The Gathering was “born” on June 22, 2003 when a group of individuals gathered for prayer and mutual support. Initially meeting in the homes of its members, the Gathering eventually began meeting at the Old St. George church located in Clifton, Ohio. In 2005, the congregation chose to relocate to Over-the- Rhine area of Cincinnati, a culturally diverse inner-city community. The congregation chose this location as a way to purposefully express its values in behalf of social justice for the poor, homeless and dispossessed.
Pastor Steve Van Kuiken was the first Pastor of the Gathering. The church was founded after Steve was removed as a Pastor within the Presbyterian church because of his advocacy for the rights of gay and lesbian persons. Steve performed several same-sex marriages and supported the ordination within the Presbyterian church of self-avowed non-celibate gay and lesbian Elders and Pastors. After his removal, a group of supporters coalesced around him to form the nucleus of the Gathering.
In 2007, the Gathering was formally invited to affiliate with the United Church of Christ national denomination. Pastor Van Kuiken was accepted as an ordained minister in that denomination. The UCC has long expressed progressive values including its support of gay and lesbian marriage. The Gathering immediately became an Open and Affirming UCC congregation meaning that it openly celebrates gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning persons.
Since its formation, the Gathering has been on the vanguard of support for the rights of the GLBT community and others in the Cincinnati area who live on the margins of our culture – people of color, the poor, the hungry and the homeless. Its vision and its purpose remain to spiritually and actively serve others both within the congregation and those outside its walls.
On August 9, 2009 Pastor Van Kuiken announced to the congregation that he had accepted a call to another UCC church. After several meetings organized to decide the next steps for the Gathering, the congregation unanimously voted on September 27, 2009 to hire Doug Slagle as its next Pastor. Doug assumed his duties on November 2, 2009.
The following is a history of the Gathering as written by founding member Jack Brennan:
The Gathering was born of schism. Hardly unusual for a spiritual community, but uniquely difficult and challenging for each case and its affected individuals.
The Gathering’s ancestral story begins circa 1990 at Cincinnati’s Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church, the first mainline church in the area to become well known as gay-friendly. While remaining a full participating congregation in the Presbyterian Church USA (PC USA), Mount Auburn under Pastor Harold Porter came to have an estimated 33 to 50 percent membership of people self-identifying as LGBT. And the rest of the congregation were of course largely straight allies.
Though conscious to be not defined by “gay issues,” Mt. Auburn made them a signature part of its mission. Rev. Porter, the Session, and the congregation at large were well aware that certain policies — such as ordination of openly gay, non-celibate deacons or Session members – were likely to cause friction within PC USA.
And so it went for some years. Mt. Auburn rocked PC USA’s boat a bit at times, but the waves would periodically subside. Then, circa 1998 or ’99, Rev. Porter announced his impending retirement, and Mt. Auburn was off on the search for a new pastor. The choice in the end was Steve Van Kuiken. I was not a member of the search team, but I do recall one search team member, the wonderful and passionate Camilla Warrick, relating that Steve had asked them, and Session also perhaps, if they were prepared “to start playing in the street.”
Steve’s question was meant to make clear that he was ready to take Mt. Auburn’s progressive program a step or two farther – to the point of having the church bless same-sex unions, and by unequivocally calling those unions “marriages.” Steve referred to his general modus operandi as “open, honest noncompliance with exclusionary church laws.”
And the congregation seemed fully behind Steve to start with.
But as things got hotter in “the street,” the attitude toward Steve began growing colder inside the walls of Mt. Auburn. I recall Jack Harrison, a Van Kuiken supporter whose stance was always strident — to put it mildly — telling me early on, “You watch, in the end the Session will desert Steve and not stand in the way of him being sacked by the Presbytery. They’ll choose keeping the (church) building and the new organ.”
Jack’s reference was to PC USA’s right to claim ownership of church property in the event of an irrevocable split with Mt. Auburn.
I told Jack I thought he was dead wrong. But he wasn’t.
I was part of the 16-member Session for Steve’s last couple of years as pastor. I saw attitudes toward Steve turning cold. Near the end, votes on most issues were going 14-2 against Steve, with myself and Sue Cline his only supporters. Not all the animosity related to gay inclusion issues – there were other pastoral areas where Steve did not win friends, and I would imagine that in retrospect he would have handled some things differently. We all live and learn. But gay inclusion – particularly the issue of full marriage rights – was at the core.
Session struggled to find a course. I recall complex documents, covering attempts to formulate and then explain policies that would remain friendly to gays but would not cause a rupture with PC USA. In the end I and some others came to see them as excessively “legal-ese,” parsing fine lines of definition and word meaning in almost a Clinton-like fashion. To those of us fully in Steve’s corner, they seemed “too clever by half,” ways in which to present a progressive stance but not truly support our pastor or the goal of full equality for LGBT members.
