Miller, Mark James

Fewer things make a teacher happier than running into a former student and learning how successful they have become since you saw them last.

It enables you to take some pride in what they have become, and realize you played a role, hopefully a significant one, in their success.

So when I encountered Jason Sisk-Provencio in June at the Five Cities Pride Celebration in Arroyo Grande, I was delighted to learn he is now pastor of the United Church of Christ in San Luis Obispo. I was even more delighted when I found out what his church stands for.

I had expected to find a progressive church, based on what Jason shared with me in June, but that was an understatement.

Born out of the Congregationalist movement of the 17th and 18th centuries, the United Church of Christ is a church of firsts: The first to take a stand against slavery, in 1700; the first to ordain an African-American minister, in 1785; the first to establish a school for the deaf, in 1817; the first to ordain a woman pastor, in 1853; the first to ordain an openly gay minister, in 1972; the first to stand up for marriage equality, in 2005.

Congregationalists defended the survivors of the slave ship Amistad in 1839, and were active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. They were also among the first to advocate for the disabled. It is no surprise that one the United Church of Christ’s slogans is a “just world for all.” There are 5,100 of them nationwide, including Santa Barbara and Ventura.

Jason is a native of the San Juaquin Valley, and has lived on the Central Coast since he was 13. He has been pastor of his church for five years. A graduate of Cal Poly with a B.A. in philosophy, he has worked as a volunteer at the California Men’s Colony, an experience he found both “challenging and rewarding.”

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Inspired by the teachings of the 20th century Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen and a desire to serve as well as his own deeply-held religious convictions, he went on to the Fuller Seminary in Pasadena to get his Master’s of Divinity degree and begin the life of a pastor.

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Nouwen’s life and works continue to influence Jason, especially in his desire to serve others. Nouwen, who was devoted to social justice and community, taught the concept of “pastoral ministry,” which Jason seeks to emulate, and wrote no less than 39 books on spirituality, psychology, and other related subjects.

“There are no limits,” Jason said, “to God’s love and God’s spirit,” nor is there any limit to his church’s desire to bring people together.

At his church, Jason seeks to build “a community of faith.” Among the many services his church provides are mobile showers for the homeless. The showers, provided by Hope’s Village, can be a “transformative experience” for a homeless person, making them feel as if they are ready to start life anew. Hosting meals after church services helps bring people together, as does providing meals for senior citizens and for the homeless at the People’s Kitchen.

“We welcome all,” Jason said. “People come here because they know they won’t be judged, no matter what their marital status, their gender, their sexual orientation. Being inclusive is a big part of who we are.”

“I often think about the quality education I received at Hancock,” Jason said. Praise indeed. Perhaps the only thing better than encountering a former student is encountering a former student and making a new friend.

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Mark James Miller is an associate English instructor at Allan Hancock College and president of the Part-Time Faculty Association. He can be reached at mark@pfaofahc.com.