After not regularly attending church for a few years, one Sunday last fall I decided to dip my toe in the waters of religion once again. Corvallis First United Methodist is a block from my house – that seemed easy enough. A garden of native plants grows in the front of the church. In the midst of it is a large sign that reads “We denounce the immoral decision of the global United Methodist Church. We stand with LBGTQ persons unconditionally.” The design is in rainbow colors.
I associate “pew churches” with being old or traditional, but Rev. Barbara Nixon spoke from the pulpit about Brene Brown’s research on shame and vulnerability, and she praised Dr. Ford’s bravery during the Brett Kavanaugh debacle. I couldn’t detect even the smallest bit of shame or fear in her teaching, of a dominant or wrathful God in her theology. As I looked over a sea of white and gray hair, I thought: where are all the millennials? Where are the seekers like me who left the confines of conservatism but still wonder about a loving, inclusive God?
While I’ve done my own soul-searching and theology-geeking, I wanted an expert’s opinion. I asked for an interview with Reverend Barbara Nixon, the pastor of Corvallis First United Methodist Church.
Upon first impression, Barbara Nixon was two things: smart and kind. She had small reading glasses on the lower part of her nose, sometimes looking over them instead of through them. This is also a habit of mine; I imagine it would look decently hilarious if we both did it at the same time. A large dog with a few gray hairs, probably a boxer but maybe some bulldog mixed in, greeted me with a gentle but enthusiastic nuzzle. Her name was Maddie. Barbara and I made a bit of small talk. As she was telling me about her church, I fussed with my recorder while trying to be subtle, but she caught me and kept going without missing a beat. “Actually yes, turn that on because now I have something to say.”
Barbara: One thing about a truly progressive understanding of the faith and the gospel is that it’s more about questioning, about the ambiguity of things and how the world is not either/or, black/white, good/bad. Sometimes younger people, let’s say families, they’re looking for something that is answer-driven. How can I make sure my kids are morally upright? Those kinds of things. That is quite different from people who are clearly wanting their kids to grow up as questioners and seekers. They want them in an environment where that is the ethos rather than “here’s the answer, and here’s a judgement about anything that doesn’t look like that.” They’re choosing this intentionally, and it isn’t for everybody.
Bradley: Do you think that’s a known phenomenon?
Barbara: The loudest voices are the voices turning off so many people, even people who maybe, at one time, thought there was something good in all this. We’re very good about action, but the voice piece is something we’ve been paying a lot of attention to because our voice isn’t loud enough right now.
Bradley: In broad strokes, how would you describe the religion scene in Corvallis?
Barbara: I’m an interfaith person. I host the interfaith voices columns in the Albany and Corvallis newspapers. There are now probably 30 writers that rotate in those newspapers. So I personally have sought out the interfaith connections. There are lots of those in this town about climate justice and all sorts of things, with regular meetings to socialize but also meetings to problem solve.
Bradley: Do you see young people leaving the church or attending less than prior generations? If so, why?
Barbara: I think the progressive message is less obvious. It is more based on how you choose to behave in the world, and your experiences in this life. I think that’s probably a good place to engage a younger generation. But I think that the message is overwhelmed by incredibly bad theology. You know, I have a hard time with language that isn’t too judgemental myself. But it’s so the antithesis of how we would understand what it means to follow Jesus. We’re still recovering from how powerful that other message is. I think that is turning off lots of people. I definitely think that is turning off the younger generation, especially those who haven’t been connected much to church. They’re making an assumption of that negative message, and the task of countering that is complicated.
Bradley: What do you think are some of the things that progressive Christians are prioritizing right now?
Barbara: Gun violence is a huge thing. The environment is a huge thing. Our church has teams that are directly working on these issues and trying to keep us properly informed. The immigration issue. With all of these, we are just shocked. It’s easy to name those three in particular – they have to do with human rights, the world, and the way they we interact in the world. I think along with that, you would find many progressive people are appalled by how the religious right claims to be pro life, and in all these ways is not. So pro-choice becomes an issue. All that language is a bit of a struggle, but I think appreciating and protecting a woman’s right in that regard is pretty widespread. Really, you could name an issue and predict where progressive people fall, but we act in those places significantly. We’re really trying.
Bradley: One of the things that I see as a huge issue is LGBTQ rights, so gender and orientation justice. A lot of us have really close friendships with people that are not straight and cisgender. I’m curious for your perspective on that.
Barbara: You know, it’s really so much like breathing in this place that I almost forget to name it. I mean, you see our signs. As soon as our denomination got stupid, the same day we had those printed and put out there. It’s very distressing to people here that that is the is the stance of the denomination. It’s been 26 years that our individual church has been really, really clear on this topic. So it is a huge thing.
Bradley: What do you find are commonalities among how progressive folks understand following Jesus?
Barbara: The commonalities for progressives, I suspect, are that it’s less about saving your soul from some dark, horrible, wretched, hell-bound future, and more about how you live here and now, in love. My guess is that many progressives – and definitely this church – are serious proponents of non-violence as an understanding of who Jesus is and was, and what that movement can be based on. Living without this “fight” mentality. So much about how our country is right now, and so much even in religious conversation – including, by the way, within the United Methodist Church – is enemy based. We have a real chance, and it’s a challenging one, to try to live in, step up, and stand up without meeting a kind of violence with violence or fight – fight language and fight attitude.
I remember being in high school when a friend of mine came out publicly as lesbian. She was told to repent of her sin or to leave and never come back. We were encouraged to be loving towards her but to keep in mind that bad company corrupts good morals. This common occurrence is just one reason why LBGTQ+ suicide rates for folx inside the church are even higher than those outside it.
I remember the church bringing in guest speakers to talk about “creation science” and why the theory of evolution was wrong. Many of the presentations gave tips and tactics for talking with people who take an “intellectual superiority” stance. All of this to support the view that the Earth, and likely the universe (though that one has some wiggle room), was roughly 6,000 years old.
Yet, when I listen to this pastor who practices what she preaches, I can’t help but feel hope for Christianity in America. She’s been arrested for protesting on behalf of men who were unjustly imprisoned by ICE. She’s supported and affirmed LBGTQ+ folx. She’s operated a homeless shelter for women in Oregon’s colder months. She’s spoken out about every injustice from the pulpit and still managed to be kind. I see the same kind of strength that I saw in Mr. Rogers, the strength to see worth and value in people – and to never back down from that belief. Fred Rogers spoke about looking for the helpers. Barbara Nixon is a helper, a Christian, a scholar, and more. She retires from the pulpit this summer, though she plans to continue writing, working on theology, and ministering to people in a personal way.
Barbara: It’s about the teachings of Jesus. It’s about the here and now. It’s an understanding that the kingdom of God is not heaven somewhere, but is what we can create here. It’s about the way in which Jesus demonstrates how God is present in humanity and demonstrates it so fully – that in seeing Jesus, you see something of God. And what’s possible for the rest of us. The role of Jesus isn’t transactional, so much as opening a door. It isn’t just that he’s a nice example of something. It’s that his life blows open this idea that God is here – and lives in us.