‘The Big Smoke’ has acquired one of Red Deer’s most solid rocks.
Reverend Jeff Rock of the Gaetz United Church is moving on to greener pastures in Canada’s largest city after being chosen to lead Toronto’s Metropolitan Community Church.
The church, which hasn’t seen a change in leadership in four decades, opened 44 years ago as a congregation safe for gays and lesbians.
Rock says since then it’s grown to the point where every Sunday, upwards of 1000 people are taking in church services, including people from all walks of life.
“There are people who identify as Jewish, people who are Atheist or Agnostic, but still want to be part of a faith community. There are people who would consider themselves Evangelical and then people who are on the more metaphorical side in their understanding of Christianity,” Rock says. “People come and join that congregation because they're committed to the work of inclusion around race and religious diversity.”
The 33-year-old Rock will be taking over from Reverend Brent Hawkes, a member of the Order of Canada and recipient of multiple honourary degrees, as well as the City of Toronto Award of Merit. Hawkes also officiated over the state funeral of the late honourable Jack Layton in 2011.
“It's intimidating,” Rock admits, realizing the magnitude of the next step in his career. “Brent is an amazing man and he decided to retire. The board really wanted someone who’s on the younger side to really do some intentional outreach using social media and things like that.”
The MCC congregation overwhelmingly approved Rock's selection after being recommended unanimously by the MCC Toronto board and search committee.
“While it sounds like it’s a big ego thing, it’s really humbling as well that that many people are putting their trust in me -- people of colour, of differing abilities, the full breadth of diverse people,” he says.
“Brent’s leadership is second to none. He did a hunger strike during some of the police violence against the LGBTQ community, and he’s worked with the police greatly [since]. When he started as pastor at MCC Toronto, it was still illegal to be a gay or lesbian person in Canada, and then through the leadership of same-gendered marriage, he wore a bulletproof vest to perform weddings for the first little while underneath his robes.”
Hawkes is also well-known for having performed the first gay-marriage in Canada in 2001.
Rock jokes, “It’s only just starting to sink in, like oh crap. The fact that I can be an openly gay man in the ministry stems from people like Brent and MCC Toronto pushing the boundaries.”
In 2015, Rock ran in the federal election under the Liberal banner for Red Deer – Lacombe, something he says was a highlight and an opportunity to promote inclusion. His work in Red Deer also included roles of varying degrees with the local Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Urban Aboriginal Voices Society, the WIC Network, the Red Deer Interfaith Network and the creation of GSAs at local schools. Rock also performed a same-gender marriage in the summer of 2017 at Gaetz United Church.
“Red Deer is the most beautiful and wonderful community I could possibly hope to have begun my career in. The people of this community pull together and love and support each other when they need to and my hope is that they can continue on that path of building a more inclusive community,” he says.
“There are certainly some challenges in Red Deer when it comes to inclusion, but it is getting better. My hope and prayer is that Red Deer continues to be the incredible community that it is. Red Deer really is a place of opportunity and hope -- and that hope is palpable.”
Rock will share his role with Hawkes beginning in October before officially taking over next February.
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