Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli is a life-long United Methodist who is passionate about sharing the good news of God’s liberating love in Jesus Christ.
In 2014, she became the first woman to serve as Senior Pastor of historic Foundry UMC in Washington, DC. Since Ginger’s appointment, Foundry has re-energized its work for racial justice, become a founding member of the Sanctuary DMV movement, and created a Sacred Resistance Ministry Team to mobilize consistent action in response to troubling current events.
A graduate of Yale Divinity School, Ginger has served a variety of congregations: small and large, urban and suburban in the Baltimore Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, in addition to an uptown Manhattan and two-point charge in the New York Annual Conference. Ginger has served the Baltimore Washington Conference as Chair of the Board of Discipleship and currently serves on the Board of Ordained Ministry. In addition, she has served as an elected delegate to the 2016 General Conference and the 2019 Special General Conference of the United Methodist Church.
For over 20 years as a pastor-theologian, her ministry has encouraged spiritual growth and engaged discipleship—emphasizing radical hospitality, shared ministry, spiritual practices, and solidarity with the poor and oppressed. With this focus, she has brought depth, health, and growth to every community she has served. Ginger contributed to and served as a general editor for The CEB Women’s Bible (Abingdon, October 2016). Her book, Sacred Resistance: A Practical Guide to Christian Witness and Dissent, was released in May 2018. Ginger is a sought-after preacher, teacher, and facilitator at local, regional, and international events.
She enjoys gardening, yoga, poetry, art, ice cream, travel, hiking, and is married to Dr. Anthony T. Gaines Cirelli, a Catholic theologian, currently serving the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as a Director in their Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs office. The Gaines-Cirellis live in Washington, DC with their Persian cat Annie Rose & Clumber Spaniels Harvey and Daisy.
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How should persons of faith respond when government officials and political leaders behave in ways that contradict values long espoused by Christian tradition? How should churches respond? Sacred Resistance: A Practical Guide to Christian Witness and Dissent provides thoughtful guidance for those pondering their answers to those questions.
Hospitality for Hope
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli for Foundry UMC April 26, 2020, the third Sunday of Easter. “Life Interrupted” series.
Text: Luke 24:13-35
In the midst of political and social unrest, class and race divides, gross economic disparities, and alongside religious institutions pickled in this brine and rarely able or willing to acknowledge how deep their collusion, things were beginning to look up. New leadership was emerging. Momentum was building. Resources for a new movement were growing. And though it was sure to continue as an uphill battle, big changes were on the horizon. And then it all got interrupted. Life got interrupted by death. The leaders the people looked to for order, protection, and guidance had not stayed the death sentence, but enabled it.
There are reports, proclamations of great hope, that all is not lost, that what might be imagined as the end is really a new beginning, that death has been overcome, that justice will be done. But the evidence is debatable. What isn’t debatable is the suffering, the loss, the disappointment, the anger, the injustice, the despair, the uncertainty, the fear, the grief.
The two of them are walking and talking about all these things, maintaining appropriate social distance, on their way home to Emmaus, Pennsylvania, about five miles southwest of Allentown. It is the third day—the third Sunday, that is—of Easter and the story has been told again, the promise proclaimed. But the death toll rises. The leadership at the top, of government and of some religious institutions is…questionable. The disease is everywhere, unseen until it appears in bodies—whether near or far, known or unknown. And before setting out for their hike home, they’d both spent considerable time on Twitter and reading the news. So they know that essential workers are being treated as expendable. Migrant farm workers, trash collectors, nurses, and so many more, are exposed to unsafe working conditions and struggle to acquire the personal protective equipment they need to be safe as they continue to do their vital work. The travelers have learned not only of jobs lost and long lines at food banks, but also of inequities and injustices upon which our nation has long depended to sustain the economy and the welfare of the privileged, as these have been laid bare in the midst of this pandemic. They’ve read how “Low-income communities are more likely to be exposed to the virus, have higher mortality rates, and suffer economically. In times of economic crisis, these vulnerabilities will be more pronounced for marginal groups – identified by race, gender, and immigration status.” Depression, anxiety, and addiction relapse are triggered. They know that COVID-19 is still not completely understood, that it is acting differently from other viruses and is difficult to track, and that wide-spread testing is not yet available, much less a vaccine. They’ve heard from friends who grieve loved ones who died alone and who suffer due to distance from loved ones who are alone in nursing homes or hospitals.
Easter has been proclaimed, but as they walk along, talking about all these things that are happening, they aren’t feelin’ Easter. They are feeling the strain of the situation and what they’ll walk into when they get home—one of them a marriage on the edge of breakdown, and the other an empty apartment that might be lost if the unemployment doesn’t come through. The things they were looking forward to, the momentum and potential for some movement in a good direction in their work and in the world has been shut down. As they walk along, they aren’t feelin’ Easter. They are overwhelmed with sadness and disappointment. They are distracted and anxious and exhausted.
