The Rev. Carol West is Celebration Community Church’s first and only senior pastor, and now the church is saying thank you for her years of service
That says something for a church founded in 1993 as a satellite campus of White Rock Community Church in Dallas. The 35-member congregation grew fast enough that it quickly became its own church.
In May 1998, the growing congregation rented space at 908 Pennsylvania Ave. At the time the property was still owned by St. John’s Evangelical and Reform Church, founded by German immigrants in 1882.
After a membership spike, the historic church located on the city’s Near Southside since 1915 saw its membership dwindle, and St. John’s merged with First Congregational Church in west Fort Worth in 1999.
Meanwhile, Celebration was growing. It needed more space as its programming grew. The church was so successful that the congregation decided to hire its first full-time pastor, and called West to lead the flock.
When the board voted to purchase the building, the Rev. West stepped up to the challenge of raising money. But she didn’t seize the pulpit and threaten hellfire and brimstone on those who didn’t donate. Instead, she led by example, entering a 10K fun run to raise $50,000 for a down payment.
She raised double that amount.
For the past 17 years, Celebration has continued to grow, and once again, the church needs more space. Members and staff agree it’s all because of the leadership of their founding pastor.
To honor her service to the church — and to the greater North Texas LGBT community — the board decided to name its new community center for West. Not only will the Rev. Carol West Community Center create the first permanent LGBT community center in Tarrant County, it will also be the first facility named for an out lesbian in Tarrant County, according to a review of Tarrant County historical records.
(Van Cliburn Recital Hall, named for the late pianist, is the first facility in the county named for an out LGBT person.)
The decision to name the community center for West was unanimous.
“When the board told me, I was surprised,” West said. She was just as surprised when told by the Dallas Voice it is the first building named for an out lesbian in the county.
When completed, Celebration will have more gathering spaces for congregants after worship services, additional parking spaces and a columbarium for members who wish to be buried on the church’s property.
West may have been surprised, but the Rev. Lisetta Thomas was not. Thomas, who has worked with West for 15 years, described West as perceptive, politically aware and spiritually grounded.
“I have a seminary education, but she has taught me things you don’t learn in seminary,” Thomas said. “She has the ability to convey wisdom in a tangible way for others.”
Indeed, in a time where church attendance across the country has plummeted, Celebration has seen its membership swell to 650 members.
“[It has grown] because she knew from the start what was necessary to build the church. She had a vision and made it happen,” Thomas said. “Not everyone has that ability.”
Spiritual, but not religious
West’s path to pastor of Celebration was paved in part by the AIDS crisis. Before joining Celebration, she was trained, ordained and worked for what was the Metropolitan Community Church of Dallas, now Cathedral of Hope.
She didn’t grow up spiritual however. Raised in Irving by “liberal and open-minded” parents, West said she only sporadically attended church services.
“They really didn’t attend after they got married. We’d occasionally go to a Methodist church and visit churches of other denominations,” she recalled.
After obtaining an undergraduate degree from University of North Texas, then North Texas State University, in Denton and graduate degree from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, West taught English at Irving High School for 20 years. Around that same time, she began attending a small MCC fellowship in Fort Worth.
It was the 1970s, and being gay and Christian wasn’t exactly welcomed by most denominations.
“[The MCC] was a wonderful experience. I felt like a hypocrite [attending other churches then] because you were told you couldn’t be LGBT and Christian,” West said.
MCC was wonderful enough, in fact, that she decided to pursue ordination. At the time, MCC-Dallas was the region’s go-to church with a LGBT outreach. She trained as a student clergy member and was ordained under the Rev. Michael Piazza.
“I was the first woman ordained under Piazza,” she said.
But West didn’t have time to recognize her historic moment; the AIDS crisis was at its peak and the congregation was dying off.
Student clergy members weren’t permitted to conduct services, but they could do funerals.
“The MCC was the only church doing funerals” for those who had died of AIDS, West recalled. Even after she was ordained, she continued to conduct funerals, basically a necessity for any clergy member ordained by the MCC.
But she also took on a special role: she was the church’s AIDS chaplain, making hospital and home and hospice visits that few others would make at the time. Nurses and doctors wouldn’t even deliver meals to patients, West said. Those trays were placed outside of a patient’s room.
West gets why people are still horrified by the inhumane treatment toward those dying from the disease that was initially called GRID, or gay-related immune deficiency. Still, she said, “[People didn’t respond] out of meanness but fear, because they didn’t know its origins.”
But the crisis also often brought out the best in many people. Some parents of young men with AIDS wound up attending MCC-Dallas. Gaining their support during a volatile time brought people together.
“We didn’t have a support system during the crisis, but we created an amazing community. If anything good came out of the crisis, it’s that the fear and loss brought the best in people,” she said.
West believes in hope, and the power of faith to instill hope.
“My faith was strengthened during the crisis. My sermons became more real because I learned what pain was. We all became more real,” she said.
The AIDS crisis also proved to West and those around her that she believes in people.
“I’ve just seen what happens when people work together,” she said.
A flock needs a good shepard however, especially a flock looking for light in the darkness.
Ron Hill, president of Celebration’s board and the capital campaign for the West Center, has attended the church for 11 years.
Growing up gay, other churches spiritually beat LGBT people up for their faith.
“This church has grown because of her ability to make everyone feel comfortable,” he said.
The congregation can feel comfortable, too, knowing that their pastor won’t leave them in a lurch. Noting that she is 66, West said she will be retiring someday — but not during a capital campaign.
West is grateful to lead a thriving church with outreach to the LGBT community. And certainly Tarrant County is long overdue for a LGBT community center. But this is a shepherd who has grander visions — visions of justice for all.
“I look forward to the day where LGBT churches don’t exist,” West said. “When that day comes, the faith will be so much better.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 25, 2015.