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For pastor at this church, fighting for social justice is 'living the Gospel'

Lauren Costantino, Miami Herald on

Published in Women

Rev. Laurinda Hafner is known in the Miami religious community for many things: her interfaith work, creative sermons that sometimes feature untraditional aspects like music from Jimmy Buffett, and her annual trip up into the church tower, where she camps out until at least five tons of food is collected to help combat food insecurity in Miami-Dade.

But at Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ, Hafner, who received a humanitarian award earlier this year recognizing her leadership, is most admired as a leader who uses faith to fight for social justice causes her congregation considers important to building a strong community.

“She is the church,” said Ann Pierce Stith, a church member who has served multiple leadership roles at Coral Gables UCC. “She’s so creative and so dedicated and she really brings it all together.”

The church Hafner leads, a small but striking structure nestled across the street from the grandiose Biltmore Hotel, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. It’s old as the city of Coral Gables itself but its ideals are a distinct break from the past and different from many conservative Christian churches.

“I am the luckiest pastor in the universe to be at a congregation that is so supportive, and so willing to go to the edge to fight oppression and discrimination and mean-spiritedness and to be open to ... understanding that everyone is a beloved child of God,” said Hafner in an interview with the Miami Herald.

The church boasts a history of getting involved in social justice issues long before Hafner, who members call “Pastor Laurie,” took the pulpit nearly two decades ago. But she has expanded the focus: Affordable housing. Climate change. Poverty. Anti-racism. Immigration.. Many hot-button issues.

Coral Gables UCC was the first congregation, under Hafner’s leadership, to have a float in the LGBTQ Pride Parade in Miami Beach. In recent years, she made national news for suing the state of Florida over its abortion ban on the grounds of religious rights. Last year, the church partnered with local bookstore, Books & Books, to organize a protest march against the state’s recent efforts to ban certain books in schools.

“It’s always been a social justice church,” said Stith. “Laurie was the perfect pastor for us when she came. She’s just taken it to the next level, and just ensured that we are really walking the talk.”

Hafner rejects pigeon-holing of the church as “knee-jerk liberal” and doesn’t see herself as a “progressive pastor.” She says, rather, that she is someone who is simply following the teachings of the Bible.

“I see myself as a pastor living the Gospel, because this is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as I understand it,” she said.

Hafner offered examples of scriptures where Christ is said to have welcomed the oppressed, connecting with those on the outskirts of societies — the homeless, the hungry — and ultimately, Hafner says, he was “working towards justice and equality.”

Inclusive policies

Members say Hafner’s leadership has been key in cultivating a church known for its inclusiveness that welcomes all people — no matter their background.

“Laurie has done an enormous job in ensuring that there’s a place for everybody, some group for everybody in the congregation to feel like they belong,” Stith said.

At Coral Gables UCC, there does seem to be something for everyone, regardless of whether a church member lives in Coral Gables or not.

There are worship services in multiple languages — Spanish and German — a women’s group called “Sisters on Sojourn,” a Prayer Shawl Ministry that knits shawls for church members who are ill, an “expat” ministry that gathers virtually with church members living outside of South Florida, young adult events, education programs, and a gardening group, to name a few.

Hafner’s pastoral style is also distinct. Her sermon series “The Gospel according to,” merges music with worship, including artists like The Beatles, Buffett, Dolly Parton, Disney and others. In another sermon series, “Elephant in the Pew” Hafner responds to congregant questions about faith, morality and ethics — “The kind of questions that puzzle, annoy, or even keep you awake at night,” according to the Gables UCC website.

“It’s this kind of way of a very broad vision of how faith can be expressed in a variety of ways that are available to everybody and don’t have to feel rigidly exclusive or denominational,” said Rabbi Howard Berman, founder of the organization Roots of Reform Judaism and a friend of Hafner’s. “This is something she’s very committed to.”

Midwest to Miami

Originally from Indiana, Hafner came to Gables UCC in 2006 after an 18-year stint as a senior pastor at a Congregational church in Cleveland, Ohio. Early in life, Hafner, the daughter of a pastor, never wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps. But eventually, she felt called to pastoral work and went to seminary.

“The only way I can express it is God was keeping me up at night with my plans for the future,” Hafner said.

Miami was never on the radar for the Coral Gables pastor, but when the opportunity presented itself to serve in a new city, she, again, responded to the call.

“I’m a very nitty gritty industrial kind of person. I like unions, and I like factories,” Hafner said. As an avid basketball fan, Hafner said she was thrilled when LeBron James, originally from Ohio, came to play for Miami.

“I thought, well, there’s a little Cleveland here.”

