Saturday, May 10, 2014

Does God Exist in Second Life?

 God will not look you over for medals, degrees or diplomas but for scars.

Elbert Hubbard

          Let me begin with apologies to Hans Kung for the liberties I took with the title to this post. 
          And, no, I’m not going to get metaphysical with you with this post. Believers know that God is everywhere even in virtual worlds.  (Think about that next time you’re having one of your escapades inworld.)  Non-believers just shrug and go about their business.  (Not having to be self-conscious about their inworld escapades.) 
          I’m writing today about a community in Second Life (SL) who are believers and who have brought their faith in God with them inworld.  They worship together in SL and return to Real Life (RL) where they practice their faith as well.
          This community is not role-play but an actual virtualization of their faith and beliefs.  I’ve written about SL communities before.  But, those were either groups who came together inworld for things they might not do in RL (like ride dragons or go to nudist beaches) or just hang out inworld.  The “fourth wall” wasn’t pierced.  In what I blog about now, an eighteen wheeler is driven through it. 
          The community I’m blogging about is the First United Church of Christ as they go by in SL.  In RL, they are a ministry of the Southern California Nevada Conference of the United Church of Christ (UCC) and are staffed by UCC ministers and a group of lay staff and volunteers inworld.
          I became aware of First UCC when I met Becca (“Bec”) Kellstrom from SL via my social media efforts with Twitter.  (All that work is starting to pay off with new friends!)  Bec is a pastor at First UCC. 
          After tweeting for a while, Bec was kind enough to agree to meet with me for an interview about First UCC and the role of religion inworld. 
          At the time of appointed meeting, I rez into the arrival area of First UCC and Conference Center and meet Bec for the first time.  We talk about our respective faith based journeys.  (For the record, I do believe in God.  He may wish that I don’t advertise this fact.  I belong to an organized religion.  Although, I disagree with them on just about everything.  The only reasons that I can think of for them not throwing me out is charity on their part and the desire to keep the seat occupied.)  Apparently, Bec and I had been altar servers for the same organization once upon a time.  We swap stories of candles, incense, bells, and passing out.  (You had to have been there to appreciate.)
          After reliving old times, Bec and I get down to talking about her and the First UCC. 
          Bec begins by saying that her family started attending a United Church of Christ congregation back home when she began high school. She began to recognize a call to ministry in college, and after seminary, served a church in a small town. Jerome (“Jer”) Newstart, pastor of First UCC, arrived as a nearby colleague two years later and they became friends. They kept in touch after he attempted to retire, Bec grins as she says this, and then Jer began talking about SL and its potential for ministry.
While some think of SL as a game, Bec explains, Jer discovered people live whole, full lives here, and want opportunities to explore their faith. With so many religions and other Christian traditions represented, he felt strongly about adding a UCC presence back into SL.  Bec answered the call because she had some free time and as Jer is one of her absolute favorite people, she figured she'd give it a try.
First, UCC is a real ministry Bec continues.  She and Jer both hold clergy standing in their respective UCC conferences.  They are both seminary trained and were ordained by their home congregations.
I ask about First UCC’s mission.
Bec explains that they began as a way to serve and reach out to people who identify as gender diverse and quickly discovered that's only part of it. There's a huge educational component about the fact that there are religions, never mind Christians, who accept and affirm God working in and through the lives of people of various sexual orientations and gender identities.  The LGBT community is part of a diverse inworld congregation served by First UCC.
In addition, in RL, they are now sponsoring a student through Children International, and it is believed they’re the first SL congregation to make an effort like this.
Bec finishes saying, “We worship, we have fellowship, and we educate.”
One other piece Bec discovered is that people are surprised they're not out to convert everyone, to anything. Respect really is key for First UCC, where ever a person is in their beliefs on a wide range of subjects and faith perspectives.  She’s had conversations with atheists who appreciate that they're not trying to convert them, who are pleasantly surprised by First UCC’s progressive views.
Next, I ask about First UCC’s status with ICC in RL.
Bec explains that they are an in-world ministry of the Southern California Nevada Conference of the United Church of Christ.  They are incorporated as a non-profit in California with a board of directors that includes Bec in RL.
Jer is friends with the Conference minister, too, Bec adds, and will talk about SL at the next big Conference meeting, which brings together RL church members and pastors.  Conferences are groups of churches around the country.
The UCC has a congregational form of operating, which means local churches get the last say in all their decisions.  The General Synod and the national office of the church are definitely very progressive. In RL, congregations run the gamut.
Basically, Bec continues, some are what we call "Open & Affirming" of folks who identify as LGBTQIA, etc., and that was a vote the individual congregation took.  Others have not made such a declaration. Some will, and some won't.
Bec states that this ministry was started as an "open & affirming" one, which makes them a bit different.  What's great, she says, is that this ministry is getting support and recognition by people from their RL churches.
          I ask Bec about her duties as pastor and the challenges of caring for a congregation and its needs inworld.
          Bec replies that there is quite a bit of pastoral care.  She also spend quite a bit of time with our members who are gender variant. They have church members who are in various places on their journeys of transition, as people who are transgender, so she listens.  Bec offers support for where they are, what they are growing through, praying with and for them.  She continues that they offer a comfort and welcome for people who can't be their authentic selves in RL.
          And, in her spare time, Bec connects with and communicate with the people who show up here, or who find her on Twitter or Facebook. She’s in charge of the church’s social media.
          My final question to Bec is about First UCC’s plans for the future.
          Bec lists sponsoring one more child through Children International (since the one we have will turn eighteen in February), adding worship services suitable for multiple time zones so that their friends around the world can come together, and continuing to love and educate people about what the church can be at what she feels is the very best of their faith.
          Not wishing to wear out my welcome with this very busy woman, I thank Bec and take my leave.
          As I said earlier, this is not my usual type of story.  People here are freely going back and forth across the virtual divide practicing their religion either by prayer or by works.  The Metaverse as once imagined in the very early days of SL seems very close to realization here. 
          For anyone traveling on their own journey of faith and who may seem lost or seeks some companionship, I would encourage them to drop by First UCC and meet with either Bec or other members of the ministry and talk.
          The grounds of First UCC are beautiful and in addition to the church buildings there are gardens and pathways to wander in if you’re seeking a place a quiet contemplative place for prayer or meditation.  There are also donation bowls where maybe some may wish to make a contribution to help First UCC in their ministry work and to defer the costs of the sim.  (This is my suggestion not theirs.)
          Also, please remember that this sim is a religious site so proper attire and conduct is expected.  (If I have to explain to you what this means, don’t even think of going there until we speak.) 
          There are regular services and events at First UCC.  Details may be obtained at  for inworld and  for RL.  (Or follow Bec on Twitter!)
          I’ve included links to pictures from my visit but these don’t do any justice at all.  Go and see for yourselves.  You’ll be glad you did!       
          I’d like to thank Bec again for taking the time to meet with me and answer my questions.  I’d also like to thank Jer Newstart and Josh for taking time from their busy schedules to meet with me. 
          I wish all of them and their colleagues and congregants well in their ministry!
         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 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.


Photo No. 1 Bec and web

Photo No. 4 Interior of Church

Photo No. 5 Church Grounds

Photo No. 6 Zion Chapel

Photo No. 8 Conference Center

Photo No. 9 Arrival Area

Photo No. 10 Coastal Pathway

Photo No. 11 Peace Grove

Photo No. 12 Art Garden Entrance

Photo No. 13 Art Garden Grounds


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