Saturday, February 14, 2015

Interview with a Pastor in Second Life

 The church is not a campus but a community. Pastors are not CEOs; they are shepherds.

Dillon Burroughs


          I’ve done several stories of late about religion in Second Life (SL).

          Not the role playing type of religion done by several sims. (Nothing wrong there as long as everyone is respectful of everyone else’s beliefs.) But, the Real Life (RL) version which exists inworld.

          In my initial search for God in SL, I first encountered Her (Significant Other nods approvingly.  Believes I may actually becoming more open minded.) among the good people of the First UCC congregation who are maintaining an actual RL ministry inworld.

          In hanging around with First UCC, I learned and blogged about their various ministries and how people go about finding help inworld. 

          I also managed to blog about their beautiful gardens.  (Which I highly recommend to anyone seeking a contemplative and meditative experience inworld.)

          While researching that last story, I met the pastor of First UCC, Jerome (“Jer”) Newstart . 

          During our interview, we touched on a few subjects other than the church gardens.  (My fault, I have a very bad habit of going off topic.  Significant Other’s face reads ‘What else is new?’) I knew there were some great material for another interview and Jer graciously agreed to meet me at some future date.

          Since then, thanks to Becca (“Bec”) Kellstrom, a RL and SL minister, I learned a few other things that were happening at First UCC which convinced me that there was more of a story to tell here. 

          So, I scheduled another meeting with Jer and recently met with him in his office for our next session.

          Now, for those of you who may be wondering why I’m blogging about a church group so much instead of my usual fare about night clubs, nude resorts, ancient ruins, festivals and whatever else comes my way, here’s why.

          First UCC is a unique community inworld.  It bridges the gap between RL and SL. Others may do this but here’s the key difference.

          At First UCC, people are being helped. Really helped.  Real people are coming in with RL issues and being helped.  Recently, an inworld friend had a close RL relative who was seriously ill and needed counseling, First UCC sent me a ton of information plus instructions on how to reach out to UCC churches in RL for help to forward along when I asked for assistance.

          When I had my recent loss in RL, the time a member of the community spent with me was very helpful in getting me past a bad spot. (Significant Other nods in agreement.)

          This is real.  We’re not talking role play here. 

          I’m not dismissing all the creative builds and fun communities out there across the Grid.  There’s nothing wrong with any of that.  In fact, it’s very helpful in its own way.  And, yes, others do good work inworld too.

          What First UCC offers is a virtual refuge for people who need one in RL or who simply find worshipping inworld easier to do than outside.  This is what makes them different.

          This interview is with the man who made this all possible.

          (Full disclosure here.  I’m not associated with UCC in RL.  I belong to another organized religion which would probably prefer that I were associated somewhere else and would be willing to negotiate a dispensation for me with Her if I offered to leave but they’re stuck with me!)

          There were three topics on my agenda for my meeting with Jer.

          The first was what Jer calls the migration effect or how who we are in RL affects who we are in SL and vice versa.

          The second was Jer’s feelings about First UCC after its recent first anniversary.  (OK, maybe not so recent but RL’s been hectic lately and the second one hasn’t happened yet.)

          Finally, I’d learned that First UCC would soon be setting up satellite congregations in other virtual worlds (VW) and I wanted to learn more about these.

After settling into Jer’s office at First UCC, we begin the interview.

          I start by asking Jer to summarize for me his thoughts on what he calls the “migration effect.”

          Jer begins saying that we are all the sum of our experiences.  Those experiences shape us in profound ways, but often in ways that are subtle as well.  So, whom we essentially are logs into SL and, represented by our avatar, engages in activities and experiences, in-world.  On logging out, our SL inventory goes to the SL servers and all else disappears, but our experiences migrate out of SL with us, added to the totality of who we are.  We are the aggregated experiences that we have in both worlds.

I ask then if there really is no veil between who we are in RL and inworld?

Jer replies that In terms of shaping our total being, no there is no veil that he can see.  If we were able to utterly disassociate the experience sets that would be pathological. 

          My next question is if Jer has seen examples of the migration effect in his inworld experiences that he could share.

Jer replies in the affirmative.  He has encountered many who use their SL experience to augment their RL experience.  If, for example, one is forbidden an experience in RL, they may elect to have that experience in SL.

In the case of this ministry, Jer continues saying, many who have been hurt by religious communities in RL, find they can add that experience in a positive way to their lives in SL.

          My last question on this topic is what's the overall effect of the migration effect on a community like First UCC?

Jer answers the first thought that crosses his mind is "enrichment."  He believes that the existence of a caring, supportive, non-judgmental community provides a set of experiences that first, enriches the life of that person, and second provides a means of offering support to aspects of their lives in RL that are much broader.  In other words, acquired comfort and support are manifested in better living in RL.

The converse is equally true, Jer adds.  Those who have ideas, dreams, and aspirations find a place to explore those, and kindred spirits willing to engage in thinking about them.