 

Hafner came from one of Cleveland’s poorest communities to Coral Gables, one of the wealthiest cities in the state. But she soon realized that outside of the manicured neighborhoods, there were plenty of people dealing with the same issues of poverty and food insecurity.

“I thought that we needed to do something about that,” she said.

She came up with an idea to occupy the church tower — every year on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend — until the church collected 10,000 pounds in food donations. Over the years, the event has raised over 125 tons of food for the hungry in South Florida. The perch gives her perspective, she said.

“When you go up to the tower, you look out and you see all of the beauty of a community. But if you go even further out, you see all the pain and the hurt that the beautiful landscape and lovely homes can’t disguise.”

Coral Gables Congregational UCC has been a hub for community and worship since it was established by George Merrick — the founder of Coral Gables — in 1923. Last month, the Coral Gables museum opened an exhibit celebrating the church’s 100 year history and the first established building and organization in Coral Gables.

The church belongs to the United Church of Christ, a denomination with 1.6 million members in the U.S, that was established in 1957 after the merging of four different religious groups: two were the Congregational Churches of the English Reformation and the Christian Church with American frontier beginnings, and two from the Protestant tradition of Christianity, according to the UCC’s website.

Coral Gables UCC’s advocacy for liberal causes may set them a part from other, more conservative Christian churches, but as a denomination, the United Church of Christ has always been forward-thinking, often called a “church of the first,” said Hafner.

The United Church of Christ, before its union, ordained the first woman in 1853 and the first openly gay man in 1972. It was the first denomination to take a stand against slavery in 1700, and the first to ordain an African American person in 1785. Keeping up with that tradition, Gables UCC was the first congregation to have a float in the LGBTQ Pride Parade in Miami Beach over 15 years ago, an action that contributed to the church’s significant LGBTQ population today.

“We did it because it’s the right thing to do,” Hafner said. “We have a saying here that Jesus didn’t reject people, neither do we. So all are welcome here.”

Once a year Hafner does a series of classes on “homosexuality in the Bible,” to share her interpretations of scripture that combats the idea homosexuality is a sin, a belief that many Christians find to be true. She said her church and teachings have opened the door to religion for many in the LGBTQ community who felt rejected at other churches.

“Every Sunday, there’ll be someone new who will come in. And they will come up to me afterwards. And they always are crying,” she said. “With tears, they’ll say, ‘but I’m gay.’ I go, ‘That’s great. I’m not, but I know God loves us equally.’”

Interfaith work as advocacy work

Earlier this year, Hafner was presented with the Silver Medallion Award from Mosaic Miami — a social impact organization formerly known as the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews — recognizing her work in the interfaith community.

“It was a no brainer for Mosaic Miami to honor Pastor Laurie Hafner with our coveted Silver Medallion Award,” said Executive Director Matt Anderson. “Laurie is a solution oriented north star for advocating for what’s right even when it’s not easy or popular.”

The term “interfaith,” today, is sometimes seen as an empty buzzword to mean everything and nothing at the same time. Hafner, reflecting on the label, said to her it means “to honor the other,” and “to honor the places, the traditions, the cultures, from which people have come, which they belong to, which is important to them.”

Hafner practices this concept in her church by inviting faith leaders from other traditions as a guest speakers. A few years ago, for example, an Imam and a Rabbi collaborated to offer a religious service on the anniversary of 9/11.

“I am unabashedly, unapologetically Christian, that is my how I understand my faith journey,” said Hafner. “But I also am so informed by family and friends who are Jewish, dear friends who are Muslim, some Buddhist, some Jains ... And I am so enriched by that.”

Hafner says that her openness to interfaith work has made her more aware of how some interpretations of Christianity seem to feel further from her faith than other denominations entirely.

“I have much more in common with some of my rabbi friends than I do with ministers who are advocating for Christian nationalism,” Hafner said. “I just find that theology to be, I want to be careful here, but to be hijacked from what our faith is.”

One unique interfaith effort Hafner became involved with in recent years is her lawsuit against the state of Florida for its six-week abortion ban. Hafner, along with seven other Florida clergy members — two Christians, three Jews, one Unitarian Universalist and a Buddhist — sued the state in 2022 on the grounds of religious freedom.

“What our state is doing is they have gone anti-choice on religious grounds. And my question is, as are the other plaintiffs, whose religion? It’s not my religion, I know, my rabbi friends is definitely not their religion. And we had a Buddhist, we had Unitarian on there, it’s not their religion.”

____

This story was produced with financial support from Trish and Dan Bell and from donors comprising the South Florida Jewish and Muslim Communities, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners. The Miami Herald maintains full editorial control of this work.


©2024 Miami Herald. Visit at miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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