Story by John Mroch. Picture courtesy of Holy Ground website.
LONG BEACH, Calif. – It was time for the church’s weekly gathering.
The ten members sat in a circle as one of them walked to a bookshelf, grabbed a Bible, and asked, “Is everybody ready to get started?”
But this church has no priest or official leader. Instead, the church’s meetings are peer-lead by a different member of the group each week.
The readings segued into members voicing their own interpretations of the text as the atmosphere took on something more akin to a philosophy class rather than a Bible study, a church for “seekers and skeptics” as opposed to routine believers.
“Part of what makes our space unique is that you can bring all of those conflicts that so often are internal, and talk about them in a space where it’s OK to disagree,” said member Emma Roy, 36.
Traditional Christianity is often at odds with progressive values, namely gender and sexuality. However, at Holy Ground, Long Beach’s self-affirmed “progressive Christian church,” believers gather every Wednesday to explore areas of connection and conflict.
The faith group reflects a tendency among young churchgoers – and former churchgoers – who shun mainstream dogma in favor of tenets that more closely align with their political and social worldviews.
The number of Americans who identify as Christian declined 7.8 percent between 2007 and 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, the number of unaffiliated Americans – meaning those who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or having no particular denomination – rose 6.7 percent.
One reason often cited is Christianity’s stance against same-sex marriage. Some 75 percent of 18 to 29 year old Catholics report that they support same-sex marriage, according to Pew.
Huge majorities of Catholics are also supportive of contraception use and allowing women to become priests, pitting congregations against Vatican teaching.
For Sean Seeley, who was raised and confirmed Catholic, Holy Ground was a place where religious doctrine aligned with his sexual orientation.
“I looked for something where, as an openly gay man, I could one day walk into a church and have my husband and have children, and be like, ‘Oh, this is where I’m accepted,’” said Seeley, 32.
Holy Ground appealed to member Rebecca Neil, 29, for similar reasons. “I went to a very conservative Christian college, and faith has always been important to me, but it began to hit a point where my values didn’t align with the theology,” said Neil. “That had to do with things like social justice, things like LGBT issues, [and] marriage equality.”
The group even hesitates at being called a church; members view Holy Ground as a faith group made up of young adults. Located at Long Beach’s Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, Holy Ground holds weekly meetings in a fellowship room that more resembles a Pottery Barn-inspired living room-kitchenette than a church.
“When we say ‘progressive Christianity,’ it means that we hope not to be what everyone has experienced,” said Seeley. “Some parts might seem similar, but we really want to be a free-thinking church where we don’t resign ourselves to be the doctrine of, maybe, churches we grew up in.”
Due to this open-minded attitude, some members of Holy Ground have found the group to be a sort of refuge from more institutionalized churches. Roy has often been called an atheist for asking critical questions, but Holy Ground welcomes both her and her skepticism.
“Holy Ground is the first church I’ve ever gone to in my life, ” said Roy, adding that she sought to be around a more “honest” and “loving” congregation. “And that’s who comes here,” she said.
Holy Ground started over three years ago as a Cal State Long Beach faith group called Beach Progressives. It was initially an effort between Lutheran and Episcopal churches in Long Beach to establish a ministry for college students, explained Neil.
“After not too long, it became apparent that not only were people interested in coming together as young adults who were interested in faith and interested in a particularly progressive expression of Christianity, but that we wanted to become our own entity,” Neil said.
The church’s underlying ideal of wholehearted acceptance may distinguish them from more traditional or evangelical churches, but it’s also what distances the group from engaging in or focusing on hot-button issues like abortion.
“To our dismay, abortion has become a modern day litmus test of faith. A test Holy Ground refuses to take,” read an email from the group. “Questions like this divide and distract from Jesus’ clear call to address poverty and build the kingdom of heaven here on earth.”
They admitted it was the first time the issue had ever come up for the group, whose pamphlet says they welcome feminists, the non-conforming, and DREAMers.
Holy Ground does not have formal sacraments, but they do exchange communion bread, made gluten-free so anyone can participate (recipe here).
“At Christ’s table, we’re all equals – food allergies notwithstanding, ” wrote Neil on the church website.
In a February gathering, the group began with hugs and communal blessings. When everyone was settled, the “leader” of the night, Andrew Small, 29, read two bible verses before posing the question, “How does ‘Heaven’ play into reality?”
While such open questions may cause disagreement, there is one general guideline at Holy Ground.
“Conflict doesn’t mean that there’s a problem. But you also can’t be a jerk,” said Roy.