Kari Thomas: On Community in the Church

To those from outside Mississippi, Kari Thomas claims Jackson as her hometown. But to those in the know, she hails from Pearl, a town she calls “one of the cooler suburbs in the area.” Thomas is a member of Redeemer Church, PCA, in Jackson, Mississippi, is manager at Chipper and Coco, a pet store in Jackson, and has a dog named Cudi, who she treats like most people treat their children.

Thomas grew up in the Church of Christ (Holiness) USA (COCHUSA), a predominantly Black church. In fact, she can think of only one white member in the whole denomination. She describes COCHUSA as very traditional and very conservative. There was an emphasis on holiness and women were expected to wear skirts to service. But in COCHUSA, community was more than just your church, and relationships spanned congregations and even regions.

When Thomas left for college at The University of Southern Mississippi, she made it a goal to attend church every Sunday. Branching out from her COCHUSA roots for the first time, she mostly visited Baptist churches. Some were predominantly white, but most were predominantly Black simply because that was just more familiar. She transferred her sophomore year to Tougaloo and played basketball there, then transferred again to Jackson State University (an HBCU) for her junior and senior years and ran track. 

She was first introduced to the PCA after transferring to Tougaloo through her mother, who attended Redeemer, which was brand-new at the time. At first, Thomas questioned why her mother would commit to a mostly white church. Her mother would beg her to come hear her sing. Though resistant at first, she eventually came out to hear her sing. 

Mike Campbell was the pastor at the time, and he blew Thomas’ mind. She’d never heard anybody preach like him or in the same style as he did. It was clear to her from the start that considerable preparation had been put into what he was saying. It made her feel important. She kept going, but in secret, not wanting her mother to know she’d like it. She’d go just for the sermon, sit in the back, and slip out as soon as the sermon ended, even before the benediction. 

For a while, her mom didn’t even know she attended. Thomas confessed initially she felt a little embarrassed to like a white church. She also felt a little disloyal to COCHUSA, a church that had been an extremely tight community for her that taught her that church was more than just Sunday.

Thomas gradually got more involved – helping out in the nursery and serving on other ministry teams – but it was five or six years before she actually joined and only after the gentle but persistent nudging of her then RUF campus minister, Elbert McGowan, who is Redeemer’s current pastor.  He began talking with her about the difference between members, and how they submit to the church’s teaching and correction and invite others to be more deeply involved in their life. The more he explained it, the more she felt led in that direction. The next year, she joined the inquirers’ class and became a member. 

As her involvement grew at Redeemer, her COCHUSA congregation noticed her absence and began to see changes in her. Although prolific on social media, her reluctance to share publicly about joining Redeemer had even surprised herself. She also noticed that her usual propensity for puns and church humor had turned Reformed as well, in addition to her theology. She reflects on other changes during that period, “I started to do the negative thing that a lot of Black people do when they leave a Black church and go into Reformed ones. It was definitely the arrogant phase that I wish I skipped, but I didn’t. Like a lot of people go through.”

She credits Elbert McGowan, the RUF campus minister at Jackson state with a lot of the change in the way she approached scripture and the Bible. Thomas noticed it was then she began looking at verses in ways she never had before. McGowan was gifted at breaking down the Scripture. The fact that McGowan was Black also helped Thomas to warm up to Reformed theology. The previous JSU RUF campus minister had been a white guy and for him to come into that Black space before a group of students who weren’t used to any kind of Reformed teaching and make it sound like they’d been doing theology wrong made many students feel defensive. But they trusted McGowan. She recounted, “I don’t think I would have absorbed it the same if it wasn’t him, in the package that he is in.” He also consistently pushed her to be more than just a member.

To Thomas, the PCA feels more distant and disconnected, and she wishes she could bring COCHUSA sense of family to her current church context. She didn’t start dealing with the issues of loneliness until she changed churches. While she no longer arrives just in time for the sermon, she does time her arrival to miss the meet and greet time, which feels awkward to her. Even still, she does feel like the PCA is where God wants her to be and there are a lot of positives that have kept her here. 

Joining the PCA made Thomas face things within herself that she hadn’t been able to in COCHUSA. She reflects, “A lot of the reason I face those things or was able to deal with some of that somewhat joyfully — is because I knew that the PCA looked at Scripture extremely intellectually and deeply. And sometimes that can be a negative thing, but in my case it was a positive thing.” One of the areas where this most practically played out was with regard to her sexuality. She was able to deal with it in the PCA in ways that weren’t available to her in COCHUSA.

Thomas knew from a young age that she was attracted to the same sex. But that was never something she dealt with because her church never discussed it. By contrast, in the PCA, she felt this comfort, because she knew that the truth was bigger than her and she didn’t have to fear anybody lying to her, saying, “Oh, you know, just be who you are.” The PCA provided her the opportunity for accountability and the freedom to have those conversations with people, especially her pastor, McGowan, the first person she ever came out to, back when he was her RUF campus minister. 

His comfort with Scripture and graciousness created a safe environment for her to have those conversations and be honest about her struggles.  One of the biggest things McGowan told her when she came out to him was, “Kari, I don’t think God is trying to make you straight. I think he’s trying to make you holy.” He explained that just with opposite-sex attracted married men, God isn’t trying to take their attraction away from all women. But he wants them to honor him in the midst of whatever desires they have. She describes the relief she felt after he broke it down to her as finally being able to breathe. 

Mike Campbell, someone else Thomas considers one of the big giants in her life, also met her honesty with compassion. His understanding and the understanding of his wife, Keren, were huge for her. And so she took great comfort in knowing those conversations wouldn’t be shot down. She has found people to walk with her in it in ways that would not have existed in her COCHUSA church. “I think that’s really the glue that stuck me into the PCA,” Thomas shared.

The toughest thing for her has been the loneliness of the PCA, as a single woman in her thirties in a context that centers families, as a minority worshiping with people who don’t prioritize racism as a serious social issue, and with the difference in approaches to community between the PCA and COCHUSA. But at the same time, it has never felt like reason enough to leave. She explained, “I just haven’t found anything else feeding me in the way that Elbert McGowan is feeding us on Sundays. And if I found that and it felt right, then I’d leave, but as of right now, like, you know, God has been very kind to me and placed wonderful people in front of me. And, you know, it’s a joy to be in the PCA.”

Her advice to others who may be struggling with loneliness: “Be very intentional about community. It will break your heart because people are going to let you down. But the push to be active and engage in the life of the church is what makes church bigger than just Sunday. It makes church a lifestyle. In the PCA, you’re going to have to fight for it. If I really want relationships and deep connections, if I want this to be bigger than church — bigger than just growth group, serving and just pouring yourself into your church really does help. Now I’m not saying if you do this you will never deal with the loneliness again, because I still do. But it would be five hundred times worse if I wasn’t actively pursuing it. Because at the end of the day, who is responsible for it? Me. Not anybody else.”

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