Monday, December 31, 2007

Mitch Henson, Radical Christian

Pastor Mitch HensonJust a couple days after Christmas, we received the news that Mitch Henson, our beloved pastor at Glendale City SDA Church, passed away following complications from a surgery. It wasn't supposed to be this way. This past year, he had been battling brain cancer, but he was getting excellent care, and he was winning that battle. The surgery was unrelated to his cancer, and the fatal complications so unexpected. Our whole church family is greatly saddened by his untimely passing, and Mitch's wife, children and grandchildren remain in our prayers.

One of my earliest recollections of Mitch's sermons was one where he was preaching about the acceptance of all. I'm paraphrasing, but I remember it something like this:
All are welcome in this church, all are accepted. We have no guards at the door, checking for moral worthiness. All are welcome. It's not "all except those who are divorced, except those who are single parents, except those of a different faith, or a different orientation, except those who have deviated in any way from moral codes and social customs". Have I left anybody out? Have I left anybody in? Here, it's not "all except". It's "all". All are welcome here. Which part of "all" don't you understand?
That sermon was about seven years ago, but I still remember those words because it felt like Mitch was talking directly to me. I was a newcomer to the church, a non-Christian with little knowledge of Adventism, attending only because my fiancé regularly attended and brought me along. So I initially came in feeling like a total outsider, but I was warmly welcomed by the congregation. And when Mitch preached his sermon, his message spoke right to me, reassuring me that there were no "outsiders" at Glendale City Church.

It's a simple message, but it's a radical one, and it was one of Mitch's fundamental themes. He saw judgmentalism as one of the greatest and most devious of temptations, and he found in the gospels a radical rejection of judgmentalism. As Mitch once observed, Christ was radical in his day, and because of his radical message of acceptance of all, he was not allowed to speak in the temple, he could only teach outside of it. Christ ministered to the lepers, the tax-collectors, the prostitutes and the outcasts, rather than the scribes and Pharisees. In following Christ's example of radical acceptance and anti-judgmentalism, Mitch found his calling, and in his 23 years of ministry at Glendale, he made the City Church a haven for those who felt unwelcome in other places. Under his leadership, City Church has a remarkable following. We have people who regularly drive over 70 miles to attend our church, and we have members all over the country who have chosen to make Glendale their "home" church, because they have felt ostracized (or been actually "disfellowshipped") from their local church. The spirit of compassion and inclusiveness is pervasive in City Church's membership, but it has been Mitch's courageous leadership that has set the tone, and made City Church a shining beacon of Christian compassion, and a spiritual liferaft for the outcasts of more judgmental churches.

Pastor Mitch Henson at our weddingMitch undertook many special ministries, but the one that has touched me most directly is his ministry to gay people. I think Mitch recognized gay people as the contemporary equivalent of lepers in the gospels, unjustly despised and outcast as unclean, and worthy of compassion and acceptance. City Church is not a "gay church", but it has a healthy gay attendance (about 5-10% of the congregation, representative of the general population) because it's one of the few churches where gay people are not treated like lepers. The very first time I met Mitch, it was at a picnic for SDA Kinship, a support group for gay Adventists, and he was there to show his support. George (my fiancé) introduced me to Mitch, and we told him that we were planning a wedding ceremony, and asked him if he would be willing to take some part in it. We didn't ask him to officiate the ceremony, as we knew this could place him in professional jeopardy with the conference, but we invited him to do a Bible reading, or whatever part he felt comfortable doing. Taking any part at all was risky for him, but he readily agreed. We gave him a copy of our ceremony, with a place indicated for a New Testament reading, and asked him to pick whatever scripture he felt was appropriate. We didn't know what he would say, but when the day came, and it was his turn to do his reading, in his own characteristic style, he not only gave us a reading (Matthew 18:18-20) but spun it into a whole homily, personal comments, and a blessing. It was a wonderful gift to us, and a very courageous thing for him to do, given the denomination's official position on gay marriage. But he was being true to his calling, doing what he thought was the Christian thing to do, knowing that someday years in the future the official denomination will catch up. (Mitch was years ahead of the Adventist mayor of Philadelphia, for instance.)

Mitch performed many courageous ministries and righteous deeds, but he often did them quietly, sometimes partly out of professional prudence, but more out of his inherent humility. He was never one to trumpet his good deeds, to brandish his righteousness, or to think he was better than anyone else. His personal style of preaching, wandering around the dais, just talking extemporaneously from a few notes, points illustrated with homespun stories from his own family and life experiences, in his disarming North Carolina drawl, had a way of putting everyone at ease even while giving us something to think about. He delivered his sermons just like a regular guy talking to his peers. His informality of tone and off-the-cuff delivery often belied the depth of thought that went into his preparations. We'll always remember his excitement at discovering new insights in old passages ("stay with me now", "fasten your seatbelts", he'd say). He always spoke to his congregation genuinely, humbly, and personally.

Among so many others, my life has been touched by Pastor Mitch. I will always remember him for his compassion, his courage, and his humble righteousness. He was truly a radical Christian.


Roland said...

Tom: Thank you so much for such a wonderful tribute to Mitch. I will be forever greatful to have been a member of the GCC during Mitch's tenure. I have a history with the GCC having grown up in Burbank, being baptized, have ing parents, grandparents and lots of relatives attending the church. I thank God for Mitch's ministry when I feared if I would be disfellowshipped. He has ALWAYS been loving, kind, supportive and NEVER judgmental. As i read your homily through the tears I realize what a great gift Mitch has been to me and my family. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful tribute. I am a former Adventist turned Catholic who left the church for many a number of the same reasons you mentioned of the formal teachings of the chuch. However, Mitch was always a ray of sunshine in my life and I am only sorry I never had an opportunity to say good-bye. Although I had not seen him in 10 years, I did attend the service and believe I sat very close to you and your husband. Thank you for posting this and allowing me a place that makes me feel I have said a proper good-bye. May God bless you and your loved one.

Anonymous said...

thanks for summarizing a very dear memory of such a memorable pastor.