Minister Jeff Rock of Gaetz Memorial United Church said becoming a minister was something that, “Just felt right.”
“I finished my science degree and the day my parents came to my graduation, I said, mom and dad, I want to be minister,” he said. “A couple months later I started my seminary.”
Rock’s calling eventually brought him to Red Deer, where he led the congregation at Gaetz for the last six years.
That same calling is now bringing him to Toronto.
“The Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto (MCC) is 44 years old and it originally started as a church for LGBTQ people when sexual minorities weren’t allowed in any congregations or churches,” he said.
“It has really expanded and grown to be a place where diversity is now the key that holds the congregation together.”
Diversity is something that drives Rock, and MCC gives him an opportunity to work within an influential, inclusive environment.
“You have people from Roman Catholic backgrounds and you have people from evangelical backgrounds all worshipping together and they are committed to inclusive communities,” he said.
“They are a large congregation in downtown Toronto who have always been very political and they wanted someone who has had political experience and there is not all that many people with that experience. Lo and behold they hired me.”
Rock will be taking over for Rev. Dr. Brent Hawkes: an influential pastor, preacher and LGBTQ activist who has led MCC for nearly 40 years.
“He has built that congregation up since its original days and they now have over 1,000 people on Sunday with three services,” Rock explained.
“He is a Member of the Order of Canada and is an internationally-renowned human rights activist so in some ways they are big shoes to fill, but Reverend Hawkes is telling everyone that he is bringing his shoes with him.”
Rock noted the MCC congregation, which runs Toronto Pride, is excited for a new chapter in their journey and Rock is excited to be able to provide guidance.
“It will be an exciting opportunity and I see them as another congregation that is looking for someone to lead them and help them go deeper,” he said.
“It is a different congregation then what I served here in Red Deer at Gaetz United Church, but in a lot of ways they are really similar. My goal is to reach out to every person in the city and let them know that they are loved – unconditionally loved by their creator. Whether they identify as Christian or not, there is a place where they are included at MCC Toronto.”
He added the, “Neat thing about MCC Toronto is that even though they identify as Christian, there are people there that identify as Jewish, there are people there that identify as atheist and still come every Sunday. They are active and involved in the community and it is diversity to the next whole level.”
Part of Rock’s leaving for Ontario is to be closer to his family, however he stated that Red Deer will always hold a special place for him.
“My own biological family is back in Ontario and my dad has advanced dementia,” he said.
“I’m feeling a little bit of a call back to my home, rather then this place – which has been my home of choice.”
Rock is pleased he was able to part of Red Deer growing into a more inclusive community.
“When I was hired at Gaetz over six years ago, I had never been to Red Deer except for a stop on the Greyhound Bus,” he said.
“I moved here and didn’t know a single person. It has only been six years, but Red Deer has meant the world to me. Being part of the downtown redevelopment and having Gaetz being more of a visible presence in the City has been so great. The congregation in a lot of ways is family and the City in a lot of ways is my home.”
He added being able to create inclusive community through his work has been a pleasure for him
“I see Red Deer as a city that is growing in its diversity and inclusion, whether it is about LGBTQ issues, indigenous issues or welcoming Syrian refugees – I feel like Red Deer is coming into its own,” he said.
“I can’t say enough good things about Central Alberta. When I moved here, a lot of my friends from out east thought I was crazy to move to red neck Red Deer, Alberta. In some ways that reputation is deserved but I am hell-bound and determined not to let those few people ruin the whole bunch. The people of Red Deer are the most loving, welcoming and inclusive people you can imagine.”
Gaetz United Church will be hiring two full-time ministers to replace Rock, to which he joked, “I am the equivalent of two full-time people.”
Rock believes his congregation will be in good hands.
“I know they will hire some incredible new ministers to help the congregation go to the next level,” he said.
“I don’t have kids, so my hope is that they hire someone with children so they can do some outreach in that way. We are growing as a congregation, especially among young adults and young families. I am proud of that and I know that will go to the next level.”
He added, “Red Deer rocks! I get to say that because it is my last name.
“This community is the most beautiful place and if the windstorm last month is any indication, when times are tough, people really pull together and help each other out. It is a beautiful place to live and grow and raise a family.”