By Jihyun Oh, MDiv ’06
We now call ourselves the “Forever Young Urban Pastors” group. We used to be the Young Urban Pastors group. And when I was invited to join the group in 2009 for the gathering in Seattle, I was still in my mid-30’s, and (especially) by PC(USA) standards, was still considered a young adult.
The invitation to be part of this covenant community came at a key time in my life. I was at the end of my first call. While my work as an Associate Pastor of a congregation had reaffirmed a deep sense of call to ministry within me, it had also been difficult. Halfway through the 2-year call, I had realized that moving to a new city expecting to have the support for ministry that I needed through emails and phones calls had been a bad assumption. It had been a bit of a perfect storm – the circumstances within my call, the circumstances within my own life, my bad assumptions about what I needed as a support system while in ministry – and there were days when I wondered whether I was losing my mind. In response to this, I had been actively trying to build a web of support for myself when I ran across a friend in an airport. After hearing of my plight, he asked whether I would be interested in being a part of this group.
The invitation to be part of this covenant community came as a gift from God. A providential conversation in an airport led to this connection. But when I arrived in Seattle, I realized that it would be different from what I imagined… like coming home or falling into a warm and fluffy blanket. The group had been meeting for some years already, and there were deep relationships and memories there. And there were the cultural differences that I kept noticing. Particular NPR shows that everyone seemed to listen to. Particular music that everyone seemed to connect with. Particular books and speakers that everyone seemed to be following. I wondered whether this was part of the PC(USA) Gen X clergy culture. I wondered whether this was part of my 1.5-generation immigrant culture clashing with some urban Americana. In these ways, I didn’t feel like I belonged.
But there were commonalities, too. Deep engagement and exploration of the church and its mission in urban settings in the 21st century. A desire to be in covenant relationship with one another, to share life and ministry, to be in relationship with one another. Authentic presence and a sense of hospitality for those who are “outliers.” Appreciation for table fellowship in all its myriad forms. So, I kept returning to the group, year after year.
The invitation to be part of this covenant community has been an invitation to gather at the Table and in the kitchen. And we do this… a lot. These last couple of years, the time around the kitchen and a table has, in my mind, become a symbol of our time together. Two years into my time with the group, we assessed that we needed retreat more than we needed education. So we transitioned from rotating urban centers to Sonoma Valley and Monterey and Lake Lure, NC.
In each of these places, lunch is when we usually go out. Thanks to some prior research by the “hosts,” we eat a local restaurant-prepared meal in a nice setting. We enjoy our time together and eat great food characteristic of our meeting location. We leave the restaurant nourished by the fellowship and by the food, and ready to tackle the rest of the day.
For dinner, no matter where we stay, the kitchen table figures integrally into our life together. The kitchen table is where we roll out gnocchi and stuff dumplings together for dinner. The kitchen table is where we listen to each other’s stories of God’s movement in our lives and in the life of the world. The kitchen table is where we offer thanks and celebration for one another and for God. The kitchen table is where we hold each other’s grief and the heaviness that our calls sometimes take on. The kitchen table is where we gather as God’s chosen and are called to break bread together.
And this is why I have gone to 7 out of the last 8 gatherings. This year, we discussed why each of us keeps coming to the gatherings. Some of us come because we have no other group like it. Some of us come because it is a space where we and our stories are known. Some of us come because it is the only time when we are not asked to “produce” anything. I said, then, that it was a discipline for me… that in spite of the differences, the times when I haven’t felt I belonged completely I came because it was an invitation to be with people who are different from me; this has been a lifelong theme. Today, I would say that it is this invitation to be around the Table in authentic community, as a new family, that keeps bringing me back. It is not just discipline. It is not just commitment. It is covenant.
The invitation to be part of this community has become an invitation to gather as a covenant community around the Table. It nourishes me. It challenges me. It feeds me and sends me out into the world and into my vocation in new ways while keeping me connected to this family in which my identity keeps being worked out. Thanks be to God!
Jihyun Oh began her new work as interim pastor of Hamilton Mill Presbyterian Church on July 19. She transitioned from being the staff chaplain for the Marcus Stroke & Neuroscience Center and ICU Coordinator at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. She is a 2006 MDiv graduate of Columbia and a current DMin student. She enjoys gathering around the table with friends and family, watching movies with Minions in them, and being a new cello student.
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