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.
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.
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC October 6th, 2019, the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost and World Communion Sunday. “Fearless Generosity: Deepening Faith” sermon series.
Texts: 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10
Mary Lou Hearn Matheny was my grandmother—we called her Nana. I’ll never forget when I got into Nana and Pa’s car and saw the scripture verse tastefully affixed to the sun visor along with an image of an angel. The specific verse is forgotten—something about God’s providence and protection for a journey; the striking thing was Nana’s determination to bring God into every part of her life. The bit in the car was a spilling over of my Nana’s habit of placing scripture, sacred images, religious artifacts, resources of faith throughout her home. There was a Bible study station between Nana and Pa’s recliners. Atop the piano was a beautifully framed copy of the hymn, Amazing Grace. Above the stove hung a poster-sized, hand calligraphied morning prayer, in her bedroom was what she called her “Christ wall” with images of Jesus at different stages of the Gospel story. As a child, I experienced Nana as kind of floating through the house, going about her various tasks, humming hymns as she worked.
Mary Lou Hearn Matheny gave birth to a daughter, Mary Carmen Matheny Gaines. My memory holds images of my mother, Carmen, sitting on our sofa surrounded by her notes, her Good News translation of the Bible, and other books as she prepared to teach Sunday School. Across the years, she taught adults, youth, and young couples. I can see her clear as day directing the youth choir, making crafts to contribute to the UMW Bazaar, crying in the pews as we sang certain hymns in worship, coordinating and planning the Family Retreats at Camp Egan, providing leadership for children and youth musicals—a personal fave of mine being “Moses and the Freedom Fanatics” (I might have done a dance in the character of one of the gnats who appeared in the 3rd plague of Egypt!). I witnessed her years of delivering Meals on Wheels and praying every morning with my dad at breakfast and with me and my siblings as we were tucked in at the end of day.
These are two of my immediate ancestors in faith, women who held and taught me—through word and example—what it means to love God and love neighbor. Their holy habits impacted my religious imagination and encouraged me to be open to God’s loving presence in my life.
Of course, my journey has been my own and faith is not something that you catch from others, like a cold or the flu. If only it were that easy! While on my journey I have had to do my own study, seeking, struggling, and serving, the truth is that faith has deep roots in my family tree and in some kind of way, I’ve got spiritual genetic material as a result.
Timothy and I have at least that much in common. Timothy was a trusted friend and colleague of the apostle Paul. The letter we read today is in the Pauline tradition, but written by a later author in the form of a “final testament,” a specific genre in which a dying parent teaches and blesses a faithful child, reminding them of the challenges that may come and encouraging them to endure in faith. In the opening verses Paul, the dying father, says to Timothy, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” (1:5) Timothy has “spiritual genetic material.”
Modern science and medicine reveal that a person can have a genetic predisposition from things inherited from parents, but genetic traits may or may not express themselves, depending upon all sorts of factors. Likewise, sometimes there may be no family-based genetic susceptibility to a condition and yet a person might wind up with that condition anyway.
The “condition” at the center of our reflection today is faith. Faith is so often understood as a matter of the mind—that is, a condition of intellectual assent to certain ideas or “beliefs.” This leads many to think they can’t have faith because they’re just not down with certain pieces of the story or doctrine. But faith is not really a head thing. Faith is primarily a heart condition. Faith is knowing oneself to be embraced, loved, and cherished by God and, as a result, trusting God’s compassion, mercy, and presence no matter what. It’s not that faith turns off our brains or asks us to stop thinking. So many think and teach that faith asks us to narrow our thinking—and that is absolutely counter to the reality. As William Sloane Coffin said, “[Faith] has what we might call a limbering effect on the mind; by taking us beyond familiar ground, faith ends up giving us that much more to think about.” Faith doesn’t shut down spiritual exploration, seeking, questioning; rather our trust in God’s love and support gives us courage to wander into new and uncertain territory. Coffin says, “faith is not believing without proof but trusting without reservation.”
