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

Inside The Office

In part one of my visit to the First United Church of Christ in Second Life I looked at some of the background behind the church and why they have been embracing virtual worlds. In this part I’ll delve a little further about my discussions with Reverend Jerome Newstart (at times referred to as ‘Jer’) and Reverend Becca Kellstrom (at times referred to as ‘Becca’). A point to note here is that there are two other ordained clergy within First UCC SL but I did not talk to those clergy. However Becca and Jerome both pointed out that the other clergy are a big help with the project.

So what sort of services and support can you expect to find at a church in Second Life? “It’s much the same sort of ministry one would do in RL, except that we do a good deal more being the ‘non-anxious presence; than is generally true in RL churches,” Jerome told me, “We also offer two types of services, worship in the sanctuary on Sundays and Thursdays and Psalter services most evenings,” continued Jerome, “Worship is usually gathering music, scripture, a message, community prayer. We use voice for the sanctuary services, with text. The Psalter is done in text only,  and they are centered on the Psalm of the evening. Peace Grove was created for those.”

“Lots of pastoral care and good, deep conversation with folks who are happy, or even relieved, to find us,” Becca added, “With the exception of Thursday at 4pm SLT, all other services take place at 6:30pm SLT right now. We are considering changes, as we’ve long had a request from friends in European countries for an earlier time.”

There we see one of the key differences between virtual world communities and physical world communities. In the virtual world you can attract a global audience, but with that global audience comes the challenge of global audience time zones. However I’m sure most communities would find that a refreshing challenge, First UCC SL certainly seem to enjoy the challenge.

However I had to rewind a little at this point, Jerome had mentioned singing, do people really sing at these services? I mean it’s one thing for people to sing when they are physically together, but are they really singing at home in front of their computers? “No, well, at least not that we hear!”, Becca tells me and then adds conspiratorially, “When I sat next to him at Conference meetings, Jer would only lip-sync, so I only heard my own voice ;-)”.

Jerome isn’t so convinced about people not singing, “At home I suspect they do. I don’t know, I sing in the shower! We use music videos on a viewer during services.”

We move on to First UCC SL’s wider role within the United Church of Christ and I start by asking how the General Synod went when First UCC SL members attended the physical world event in Cleveland, Ohio, earlier this year. “Very well! We got a special shout out to the Synod when we were introduced!” they tell me.

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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.”

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First UCC SL To Attend General Synod In RL

First United Church Of Christ

I’ve blogged about places of worship in virtual worlds before, for example looking at the challenges of virtual worship for places such as The Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life and looking at Giulio Prisco’s more unconventional views on types of religion in virtual worlds. The latter also looked briefly at the tongue in cheek First Church Of Rosedale.

One observation on worship in a virtual world such as Second Life is that for a place that is considered in many quarters a den of iniquity, it does quite well when it comes to a religious presence. This is exemplified well by The First United Church of Christ And Conference Centre.

However more to the point, what struck me recently was the news that First UCC SL will be at Booth 834 at the General Synod in Cleveland Ohio. The General Synod runs from June 26th-30th.

First UCC Notices

The mission of First UCC SL is :

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.

So this is quite a progressive outlook in many ways.

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Virtual Churches And The Challenges Of Online Worship

Anglican Cathedral

I’ll be honest, Christian Today isn’t on my regular reading list. However an article by Martyn Casserly entitled “What happened to online churches?” caught my eye as it relates to Second Life and communities. The article makes for an interesting read.

Martyn hadn’t logged into Second Life for several years and the first issue he ran into as he stood outside The Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island was cloud syndrome, that is, his avatar appeared as a cloud. Although Martyn eventually resolved his avatar issue, Helene Milena (Aisla Wright outside the virtual world) , Lay Pastor at the Cathedral explains to him that his situation isn’t unusual, Helene also explains that avatars of many different shapes and sizes visit the cathedral :

“There’s one person who attends the Cathedral who I’ve only seen as a non-cloud once. We used to have a hippo that worshipped with us quite a lot, the church warden’s a mermaid…and another regular’s favourite avatar is a parrot. There’s a perch over there, that’s for him.”

Virtual world worship appeals to avatars of many variations it seems.

Notices

There is an interesting issue regarding virtual worlds that Martyn says, would make real life church services 100 times better, that is the ability to turn down all the other extraneous noises. There are many scenarios where this would be advantageous to us all and it goes beyond church services. However there are some aspects of the virtual world experience that aren’t as engaging as the real world.

One aspect is with people who no longer come to a church service. Martyn points out that if a friend doesn’t attend a physical service, then someone may call round to see if they are ok. Online this can be far more difficult, we often don’t know where people live, emails are asynchronous communication and are often not replied to quickly. However that’s not to say that online communities don’t miss people or wonder if they are ok, it’s just that online communities can be more detached in some areas.

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Virtual Worlds As Sacred Places

Over at the Institute For Ethics & Emerging Technologies Giulio Prisco has a thought provoking post : Virtually Sacred, by Robert Geraci – religion in World of Warcraft and Second Life. The post is inspired by a forthcoming book by Robert Geraci : Virtually Sacred: Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life. The book is pencilled in for an August 2014 release according to Amazon UK.

The book has a few chapters on Second Life and includes the virtual age old debate of Immersionists v Augmentationists. The basic difference is considered to be that immersionists see a virtual world such as Second Life as a place where they completely immerse a new self, one that is separate from their real life, a sort of parallel existence. Augmentationists are generally considered to be people who see Second Life as an extension of their real life, they will talk of their real life experiences, partners, job etc but will also embrace Second Life.

This used to be quite a hot topic in Second Life. Back in February 2008 New World Notes highlighted a brief discussion between the two camps with representations from Sophrosyne Stevenaag and Cyfish Traveler. Sophrosyne used to host some really interesting discussions on a Saturday evening back in the day too. Another name in these circles whom I haven’t seen or heard anything from for quite a while is Extropia DaSilva. I’d long forgotten about these sort of discussions until I read Giulio’s post today, they used to get quite heated to say the least.

Another subject at hand is that of Transhumanism, whereby people upload their brains to the machine. There are still plenty of discussions surrounding this today but not so much in Second Life as they once were. Giulio suggests a reason for this :

Transhumanists – techno-spiritual seekers who think that science and technology can and should carry humankind through its next phase of evolution – made a home in Second Life between 2006 and 2009, after which the pace of transhumanist events in Second Life slowed down due to the general Fall from media grace of Second Life.

I don’t quite agree with that theory, Second Life is still going well. I’d suggest that it may well have been that discussion groups have a hard time raising tier money, which is an age old problem for many communities in Second Life. The barriers are more financial.

Anyway back to the book, at its heart seems to be the theory that virtual spaces provide the means to build religious spaces in a fashion that 2D web pages simply can’t replicate. Furthermore they provide the means to provide spaces for new religions, as well as established ones. In his blog post Giulio explains this as :

One of Geraci’s central points is that shared virtual spaces provide a sense of place, direction, and orientation, which has profound implications for religious practice. Contrary to flat web pages, in virtual reality we can build holy places, cathedrals, and sacred objects, which act as a “physical” scaffolding to hold virtual religious communities together. While vision and hearing are powerfully engaged in consumer 3D virtual realities, the possibility to touch objects in virtual spaces “in which the brain regions associated with grasping can potentially respond as though to conventional reality,” isn’t available yet to most consumers, but this will change with new haptic interface devices. I am persuaded that next generation VR platforms, with support for haptics and full-immersion display devices like the Oculus Rift, will soon take virtually sacred spaces above critical mass.

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