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‘I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.’ It’s a common statement and something that many people have likely heard in casual conversation. But it’s more than just idle water-cooler chit chat. According to Pew Research Center, it’s a measurable trend, and over a quarter of Americans, 27 percent, in 2017 identified this way. As church attendance continues to trend downward, this identification is certainly not lost on the religious community, but it’s not always viewed as a negative thing. The Rev. Dr. Gail Simonds recently began her role as pastor at Divine Peace Metropolitan Community Church, and she said that one of her first goals is to emphasize that spirituality and religion don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
“This is one of those things that’s happened in the last 20 years or so, but church attendance is down, churches are older and the spiritual landscape in the country has changed,” she said. “And with more and more people describing themselves as spiritual but not religious, I think the responsibility is ours — people who are in church — to move in that direction. Because for longest time we have said that our spirituality is this box, when, in fact, it’s not and it never has been. Anybody who has taken a walk on a beach or in the woods understands that and it’s just trying to open people up to that experience that young people are having that they describe as spiritual but not religious.”
A self-described process theologian, Simonds said that she’s always been drawn to religion and spirituality and has certainly never shied away from interpreting it in a progressive way. Her spiritual journey began the same way it does for most: she went to church with her family as a child. That church happened to be a Roman Catholic one.
“I was born and raised in Wayne city, went to Wayne Saint Mary and we used to play mass when we were kids. And I realized that you can’t be a priest because you’re a girl, because I was oblivious to my gender in a lot of ways. And then, all of sudden, I realized that I can’t play football and can’t be a priest,” Simonds said.
Still, despite that early life setback, faith remained strong in Simonds’ life. And she couldn’t ever quite shake the idea of following a religious career path.
“I played around with this idea of church and attending church for a really long time, and then, of all the places in the world, I had a job in Western Kentucky. I went to a United Methodist Church there. … We did Bible study and all of that and I liked being in church. And what I liked best is the stories inbetween the stories or, in the Jewish tradition, ‘This story says this story, but where did Cain’s wife come from?’ And in Judaism it’s OK to tell another story to talk about the story. That’s their tradition.”
It wasn’t long after realizing that it was OK to dismantle and unpack religious stories to get at a deeper meaning that Simonds decided to get a degree. She studied at The Methodist Theological School in Ohio and before long began working at an MCC church there. It was then that Simonds spent nine years in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and then moved between Oregon and Texas. She said it was tricky to find an LGBTQ-affirming church that suited her well.
“I had churches I was too gay for, churches that I didn’t dress well enough for,” she said.
It was finally when she happened upon Divine Peace in Michigan that she felt like she could become a spiritual leader.
“Because it’s great to have a congregation where 30 to 40 people show up every Sunday, but they say, ‘We need to grow the church.’ … The wrong answer is, ‘We need more money in the pews in order to make the payments,’ but you hear that sometimes. What I heard was, ‘I want other people to have or feel the way I feel when I’m with this group of people and that, to me, is the right answer. … That says to me that your heart is in the right place.”
Now, having started her tenure at Divine Peace only two months ago, she said she’s working hard to learn the lay of the land. Beyond this, Simonds said that she’s spent much of her time trying to instill a culture of not only people “Feeling good where they’re at,” but a mindset of service and being “an active participant in the world.”
“Those are the two things that make up church,” she said.
She said that she hopes that not only will church become a place for people to feel safe in whatever part of their spiritual journey they’re on but also a brave one, because attendees should be “challenged to think outside of whatever your worldview is.”
“And that in its essence is what church is because I have a home, I have heat, I have hot water, I have food in my refrigerator, and there are so many people who have none of that,” she said. “And as a Christian it’s my responsibility to do those things. It’s a two-pronged approach always. And we’ve been doing outreach in the congregation to begin with and you can see folks have a heart for it and that cheered me up.”
To find out more about Simonds and Divine Peace MCC, visit dpmcc.net.