Jess Cook was ordained as a minister of word and sacrament by the Presbytery of the James on June 29, 2019. Despite a very busy week, Jess sat for an interview two days before the ordination service to talk about their time at GPPC, their work with More Light Presbyterians, and what ordination might be holding for them.
Telling Our Stories: What is More Light Presbyterians?
Jess: MLP is a non-profit that has worked in and with the PCUSA for about 40 years. In 1974 at the General Assembly, David Sindt, a pastor, stood up on a chair with a handmade sign that said “Is anyone else out there gay?” And it was at that point that the denomination had to address the place of LGBTQ people in the church. Four years later, they came back with a ruling that said LGBTQ people could be members in Presbyterian churches, but they couldn’t serve in any form of leadership - pastors, deacons, elders, no ordainable position. And at that point, a handful of individuals and congregations got together and said they felt there was yet more light to shine on the place of LGBTQ people in the church. So this group got together to work on ordination standards, but really more, I would say, to present a perspective of LGBTQ people as - people, in the life and ministry of the church. A big part of what we do now is help individuals and congregations live into their welcome of LGBTQI people.
What is your official title?
My official title is Program and Communications Manager, which for a small non-profit means I kind of do everything. Two days ago I spent two hours on the phone with a trans women who came out; she was in her 60s and needed support…and then I designed a logo for our newsletter. So kind of a range of things.
What does it mean to be ordained into a “validated ministry” with MLP?
We talk a lot (at MLP) about being hope evangelists - I think our role is to help provide a space where people know they are seen and loved. Also, I have an opportunity to be a colleague with other pastors. In July and August I’ll be leading worship in other places - and being ordained means I can participate fully in that leadership: offering Communion and other elements of worship.
How unusual is it to be ordained into “alternative service”? Do you know of other people who’ve been ordained into non-profits?
Yes. But this is the first time that someone who is openly non-binary has been ordained in the denomination.
What has been your official status with GPPC during your years of discernment, and what will your status be after Saturday?
I’m a member - since 2008; I’ve been under care in the ordination process since 2009, which means the congregation has said: we will support you and we affirm your sense of call, we will support you in that journey. I’ve served in a number of capacities, from endowment to Session to Sunday school - I think all ages - to worship leadership as needed. On Saturday, I will officially become a member of the Presbytery of the James, and I think that means I will no longer be a member of GPPC.
Will you consider yourself a minister member of our church?
We could still have you on Session -
As a minister member, yes.
What if anything has been special to you about your time at GPPC? Have you felt supported, inspired, challenged, and/or fill in the blank?
I would say all of those things! I think of Ginter Park as my family, as my home. I think with that, there’ve been things that have been really positive and things that have been harder. I’ve seen our church go from passively welcoming to actively welcoming. I think a decade ago we were actively welcoming, but I think we’re actively welcoming now in a different way. I think that some of the conversations I had in 2009, I wouldn’t have now. I didn’t feel a particular call around doing LGBTQ stuff; my sense of call has been very much about people who have felt they don’t have space elsewhere. Through my own lived experience - I guess I do feel a call to work with LGBTQ people. I think we all have anxiety about where we belong. We all have a fear of whether we’re loved and worthy to be loved - especially by God. I think the LGBTQ community is my access point in that way.
After my separation, I got why people couldn’t stay at the same church after they separate - because it’s hard. But I kept going because it felt like home, and Elliot was baptized there, and I didn’t know what else to to do. We’re there now with Elliot and I've seen this beautiful - like, grace! Especially with Elliot wanting both of us to take Communion with him - what better visual of Communion than that? So yeah, I think of Ginter Park as my home and my family, and family in that way - that we move through and figure stuff out.
I feel like the next thing for me after More Light is to start a new worshipping community, not now, but in a few years. What would it look like if GPPC was a partner in starting a new worshipping community? As my status with the congregation changes with my ordination, I envision a continued relationship and partnership. When I think of a new worshipping community, I think about it being in this area and in this neighborhood.
Maybe in our auxiliary parking lot!
(laughing) Yeah. So - I’m waiting to see.