          From the migration effect, we move on to discussing his thoughts and impressions looking back on the recent first anniversary of First UCC.
          Jer begins by saying his first thought is, "God must be grinning!"  They have had a year that has yielded new friends, a solid ministry that welcomes all, and opportunities to engage in support that extends even beyond those who participate.  In the latter regard, Jer is thinking of the two children First UCC has "adopted."

Then Jer adds that First UCC have been accorded the honor of being named a full ministry,  no "experimental" label is now needed, by their Conference in RL. 

For those of you just joining us, this is a very big deal. 

A RL organization, a religious group, is recognizing a virtual community as having the same legitimacy as a church down a RL street. 

As Jer puts it, as far as the Southern California Nevada Conference is concerned, this is a church.  It just can't be driven to by car. 

(Let me put it another way for those still trying to get their heads around this.  Imagine if the Congress of the United States recognized part of SL as the fifty-first state? With me now?)

Jer explains what First UCC will do next. They will begin to work toward getting standing for non-traditional ministries just like RL churches do with local associations in the months ahead.  In other words they will look at how RL churches become affiliated with the UCC and then find ways to customize those so that this ministry can be replicated.

          (I think I just got a scoop here!)  

          As we move down my list of agenda items, Jer anticipates my next topic and begins to discuss establishing congregations in other VWs. 

Jer starts by saying that First UCC has been given a parcel in InWorldz and have had
some conversations about being a religious presence in Littlefield.  He thinks that they we are about ready to explore how "satellite" ministries might offer additional ideas for serving and a template of sorts to allow other UCC churches/groups to join with this effort,

Staffing these additional locations is what Jer hopes to accomplish in the coming months.

I ask Jer if he’s worried about possible dilution of his efforts here in SL?

Jer replies no because they won't let that happen.  They’ll have to see their way clear to staffing before expanding in material ways.

I next ask if Jer’s looking at other virtual worlds is a possible sign of concern about SL's future?  Does he worry about SL 2.0?

His reply is that he does not worry about SL 2.0.  It would be really terrible business strategy to kill off the goose that laid the first golden egg, so to speak.  He thinks Linden Lab (LL) is positioning to become a force in multiple universes.  (I sure hope he’s right here!)

Thanks to the Open Sim initiative, Jer believes, it is clear that the Metaverse has arrived.  If the concept of interconnectedness mirrors that which the electronics industry and some software projects have piloted, then there is no reason for apprehension, he explains further. 

          As our interview draws to a close, I ask Jer about future plans as he looks ahead to the second anniversary and any concerns that he might have. 

Jer replies that being a futurist with regards to virtual universes is tricky.  It's rather like defining the parameters of an amoeba. But, that yes, they do have plans.  They want to concentrate on two things.

First, Jer explains, they want to build a core of clergy and lay folks who understand this technology and its possibilities.  Then, with increased "person power" they'd like to substantially enhance our ability to engage in fellowship ministry.  Much of what is done by way of assistance happens at events adjacent to worship.  Recognizing that, they'd like to enhance the number of socializing opportunities here.

Jer adds that this really follows on the early on recognition that for many First UCC is "safe space."  The logical expansion of that sort of service is to find ways to enhance the First UCC experience.

As for any concerns for the future, Jer says that it’s not really a great concern, but he is, with his colleagues, beginning to think about senior leadership for this ministry when he is out of the picture.  He has learned a lot and continues to do so.  He wants to be sure that what is accomplished does not end with his tenure.  There is a lot to do here just to maintain what they have.  It requires some acquired skills and a means of passing those on.

Jer ends jovially saying that hopefully that is not a pressing concern!

Jer believes this will require their being intentional and it is why he am careful to make this ministry a shared leadership environment.

          We come to the end of the interview, I thank Jer for meeting with me and his candor in answering my questions.

          I take my leave and let Jer get back to shepherding his flock.

          One can’t be but impressed with the work that Jer and First UCC have done in SL.

          I’ve worked with large Fortune 500 companies in RL that had more resources, both financial, and technical, that couldn’t attain the level of community involvement inworld that I saw and continue to see at First UCC. 

          Some RL companies spent a lot of time and money and built ghost towns that no one ever stayed around in.  Others couldn’t organize the espirit de corps necessary to even get started despite lots of brave talk initially.

          Jer has managed to bring together two skill sets.  Those needed to be a successful leader and those found in a creative VW builder both technically and socially.  Rarely in RL, have I met anyone with all these skills. 

I look forward to learning about of Jer’s and First UCC’s virtual successes and my readers can look forward to reading about them!

I’d like to thank Jer for his time and hospitality, in meeting with me for this story.       

As always, I’m grateful to all inworld for their kindness and time in stopping to talk with a stranger who was passing through their lives.         

My Twitter handle is @webspelunker.  Please feel free to follow me and I’d be happy to follow you.

I can be found on Google+ as webspelunker Ghostraven.

My flickr Photostream is located here.

On Skype I’m webspelunker Ghostraven.

I welcome feedback from readers, please either comment on my blog or e-mail me at . 

          If you would like to read about my other adventures in Second Life
please click here.

          Open roads and kind fires!


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