Protestor, pastor are both part of Synod preacher’s identity
This the second in a series of three profiles of the ministers who will preach during the 33rd General Synod of the United Church of Christ, July 11-18. This “Special Edition General Synod” will be the first to be held entirely online.
The Rev. Michelle Higgins traces her dual passions — for faith and social justice — to her Pentecostal upbringing.
The pastor of St. John’s UCC (The Beloved Community) in St. Louis will be the second of three preachers during this summer’s General Synod. Worshipers will hear from her during a service that starts at 8 p.m. EDT Wednesday, July 14.
All three online worship services will be available to the public as well as to those who have paid to register for the Synod. People wishing to sign up free, for the worship services only, can watch the General Synod website for details.
“As a newcomer to the United Church of Christ, I am honored to be invited to preach at General Synod,” Higgins said. “My desire is to share a word of encouragement and energy for God’s people living in God’s world. We know that ‘God is Still Speaking.’ I want to share and learn from the wisdom of everyone who hears and reflects God’s voice.”
First female pastor
Like many UCC churches in Missouri, St. John’s had its start in the 19th-century German Evangelical tradition. North St. Louis is now predominantly Black. The congregation is now multiracial. In 2020, Higgins became the first woman to serve as its settled pastor.
She recently told the St. Louis American how growing up Pentecostal instilled in her not only faith but a concern for justice. In part, she said, the latter came from being “surrounded by queer Black people who loved the Lord and loved the church but also lived in a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ situation.”
Both passions are visible in the movements she leads. She is:
- Executive director of Faith for Justice. It’s a coalition of anti-racist Christian activists. They “believe that protest and building Black political power are spiritual practices.”
- Co-founder of Action St. Louis, building political power for Black communities. It was formed after the 2014 death of Michael Brown at the hands of police in Ferguson, Mo. It organizes “collective direct action against systemic racism and state violence.”
- Active in the Movement for Black Lives and its Electoral Justice Project.
- Part of a trio of Black women who host the Truth’s Table podcast. They “love truth” and “share our perspectives on race, politics, gender, current events and pop culture that are filtered through our Christian faith.”
A theme of radical inclusion marks Higgins’ work — especially concerning the people she saw excluded when she was growing up. As she puts it at the St. John’s website, she “supports the work of organizations working nationally to ground local contexts in the Black queer feminist politic.”
Action St. Louis, for example, opposes “the multifaceted ways Black people are continually oppressed — including race, class, gender, sexuality and more.” It calls itself “a political home for all Black people, including and especially women, trans and gender non-conforming Black folks, formerly incarcerated Black folks, Black immigrants and differently-abled Black folks.”
A graduate of Covenant Theological Seminary, Higgins has ministered in the past as a church choir director and vocalist, and as worship director at South City Church, St. Louis, where her father is pastor.
“I am certainly a daughter of the church, but I am also a protestor who has become a pastor,” she told the American. “And the awareness I have as a double label is acute. It means I am unable to pastor a church that is not welcoming.”
The fruits of love
That inclusive theme also marked the thoughts she shared with United Church of Christ News about preaching during a Synod whose theme is “Rooted in Love.”
“In the Black church tradition, and at St. John’s Church (The Beloved Community), we have a greeting that is shared during the passing of the peace each week: ‘The Jesus in me loves the Jesus in you. You’re so easy to love!’ The Holy Spirit has given us the fruits of this easy love, also known as radical welcome, so that we can sense the ways God is connecting us even though we are unable to gather together in person this year.
“I am so excited to testify to God’s hospitality as I have experienced it among UCC congregants and leaders. May God continue to speak to and through us all.”
The other two ministers giving sermons during the 2021 Synod are:
- The Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., civil rights activist, Sunday, July 11, during worship that starts at 5 p.m. EDT.
- The Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson, associate general minister for Wider Church Ministries, Sunday, July 18, during worship that starts at 6 p.m. EDT.
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