John Pavlovitz was born into what many might consider a typical Catholic family in upstate New York. He studied graphic design at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, but changed course after a stint in seminary and became a youth minister at The Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, a so-called megachurch in North Carolina.
While working at Good Shepherd, Pavlovitz began writing provocative posts on his blog, Stuff That Needs to Be Said. When the posts came to light he was fired, after being told by the head pastor, "You don't fit in here." Following his post "If I Have Gay Children," he began ministering to more people than he ever imagined.
"One day you're unemployed; the next day CNN calls," Pavlovitz said.
He has since blogged about the intersection of faith, culture and politics, and authored the book, A Bigger Table: Building a Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community. Prior to his Wassmuth Center for Human Rights-sponsored visit to Boise on Sunday, May 20, Pavlovitz took a few minutes to chat with Boise Weekly about how no one should have to sit alone.
How would you describe the Catholicism that you were born into?
Gluten and guilt. What my Catholicism did was give me a sense of God's presence and that I was created intentionally. I grew up feeling that God loved me, but I was also taught false stories about other communities: the LGBTQ community, people of color, even atheists. I was taught that I was more loved by God than they were. But when I first went away to college in Philadelphia, I was exposed to diversity and poverty in way that I had never been before.
Let's fast forward to your assignment at the megachurch. How big was that congregation?
We would easily have 2,000 people at a service. Our youth program had several hundred students every week.
And then 2014 happened.
I had already begun my blog, talking more about LGBTQ issues and pushing for racial and gender diversity. When I was fired, I found that I had a new freedom to speak openly. All of a sudden, my posts are going viral. I'm on CNN and I found that there was a much bigger table than I had ever imagined.
Take me back to the moment you were fired. Were you scared?
It was terrifying and personally devastating. My personal identity had been tied to being a pastor in a church. For a short time, it was incredibly disheartening. In retrospect, I should have seen it all coming. I knew that if I was going to keep sharing my innermost thoughts, I was probably going to preach my way out of a job. But then my blog went viral, and I started setting up appointments via Skype and FaceTime, listening to people all over the world who said, "I want to talk to a pastor and, up until now, I hadn't felt like I could talk to anybody."
Let's talk about a provocative blog post that you wrote in February 2016, "It's Time We Stopped Calling Donald Trump a Christian."
Many evangelical church pastors and Christians who supported Donald Trump wanted to place his faith out there, something he had never himself done before. I don't think most people outside of his political base get a sense that Donald Trump has any interest in perpetuating the life and teachings of Jesus. It's one thing to say, "I'm a Christian and I have these values and I voted for this person." It's another to say, "I'm in alignment with that person's Christianity." I try to lay it out there and ask, "What is it about Trump that you believe is inherently Christian? Show me where you see those things."
A more recent blog post of yours that is equally challenging is, "Just Loving Your Own Child Isn't Enough, America."
Through the years, I've heard a good many people say that they love their families deeply and they're trying to do good in the world. The distinction I see right now is that there are a lot of people who say, "I want those things for me and my family, but I'm not really concerned beyond that." As a result, a sense of nationalism or tribalism has taken over. What I'm trying to say is, ensuring other people have the same blessings as you doesn't have to take away any of your own blessings. Empathy and compassion are shared values.
Your new book explores how, and even where, we choose to sit at God's table and if we have enough open chairs.
Being a pastor in a local church for 20 years, I saw things that are beautiful and life-affirming; but I also grieve over how segregated the church can be and how many barriers there are. In my book, A Bigger Table, I ask, "Can we create a spiritual community where no one has to go elsewhere, where everyone can find a place?" Obviously, in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, that's even more of a challenge.
Can I assume you believe the table needs to be more inviting, and therefore bigger?
You have to look at who might be welcome where you are. Whose stories aren't represented? Whose stories aren't you hearing right now? For people who might consider themselves to be progressive, they need to be as open to the people on the right as the people they're accustomed to sitting with. That's why the table has to be ever-expanding.