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"Ten Stories of Gratitude for Northminster Church" by Claire and Zachary Helton

ZACH: What does one say on their last Sunday, in their last sermon before moving away from a community that has meant so much to them? Surely this isn’t the time for a run-of-the mill sermon, not a time for another Biblical short story or exhortation, not a time to say anything new before walking out the door. This is, I believe, this is a time for gratitude. It’s a time, like any other time, for telling stories.

CLAIRE: As we thought about what we wanted to say – what was left on our hearts to share – on this last Sunday, we were reminded of a question we asked the search committee when we were interviewing for the job. We asked them to tell us the stories of the times they had felt Northminster was most fully alive – at its best as a faith community. And so, we decided to make our own list of the times, over the last 2.5 years, that we have been most grateful for this community, that we have seen it most alive. After making the list, capping it at the nice round number of ten, we realized this was the sermon to preach today. So that’s what we’re doing.

Northminster, these are ten stories, in no particular order, of the times we have felt most alive, most proud, most grateful for you. Number One:

ZACH: In our first year, as climate anxiety was reaching a fever pitch in the public conversation and in my own mind, I felt it was necessary to preach about it explicitly, to situate the issue in the grander narrative of what it meant to be the People of God. I’d never been in a position to do something like that before but I knew from experience that there would probably be some pushback. When I mentioned this, some members of Coordinating Council suggested it might be a good idea to hold some kind of debrief session afterwards, which I thought was a great idea, so Claire and I planned a “Talkback Tea and Coffee” for three that day.

Well, I preached the sermon, went home, then came back to set up the big classroom down the hall. I put out a Kurig, a kettle, some mugs and some teabags, and I waited. In my mind, I waited for the angry people to start filing in. I waited for the two or three irate people, hoping they’d criticize me for being “too political” to my face rather than to others. It was important, I knew, but that didn’t mean I was looking forward to it. I wondered if I’d be able to listen patiently and generously to people’s generalized anxiety while still holding space for my own specific anxiety that we were in imminent danger.

Mara was the first to show up, which kind of surprised me. Then Patti, then Tom. Slowly the room filled with people I didn’t expect to be there, didn’t expect to be so upset. Eventually, I took a breath and got started. I tested the waters with a few easy questions – How did you feel this morning? What made you uncomfortable?

The conversation progressed in fits and spurts, no one really being forthcoming with their anxiety, until someone eventually spoke up. “Listen,” they said, “we didn’t come here because we are upset about the sermon, we came because we are upset about climate change. We’re here because we want to figure out what we can do about it!”

From there, we started having a very different conversation. That was probably the first time I knew that I was in a place that didn’t live and die on congregational fears and anxieties, wouldn’t be held captive by the fear of talking about hard things.

That’s when I knew this was a place where willing people could be equipped to actually do the work of the church. May this congregation always be so bold and open. Just a few weeks later, we did the same thing, this time, though, it was about immigration, and that brings us to Number Two:

CLAIRE: In September of 2019, the lectionary gave us a passage from the book of Hebrews, reading, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.” With the new information that had recently been released about the surprising number of ICE detainees being held in Louisiana beginning that year, it seemed clear to me that the church had to talk about the biblical call to sacred hospitality and how that translates to welcome and care for the immigrant.

The story played out in much the same way as it had before: We scheduled a talkback session for that afternoon, and I psyched myself up for the conflict to come – but it never came. A dozen or so faces entered the room, each one ready and waiting to discuss, not how I had the nerve to get so political, but what we could possibly do to make a difference.

A few weeks later the answer to that question began to take shape, as some other local advocates began organizing a protest that would call attention to the conditions at the detention center here in Monroe. After that came an organizing session hosted in our sanctuary for those wanting to learn about how to be a more effective advocate. After that came the sustained ministry spearheaded by Mara Loeb and Claire Carrington (and supported by several others) to care for immigrants both while they are detained through letter-writing, and as they are released, providing starter kits and transportation to help them on their way.

May this congregation continue to be a place where sacred hospitality and care for those in need take precedence over perceived political differences every time.

