In a time of radical change sweeping the country, Saint John’s Church (the Beloved Community) welcomed a new era by naming Rev. Michelle Higgins as the first Black woman to permanently lead the North St. Louis church.
Higgins was preceded in this role by Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, who served as Saint John’s pastor for 10 years and is currently president and CEO of Deaconess Foundation.
“The Beloved Community is a congregation of diverse, radical people committed in faith to fairness and lifting the voices, spirits and the lives of the marginalized,” Wilson said. “Pastor Higgins loves all God’s people and is respected nationally among people of faith committed to social justice. She is the right leader for this call.”
Higgins, 38, was the worship arts director for seven years at South City Church, which is pastored by her father, Rev. Mike Higgins. She holds a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary and has been a church choir director and vocalist for more than 20 years. Higgins is also part of a three-member podcast called Truth's Table that focuses on theological perspectives. She is a single mother to two children – Moses, 9, and Matilda, 7 – and lives in St. Louis.
“I really center the meaning and the beauty of God’s creativity in spaces where people are mostly concentrated in learning about God and knowing about God,” she said.
The lifelong activist has been deeply involved in the fight for social justice. She is a director and founding member of Faith for Justice, a Christian advocacy group dedicated to continuing the Biblical story of activism. She is co-founder of Action St. Louis, launched the St. Louis office for the Bail Project, served on the campaign to Close the Workhouse and is a member of the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL).
“I am certainly a daughter of the church,” she said, “but I am also a protestor who has become a pastor. And the awareness I have as a double label is acute. It means I am unable to pastor a church that is not welcoming.”
Saint John’s Church, which was established in 1855 by German immigrants, is a multi-racial congregation of about 150 members. Affiliated with United Church of Christ (UCC), Saint John’s has served as a hub of activism on many issues, including voter mobilization, Medicaid expansion, youth violence prevention, public school accreditation and raising the minimum wage.
“The church is already doing everything that I have been doing on the streets,” she said. “They have been building in the sanctuary. So, I want to make it clear that what I am bringing to Saint John’s will not be new to them.”
Higgins pointed to Saint John’s participation in a 10-demand call to action presented to the City of St. Louis on June 19 by a coalition of activist organizations as one of the ways the church will continue its mission.
“On top of our stance of welcoming queer people, on top of embracing the 10 demands stated on Juneteenth, we are working to shift the material conditions of Black people in St. Louis,” Higgins said. “We believe that demanding that the City of St. Louis make reparations to the North Side and to black people is something that the city can do and the faith community can support.”
Higgins also plans to move Saint John’s into being more inclusive of the disabled community. Higgins said that the 166-year-old church building is protected from ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance even though the building steps are a barrier to access.
“We must change the entries of our buildings,” she said. “We have failed, and that will change. We will become anti-ableist in name and in function as soon as we can.”
She said the activism spirit first stirred in her as a young girl who saw “queer bigotry” first-hand.
“I was 7 or 8 when the HIV/AIDS criminalization started occurring,” she said. “Because I grew up in the church, I was surrounded by queer Black people who loved the Lord and loved the church but also lived in a ‘don’t ask don’t tell situation.’ Having the church say nothing, do nothing – I don’t think the fire has ever been put out of me.”
Higgins said she has had to face the question of whether her embrace of the LGBTQ community is “Biblical.”
“To me, it’s really a problem of exalting our personal views over universal truths,” she said. “Because the universal truth is that if you are alive, if you are breathing, if you are human, God has called you the crown of all things in existence. And with that crown comes responsibility, stewardship. God calls us to protect everything that God has made.”
Saint John’s Church (the Beloved Community) is located at 4136 N. Grand Blvd. Visit http://sjuccstl.org/.