By AARON GETTINGER
The Hyde Park Union Church has installed the Rev. Veronica Johnson and Sarah Lusche as co-pastors, culminating a six-month search for new leadership at the church affiliated with both the American Baptist Churches and the United Church of Christ.
Congregations in both denominations exercise a considerable amount of independence, including in how they select pastors. In the end, Union Church’s roughly 50 members elected Johnson and Lusche by a unanimous vote.
Johnson was born in Chicago and grew up in suburban Maywood, Illinois. With an engineering degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, “I had been working in corporate America but also having a very vibrant church life and began really yearning to do more for God,” she said.
Shortly after wondering “what it would be like to spend all my time on God,” Johnson was laid off and took it as her call. She was ordained at the Greater Bethesda Missionary Baptist Church, 109 E. 53rd St., in 2013, becoming its first female minister in its 130-year history. She is admissions director at the McCormick Theological Seminary, 5460 S. University Ave., and lives in the south suburbs.
Lusche grew up in Auburn, Alabama, and attended Middlebury College in Vermont. An interest in urban studies took her to study cities around the world, which she enjoyed but “also felt like the lens I was looking through was not the lens I needed. I wanted to be asking questions about what our obligations to each other are, what is suffering, how do we make meaning of our life, what stories do we tell.”
She asked a church back at college if she could get more involved and, she expected to fold bulletins and bake bread. Instead she started interning, preaching and leading Bible study. “The first sermon I preached, the first time I stepped into a pulpit, it felt completely like the place I needed to be,” she said.
Lusche is currently studying divinity and social work at the University of Chicago and served as an associate pastor at the Ellis Avenue Church, 5001 S. Ellis Ave. She lives in Uptown.
On Sunday, Feb. 17, the Union Church, 5600 S. Woodlawn Ave., installed their new co-pastors in a service led by the Rev. David Watkins III, senior pastor at Greater Bethesda, and accompanied by both the Union Church and Greater Bethesda choirs.
The Rev. Dr. Jeanne Porter King, associate pastor of the Christ Community Church in South Holland, Illinois, gave the homily, reflecting on Jesus’ “New Wine into Old Wineskins” parable: When new wine is poured into old wineskins, they will burst, but new wine poured into new wineskins preserves both.
“What we see happening here today is really about the larger move of God to bring forth new wine, new transformation, into the earth realm, into a season when we radically need it,” King said. “The very heart in their training, in their call, is that they are transformative leaders that they might raise up, train and equip — transformative leaders for this community and beyond.”
“This is a kairos moment; a strategic moment; a point of time in history in which God will do a new thing in Hyde Park under the leadership of these two women,” King said. “You two have the opportunity to show the world that a white woman and a black woman can serve effectively together despite the intersectional tension of race and gender that too often we overlook and ignore in some women’s movement. You are operating under the movement of the Holy Spirit, and consequently you will show the world!”
King extolled Johnson and Lusche to create a space of radical love at Union Church; Johnson said they plan to partner with University Church to help the Blue Gargoyle youth services center house a culinary arts program. Union Church operates a fellowship program for infants, toddlers and their caregivers, a fitness fellowship, Bible study and a food pantry. Its Sunday services are at 10 a.m.
After the pastoral church committee administered the covenant of installation, the Rev. David Gregg, executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, gave the prayer of installation, and the Rev. Dr. Vertie Powers, associate conference minister of the Chicago Metropolitan Association United Church of Christ, gave the charge.
“Suffice it to say, many of us know that most of our Mainline denominational congregations cannot survive its current downward drift into tribalism, extremism and resentment. As a result of this, our willingness to believe the worst about everyone outside of our own bubble is growing, and our ability to solve problems and see these opportunities is shrinking,” Powers said. “Our beliefs are being threatened, and our very identities are being challenged.”
“I charge you today, Rev. Veronica and pastor Sarah, to be an inspiration, an example and a shining light to our children and to ourselves — those within these walls and also to all the people throughout this neighborhood and city to make the most of your call.”
“Pastors, you are charged with giving life anew to those words in that Holy Writ for this generation, this era. That is how we continue to move forward on this journey, knowing this is not the end, and the journey is not over. What does it mean to be Christian? It is a question that will be answered if we get back to what has brought us thus far on the way: the mission of Jesus Christ that widens the circle of inclusivity, that deepens the meaning of love and strengthens the bonds of the beloved community.”