On a wealthy Greenpoint street with two grand, looming churches, the Greenpoint Reformed Church looks a bit out of place. A humble two-story red brick Federal house built by architect Thomas C. Smith shortly after the end of the Civil War, 138 Milton Street was once used as the set of a turn-of-the-century black hospital in The Knick, and its only outer distinguishing markers are a queer pride flag, a “Doubting Thomases Welcome” sign and a “Black Lives Matter” banner.
Inside, where the insistently pealing bells from the nearby anti-abortion St. Anthony St. Alphonus Church can’t be heard, pastors Ann Kansfield, Jen Aull, and CB Stewart have started to recite the names of the dead. Instead of patron saints, these names are a roll call of the dozens of Michael Browns and Tanisha Andersons killed by police this week. Each Sunday, the young, tattooed congregants recite the dead’s names, spontaneously raising their voices to read another name.
This particular Sunday after the roll call, a representative from NYC Housing and Urban Development has come to tell the congregation about an emergency housing program that needs their support. Afterward, the house quintet, with instruments more akin to a bluegrass band than a church organist, breaks into a folk song that could be on a Sufjan Stevens album, composed by their music director, Jason Benjamin (a former member of the now-disbanded Red Hook Ramblers). It’s then that I realize that this church is truly unlike any other that I’ve ever been to.
“Our congregation attracts a lot of folks in the creative class—artists, journalists, writers, even a Grammy-nominated musician,” Children’s Pastor Anna Flowers said. “We started a program where we have an artist-in-residence at the church, who’s going to lead us in art projects. The congregation has a very creative, artistic way of expressing your faith.”
A little over a decade ago, the church was facing lean years. From 2003 to 2004, it had only eight congregants and was struggling to stay alive financially and spiritually. During a book group, a mentally unstable man entered the church and violently took a member hostage. But the church had faced dire moments before, and didn’t give up. Back in the seventies and eighties, the neighborhood was not considered safe enough that the church wouldn’t be looted. Longtime church matriarchs Irene and Grace would unlock the gates to the church before each service, and re-lock them afterwards. There was no mail delivery to the church, and the church door was deadbolted.
But when some of the first members of the new wave, a musician couple named Rachel and Jason Benjamin (who now serve as a choir singer and the choral director), showed up, Jen had “a very hopeful moment.” By 2006, the numbers had grown to 20 people, and today the church numbers over 140 members.
“Restarting a church takes a ton of energy,” Pastor Jen says. “To sell it to other young people is really hard when there aren’t other young people. Rachel and Jason were signs of hope, and that’s what kept us going.”
This past year has been one of the best years the church has seen, and the congregation is swelling with the ranks of young couples, families, and individuals. Many, however, do not live in the neighborhood. As Greenpoint has seen exponential change over the past several years, members who once lived nearby have been priced out. “A huge number of people leave Greenpoint because the cost of living is so great,” Jen says. “And with jobs, relationships, and friends all changing, that’s one of the biggest challenges of New York—there’s this turnover.”
The uniqueness of the politics and community of the church, however, keeps congregants coming from as far as Flatbush, and the anchors are the pastors. Longtime pastors Ann and Jen met and fell in love teaching Sunday school at a diversity-focused, interfaith church in the East Village, and made their way to Greenpoint Reformed Church in 2003 and 2004 respectively, when they were married.
Ann and Jen’s personalities are seemingly at odds: Ann is the FDNY’s first lesbian Fire Chaplain, acting as a lightning rod sparking with ideas and jokes, while Jen, a couples counselor, is a steady presence that congregants seek out to discuss their problems. Joined by Justice Minister CB Stewart, who is transgender and social-justice-focused, and Children’s Pastor Anna Flowers, whose ideas about child-rearing are refreshingly unconventional, the pastors were determined to provide a home for views that are often untraditional in churches.
One month, the lecture series is called “Sex, Death and Money,” and the four pastors dig in, discussing the most taboo elements to a receptive crowd. Each week, one of the pastors speaks frankly to parishioners tired of hearing parables without modern applications. “When I go to a congregation, I want to hear people talking about real things with one another,” Pastor CB says.