Of course, we experienced your hospitality and grace firsthand soon after we arrived, which brings us to Number Three:

ZACH: I’ve known pastors who have gone an entire career without getting sick and having to miss a Sunday at the last minute. Not us! Somehow, in our drive to be more extraordinary than our peers, we managed three in the first year.

Our kids were in preschool, and beyond generous in the quantity of infectious diseases they would bring home. So, it came to pass that on three different Sundays, one or both of us found ourselves entirely out of commission, unable to preach (or get out of bed, really) and unwilling to be as generous with our germs as our kids had been.

The first time, it was Claire’s turn to preach, but as she lay incapacitated with a stomach bug, I picked up her sermon and took her place. I had minimal time for editing and adapting, and all things considered it went pretty well until, from the pulpit, I found myself reading: “When Zach and I started dating…”

The second time, it was me who couldn’t make it, struck down with some flu strain that made me dizzy to even stand. The third time both of us woke up with a stomach bug but this time with only a half-baked sermon the illness hadn’t given us a chance to polish. That time, we had to text Debi. “Look. We’re dying,” we said. “There’s a Frederick Buechner book on my desk. Open it to page 47 and just start reading…” Debi handled it like a pro because, of course, she is a pro.

Each of these times, I braced myself in the aftermath to hear someone complain, to hear someone come in with that age old, “You only work one day a week…” but it never did. On the contrary, Brian and Josh actually offered to stop by the house on the way to church and bring James and Peter to Sunday School, giving us a little time to recover. Northminster, you valued our health and wellbeing over performance and polish, and that is rarer than you might imagine. May this congregation always value its people above presentation.

Number Four:

CLAIRE: Speaking of our kids, I love them but y’all, they are exhausting. And as it turns out, I’m not the only parent who feels that way!

One of the most selfish ministries I have ever invested in is our onthly parents’ night meeting, and even so I would do it again in a heartbeat. Because as it turns out, there is so much life in gathering together as adults, with childcare so you can focus on forming complete sentences, to be in community figuring out how to parent your children with progressive values here in the South, when so few people around you share those values.

As we came together for our third or fourth meeting in the spring of 2019, I remember hearing Cayce Roberts say something to the effect of, “I live for these meetings.” And she wasn’t the only one. There are folks participating in that group who have only ever joined us on Sunday morning once or twice, and I think that’s a beautiful thing. It’s yet another way that Northminster is able to offer a safe haven, to offer home to those who have felt like they didn’t have a place to call home.

So, although the pandemic took some of the wind out of our sails in that group as we were unable to offer the one thing that made those nights so valuable – childcare – there is hope on the horizon for the parents of Northminster as those meetings are starting back up in July. May this congregation always be a place that offers home to those who need it most.

Number Five:

ZACH: Churches can be pretty touchy about their music. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed that. Coming in, it was one of the things that gave me pause, as my personal musical language is mostly rooted in indie folk rock. Even if that wasn’t the musical language of the congregation, it was important to me to work at a church that didn’t make an idol out of any particular kind of music, a church that could, instead, focus on posture and language – on the space created and story told, regardless of genre.

Only a few weeks in, still getting a feel for how worship here worked, I had an idea for a song that I thought might work well with the text. The only catch was that it was an experimental rock song from a band called Gungor. Not the kind of thing one might typically hear in the service.

Walking into staff meeting, I held onto the idea loosely, understandably skeptical about what kind of response it might receive, but the next morning, not only was the song in the Order of Worship, but DH had sent me a demo track for a choral arrangement he’d taken the initiative to compose himself that evening.

It was astounding, and, over time, something we’d come to repeat again and again with Leonard Cohen, Regina Spektor, the Liturgists, Sara Bareilles, U2, and Dear Evan Hansen, each one respected, not on the basis of genre, but on its own merit, on its ability to remind us who we are and that we’re loved. That’s something I’ve loved about working with this team. May this congregation always foster its spirit of playfulness and honor its legacy of creativity.

