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Pastor serves two churches and works with a nonprofit

Along with serving as pastor of Everett UCC and Liberation UCC, Jermell Witherspoon, promotes diversity, equity and inclusion with area school districts through the nonprofit, Zeno that creates a love for math and competency in math among children and parenting adults. He works with families and children of color to make more equitable practice in study of math.

Jermell Witherspoon is pastor at Everett and Liberation UCC.

“My heart work is to open doors and create better ways to be on earth with others. We are all people, and we are all spiritual beings,” Jermell said.

In each setting he applies different skills to touch the hearts and lives of different people. The two churches have unique journeys.

Everett UCC is a more traditional, predominantly white church with 120 members on the rolls and 30 to 40 attending each week. It’s a church that is envisioning a new journey as it sells its 130-year-old building to Housing Hope “to fulfill our vision deeply steeped in providing siblings who are unhoused with housing,” Jermell said.

“We sold it at a lower than market price as part of our vision to be partners with our siblings who are unhoused. It will be torn down and replaced with housing for people 55 years and older,” he explained. “We are now waiting for revelation of what the spirit is calling us to do in ministry.”

Those on the roster are being consulted in the process of discerning the mission and vision for what is next.

“We are reaching out to envision. It’s been a beautiful journey, but is hard on folks, too. We are rejoicing and mourning,” Jermell said.

“We have a big, beautiful, old building. Our mission and vision has been part of how we use the building. The spirit is guiding us, and we have made connections in the community,” he said.

The Everett church has offered a food pantry and served meals to unhoused neighbors and about 50 unhoused people who stayed in its basement as a shelter and many of whom are 55+. They have partnered with Union Gospel Mission to provide wraparound services for those in the shelter.

Those in the shelter sleep on portable beds and can spend the day upstairs. The church has also been open as a cold weather shelter, when people come in and stay upstairs, including sleeping in the sanctuary.

Everett UCC has had this ministry for many years.

“We have made it work, even though it has not always been comfortable,” he said. “We have learned much in the process about the many different ways people become homeless. We hear their stories. All of us are one paycheck away from being homeless. We have also learned about the impact of mental breakdown.

“It is vital to address the systemic issues that promote, bring about and keep people in homelessness,” he pointed out.”

Housing Hope has two other buildings in Everett, one of which houses families and this one for seniors, which fits zoning for downtown Everett.

The program owns and runs more than 600 units in 24 housing sites around Snohomish County and Camano Island as part of its mission to promote and provide permanent affordable housing and support service to reduce homelessness and poverty.

Everett UCC continues to discern its new ministry as it looks like the building will close in the immediate future, knowing that the community of Everett has not always accepted the church’s outreach.

“In the next six months, we will discern how we will move forward, what the spirit is calling us to be as we transition into new ministry,” said Jermell.

Be it at Everett UCC or Liberation UCC, he said: “We need to address the systems of dominance and open up so people can be healed and made whole.”

Liberation UCC, at 832 32nd Ave., about 30 miles south of Everett in Seattle, is also a space of healing, but “caters especially to those who have been minoritized and pushed out,” Jermell said.

“We need to undo systems in ourselves and in our congregations that have held us down,” he said. “We need to work inside and outside on behalf of people of color, queer people, people with different abilities to make a healing space so they can be whole.”

Jermell knows that it is unique to be involved with both queer folks and folks of color.

“Outward expressions of queerness are often not accepted by many communities of color,” he said, “yet both have similarities as they encounter the dominant culture and systems of dominance. Both people of color and queer people are by nature counter to the dominant culture. Both are ostracized and pushed away. Both have also been taught by the dominant culture how to ostracize and minoritize others.

“We are not a minority but are minoritized,” Jermell said. “Through introspection, I pull out people’s innate beauty, reaching out to remind people they are made in God’s image.

“We have learned to say we are not good enough, not God enough,” he observed. “My job is to show those who are pushed out how to live, understanding they are like little gods made in God’s image, be they queer, black or brown. We wish to make that the system of normalcy.”

Jermell does that to undo the impact of systems in the church, just as he undoes systems of dominance related to homelessness in Everett.

Of the 100 in Liberation’s community, 20 to 50 attend each week.

“Liberation is a revolving door, seeing different people every Sunday, like a drop-in center, a place of healing with many walking in,” he said, noting that 25 people are the core of church members.

Much of its ministry is supported by grants. One grant supports a pastor of trans experience. As part of its trans ministry, Liberation offers a blessing ceremony when they change their names.

While Seattle is relatively open, there is division between LGBTQIA, people of color and white people, Jermell said. Just because one fights for cultural understanding and rights in one area does not mean they are open in other areas, so Jermell seeks to relate more with other UCC churches.

He was headed on a path to ministry, as a youth pastor and graduating in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and social work from Alabama State University in Montgomery.

He returned to Seattle to study for a master’s in pastoral studies at the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University. By the time he graduated in 2019, he had shifted in theology and found a new home in the United Church of Christ.

At the STM, he connected with Darrell Goodwin, founder of Liberation UCC 13 years ago, first as a nondenominational church. With Darrell as a mentor, Jermell began attending Liberation in 2015.

When Darrell left in 2017to be the Southern New England Conference minister, Jermell became pastor of Liberation and also was called to be pastor of Everett UCC, which Darrell also served.

Jermell said Liberation UCC is a growing community that follows a Pentecostal path and whose participants are predominantly multicultural and people of color.

In his community job, Jermell works through Zeno with families and children of color to raise their skills in math.

“Diversity work relates to blackness and those furthest from opportunities based on race—pushed out and ostracized queer, differently abled and other marginalized people,” said Jermell, whose title with Zeno is assistant director of partner services.

Jermell has been with Zeno for six years, working in the community to engage families and teaching teachers to do equity work.

He helps predominantly white teachers name biases and be aware of what excludes. He helps white educators be introspective to recognize how they may promote the system of dominance and how detrimental small things can be.

He works with teachers of color to help them experience that who they are is essential to families and children of color, not focusing on whiteness but bringing out the brilliance and beauty of communities of color.

“We need to open our eyes so we do this work together. White educators are willing to learn and be open,” said Jermell, who does professional development with schools, school districts and children of color.

“I see changes in the ways white folks and people see their role and responsibility and broader role in the community. People are responsible to do and be the change through changing minds and actions.”

In his roles, he sees there is the same heart work to do, but it manifests in different ways.

“My heart work is to open doors and create better ways to be on earth with others,” he repeated. “Part of the work is to deal with sin at the core.”

While Liberation is intentionally a space for queer folks and folks of color, Jermell said it includes white allies who are learning ways to be free.

He also said Everett is learning ways to be free.

“Freedom looks different for different people. We are all trying to be our best, freest selves,” he said. “We are all are transitioning to be our God selves.”

Jermell is grateful for his heritage, which stems from the Church of God in Christ (COGIC).

His hope is that spaces like the COGIC church “would also do their work, one day, in dismantling their biases and detrimental thinking in order to embrace the inclusive love of God,” he said.

“I was drawn to the UCC to live authentically and for its theology,” said Jermell, who decided to be ordained as a UCC pastor.

He is drawn because the UCC is open and affirming but struggles because it is a predominantly white systemic organization.

“Nonetheless, I have found a home in the UCC,” he said.

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Pacific NW United Church of Christ Conference News © October 2023


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