The Reservoir Church in Cambridge is typically described as Jesus centered, initially associated with the vineyard association of churches. But Reservoir Church separated from the association in 2015 after experiencing pressures to limit their involvement of LGBTQ+ people.

In light of Pride month and the rising discrimination queer people are facing right now, All Things Considered invited Reservoir Church's senior pastor, Steve Watson, to speak with host Arun Rath about bringing together an inclusive and diverse congregation, and offering counsel in difficult times.

Arun Rath: Steve, thanks for joining us.

Steve Watson: It's a pleasure to be with you.

Rath: Now, Reservoir Church ultimately made this decision to separate itself from the parent church. Tell us about the tension there, how your church came to what must have been a difficult decision?

Watson: Sure. You know, our church is not actually that old of a church. We had only started in the 1990s, but we had experienced some explosive growth and we had become a large church rather quickly. And like any large organization, you know, we held a lot of viewpoints on a lot of things, including the range of what exists within the Christian tradition — of those that take rather conservative or traditional perspectives on a small number of restrictive biblical texts and that don't embrace the full expression of LGBTQ love and relationships. As well of those that would assume that we were moving in a more and more kind of liberative path for that community.

And we had to make some choices about the kind of community we wanted to be, the kind of church we wanted to be and what best represented our faith and values. And as you stated, it became important to us to say that our LGBTQ participants were going to experience a kind of full-fledged membership and dignity and affirmation of their presence and relationships as everyone else was. And, you know, that involved making some choices to be free to do that.

Rath: The church describes itself as Jesus centered. Could you explain what that means generally, but also how your sense of being Jesus centered led you to this decision?

Watson: Yeah, that's a great question, thanks, Arun. I think, one, it means, I guess, that we're in the Christian tradition. But maybe just the word "church" would have carry that. I think we say Jesus centered to signal a few things. One, that though we take sort of a number of progressive social values — I guess people would call it — we're very interested in this vibrant, spiritual tradition and life that we're part of, and we're very interested in being a community that continues to read and pay attention to the ancient but timeless teachings of Jesus to guide us.

Three people wearing casual clothes and masks stand with a sign that reads "reservoir church," with a nearby Red Cross sign and a patient giving blood in the background
In a January 2021 image posted to Reservoir Church’s Facebook account, senior pastor Steve Watson is photographed with Gov. Charlie Baker and First Lady Lauren Baker, who donated blood at the church in a partnership with the Red Cross.
Reservoir Church

And I think for us, while there are things in the Christian tradition that are an obstacle to becoming a fully LGBTQ-inclusive community — I'm well aware that I serve within and live and practice a tradition that has been an oppressive force in a number of ways, including toward the LGBTQ community. But as far as being a Jesus-centered tradition, we see the teaching of Jesus as anchored in love, love for our Creator, God, love for our neighbor as ourselves and a tradition that at its best — historically and today still — is a liberative tradition that affirms that dignity and the relationships and the opportunity to love oneself, to love one's neighbor, to love God for all people.

And so I think being in that tradition, at its best, centers love and justice, has led us to be the kind of fully inclusive church for the whole community that we seek to be.

Rath: And tell us about about your congregation in particular. It's very diverse when it comes to race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. Tell us how this congregation came together. How did you come to be so diverse in your particular church?

Watson: Yeah, I mean, thank you. I'm biased, I'm pastor of the community, but I do [think it's] a beautiful community. We say every week, just as we do on our website, that this is a place where everyone, without exception, is invited to discover the love of God, the gift of community, the joy of living. And we take that "everyone without exception" really seriously. I think we do some things in our staffing, in our program, in our teaching to be explicit about the dignity, the value, the tremendous transcendent worth of all God's children, as we would say. And I think we've had the grace to be in a city as diverse and rich as we are, and to just not put up obstacles to the full diversity of our city being expressed within our congregation.

"One of the great things a healthy faith community can do, that uplifts people's dignity rather than leads them to shame or strips them of it, is to give people a sense of deep and profound belonging."

Rath: I was just in Oregon and talking with a dear old friend about: there have been an awful hate-related shooting there. And one of the things that came up was people who are marginalized need special counsel right now more than ever, right? I imagine that must be something that you're experiencing. And could you talk about that a little bit?

Watson: The past number of years have been incredibly stressful. Certainly this time of pandemic has been stressful for all people. But let's be real: the time of the Trump administration, this time of escalating culture wars, this time [for] various members of our community, both for issues around white supremacy, homophobic, anti-LGBTQ violence. These have been threatening, volatile and scary times for so many.

Someone in my shoes — as a pastor in our own way, like others and helping professions — we're called toward good listening, toward to try to kind of offer of counsel and friendship to others is very important this time. I would say that what we see, mostly as a faith community, is how much we all — and particularly those of us whose identities are under threat in various ways — we all need to experience communities of a profound belonging. And I think certainly all these things we're talking about: a pandemic, that deeper and deeper unveiling of and awareness of white supremacy and race-based hatred and violence, anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence. These all threaten a lot of things, but they certainly threaten people's sense of belonging. And one of the great things a healthy faith community can do, that uplifts people's dignity rather than leads them to shame or strips them of it, is to give people a sense of deep and profound belonging. And want [a] group that is often more age-diverse and identity-diverse than they would find elsewhere. And so it's it's a real treasure for us as a church to experience and offer that to one another.

Rath: Before we let you go — it's been great speaking with you. But I also want to ask if there's anything — I know it's part of the message of Jesus, right, is embracing those who have been cast out. I wonder if there's any other message you wanted to leave with the community at large, before we let you go?

Watson: Yeah, absolutely. I think for those of us in religious communities or that come from religious heritage, most of our religious and faith communities have elements of their practice and tradition which have been oppressive. And for some of us, those have been harmful and painful to us in various ways. And most of our traditions, certainly mine — the Christian tradition with its centering of of love, with this expression of what the teaching of Jesus, the civil rights leaders came to call "a vision of beloved community." Our traditions have tremendous liberative power, as well. And so it's important for me — as a pastor for Reservoir, as a church — to represent and practice the most liberative parts of our tradition. And I certainly hope that all the beautiful children of God throughout our city will find where they need it, places that support their belonging and their own journey toward liberation. We're certainly happy to be one place that's part of that story for folks.

Rath: Steve, it's been wonderful speaking with you. Thank you.

Watson: Oh, great pleasure. Thanks for having us on.

Rath: That's Steve Watson, senior pastor at Reservoir Church in Cambridge. This is GBH's All Things Considered.