And then their journey gets interrupted, too. Like the person seated next to you on the plane who decides to strike up a conversation when you’re really not in the mood, a stranger sidles up next to them on the way, asking what they’re talking about. They are noticeably aggravated—as if anyone right now wouldn’t know what was going on… Even so, they lay it all out there—even including the bit about it being the Easter season, new life, resurrection, hope, blah blah blah… And then the stranger also seems to get aggravated and starts schooling them as if that’s ok… “Have you completely missed what the prophets and news reports and the Easter story are saying? Did you think that human vulnerability would magically cease or that consequences of human action or inaction would be erased? That God would all of a sudden be in the business of sidestepping human cruelty, injustice, suffering, and folly instead of meeting us there to wake us up, turn us around, and bring us through? Look at the stories of your faith, from Moses to Esther to Mary Magdalene to the prophets of the 20th and 21st century…God was with them in their weakness and in their strength, was with them in the face of injustice and tyranny, was with them in their particular moments of crisis and suffering, and strengthened them to do difficult things for the cause of right. Look at what Jesus said and did—how he tried to get folks to see what the prophets had been saying all along about the wages of injustice and greed and lust for power, how he told his disciples that he would die and they didn’t believe him, how he didn’t erase vulnerability but took it on himself, how he wept for the ways that those in the power centers (Jerusalem) wouldn’t receive the peace he offered, how he went through it all and emerged alive, offering that life to all of us! Look—don’t you see?— over centuries, promises are fulfilled right in the midst of crisis, in a constant unfolding, God’s love and mercy and beauty and compassion continue as always, bringing new creation out of chaos, light out of darkness, hope out of despair, life out of death.”
Well, all this was a bit much and, at this point, the travelers near home. What will they choose to do? The thing we so often do?—just keep our head down, brush off the hope kindling in our heart, and disengage from the person who has crossed our path? (“K—bye!”) This time, who knows why, they decide to invite the stranger to join them in one’s back yard where they sit at a distance to share snacks. And as the evening wears on, something happens. Two weary and wounded friends see one another, become conscious of their gratitude for companionship in the midst of struggle. They become aware of how this unexpected new presence among them made this moment happen, how this new presence reminded them of the promises of faith (regardless of whether they can “feel” them). At one point during their evening, with candles on the patio table glowing, when the bread and cheese comes out with shouts of thanksgiving and praise (because bread and cheese are amazing) they begin to realize the person who’d sidled up beside them is gone—because the stranger is no longer a stranger but has become a friend who, like them, is simply trying to hold on to hope and to find her way. //
The story of the “road to Emmaus” is well-known in church-going circles. In this last chapter of Luke, the writer wraps up the first book of the series (Acts is the sequel) by pointing out that the Gospel itself is a “sequel,” a continuation and turning point in God’s story of saving grace. Jesus “opens the scriptures” to the travelers on the road, interpreting how the messiah has been promised all along, that the suffering, death, and resurrection should come as no surprise. And when Jesus later appears to the whole gang back in Jerusalem, he opens the door to the ongoing journey, promising to send the power they’ll need to proclaim God’s mercy in the world—a reference to the moment of Pentecost and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. All this context matters because the road we travel today to Emmaus, Pennsylvania and to all our homes in all our contexts is not a different road from the one in the book of Luke. Our lives are a continuation of the story, the next book in the series of God’s redeeming work in the world. Injustice, corruption, greed, disease—all these things were present then and are present now, interrupting our lives in all sorts of ways. Also present then and now are countless travelers trying to find our way, all trying to live, to have what we need for ourselves and families, all at various places on the journey.
I imagine that some—maybe many of us—aren’t feelin’ the whole Easter thing right now and for a whole host of different reasons. And that, of course, is OK. As we deal with our own challenges, thoughts, and feelings, aware of the immense suffering of so many both near and far, the thing to be aware of is what those things are doing to our hearts. The travelers in our text today are at different times “slow of heart” and having “burning hearts.” Last fall, in our “Becoming Beloved” series, we pondered the question, “What do you allow your circumstances to do to your heart?” It’s a perennial question. In this intense moment of distress what’s happening to your heart? In moments of pain, the human heart always has a choice—whether to become more tender or hardened by the experience. One choice is an opening and one is wall-building. So often, we hope for something—for love, for newness, for justice—and are disappointed, hurt, humiliated… And, as I’ve heard a loved one say often, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me!” It’s difficult to trust when we’ve been hurt. It’s difficult to hope when our hopes have been dashed. It’s difficult to believe a promise when our hearts have been betrayed. It’s difficult to believe life and love and justice will win in the end with so much history bearing witness to the contrary. Are we willing to remain open, hopeful, trusting at all in such a hard, brutal world? Are we willing to open our hearts to hope?