In the end, to me, it was rather simple. Either you supported the path Steve’s conscience demanded he pursue, or you didn’t. Admittedly, I was less tied than perhaps any Session member to the history and tradition of PC USA. I was not a Presbyterian before joining Mt. Auburn, and the denomination label was frankly incidental to me. Many others had a much tougher time struggling with the issue of their historical church vs. the new pastor.
Regardless, the pressure from PC USA mounted. In April of 2003, a church court public rebuked Steve for sanctioning same-sex marriages. In May, Steve presided at a marriage ceremony for another gay couple, and the end for Steve as pastor of Mt. Auburn was at hand.
On a Monday evening, June 16, at Lakeside Presbyterian Church in the Cincinnati suburb of Fort Mitchell, Ky., the Cincinnati Presbytery voted 119-45 to approve a ministry committee’s recommendation that Steve be found to have renounced PC USA’s constitution and governance. He was, in essence, “de-frocked.”
Steve and several of his supporters spoke against the recommendation. Members of more conservative denominations of course spoke against him. And curiously – or perhaps really not so curiously — a couple members of Mt. Auburn Session were announced as speakers in support of Steve, but by the time they were through, you knew they had actually speaking against him.
As I termed it in my subsequent resignation letter, “Two Mt. Auburn elders reached out on June 16 to the very conservatives whose views on GLBT justice I had thought were the polar opposites of our own. If I heard right, they said to (militantly conservative pastor) Tom Sweets and company, “Save us from Steve Van Kuiken, and please forgive our sins against PC(USA) polity.”
“They said they’d stand by me,” Steve said some time later to a reporter, referring to the Mt. Auburn Session and others. “But they didn’t.”
Rev. Porter, Steve’s predecessor at Mt. Auburn, in essence declined to support Steve as the long process with PC USA went forward. Though Rev. Porter was deservedly respected for his early work in developing a gay-friendly Presbyterian congregation, he was seen in the end by Steve’s supporters as bowing to pressure from PC USA to get on the “right” side of the issue, or else risk his status as a retired PC USA minister in good standing.
Thus, June 16, 2003 truly can be seen as the night The Gathering was conceived. Before long, an estimated 40 of Mt. Auburn’s 280 members elected to renounce membership and follow Steve as their pastor, wherever that might lead. For me the choice to leave was an easy one. I was surprised that more of the folks I had come to know and cherish did not leave. Some I spoke with stressed their desire to preserve the church as Presbyterian and to work for change from within. It was not a choice that I and the other 40 could make.
We tremendously respected Steve for his courage in his conscience-driven bucking authority, a stance that put his own family (wife and two children) at risk. Many of Steve’s supporters felt great bitterness toward what they perceived as Mt. Auburn’s “betrayal.” Ten years later, not all of that has subsided, even though Mt. Auburn remains regarded overall as a strong pro-LGBT congregation.
Steve did not immediately take over as pastor of “a new church.” Shortly after the June de-frocking by PC USA, those who left Mt. Auburn in support of Steve began meeting on Sundays for informal, congregation-led services at the homes of various members. Steve was in attendance, but only as part of the group. The first such meeting was hosted by Sharon McLeod and Dae Jones, at their home in Northern Kentucky.
But as these meetings continued, and as people recovered some equilibrium from the events of 6-16-03, the will formed to start a new church under Steve. No one was recording things for a permanent historical record at this time, but a simple document survives, headlined “Our New Church Meeting on Oct. 19, 2003.” The document’s agenda items included:
- “Choose a working name for our new church.”
- “Choose a time, place and beginning date for our new church to worship.”
- “Elect at least three trustees, including a treasurer, and authorize the treasurer to establish a checking account and begin the pledge process.”
Eventually things coalesced to the point where “The Gathering” was meeting in space inside the Old St. George Church in Clifton Heights. The congregation was not large, and as some new people joined up, others left. But a vibrant core stayed intact, due mainly to Steve’s leadership in my opinion.
Later came our move to 1431 Main Street, our present location. Sometime along the line, membership agreed to pursue church affiiation with the United Church of Christ. The UCC affiliation was in large part pursued to benefit Steve. It gave him official standing as a pastor in the denomination, with many benefits The Gathering could not provide.
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August 16, 2010 at 1:17 pm
Thanks for doing this. I realized on Saturday, at the Free Store, when someone asked me who we were and I launched into my explanation of Steven’s “defrocking” and all the history why I do this. For as long as we’ve been a group, I’ve always given this full explanation. It’s not enough for me to say we are a progressive and open and affirming community. I think it’s because for me, this story sets us apart from other “churches”. It tells who I am speaking with that this is an extraordinary place.
Looking forward to years of growth and laughter,
December 16, 2012 at 11:05 am
As the founding leader, it’s hard to believe that I was there for the first 6 and 1/2 years! Time flew by.