Trust is the biggie here. But how do we get there? How do we grow in faith? Some of us will have the “genetic predisposition” toward faith based on the faith of our parents and family. This is a beautiful gift and one that is not to be taken for granted. Rev. Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean, Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, emphasizes that even though it may seem our children and teens aren’t listening or paying attention to what we’re saying and doing, all the studies show that the single most important factor in their openness to God and faith is what their parents say and do. What you prioritize and care about absolutely influences your children. Dr. Dean says, “We (adults) may question what we believe, but most of us are pretty clear about who we love, and who loves us. It is such a preposterous claim—God-with-us (oh please)—that young people are unlikely to believe it unless we give them opportunities to do some sacred eavesdropping on us as we seek, delight, and trust in God’s presence with us.”
Others won’t have had the opportunity of such “sacred eavesdropping” on family members because we weren’t raised in a family where God or religion was a thing—or perhaps what we did hear if we were raised in a religious household was damaging or hurtful, something that harmed our faith DNA. But even without a healthy genetic predisposition toward faith, many will encounter—through relationships or the witness and stories of faithful women and men—others whose faith they will find infectious and healing, that inspires and excites curiosity and wonder in God.
But no matter what our background, what is required to cross the threshold into faith is a leap. Taking the leap might be slightly easier if you’ve got the “faith gene,” but it is an act of will no matter what. Again, William Sloane Coffin provides insight as he says, “It is terribly important to realize that the leap of faith is not so much a leap of thought as of action. For while in many matters it is first we must see, then we will act; in matters of faith it is first we must do then we will know, first we will be and then we will see. One must, in short, dare to act wholeheartedly without absolute certainty.”
When John Wesley was tempted to give up his ministry because he felt he had no faith, Moravian Bishop Peter Bohler told Wesley, “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” So Wesley kept at it. And many of us will know the story of how he wasn’t really in the mood to go to the Bible study on Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans at Aldersgate Street, but lugged himself there anyway. Wesley recorded this in his journal: “About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation…”
Wesley kept showing up, kept studying, teaching, preaching and the result was a changed heart condition. You see the growing, the knowing, the deepening of faith happens in the doing. It’s not that our doing makes faith happen, it’s that we do what we can do in order to make space for God to do what only God can do. This is our Wesleyan way, to practice the disciplines, understanding that as we practice we are intentionally putting ourselves in the flow of God’s grace, stepping into spaces for Spirit to get ahold of us and warm our hearts, prick our conscience, and ignite our imagination. The disciplines take a number of forms—including personal or group study, jumping on board for a service project, praying or meditating, caring for the poor, sick, and suffering, attending a small group or worship service, and giving money and time to support the work of a church or other faith community.
As we kick off our Fearless Generosity: Deepening Faith stewardship campaign today, it is helpful to think about the powerful spiritual practice of giving. I have long believed that there is so much emphasis in scripture on how we think about and manage our possessions because our stuff can be used for so much good—or it can really get us twisted. Not only do our financial gifts help care for others, support the life of our community, and make all we share possible, but giving and growing in our giving is one of the most powerful ways to practice the leap of faith. It can be scary and anxiety producing to let go of what the world tells us is our primary source of security. It is, after all, a scary world out there and all the messages want to tell us there’s not enough of anything to go around. But as Foundry member Tara Holeman Kawasaki has said, “I give without fear as way of practicing living without fear.” Practice courage ‘til you have it. Practice peace ‘til you have it. Practice generosity ‘til you have it. Practice freedom ‘til you have it. Practice faith ‘til you have it.
Paul did that and at the end was able to keep faith even in deep suffering and near death. John Wesley did that and his legacy continues to teach and inspire people to grow in love of God and neighbor. And Mary Lou Hearn Matheny, in my last conversation with her after she’d learned she was near death reflected on the unknown journey stretching out ahead of her. She looked right at me with a sense of deep calm and a twinkle in her eye and said, “It’s kind of exciting!” When you practice faith for a long time, it will be there when you need it, setting your heart on fire for whatever next adventure may come…
2. William Sloane Coffin, Credo, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004, p. 8.
3. Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is telling the American Church
4. Coffin, 7.
This list is offered to help engage our experience and perspectives around race. It is shared as a resource and encouragement to raise consciousness and broaden understanding. The list is not exhaustive, though there are a variety of genres represented—fiction, non-fiction, history, memoir, and theology.
Foundry members are invited to read a book each month—or at least six of the twelve books numbered on the list before the end of February 2020. Read these on your own, with a friend, in your small group, or with your Sunday School class. Look for information on classes or book groups forming around these titles through the year and avail yourself of the opportunity to participate.
"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.