A Fertile Ground to Build Relationships: Pastor Tom and the United Methodist Church of Venice

By Suzy Williams

“Hi, Honey, blessings!” greets Pastor Tom Ziegert with a gap-toothed grin, the early March wind riffling through his longish wavy locks. He stands in the little green courtyard holding a handful of papers, and is preparing for a seven o'clock event at the church.“Not quite the conflagration we were banking on!”, he says, letting out his goofy abandoned chuckle that explodes into a cartoon hiccup-guffaw.

Behind him, in the stately and huge wooden sanctuary, a small crowd is slowly filing in. They’re here to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the U.S. hydrogen bomb blast that devastated the Marshall Island people in the South Pacific. Hundreds of people were displaced and women were rendered barren or mothers of "jellyfish babies."

Pastor Tom and a smattering of sister Methodist churches organized this touching remembrance, brought together by internet video hook-up, courtesy of The Linux Public Broadcasting Network (LPBN), whose base is here at the church. After songs and prayers and a riveting reading of a Marshall Island native’s firsthand experience, we gather in the “fellowship room” and write outraged letters to our representatives and empathetic letters to Marshall Islanders.

What makes the world go round? What makes a legend most? What profoundly affects you in a lifetime of tears and laughter? For me, it is Pastor Tom. Yes, something remarkable is happening at the United Methodist Church at Victoria and Lincoln. Ever since Pastor Tom took over the helm there a couple of years ago, an amazing conduit of blissful, humanitarian energy is flowing there. Under the kind auspices of this bright, right-on minister, well, let me count the ways that this church’s space has become, as Pastor Tom intones: “a fertile ground to build relationships.” He has helped establish, or expand and encourage the following organizations (not in any order of importance) under the church's inclusive roof:

1. Inside-Out – A wonderful arts program for at risk and underserved Junior High Schoolers. About 125 youth utilize drama, painting and music to help cope with today's pressures. Much of the colorful murals, giant painting and odd- shaped two-dimensional sculptures now seen in the “Peace with Justice Center,” the enormous hall across the parking lot from the sanctuary, are made by these kids.

2. Easter Seals – A program for building social and working skills to developmentally-challenged folks in a kind learning environment. About 50 people learn and have fun here throughout the week.

3. Head Start – The non-profit preschool. Lots of art, stories and games, and teaching kids to enjoy reading. Forty or so darlins, with great big eyes.

4. Food Not Bombs – The politically motivated hungry person’s food program. The ample, shiny kitchen is a fantastic step up for FNB volunteers from the tiny kitchen we worked out of before for chopping and cooking fresh, mostly organic vegetarian food to serve the hungry (about 200 each week) on Venice Beach and the Palisades in Santa Monica. It’s a pleasure.

5. City At Peace – The High School version of Inside-Out.

6. The Indo-American Cultural Center – Cooking and language classes and a place to schmooze for folks from or interested in India.

7. Linux Public Broadcasting Network (LPBN) – Ray Steding’s brain-child. The goal is to provide free access to information and entertainment around the world. A potential of millions!

8. The Spiritual Growth Group – Headed by Pastor Tom, this program seeks to integrate personal experiences with the Biblical tradition.

9. The Diversity Fest – On December 7 every year, an entertainment, arts, crafts, and food festival. Local organizations are invited to have a booth, the Fire Department brings a truck, and everything!

10. The Grassroots Venice Neighborhood Council Town Hall – Many readers have come to know the welcoming Peace with Justice Center as the latest place where the GRVNC met and broke bread with the community at the Town Hall meeting Feb 26. The big, equipped kitchen was a swell place to launch a delicious meal from, made by St Joseph’s Culinary School.

11.Code Pink – Recently Jeff Norman helped organize a couple of swell anti-occupation-of-Iraq events in the dramatic sanctuary of the church, one with Dustin Hoffman and two Iraqi ladies, and one with Michelle Shocked and Medea Benjamin.

12. Narcotics Anonymous – They’ve been meeting at the church for a long time. Hundreds served over the years.

13. On the agenda: The University of Venice. Pastor Tom is fascinated by Jim Smith’s revival of the idea of an educational forum for the general public to learn about bills before Congress, the propositions on the ballot and for studying the pros and cons of our representatives and potential representatives in the local, state and federal government. He envisions a study program of issues of racism, sexism, gender identity, and living wage and healthcare entitlements, all U of V staples.

Yes, it is all really, really beautiful. Ah, but what I would l love to proselytize is that you come to church to hear Tom Ziegert speak! No kidding, he is inspiring, even to an old pantheist like me.

Pastor Tom has the humor, the homilies, and the Big Stuff to move the least God-fearing amongst us. He always tells a joke each sermon (usually good!) He's apt to throw in some quarks from his knowledge of physics, oh,yes. From him I learned “Time is a figment of our dimension.”

He is the most politically savvy minister I have ever come across. His philosophy is anti-fear and pro-humanity. And now he is doing his sermon in a service that compassionately starts at a less un-Godly hour – 10:30am, instead of 10:00am.

Posted: Mon - March 1, 2004 at 05:35 PM