that is often more diverse in terms of age and identity than they would find elsewhere. And so it’s a real treasure for us as a church to experience and offer that to each other.
Rat : Before I let you go, it was great talking with you. But I also want to ask if there’s something — I know it’s part of Jesus’ message, it’s true, it’s to embrace those who have been cast out. I wonder if there is another message you would like to leave for the community at large, before we let you go?
Watson: Yeah, absolutely. I think for those of us who belong to religious communities or come from a religious heritage, most of our religious and denominational communities have elements of their practice and tradition that have been oppressive. And for some of us, these have been harmful and painful to us in various ways. And most of our traditions, certainly mine – the Christian tradition with its focus on love, with this expression of what the teaching of Jesus, civil rights leaders have come to call “a vision of community beloved”. Our traditions also have enormous liberating power. And so it’s important to me — as a pastor of Reservoir, as a church — to represent and practice the most liberating parts of our tradition. And I certainly hope that all of the beautiful children of God in our city will find where they need it, places that support their belonging and their own journey to liberation. We’re certainly happy to be a place that’s part of that story for people.
Rat : Steve, it was wonderful talking with you. Thanks.
Watson: Oh, great pleasure. Thanks for inviting us.
Rat : It’s Steve Watson, senior pastor at Reservoir Church in Cambridge. It’s GBH All things Considered.