Number Six:

CLAIRE: One of the things I have appreciated most here is the way this congregation approaches matters of faith, not with a spirit of judgment, but a spirit of curiosity. In the fall of 2019, we watched that unfold through a 6-week study of Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. As we waded through her stories from teaching a college course on comparative religions, we marveled together at all of the beautiful throughlines Taylor found between her experience of the divine and those of the faiths they studied.

And then we decided to see for ourselves, and so in September of that year we took a church field trip to Jackson, MS, along with two other progressive Baptist churches from the area, to visit the International Museum of Muslim Cultures. Along with Northside Baptist from Clinton and the “other” Northminster Baptist from Jackson, we took in an exhibit on “Covenants and Coexistence” among Muslims, Christians and Jews, and approached it all in a spirit of awe for the ways that God is revealed to each of us.

The value of interfaith dialogue is a significant one here – but so is the value of cooperation with likeminded churches. I remember on the drive to Jackson carpooling with Claire Carrington and hearing her remark at how surprised and delighted she was to find that there were other churches like ours – if not in our city, then in our region. And I never have quite figured out how to tell the joke that just seems to be waiting to be pulled out of that story: of two Northminsters and a Northside taking their church members to a Muslim museum in the South…but regardless, my hope is that this congregation will continue to be a place where curiosity is cultivated as a spiritual discipline.

Number Seven:

ZACH: Thanksgiving of 2019, just months before the world went into lockdown, Northminster celebrated 30 years with a night of storytelling and feasting. I gave a quick intro, and yielded the floor to the storytellers.

I listened as Craig talked about Northminster’s roots, as Cayce talked about this being the first church she visited that did not shame, but celebrated with her, as Debi told about never wanting to work in a church ever again… until Northminster. I listened to Dibble tell stories and DH sing Te Deum and Mara talk about finally finding a church that wasn’t intimidated by arts and education. I listened to Jim Files talk about the expanding of his interfaith horizons, to Mark tell about what it meant to be trusted to preach again after a rocky history with a fundamentalist seminary. I listened to Susan Curry talk about how many times we’ve almost been expelled from youth camp, and Mackenzie Grassi talk about what it meant to finally find a pastor that would not only marry them, but celebrate their family as it deserved to be celebrated.

Listening to these stories, I knew that I was among a community of sanctuary. I knew this was a place of healing and restoration among fellow exiles and exvangelicals. Together, we were a tribe of outcasts, bonding over the shared trauma of having been pushed to the outskirts of the church, and together, creating a space of honesty and authenticity, that loved without condition or reserve. For those of us burned by the worst of what church can be, may this congregation always be a place of safety and healing.

Number Eight:

CLAIRE: The worst of what church can be hit home pretty hard in our first year here, as the Houston Chronicle released reporting on the widespread sexual abuse within Southern Baptist churches for the past several decades that had gone unacknowledged and unaddressed. Northminster doesn’t have any official ties to the SBC but so many of us have friends and family who do, not to mention that the Alliance of Baptists was born out of the SBC in the late 80s, and so their pain was our pain, too.

But in the wake of that incredibly painful revelation we witnessed the opposite, witnessed the best of what church can be, when Northminster folks gathered with passion and energy to answer the question: If the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better, how can we ‘practice the better’ here? There were sexual abuse prevention policies drafted, there were educational goals set, and, dearest to my heart, there was a play.

Daughters of Eve was born out of that vision of practicing the better, of using our platform – figuratively and literally – to challenge scriptural interpretations that harm women, and to lift up the voices of women in scripture who are often overlooked, whose voices are silenced simply by our lack of attention.

At the dress rehearsal for Daughters of Eve that fateful week in March of 2020, I remember vividly the look on Beth Mayfield’s face as the whole cast squeezed together here at the front steps in our final formation for the closing lines. She said, “Do you think we should be standing this close together?” I thought she was overreacting (!), but not 48 hours later we would make the call that Daughters of Eve would be postponed indefinitely, as would our in-person services. But watching this community come alive for all the months that led up to that moment, with so much involvement, across demographics and generations, for the sake of a more just and a kinder world, that is one of the moments I have been most grateful for this congregation. May you continue to be a place that goes beyond the criticism of the bad, and finds a way to practice the better.

