Part One Of A Look At The Progressive And LGBT Friendly First United Church Of Christ In Second Life

Jerome Newstart & Becca Kellstrom

This will be part one of a two part blog post regarding my visit to the First United Church of Christ in Second Life. In this part I’ll provide some background information on the church, discuss why they came to Second Life and why they feel virtual worlds are an important place for a church. In the second part I’ll take a closer look at what they do and how they embrace diversity in their ministry in Second Life.

I find myself in an office of the First United Church of Christ in Second Life. I’ve been joined by Reverend Jerome Newstart, known as Rev. Dr. Jerold Garber outside of Second Life. Reverend Becca Kellstrom has also joined us. I’ve spoken to Becca on Twitter and I’ve also blogged about First UCC in Second Life before; First UCC SL To Attend General Synod In RL. That post concerned members of the First UCC SL attending the General Synod of the United Church of Christ outside SL and in the physical world in Cleveland, Ohio. However this is the first time I’ve sat down with members of First UCC SL and they made me very welcome.

Their mission statement reads :

First United Church of Christ and Conference Center is founded and exists to be the voice of Progressive Christianity in virtual universes. We live out the United Church of Christ notion of extravagant welcome by providing for all who desire a place to worship and who seek a community of love and acceptance.

We are proud to be a part of the world’s fastest growing LGBT-welcoming church movement, the Open and Affirming Coalition of the United Church of Christ.

Jerome Newstart explained that both he and Becca are actually both ordained UCC ministers. ” We’re actually recognised by the denomination as a church,” Jerome informed me. These people are the real deal, indeed that came up in our conversation, the challenge of people actually believing there is a real church operating within Second Life.

“Some want to be sure we are ‘real.’ I had that happen this morning.” Jerome explains.

“Particularly early on in this ministry, people wanted to verify we were who we said we were.” added Becca. This is unsurprising of course, in virtual worlds people can play many different characters and we see plenty of churches within Second Life which don’t actually have ordained ministers within them, if people are going to embrace their faith, then they will want assurances. In the physical world, a church speaks for itself, people have trust in the building, in a virtual world where anyone with the time and talent can put up a building, it’s more difficult to convince people you are genuine.

Why did First UCC come to Second Life though? Becca explains that this incarnation is the second or third time UCC have had a presence in Second Life, and it’s here that Jerome’s belief that this was the right platform really shines throught, “I saw a need for a ministry that welcomed everyone,” Jerome explains, “When I conceived of this ministry some two and a half years ago I recruited Becca to our RL Board of Directors. She serves as a pastor here as do I. Becca is also our social media person.”

First UCC in Second Life

Becca nods and confesses with a smile that she couldn’t say no to Jerome when he approached her about this venture, “I should share that Jer and I have known each other as colleagues for thirteen years in our first lives, so I do joke with him quite a bit,” Becca adds.

However what sort of response do real ministers get in a virtual world and what sort of people do they encounter? Jerome explained, “I encountered people in SL who had been wounded by “churches” here when I let it be known my RL profession, some had been hurt in RL, some were trying to find a worship place in Second Life, some were both looking for a place to worship and had been hurt in RL.”

“We quickly discovered that there was a need for progressive Christians in-world.” Becca added. This may surprise some who see virtual worlds such as Second Life as a den of iniquity. “So many folks have no idea about virtual reality,” Becca told me.

Jerome chimed in and said “If people are initially wary of our work, that feeling is gone quickly when they hear what we are doing.”

However even for those who are passionate about their faith, such as Jerome and Becca, the number of responses surprised them, but it also encouraged them that this was a worthy venture.

However what about the challenges of being in a virtual world? There pro’s and cons to a virtual versus physical world presence and Jerome and Becca were both happy to talk about these challenges and differences. We started with the advantages of having a virtual world presence.

“Access no matter ones life condition,” Jerome suggested, “For example one of our members suffers from severe anxiety disorder in RL. Going out in a crowd is impossible,” Jerome continued.

“People feeling free to be who they really are, or the truest representation of themselves.” Becca suggested.

Jerome agreed with this, “Yes, picking up on Becca’s thought. They are welcome here. Period.”

Another advantage of a virtual world presence is of course reach, there’s a global audience in Second Life, something a local church cannot replicate, “Oh my goodness, yes the global aspect is marvelous, providing both gifts and challenges,” Becca informed me.

Art Garden

That global reach also requires some community engagement too of course, which they were both happy to address, “One of the things we hope to do in the coming year is increase our social opportunities. We’ve discovered that setting often provides needed support that translates into RL well being.” Jerome told me.

“One piece Jer began early on, and is kept up by the other pastor who preaches regularly, is dancing after Sunday and Thursday services, and it’s a flurry of IMs as people share their lives,” Becca added.

However what about the disadvantages of a virtual world presence, what cannot really be replicated at this moment in time?

“I miss seeing the expressions of people’s faces, there’s so much body language that we miss when watching avatars,” Becca said.

“One does learn to read syntax, but it is not the same as seeing a living face,” Jerome added, “Some miss the physical interaction of a RL group,” Jerome continued.

“There’s also differences in how people contact us,” Becca told me, “When we get to know someone really well, we have shared phone numbers, largely, it is contact via e-mail or some other social media,” Becca stated.

“I have met some of our members in RL,” Jerome told me and Becca added that this has been a fun thing to do.

I think I’ll end part one here, in part two I’ll take a look at the services they offer and the progressive nature of their ministry.

First UCC & Conference Center

First UCC is a ministry project of the Southern California Conference of the United Church of Christ (UCC). They offer in-world worship and places for socializing with friends. They are an open and affirming ministry with dance clubs, apartments, even a beach! Everyone is welcome at First UCC.

Visit in Second Life

SLURL To First UCC :

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