WASHINGTON (RNS) In her sermon on the last Sunday of Black History Month, the Rev. Maria Swearingen preached about her belief that black lives, “queer lives” and immigrant lives matter.
And since it also was Transfiguration Sunday, she pointed to the story in the Gospel of Matthew where God declared Jesus “beloved.” That is a term, she said, that can be used for everyone.
Swearingen stood in the pulpit for the first time as the lesbian co-pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, her wife and fellow co-pastor, the Rev. Sally Sarratt, smiling over her left shoulder as they began their new joint roles.
“Here we find words that Sally and I will say to you so much you might start calling us a couple of broken-record co-pastors: ‘You are God’s child, the beloved, and with you God is well pleased,’” she preached to the congregation of about 140 people — mostly white millennials and a few babies and seniors.
The arrival of Swearingen, 31, and Sarratt, 42, is not a first for American churches, but experts say it’s rare in Baptist life. (Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C., has a married lesbian senior pastor but she and her wife do not co-pastor the church.) Conservative Christians have criticized the couple’s arrival at the historic church near Washington’s colorful Chinatown gate, while progressives have cheered it.
Raised in Southern Baptist households, at one point in their lives they thought the best path for ministry might be to become pastor’s wives.
“The spirit works in mysterious ways,” said Swearingen.
Sarratt recalled that when she was discerning her call to ministry a mentor told her, “You may do something that doesn’t even exist at this point in time.”
In fact, they are women clergy among Baptists, who often do not ordain women pastors, let alone LGBT pastors who are legally married.
Troy Perry, founder of the LGBT-friendly Metropolitan Community Churches, called their appointment “utterly unprecedented and historical,” especially in Baptist churches. Leaders of his denomination, where a majority of the clergy are gay or lesbian, say at least one married lesbian co-pastor couple in the MCC dates to the 1990s.
The United Church of Christ cited a similar couple that has co-pastored a Brooklyn, N.Y., church for the last decade.
But Calvary officials say it was their skills, not their sexuality, that led to the hiring of their new co-pastors.
Swearingen, a former associate chaplain at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., will focus on worship planning and social justice activities.
Sarratt, formerly an associate chaplain for behavioral health for the Greenville Health System and part-time associate minister at Greenville Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, will concentrate on church administration. She holds an MBA and experience in the corporate world.
On the weekend of President Trump’s inauguration, before the co-pastors arrived at their new offices, two conservative Christians entered the church before the worship service and declared the church was “an abomination.”
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler said in a podcast that the joint appointment reflects the “trajectory of American Protestant liberalism.” He suggested the church should be disfellowshipped from the District of Columbia Baptist Convention, an association with which the church and the Southern Baptist Convention are aligned.
Calvary Baptist, a 155-year-old congregation founded by abolitionists, severed ties with the SBC in 2012 over several issues, including the denomination's stance against homosexuality.
But the Rev. Robert Cochran, the executive director of the regional Baptist association, told Baptist Press it has no plans to part with the congregation.
“To the best of my knowledge, the D.C. Baptist Convention, due to its respect for local congregational autonomy, has never withdrawn fellowship from any congregation," he said.
The Rev. Mike Castle, president of the progressive Alliance of Baptists, with which Calvary is aligned, praised the church, saying, “Following in the way of Jesus is often counter-cultural.”
Sarratt and Swearingen lump the negative reactions they’ve received under the term “fan mail” and say they try to move on from them quickly.
“Certainly we’ve been encouraged by the positive and as best as possible have tried to sift through and not particularly engage the negative,” said Sarratt.
The couple arrived at the church after interim clergy, including a transgender pastor, took the place of the Rev. Amy Butler, who left in 2014 to lead The Riverside Church, a prominent New York congregation. Shortly before they started their new jobs, Calvary Baptist declared itself a sanctuary church to aid immigrants and refugees.
“We know that they have the call,” said Eugenia Reyes, the representative of the Latino community on the ministerial selection committee. “Right now in this society we need not only someone who has the call from God to preach but also someone who is sensitive of all the political, religious issues.”
Swearingen, who grew up with a Puerto Rican mother and a father fluent in Spanish, made a point of preaching part of her sermon in Spanish, including her emphasis that everyone fits under the banner of “beloved.”
Sarratt has a working knowledge of Spanish and said she hopes to build on those skills.
Karen Rice, a bisexual member who joined Calvary a year and a half ago, sees a link between the church’s outreach to Latinos and its welcome of LGBT clergy and members.
“We are all interconnected,” she said. “I do see that as a piece of taking Jesus seriously, caring for the least of these.”
Swearingen and Sarratt were ordained in 2015 and married three times — privately, publicly on a North Carolina farm where a rainbow appeared and, most recently, legally at Furman’s chapel in 2014. They say they are ready to minister to everyone, from the urban community around Calvary to the LGBT people who enter their doors.
As she was making her way through the labyrinth-like building before the recent worship service, Swearingen ran into a visitor, a mother of a trans child.
Choking up, the parent told her, “I just can’t tell you what this moment means and what a hire like this means and that there would be a church that would do this,” the co-pastor recalled of the conversation.
“We hugged each other there in the hallway and I said, ‘You’re making our space sacred today,’” she told the newcomer. “It was kind of this really grounding moment — like, yeah, that’s what we’re doing.”