Leah, why do you think Berkeley is the place you should start a faith community?
I was born and raised in Southern California, outside of San Diego. I left San Diego for what I thought was a quick four years in Chicago for college, and from there I’d likely be on to Manhattan, auditioning for Broadway. But meeting Jesus took my life in a different direction. I ended up staying in the midwest about 15 years longer than I was planning on… (but who’s counting?).
Still, all that time I always figured that some day I’d end up back on the West Coast. I missed California, especially the family I left behind. There’s no quick, inexpensive way to get from Iowa City to San Diego, especially with three kids in tow. But I also knew since moving to Chicago, that when I returned to Cali, the suburbs of San Diego wouldn’t be the right fit. In my heart, I’m a city girl who was born in the suburbs. I finally came to life in Chicago. I loved the diversity, the urban vibe, riding the train, the ethnic food, the arts scene, the secular, liberal culture… All of these things gave me life, and I married a Chicago man who felt the same way (plus he’s a software engineer and a bit of a foodie). So when we thought about where in California an actor/musician turned pastor and a software engineer/foodie who value progressive culture, the arts, academia, and urban life could be happy – well, the San Francisco Bay Area was the only place that came to mind for us.
But it’s not just that we’d love to live in the Bay, although I think that’s an important element. It’s also the fact that this this whole Jesus adventure I’ve been on keeps pointing us in a direction that says that starting a faith community in Berkeley seems like something we must inevitably do.
One of the first highlights of this adventure took place in 2001 when I was engaged to Jason, and the two of us attended a conference together at our church, the Evanston Vineyard. One evening they had a ministry time in which they invited all the people under 30 to come forward and receive prayer and commissioning for the future. As people were praying for me, I felt God’s presence as palpably as I ever have. In that place, I heard in my heart Jesus speak to me. “Someday you guys are going to start a church,” he said, followed by, “don’t tell Jason.” This is one of the weirdest things I’ve ever heard from God. What did he mean “don’t tell Jason”? Why not? Wasn’t it a bit relevant if God wanted him to be a pastor and I was gonna be stuck following him along as the pastor’s wife?!
This is how I know Jesus is smart, and also has a kind of wicked sense of humor. I spent years praying for the church that we would eventually start, but because at this point I had not seen any models of Vineyard churches pastored by women, I assumed the word was for Jason; that eventually Jesus would call him to be a pastor. Year after year that call never came. Finally, in 2006 through a number of circumstances, I understood that this word was for me. Jason was never supposed to be the pastor. I was the one starting ministries, leading groups, leading worship, preaching, but wondering when God was going to call Jason. All the time, sneaky Jesus was actually preparing me to lead a church start-up someday. Within weeks of my realization, the Vineyard’s National Board adopted an egalitarian stance, welcoming women into all levels of ministry.
Another highlight happened on a trip to San Francisco in those interim years, before I understood that I was called to ministry. Jason would get sent to conferences for work in the Bay, and, when I could, I’d tag along because I loved it there. I remember one trip, in particular, walking the streets of San Francisco crying. I couldn’t help it. My heart burned within me for the city. “Oh, to be a part of bringing a dynamic, alive, Jesus-centered community of faith here…” But still I couldn’t quite get that starting a church in the Bay was what God would have for me.
One more highlight in this journey took place the first time I visited the Vineyard church in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2007. I was walking to the Greater Boston Vineyard, a church I had admired from a distance for awhile but had yet to visit, when I found myself surprised by the almost quaint, residential nature of Cambridge. For some reason, I had expected something more urban, but here I was in the college town right outside of the major city. It felt remarkably familiar. It reminded me of Evanston, the college town I lived in outside of the major city of Chicago. I mused about the similarities and then asked a question into the universe that I thought was merely rhetorical. Until I got an answer.
“Jesus, where are we going to end up someday?” I innocently wondered.
“How about Berkeley?” I immediately sensed Jesus saying back.
“Um…are we actually having this conversation, God? I mean, I wasn’t really asking you to name a place…” I prayer stammered.
Jesus was direct. “Come on. I know you’ve been thinking about the Bay Area. Why don’t we just name that? And while we’re talking about the Bay Area, how about Berkeley?”
I was dumbfounded. I didn’t really know how to respond to that. Honestly, I had been thinking about the Bay for years, since those early trips to San Francisco. But once I knew the lead pastor was me, I was terrified to tell anyone that. I don’t think I would even admit it internally to myself. God was calling me out.
I decided to put that whole disturbing little conversation with Jesus in my pocket and sit on it for awhile. But I didn’t have the luxury. The first meeting I attended at the church there, someone prayed for me, and told me that she believed God was telling her that He’d given me something and I was hiding it. I was behind a bush, and he was asking me to come out from behind the bush. I was called out again. I committed in my spirit not to hide the Berkeley thing if it came up. That evening I had dinner with a young woman who, after hearing my story, asked me where I thought I might end up starting a church someday. Weakly, I confessed, “Berkeley”. Then with astonishment, this woman, who lived in Boston, the first person I shared this vision with, told me that God had been telling her that someday she should help someone start a church in the Bay Area.
The years since have had more and more of those kind of moments. There have now been enough of them that Jason and I are convinced that, as crazy as it may be, Berkeley is where we’re meant to be, living a Jesus-oriented life and showing others how to do the same. We believe Jesus seems to be in it, that he likes when we risk big on him, and that all of this might just be crazy enough to actually work.