What does that even mean? It means allowing ourselves to hope for those things promised in the unfolding story: freedom, forgiveness, peace, loving and just relationships, joy, new life—for ourselves and for the world. It means claiming the Easter promise—in spite of the facts—that that goodness is stronger than evil, that death doesn’t have the last word, that human life has eternal value, dignity, and meaning, and that love has the power to save someone’s life. Christian hope isn’t just a nice idea. It is embodied in Jesus—made real in flesh and blood—so that we might finally see our hope is not just wishful thinking.
Today in our story, weary, wounded travelers allowed their hearts to be open just enough to unknowingly welcome the risen Christ into their conversation and into their home. And that, in turn, brought insight, gratitude, new relationship, purpose, and identity as part of God’s unfolding story. It allowed them to welcome hope as a companion on their journey.
In a world where there is so much despair, cynicism, and suffering, one of the most powerful things we can do is to allow our hearts to remain tender and open, so that hope might find a hospitable home within us. Hope living in us might look like simply getting through another day, trusting that things won’t always be this hard. Sometimes it might look like forgiving someone—maybe yourself. It might look like giving of your surplus so that others might have what they need. It might mean doing the kind thing, the loving thing, the brave thing, the beautiful thing, the creative thing, knowing that these things might be misunderstood, rejected, ignored, destroyed, or make no discernible difference—but they might mean life for others, a sign of hope made flesh.
Sometimes, providing hospitality for hope might simply mean trusting that, with Jesus Christ alive in the world, you just never know when something strange and unwanted might bring moments of joy, revelation, purpose, and new relationship, when one thing might turn into another, a stranger into a friend, hunger into satisfaction, mourning into dancing, brokenness into wholeness, fear into trust, death into life.
I don’t know about you, but the story I want to be part of will have hope as a companion (and bread and cheese!). It will be an adventure story about the journey toward God’s promise that love wins. Maybe we can encourage one another to write and live that story together.
"I don’t recognize my church." That’s what I said to myself while serving as a delegate of the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon.
In her new book, “Sacred Resistance,” the senior pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, D.C., articulates how Christians can engage in the work of mending the world.
The language of “resistance” has a long history. For many it will call to mind those who’ve marched, stood on picket lines, participated in sit-ins, and put their bodies between trucks, tanks, and other people or cherished land. Used as a political term, resistance is generally understood as a kind of collective civil disobedience, focused on justice and human rights, and embodied in public actions like those just mentioned.
Growing up in a small town, Ginger Gaines-Cirelli ’96 M.Div. saw the wounds caused by poverty and segregation. Growing up United Methodist, she saw the urgency of connecting personal piety and social action.
When so many causes, crises, and critical needs demand our attention, how can a congregation decide where to engage? Pastor and author Ginger Gaines-Cirelli outlines key questions and concerns in discerning a faithful and sustainable response to public issues.
While it is still dark, Easter happens. Because if the message is that Easter only happens in the light, when we feel strong and certain, when suffering and death hasn’t touched our lives, when the powers of empire have been defeated and justice is consistently done — if that’s the only context where Easter happens, then our celebration of Easter would be a farce.
“It’s poor religion that can’t provide a sufficient curse when needed.” Wendell Berry said that.
Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, author of Sacred Resistance, says it’s up to preachers to address the pain, injustice, confusion, and chaos in our days even when it is risky, and she offers guidance on approaching controversial issues in meaningful and responsible ways.
Nearly ten years ago at a dinner in New York City, I was stunned when someone at my table declared clearly that there is really no point in dialogue or relationship with those whose beliefs will not be conformed to your own.
"I’m not sure how I feel about living in this city,” said a theologically trained young adult with a passion for social justice. As a relative newcomer to Washington, DC, he shared, “It seems that Washington attracts folks who care a lot about power and what it takes to get it.”
Beth Bingham began to see Hagar of the Old Testament in a new way after studying The CEB Women’s Bible.
Suddenly she wasn’t just the servant who bore Abraham a child when his wife Sarah couldn’t. She was, essentially, the Bible’s first single mom — one who had to leave the house because tensions were so high.
Bingham, a student at Virginia Theological Seminary, couldn’t wait to bring The CEB (Common English Bible) Women’s Bible and share her Hagar insight with the female inmates she studies Scripture with twice a month.
“Why should I add another Bible to my shelf?” This good-natured question has emerged often these past months as folks have learned that I served as an editor for the new CEB Women’s Bible.
It’s clear almost instantly that Abingdon Press’s newest Bible isn’t the kind of Christian women’s fare that focuses heavily on Proverbs 31 and lightly on indignities around gender.
The CEB Women’s Bible is a specialty edition of the Common English Bible, sold and distributed by Abingdon Press, part of United Methodist Publishing House. As a contributing editor, Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli shares, “I think the vast, inclusive number of women’s voices that we have represented in the writings is beautiful and wonderful.” All five editors are women, as are all 80 of the commentary contributors. The team includes mainly seminary professors and pastors, but also Christian novelists and a rabbi.