That brings us to Number Nine:

ZACH: When the Coordinating Council made the decision to suspend all in person gatherings in an attempt to #slowthespread, we knew little about the spreading pandemic. At the time, the decision felt precarious. None of us were sure exactly what the threat was, or if it was that serious, though suspending in person gatherings certainly felt like giving it a violent shove into serious. It became real. None of us were sure how to protect ourselves, how to protect others, and least of all, how to continue to be the church while stripped of everything that had visibly identified us for so long.

Now, at that juncture, I could easily see what could have happened. I could easily see a congregation rapidly overwhelmed by anxiety, venting it in the worst ways and directions possible, and it would’ve been totally understandable given the circumstances… but that isn’t what happened. Not at all.

Instead, as I ran into technical difficult after technical difficulty and the grainy images of your preachers finally stumbled their way onto your computer screens… you gave nothing but support. You shared nothing but encouragement and kindness and gratitude for something, anything that could still bind us together some way, somehow. But that wasn’t all. Almost without hesitation, you started moving.

Before long, Pat began showing up with homemade masks, essential and rare in that moment, so we could distribute them to our first responders: JoAnn at Conway, Mark at Go Care, Char at the Methodist Children’s Home. Then, Beth took it upon herself to create Sunday School packets for Northminster’s kids, something of a structure and connection in mass drift, and people came out of the woodwork volunteering to drive and deliver them all the way out to Frenchman’s Bend. But again, that wasn’t all.

Not only did this congregation respond to the social needs that arose, but you continued to create. Even in the midst of anxiety and uncertainty, under DH’s leadership and editing skills, you put together not one, but two online talent shows, and you could almost hear the collective sigh of relief and appreciation for this thing that made us feel, for a moment, like we were together again. That was really something.

May this congregation always follow the Spirit, knowing it to be more valuable than any form or appearance the church can take.

Eventually, slowly, haltingly, we came out of the diaspora, and that’s where we get to Number Ten:

CLAIRE: Number Ten is where we, personally, have lived these last few weeks. As Zach and I shared with all of you that we were feeling pulled toward something new and different, something that would require us to leave this place that we love, we were afraid of how you would respond, of the disappointment we would see in your faces, of the possibility that the timing of it would frustrate you so much that that would be all anybody could see.

You might think we didn’t know you at all.

Because instead, what we have found is such remarkable grace. Of course, there has been disappointment – and probably frustration – but you haven’t laid it all on us, and that is a gift we will always cherish. Instead, you’ve jumped into action, your leadership hard at work already charting a path toward what comes next for Northminster. And you’ve stopped us at the door to say things about bravery and following where the Spirit leads. And of course you have, because Northminster has always been a place that values the courage to do something different, to branch out from what is known into the unknown, into the wilderness, following the leading of that Spirit as elusive as the wind, trusting all the time that home is waiting on the other side. May you continue to trust that Spirit into the future.

ZACH: After recording the highlights of Jesus’ life, the last verse of the last chapter of the Gospel of John reads: “Jesus did many other things as well, and if every one of them were written down, I suppose that not even the whole world would have room for the scrolls that could be written.”

This is not a complete list of the beautiful things Northminster has done over the past two and a half years. Without standing up here and reading the directory from A to Z, we could not touch on every meaningful interaction we’ve had with the people of this congregation, every dinner and coffee and pool and playground, every office and hospital room we shared. But we hope, in this glimpse, we’ve begun to say something of the thank you that you deserve. The thank you for giving us a chance, for giving us your honesty, for allowing us to travel alongside you for this season of our pilgrim journey towards life.

CLAIRE: Northminster, it is clear that Spirit of God has begun a good work in this place. And we are sure of this much: that the One who began the good work in you will carry it through to completion. As you go about that work, may you continue to lean in to the truest and most beautiful story you can imagine for yourselves, for this community, and for the world; and may you find in each other the courage to make it come true.


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