Presbyterian 'Misfits' Launch New Fellowship in California Desert
- Oasis: Presbyterian 'Misfits' Launch New Fellowship in California
by Jerry L. Van Marter
March 31, 2005
PALM SPRINGS, CA - From the time she moved to the desert from
Philadelphia in 1987, longtime Presbyterian Anne Smith says, the
nagging question came up every Sunday: Where am I going to go to
None of the four Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations in the
Coachella Valley appealed to the open-minded, mission-minded Smith,
and she doesn't think she could ever feel "at home" in a church of
Smith's friend Ginni Rassieur, a desert émigré from the Twin
Cities area of Minnesota, was in the same predicament. "Anne and I
shared the same pain," she says, "and it kept coming up every Sunday."
Rassieur goes on: "We were reluctantly attending another Presbyterian
church in the valley when I heard about Anne Smith, who'd just been
elected moderator of (Riverside) presbytery. So I went to a presbytery
meeting and shared my concern with Anne, and we agreed to talk after
her moderatorial year was finished."
In the meantime, Rassieur and her PC(USA) minister husband, Chuck,
spoke to a Methodist congregation about being Christian parents of a
gay son. There they met lifelong Presbyterian Jane Mead, a former
communications director for the Synod of the Northeast, and her
husband, Jim, who also had been prospecting for a like-minded
Presbyterian church in the valley.
"We tried all four Presbyterian churches here, and then the
Methodists, Episcopalians and Lutherans," Jane Mead says. "We were
told by one Presbyterian pastor that we just wouldn't fit in there -
and we didn't feel like we fit in anywhere else, either."
About three years ago this small but doughty band of self-described
misfits started a church of their own: Spirit of the Desert
Presbyterian Fellowship, which was formally recognized by Riverside
Presbytery last month.
The new group coalesced over three years, with Smith serving as what
Rassieur calls "the connecting person." It began with worship monthly,
then moved to every other Sunday and, in the last year, to a weekly
"We cast no aspersions on any other Presbyterian churches," says Chuck
Rassieur. "We just hope people will appreciate that we're another
option for the 42 new people who move to this area each day."
Because Spirit of the Desert bills itself as "inclusive" and counts
several openly gay Presbyterians as participants, some in the desert
fear that the group will declare itself a "More Light" congregation -
joining a group of congregations that have been openly defiant of the
PC(USA)'s ban on the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians.
For us, inclusiveness is not tied to any one issue," says Jerri
Rodewald, who with her husband, Bill, divides her time between the
desert and Newport Beach on the southern California coast. "For us it
means, 'Come as you are.'"
Some in the valley are skeptical. When the presbytery voted to
recognize Spirit of the Desert, one pastor voted "No" and at least one
presbyter abstained. "Some pastors are hurt that there's this many
people out here who don't feel comfortable in their churches," Jerri
Nevertheless, the fellowship is "well-accepted by most," says the
Rev. Ken McCullen, interim pastor at nearby Desert Hills Presbyterian
Church, who is active in Spirit of the Desert with his wife, Donna.
"Some can't figure out how we fit structurally, but we just plan to
... get on with our ministry and not be bothered with all that."
That ministry defies categorization, says Chuck Rassieur: "We don't
like labels. We're conservative when it comes to Reformed liturgy
(Communion is celebrated every week) and mission orientation."
Fully 60 percent of the fellowship's income goes to mission projects,
including the Mary Magdalene Project in West Hollywood, which helps
women to escape prostitution; Riverside Presbytery's Home of
Neighborly Service, which reaches out to the Hispanic community; the
denomination's New Church Development efforts and special offerings;
Hidden Harvest, a gleaning and feeding project in the Coachella
Valley; and Bell House Academy, a Presbyterian school in Kenya.
For the moment, the group has no intention of becoming an organized
Presbyterian congregation, according to the Rev. Carl Nelson, who
came to the desert in 1990 from New York City. "It would be great to
grow into a 200-member fellowship," he says, "but we have no staff, no
building, no organizational requirements."
Spirit of the Desert, which now has about 35 participants, worships at
5 p.m. every Sunday in a United Church of Christ building in Palm
Desert. Worship is preceded by a book discussion group and followed by
a meal. The fellowship includes five Presbyterian ministers, who share
the preaching load with occasional guest preachers.
"We wondered if preachers would preach for nothing," Jim Mead says.
"It has been no problem. They all say it enables them and the
fellowship to be more involved in mission ... and we've got the best
preaching in the valley."
"We (the five ministers) are very different in style, so there's
enough variety that people here have a much broader exposure," Nelson
All five use the common lectionary, "which seems to establish
continuity," says Jerri Rodewald.
In the end, "we're all about mission," Ken McCullen says. "The last
thing we cut is mission."
Adds Jerri Rodewald: "We want to reach those folk who've gotten out of
the habit of going to church and those who've stopped because they
couldn't find a place like ours ¾ open to the Holy Spirit and
committed to mission in the world."
For more information about Spirit of the Desert Presbyterian
Fellowship, visit its Web site at