Behind the desk of Rev. Rachel Penmore at UKirk, the campus ministry of the Presbyterian Church (USA), hangs a print of the mural “Modern Last Supper” by Atlanta-based artist Ross Boone, better known as “Raw Spoon.”
The mural is a modern adaptation of Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece “The Last Supper.” Jesus is depicted as a homeless man who eats at a fast food restaurant with a prostitute, a kid with a skull skateboard, a Black mother and her child and a man wearing a bra, among others. In the background, a preacher in a three-piece suit heads out of the restaurant, with a look of disgust on his face.
“I love that everybody’s represented and that the person you would stereotype as a Christian can’t handle it and he’s having a tough time and is checking out the door because it’s a little radical,” Penmore said.
Penmore is the campus minister at UKirk, a ministry known for its pretty house on Melrose Avenue, complete with a coffee shop called “UPerk” and a pride flag hanging prominently by the front door.
On a campus replete with religious organizations, UKirk finds itself in the small group of outwardly LGBTQ-affirming ministries, which also include the Wesley Foundation, Tyson House and Hillel at UTK.
“Our job is to be an overwhelming and unrelenting voice of welcome,” Penmore said. “As students are understanding their identities … this church will welcome them with open arms and remind them until they get it that God loves them, that they are known and loved by God and there is nothing they can do to separate themselves from that.”
Students may not be accustomed to seeing a pride flag displayed next to a cross, but the combination is intentional at UKirk. This semester, the ministry is focusing on the concept of welcome, and Penmore believes that including and affirming LGBTQ students in their identities is an integral part of cultivating a welcoming community.
“We can’t be the family of God unless everybody is welcomed, unless we invite everybody in,” Penmore said. “Jesus didn’t create tables and tell people they couldn’t be there. Jesus created tables and tried to find who wasn’t there and that’s part of what we’re called to do.”
UKirk and Tyson House, the Lutheran and Episcopal campus ministry, are marked by the prominent display of pride flags at their houses. Penmore says such statements are in line with Jesus’ example.
“Jesus was political. Jesus’ whole mission was navigating the empire of the day. So I don’t think we can be ministry and not pay attention to what’s going on in the world around us,” Penmore said. “I think it’s a disservice to the world if we’re not paying attention, if we’re not responding, if we’re not working for justice, whatever that looks like.”
RJ Powell, the co-chaplain of Tyson House who represents the ministry’s Episcopal side, recalled how the ministry was known as a “second Pride Center” when the Pride Center was crippled by defunding five years ago.
For him, being an LGBTQ-affirming ministry comes with the goal of reconciling students to a religious tradition that has harmed them.
“People bring their own trauma with them, and so they’re just like, can a place be truly affirming and still be a church space?” Powell said. “I hope that this place is a place that can change hearts and minds around those things. There are other ways of being Christian than a lot of the maybe more conservative experiences that they grew up with.”
Tyson House sits on Melrose Avenue, also known as “Church Row,” with UKirk and a handful of other ministries. Though it only began displaying a pride flag this semester, along with a UT flag and flags for each of its denominations, the ministry has been known for its overtly affirming stance on sexuality for years.
Part of Powell’s mission at Tyson House is to help students shed the sexual shame that more conservative, evangelical forms of Christianity often induce.
When he recites the Lord’s Prayer, he places emphasis on the phrase “on earth as it is in heaven.” He said most people mumble over the “on earth” part so they can get to heaven.
“We have another message. There’s another way of being Christian than going to heaven or going to hell,” Powell said. “Salvation is not all about escaping this world. Salvation is about healing this world in this life, not in some afterlife.”
Put another way, there are many ways to be saved.
“You can’t be a whole healed person if you can’t be wholly yourself,” Powell said. “Salvation is absolutely expressing who you are and knowing yourself to be a beloved child of God in the fullest extent of who you were created to be.”