The first thing I notice about the church: There’s no pews.
Church leaders at Allendale United Methodist Church removed the traditional church pews and replaced them with chairs to allow for a more multipurpose temple. With Jesus painted in the rainbow stained glass windows and Black Lives Matter banners surrounding him, it’s clear this isn’t your average Sunday worship.
But most of St. Petersburg knows that.
Since Rev. Andy Oliver joined as church pastor in 2015, he’s caused waves in the formerly traditional Methodist place of worship.
“When I got there, the church had dwindled down to about six people, and there was a lot of finger pointing about why membership had declined,” Oliver said.
In 2015, the church was slated to close.
Then, an older congregation member came out as gay. His coming out prompted a huge shift in ideas in the small church.
“He was an older Hispanic man who was closeted for most of his life. That changed some ideas that people had.” Oliver said. “Our church began listening to those voices at the margin.”
Of course, some church members left (some angrily; some quietly) after the church became a place that openly advocates for LGBTQ+ people and people of color. Now, seven years later, the church has grown to more than 100 active members. It’s become a meeting place for advocacy groups and art programs, and has an active role at local protests.
What does UMC’s leader have to say to those unhappy with his congregation’s place in the social justice limelight?
“Jesus was pretty controversial,” Oliver said.
Despite the 2019 General Conference of the United Methodist Church deciding that LGBTQ+ people should not be married or serve as clergy in Methodist churches, Oliver acted otherwise.
He married same-sex couples.
Because of this, in 2020, conservative Methodists split into the Global Methodist Church, a branch that still upholds the older values of Christianity.
“Before that, he didn’t bother to ask the bishop’s permission,” said UMC board member Greg Davidson. “He said ‘show me where in the Bible it says you can’t marry two loving people?’”
Davidson attends his church meetings mainly virtually as an immune-compromised leukemia survivor, but remains active in the church. He comes from traditionally larger places of worship, but was drawn to St. Pete’s UMC due to its inclusive environment.
“You shouldn’t judge people because they’re wearing hole-y shorts to church,” Davidson said.
Church member and trans woman Emma joined the congregation officially three weeks ago. After 15 years of avoiding places of worship, she walked through the church doors for “closure.” (Editor’s note: Emma asked that we not use her last name because of the nature of her job and possible repercussions)
“I was raised in a Christian tradition where I was taught plenty of good things … lessons that I still hold dear,” Emma said. “I was also taught some things that are not so good. I didn’t have the word transgender to describe how I was feeling about myself, but I got the message that if you were trans and living as your authentic self, then that was a sin.”
She showed up to Allendale and was surprised by the acceptance, notably the LGBTQ+ acceptance in the church.
“I got the closure I needed for sure, and I kept coming back,” she said. “I still have a lot of questions for God, a lot of tough questions, but I feel confident that God is big enough to handle that.”
The meeting rooms that once stood empty are now alive with groups such as the League of Women Voters, METRO Inclusive Health, various 12-step programs, and many more organizations that enjoy use of the building for free.
There’s also a community garden that the church had to fight to build in 2021. After local debate on the garden’s use and aesthetic look in the neighborhood, The St. Petersburg Development Review Commission voted ‘yes’ to the church planting it.
Today, the garden’s used by the community and its earnings are often donated to kitchens that address food insecurity.
A small percentage of what the church is actually used for is religious worship — that happens on Sundays at 10:30 a.m.— but Oliver says that’s fine by him.
“To me, the heart of what Allendale is is how we work with the community to dismantle the harm that is happening, Oliver said.“Many of our attendees don’t identify as people of faith but they find themselves meeting at the church.”