“There’s life on the other side.” That’s the message from Lee Kosa and Darren DeMelo, former pastors at Cedar Park Mennonite Brethren Church in Ladner, B.C.
It’s been a year since that church was taken over by the British Columbia Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches after the congregation showed interest in exploring human sexuality and LGBTQ inclusion.
Kosa, the lead pastor, was stripped of his ministerial credential.
After the takeover, the church’s three pastors, including Megan Simpson, resigned. About two-thirds of the congregation of about 250 people left Cedar Park, with around 70 deciding to start a new congregation, called Estuary, led by Kosa and DeMelo.
“Some former members are with us, some are going to other churches, and some wonder why they would ever want to go to church again after our experience with the conference,” Kosa said.
The new congregation has been meeting twice a month since January in rented space at a local United Church. Other Sundays, they meet for discussion times.
Currently, the church is spending time talking about how to deal with religious trauma, the result of their experience with the British Columbia MB Conference.
“It’s a way for us to deal with that traumatic experience of being dismissed and losing a spiritual community that some had known for decades,” Kosa said.
One thing Estuary is clear about is it is a fully affirming congregation.
“We seek to be a community who celebrates queerness,” DeMelo said.
This public declaration is proving attractive for some. New people are showing up at services saying they are looking for an affirming church, said Carol Johnson, who is on Estuary’s leadership team. “They say they had given up on finding a church that is truly welcoming. Estuary is their last shot.”
Unlike other church startups, which usually have financial support from a denomination, Estuary is on its own. The church has applied for charitable status with Revenue Canada. In the meantime, Artisan Church — another congregation that left the British Columbia MB Conference over LGBTQ welcome — is managing the bookkeeping and receipting of donations.
But money is still tight. Kosa and DeMelo only work part time at the church. “We are bivocational pastors,” Kosa said. “I think that is a healthy way to be a pastor, not relying on a church for our entire salaries.”
But not being part of a denomination also has drawbacks. Neither pastor has access to employer-provided health insurance or retirement plans.
While both were sad to be forced out of the Mennonite Brethren Conference, they are hopeful for the future.
“Today I can be my full self, with a sense of freedom,” Kosa said. “I can be more authentic about who I am and what I believe than was possible in the Mennonite Brethren context. It’s beautiful and freeing.”
For Johnson, who identifies as queer, there is “great relief” in not always talking about whether God fully embraces LGBTQ people, like they were doing while a part of the British Columbia MB Conference.
“Now that we are intentional and explicit about our inclusive and affirming position, we can spend our time on building community and resilience,” she said.
All three remain committed Anabaptists. “That is who we are as a church,” said Kosa, noting the church decided against joining Mennonite Church British Columbia since that Conference is not fully open to LGBTQ welcome and affirmation. Instead, they have developed a relationship with Mennonite Church Manitoba, which is more welcoming, despite it being located three provinces east of B.C.
While starting a new church this way has its challenges, it is also a cause for joy. “It’s great to be able to go to a church that is a safe space,” said Johnson. “Everyone is welcome here. They can come as they are.”
As for what they would say to other Mennonite Brethren churches facing removal from membership over LGBTQ welcome and affirmation, “there is joy on the other side,” Kosa said. “We are living it.”