'Radically inclusive' church congregation 'terrified' of post-election political climate

'Am I going to be able to live and survive?'
'Radically inclusive' church congregation 'terrified' of post-election political climate
Posted at 7:00 AM, Nov 25, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-25 07:00:02-05

CINCINNATI -- Some in the congregation of Truth & Destiny Covenant Ministries Fellowship United Church of Christ in Mount Airy are "absolutely terrified" about what the results of the most recent election will mean for them.

For one thing, they're concerned that the gay members of the congregation might have to go back into the closet, said pastor and founder Lesley Jones.

The African-American members are also afraid that the election has given bigots permission to be more openly racist.

Some are wondering, "Am I going to be able to live and survive?" she said.

These issues are a particular concern for Truth & Destiny because most of the congregation is African-American, and there are many openly gay members -- including the pastor herself, who's married to her co-pastor, Noni Gordon-Jones.

Jones founded the church in 2003 to be "radically inclusive" -- ministering to people regardless of their race, ethnicity, culture, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, spiritual practice and physical/mental ability.

That alone sets the church apart, but so does its commitment to social justice along with its worship style.

Pastor Lesley Jones speaks during the opening minutes of a Sunday morning worship service at Truth & Destiny Covenant Ministries Fellowship in Mount Airy.

Jones has been active in the Black Lives Matter movement, and she's also demonstrated with those seeking a retrial of Ray Tensing, the University of Cincinnati police officer who shot and killed Sam DuBose during a traffic stop.

In a letter to the congregation dated Nov. 20, Jones urged members to join her and more than 50 local faith leaders who have formed a coalition to demand justice. She also encouraged them to join in a fast to seek God's direction.

And she prompted the congregation to do Christmas shopping at African American- and/or LGBTQ-owned businesses, not at corporate stores. From the pulpit that day, she urged the congregation not to shop at Wal-Mart and "contribute to what is part of our oppression."

She then referenced the police shooting of an African-American man in August 2014 who was inside a Wal-Mart near Dayton, holding an air rifle he had picked up off a shelf.

"We saw the video," she said. "He never pointed it at anybody."

Activism isn't a new thing for Jones. In 2006, she and several members canvassed Cincinnati, talking with residents about the Campaign to Restore Fairness.

"I am an activist and I am an advocate," she told her congregation one recent Sunday. "I am faithful and true to who I am and to my people. ... I stand flat-footed to declare the truth of God."

In 2011, the church became part of the United Church of Christ, which has a tradition of social action and friendliness to gay and lesbian causes. Jones said she felt the church needed a more recognized identity, which the UCC offered.

At one point during a recent service, Jones joked that her congregation was "truly UCC -- Utterly Confused Christians."

The final thing that makes Truth & Destiny different is its Pentecostal beliefs and charismatic worship style. Pentecostals believe that gifts of God's Holy Spirit described in the Bible, such as speaking in unknown languages or prophesying, are available to believers today.

Believers at Truth & Destiny might feel led to lay hands on one another to ask God for healing, Jones said, particularly at the end of the service during the altar call.

The church meets in a former United Methodist sanctuary that it purchased in 2013. It previously met in a Northside space that doubled as a yoga studio.

Members of the church raise their hands during a teaching on Kwanzaa.

The Mount Airy space is a traditional sanctuary with stained-glass windows and wooden pews. A wooden cross with a purple cloth draped over it hangs from the ceiling, and a replica of the Ark of the Covenant sits on the altar.

Around 30 people were in attendance on Nov. 20 when the service began at 11:30 a.m., but about 40 more trickled in as the service went on.

Congregants come from as far away as Louisville, Columbus and Indianapolis, Jones said, because there are not many churches like this one, even in those cities. Services are also streamed on Facebook.

During the worship service, attendees don't just sit back and listen quietly to the speakers. They say "Amen" when they agree, they applaud, they stand and raise their hands -- in short, they get excited.

At one point, a woman described in the program as worship warrior Leachelle Brooks did an interpretive dance, to the strains of "Better" by Jessica Reedy. She wore a black T-shirt, black pants, white gloves and had half her face painted white.

She started the dance carrying a sign that said, "I lost my hope," "I lost my job," "I wanted to die." She put the sign down and danced to the words of the chorus: "Life, it can leave you so bitter bitter, bitter, bitter, but you must believe that it gets better, better, better, better."

At the end of the song, she turned the sign around. It read, "I got a job" and "Better."

"That was her truth," Jones told the congregation after the dance. "She really did lose her job. Now she's got three. That was a testimony!"