Questions of Faith is a series of discussions with Knoxville religious leaders, exploring their viewpoints on faith and spirituality.
Name: Jill Sizemore
Title: Pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of Knoxville
Thoughts on Faith: "When it's something we're forcing, it's probably not God."
Pastor Jill Sizemore isn't very tall, but she's every bit the commanding figure an ex-lieutenant colonel should be. The former United States Army reservist considered chaplaincy before deciding her leadership would be put to better use in a parish church. And that's how Sizemore wound up back in Knoxville after spending nearly 20 years in California.
After being commissioned in the Army Reserves after going through the ROTC program at the University of Tennessee, Sizemore left Knoxville with the hope of making it big in music.
"I left Knoxville in 1991 to go to California to be discovered, but God found me first," she says with a laugh in her office at the Metropolitan Community Church. It's the very same church had been her home before she left town, and it's where she found her mentor in San Francisco.
Rev. Elder Jim Mitulski had been at the pulpit of the MCC in San Francisco throughout the 1980s as hundreds in the gay community contracted HIV/AIDS. Sizemore arrived when it was being taken seriously but still affecting the city. She remembers, "The guy that was singing behind me was dead the next week—the tenor whose voice would charm an angel. I wept for weeks. I lost my cousin. I lost his best friend. And I lost them all. I started to get numb, and I stayed numb for about 15 years. It's only been in the last couple of years that I have really been able to take inventory of how devastating that was."
Mitulski, she says, showed her the importance of preaching social justice from the pulpit, though she's quick to make it clear that social justice and politics are different: "Social justice means what's happening to a group of people, and our animals and our land. That's the part that the political structure has to safeguard and make sure it's not getting bullied."
Sizemore often invokes another pastor and advocate for social justice: Deitrich Bonhoeffer, who was an anti-Nazi Lutheran Pastor during World War II. Bonhoeffer wrote at length about Christianity's role in secular life; his main argument was that Christians should act within the secular world and not retreat from it.
"We change the world by being in it and choosing to be different in the way we love," Sizemore says, echoing Bonhoeffer's ideas. She invokes him again when she says, "We cannot just sit and be our nice little church in the woods and stare at our navels. That's not what God put us on the planet for. There are a lot of injustices out there, and we are called to name them and write them."
Sizemore says social justice is written about throughout the Bible, as well.
"Our biblical prophets were enmeshed in social justice issues, and people tend to not want to admit that. These prophets were out in the middle of town squares saying this political action that is going on in our society, this structure that is taking from the widows, taking from the orphans is not right. This structure that is causing some to be without because of what we're doing intentionally or what we're doing sometimes without even knowing what we're doing is wrong," she says.
That's why Jesus was a political figure, she says. He saw the corruption in the Jewish temples, and how the weakest members of society were being taken advantage of by the political system, and he called them out. Even Christ's crucifixion was a political move, she says.
"They could've stoned him, but they didn't want to stone him; they wanted to make it look more political. The Jewish authorities had the right to stone him, but they did not have the right under the [Roman] empirical laws to crucify anyone—only the empire could. It was all a political setup," she explains.
Sizemore enrolled at the American Baptist Seminary of the West and was ordained in February 2009. Though she considered many different avenues after seminary, her guiding principle that "when it's something we're forcing, it's probably not God" led her to parish ministry (leading a church as a pastor). In the summer before receiving the call to MCC Knoxville, Sizemore left the military as a lieutenant colonel.
"When I got the call to come out here, something in my brain said ‘yeah, this is good,'" she says.
As the leader of a congregation with diverse religious backgrounds, Sizemore strives to keep out the dogma of more traditional and conservative Christian denominations—mostly what she refers to as the "brow beating" many conservative Christians receive about homosexuality—while maintaining familiar aspects of different church traditions.
"Dogma tends to put God in a box. What we try to do here is honor many different types of religions, because that's who walks through our doors: people who have been thrown out of everybody else's doors," she says.
Many Episcopalians, she says, have migrated to the MCC, so her services might take on a "high church" atmosphere. She's not married to any one particular tradition, in other words, and she says that keeps her church from becoming too dug into one particular ideology or dogma.
"I think there is nothing in the world wrong with developing a set of ideological beliefs that are aimed at trying to keep people centered on Christ-likeness. It becomes harmful when dogma no longer fits where we are as an evolved people. I do think we have the option to evolve," Sizemore explains.
A significant part of that evolution is reading the Bible and preaching sermons that address the voices not commonly heard in the Bible: women, eunuchs, and (according to some interpretations) gay men.
"The fact of the matter is, you gotta get sex out of it and put love back into it, and then we can open our eyes to what queer theology is all about: looking past the heterosexual norms we live in today," she says.
This reading, she says, could be the answer to keeping young people in the church. She says she's seen many younger Christians leave their churches due to the hypocrisy of professing Jesus' love for everyone—except the LGBT community.
But that message of love is what's at the heart of Sizemore's crusade to bring people—all people—into the church's fold.
"God is there sending a message of love and we gotta hear it. And to hear it, we have to intentionally want to hear it."