As Gaetz Memorial United Church Rev. Jeff Rock prepares to leave for a major new ministry in Toronto, he reflects on his time in Red Deer.
“I feel like the city is growing and changing and diversifying, and becoming more inclusive with every passing day, and I’m proud to say I’ve gotten to be part of that for six years.”
“That’s part of what’s laid the foundation for me to be able to take this position at (Metropolitan Community Church) in Toronto,” he said.
Rock, who is gay, said Red Deer has bit of bad reputation as “redneck Red Deer.”
“It is a deserved reputation in some small percentage of places. But overall, the people of Red Deer are deeply inclusive and deeply loving people and I am hell bound and determined not to let one rotten apple ruin the bushel.”
The welcoming and inclusive community network is extremely strong, and the work that’s been done building bridges with the Indigenous community is “absolutely inspiring,” he said. “The city is transforming, and people are realizing the bigotry isn’t acceptable.”
Rock has been involved in numerous organizations in Red Deer, ranging from the Central Alberta AIDS Network to the local Truth and Reconcilaition Committee.
Last Sunday, Rock, 33, was chosen as the new senior pastor for Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto. He gave his first sermon there that day, and as it so happens, John Tory, the mayor of Toronto, and a group of city councillors attended as communion was dedicated to the deputy mayor of Toronto who had died.
Rock is originally from Sudbury and his father has dementia.
“They need me a little closer to home.”
The church’s chimney poured pink smoke after the congregation elected him as their new senior pastor.
The Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) is its own denomination, and was founded by gay and lesbian people in the 1960s who weren’t allowed in any churches, Rock said. Since then, the United Church has also become a more inclusive place, as have a lot of other denominations, he said.
As it turns out, the fastest growing group within MCC is actually people who identify as straight, Rock said. The Toronto church has about 1,000 members.
Rock agrees the United Church is a close fit with Metropolitan Church. He’ll be taking over from Rev. Brent Hawkes, who performed the first gay marriage in the world in 2001.
Over his 40 years with the church became a world-renowned human rights activist. Hawkes has received many awards for his work, including the Order of Canada.
“It’s kind of daunting,” admits Rock. “It’s funny because I’m getting attention for having done nothing.”
They wanted someone with political experience as the new ministry is also a political position because the senior pastor represents a good swath of the LGBT community and is often turned to for comment, Rock said.
He ran as a Liberal candidate in the last federal election in the Red Deer-Lacombe riding. His new position is non-partisan and he’s made a 10-year commitment to it.
“Gaetz Memorial has been a really great place to hang my hat for six years and I’ve truly loved my experience in Red Deer. This community has been spectacular.”
Rock will give his last sermon at Gaetz Memorial United on Sept. 17. He starts in Toronto on Oct. 1.
“It’s bittersweet. Leaving Red Deer will be a tough challenge but I feel like it’s the right thing.”