By Patti Samar
God does, indeed, work in mysterious ways.
Just ask Alana Kelley, pastor of the First Congregational Church of St. Clair.
It was never Kelley’s intention to become a pastor.
But, apparently, God had other plans.
She originally enrolled in a seminary, in mid-life, for purely personal reasons.
“I was more interested in learning,” said the former art education teacher. “But over the course of four years, I began feeling more and more of the call.
“It’s something you just can’t really resist.”
And answer the call, she did.
By the time she graduated from the seminary, the Pennsylvania native, who did not attend seminary until she was in her late 30s, was a well-established resident in Oberlin, Ohio, where her husband is a professor at Oberlin College.
Kelley landed in St. Clair in 2016, following stints serving a number of United Church of Christ (UCC) congregations in Ohio.
“St. Clair is really welcoming,” she said of her adopted community. “We’re called to be helpful and this church really understands that. This church is not judgmental and that’s what I really like about it.”
Upon her arrival, one of the first tasks she undertook, as pastor, was working the congregation through a certification process within the UCC that accredits the church as an “open and affirming” congregation.
“The UCC was one of the first churches in the country that become open and affirming,” she said, noting that UCC churches are welcoming to people from all walks of life, all socio-economic backgrounds and of all sexual orientations.
“The UCC was the first church to ordain a woman, in the 1800s, and also the first to ordain an African American man, and the first to ordain a gay man in the 1970s, and then later a gay woman.”
The UCC’s long history of acceptance lead the St. Clair congregation to its desire to officially work through the process of becoming an “open and affirming” church.
“We have been opening and affirming now for about a year and a half,” she said. She noted that since receiving that certification, the church has hosted one same-sex marriage and is anticipating another in the near future.
“It’s an educational process,” she said of helping both the congregation and the community understand the importance of accepting all who love one another, including those in the LGBTQ community. “In most cases, people don’t think they know anyone who is gay and it can be a frightening thing for them until they learn.
“We like to say, ‘Jesus doesn’t turn people away and neither do we,’” she said of her congregation and its willingness to accept all who wish to worship with them. “We also say, ‘Jesus is still speaking.’ The teachings of the Bible change as our lives change.
“God is a God of love and that’s what we firmly believe. There are mistakes in the Bible; there are stories told two different ways in the Bible, and we need to approach it with love and acceptance.”
Kelley said the congregation believes strongly in helping others and has become very involved in a number of community outreach initiatives. They have become involved at Harbor Impact Ministries, which is organized by the Blue Water Free Methodist Church. Harbor Impact provides food, clothing and a variety of other items and services to low-income families.
The congregation of approximately 200 has recently seen an influx of new members.
“We’ve had an influx of new people and that seems to be due to being open and affirming,” said Kelley, noting that word has spread throughout the community.
The church sponsors a number of weekly or monthly programs for the community. A food pantry is available for anyone on the church grounds, and a free community meal is served from 4:30 to 6 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of each month.
Kelley also conducts “Beer Witness” weekly at a local pub. “We meet in a bar and talk,” she said. “I take a list of questions and an icebreaker. We talk about what God might look like to them, or what should the church look like.” Beer Witness takes place from 6 to 7 p.m. on Wednesdays.
Regardless of how she meets with congregants or how often she sees them, what inspires Kelley is the generosity of the congregation.
“This church just really wants to do things for other people,” she said.
Amen to that.