He helps lead Toronto's rainbow flock.
Reverend Kevin Downer didn’t expect that, one day, the church where he got married would eventually give him a job. “We got married at a time when we couldn’t get married in the States. When we were looking around, we decided to come here,” the 50-year-old explains with a laugh. “When we were talking to our families, moving to Toronto didn’t seem to make sense. But when we said, ‘it’s the church where we got married,’ all of the sudden, they got it.” As Executive Pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church, Downer is responsible for the day-to-day ministry and mission of the congregation, “from worship, to the refugee settlement ministry, to the spirituality programs, to the community connections.” He also preaches seven or eight times each year. The church, a Protestant denomination founded in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, focuses on an LGBTQ-supportive mandate. The Toronto congregation is one of the largest in the world.
Downer moved to Toronto from Minneapolis in October 2013. He holds both a Masters of Divinity from Austin Theological Seminary and an MBA from University of Connecticut, and is currently working on his doctorate from the Chicago Theological Seminary. “The combination of my business consulting skills and my theology give me a very different way of thinking about ministry. It’s the combination of the theology and being able to think about what are the real issues that people aren’t talking about,” says Downer. This is Downer’s fourth church since he was ordained nine years ago; he now prefers to work with a congregation for two or three years, bolster its sense of community and mission, and then move on to do the same thing somewhere else.
Our interview with Downer—about marching during Pride, his favourite scriptures, and the concept of a transgender God—is below.
Torontoist: How did you get started with the Metropolitan Community Church?
Reverend Kevin Downer: I used to be a business consultant, for 14 years. I had felt called to ministry at a point in time when I didn’t think I could be gay and Christian, let alone actually be a pastor. Coming out of undergraduate with that kind of question, I ended up getting an MBA instead of an M.Div. Out of business school, I ended up working for Anderson Consulting, which became Accenture. In the process, I was transferred to Chicago, which was the global headquarters for Anderson Consulting. That was the point at which I started to come out. I felt disconnected, and I missed church in my life. I started to look around, and that’s when I found MCC. I started to get connected into the MCC, and getting more involved in the community, and people started to ask me if I had ever thought about going into ministry.
I grew up in the United Church of Christ, which is the liberal Protestant religion in the States. I was raised very typical New England, with the big church at the end of the town common. In university, the more I grappled with my own sexuality, not feeling that I could I be Christian and gay, the less I felt like I wanted to go and participate. When I transferred to Chicago, that created new space and new opportunity for me to be able to explore. I visited a number of different churches in Chicago, and eventually found the MCC. It was through those conversations that re-engaged those questions of, “yeah, there’s an emptiness inside, there’s something more that I’m supposed to be doing.”
Any special celebrations for the church for this upcoming Pride?
We’re doing our annual Church on Church Street. Usually, a thousand people come out for that. It’s an hour-long service, with really incredible music. It’s anchored by our Sunday morning choir, as well as our evening service praise singers. There are always special musicians there. Lots of political figures come; last year, it was Justin Trudeau, Thomas Mulcair, and Premier Wynne. Last year, a number of the mayoral candidates were there as well. And then there are people from the congregation and people from the community. It is a joyous way to begin Pride, and so that’s the biggest celebration we have. We also have a contingent for the Dyke March, the Trans March, as well as the Pride Parade. We try to make sure that there are some clergy present at all the parades. Last year, I was in the Trans March.
Over the last 40 years or so, the queer community has become much more accepted by, and embedded in, the mainstream community. How has that shift affected the mission of the church?
For a congregation such as ours, which grew of out this profound need for people to be able to worship—really in exile almost, from their families and society—what I believe is that may have been have been the initial reason we got going. But within that, within the initial experience of all the challenges that we faced, that has actually prepared us for a much bigger purpose and mission than we could ever imagine. Our purpose is not just the LGBTQ community. It is to understand that, if you look within a society, even one as beautifully progressive and accepting as Canada may be, there are individuals who are experiencing poverty and inequality, housing challenges, discriminations. I think that our early history has created a community which understands what are the profound injustices within society, and understands how to approach those injustices from a spiritually centred place. We talk about love, and wrap ourselves around love, but it’s also about affirming people where they are, without all the dogma and blame and shame. We can do so much more when we acknowledge the huge blessing of those diverse gifts, so let’s get over all that negativity and focus on what we can do together. I think that’s a message that transcends the LGBTQ community. We see that in glimpses here, and it gives me powerfully profound hope. We’ve got a growing contingent of individuals who do not identify as LGBTQ, and may that trend continue. We’re at a point where we’re having open conversations about what this ministry is, and it’s not just wrapped in the rainbow flag.
Organized religion often makes a point of ostracizing or punishing people who aren’t hetronormative. How does the MCC make a point of including, rather than excluding, those individuals?
There are three formative scriptures from our faith journey. For me, they end up being the bedrock and the anchor of why we are, and who we are. They’re why I think our mission is so much broader than LGBTQ, but this message first resonated with the LGBTQ community.
The first one comes out of Genesis. In the very beginning, God created humankind, male and female, in God’s image. It’s a really beautiful opening because it also says, in the Hebrew, “let us create.” So God is plural and God creates male and female. I argue that is a transgender god [laughs], because God is one and God is both male and female. So whoever you are on the gender spectrum, I believe you are of God. We believe that everybody—no matter your gender, your ethnicity, your sexuality—everybody was made in the image of God. And that’s so fundamental and so core, and it’s about how you feel on the inside, and not about what the world sees on the outside. That’s just hugely affirming. If we believe that God created all that is, and we’re all created in that image, then we need respect and honour everybody as somehow containing parts of that image.
The next scripture comes from Prophets, from Micah 6:8: “What does our god require of us? You know: it is to love kindness, do justice, and walk humbly with your god.” That, for me, is really profound because it’s all three brought together. What that says is that, for as a community, we are continually called to be open to listen the stories. That’s why I think that this congregation has always tried to be on the edge of history. Who are the populations that the world hasn’t yet woken up to? That’s the constant call for justice, and that comes out of the painful experiences of the 40-year journey of this congregation and the MCCs globally. As tragic and painful as some of those stories might have been, they inform us to be yet ever open to the work that we are called to do, because nobody else is called to do it. When it wasn’t okay to be gay, and it wasn’t popular to wave the rainbow flag, it was the MCCs that were calling on city councils and provincial legislatures and the federal government to change the laws so that people weren’t being arrested or losing their jobs just because of who they loved. In the 1980s, when churches and faith communities of every different flavour turned their backs on their own children because of HIV/AIDS, it was this congregation that was going into hospitals, visiting for the sick, providing for people in hospice, and doing funerals for people whose families wouldn’t even attend.
The last of the three scriptures comes from the New Testament, from Jesus, and he says, “The greatest commandments are these: to love God with all your heart, mind and soul, and to love your neighbour as yourself.” It really is about saying that we’re all part of this one family. I may or may not understand, and I may not even like, but at the end of the day, I’m called to love. We collectively are called to love. It comes out of our formative narrative, which is people who didn’t feel that they had a home. And that’s really the formative narrative for the whole LGBTQ community. It should be. I think we’ve forgotten it. Now the question becomes who in the world right now is feeling pressure because they don’t feel welcomed home, or they cannot have a home, or afford a home. So think about refugees. Think about our transgender brothers and sisters. Think about people who are struggling and one paycheque away from being homeless. What we do today still has to do with the LGBTQ community, but it’s absolutely broader than that.