In her sermon “What the Bible Really Says (And Doesn’t Say) About Sex,” Jen takes apart, bit by bit, the anti-sex Biblical interpretation that groups like Focus on the Family perpetuate, and deconstructs society’s tendency to shame young girls into being the gatekeepers against sex. Her sex-positive attitude is a refreshing take. “Joy, pleasure, and intimacy are tremendous gifts of God,” Jen preaches warmly. “Where is the appreciation of the design of creatures that push us to find connection with one another?”
Jen has fought a long time to make her road by walking. Reared in an evangelical church in Kansas City, she was forced to leave when she refused to reject her queer identity. “I actually really loved church, and I was upset that they were booting me out because of my queerness—I really wanted to be there,” she said.
Jen speaks out honestly during her sermon about sex and rejection from mainstream Christianity. “On behalf of those who have used the bible to make you feel shameful or less than fantastic about sex, I’m sorry,” Jen Aull says to the people sitting in the pews. “Unfortunately, the history of sex in the church is full of condemnations, rules, and shame. I as a gay person know that the Church, with a capital C, has made me feel less than because of who I am and who I love. As an adult, I have come to find out that the Church has also made a lot of people who are not gay, but heterosexual or somewhere in between, also feel bad about sex. The Church’s general discomfort with sex and bodies has hurt all of us.”
Jen knows the damage that Christianity’s attitude has had firsthand—not only is she a couples counselor, she is also a sex therapist, seeing confused marriages seeking nonjudgmental counseling and utter rejection from mainstream churches because of her sexual orientation.
Pastor CB Stewart, who transitioned gender while a brand new pastor at the church, was initially deeply worried that church members would not accept him, but soon found otherwise. “I never would have chosen to [transition] in front of a congregation,” Pastor CB says. “It was the worst timing to trust people and to have faith that they’d trust me, but you don’t get to pick when you go through these things. All the support I received, in an authentic and organic way, was really a healing thing for me as someone who grew up in fundamentalism and was rejected for being gay.”
Community outreach and being anchored in Greenpoint are vital to the church. One of its most important programs is its Hunger Program. The program runs one of Brooklyn’s most active soup kitchens and food pantries, spending $5,000 per week feeding hot meals to 60 to 80 people and providing 800 bags of groceries to anyone who will take them.
On a Wednesday at the church, mouthwatering smells are floating out of the kitchen. Longtime volunteers Jeff and Jayson are busily directing the creation of huge sheet pans of shepherd’s pie, industrial pots of chili, and massive bowls of feta spinach salad. At 6:00 p.m., locals, hungry and cold, begin to filter in and rub their hands, waiting eagerly for a plate. Most of the people attending are Polish, and some are homeless or temporarily homeless. Jayson and Jeff distribute chocolate bars as a special gift, cracking jokes and saying hello to regulars.
Jeff and Jayson say that as gay men, they were not at first accepted by the largely Polish attendees who come to be served at the soup kitchen, but that now, many of them are friendly and have developed a relationship of mutual understanding. It’s hard to imagine another setting in which this sort of extended interaction over time would happen.
Every manner of meeting and event seems to be held at the church. Girl Scouts balance their entrepreneurial cookie sales sheets in the coffee room, a lesbian couple plans their wedding in the sanctuary, and support group members drape their arms over the fence smoking.
One particular group’s meetings have drawn special attention in recent months—the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, or QDEP, which lobbies for asylum for queer and trans detainees, performs direct action protests against discriminatory asylum policies, fights for prison divestment, and finds housing and jobs for asylum seekers, is holding a fundraiser and second birthday party at the church. Pastor CB has been working with QDEP over the past couple years to strengthen awareness and raise funding, and organizes a sermon by a gay man of color who came to America for asylum and ended up working for QDEP.
“I had done some immigration work, but I didn’t know anything about the stories and experiences of people who seek asylum because of their sexuality, gender, or gender presentation,” CB said.
It’s this kind of activism and openness that Brooklyn’s young population seems to relate to, and the pastors are a role model for congregants.
Pastor Ann sees the authenticity and vulnerability of the pastors’s personal lives as values that people look for in a faith community. “Jesus never said to put on a fancy suit and try to hide who you are,” she said. “I do feel we’re a really good litmus test on whether or not we’re actually a place where people can be authentic. All of us are searching for places where we can really be authentic.”
Photos by Nicole Fara Silver