“God is on the side of the oppressed,” says Reverend Alan Dicken. “In the Christian tradition Jesus came not as a ruler or a conqueror, but rather as a vulnerable infant, and he spent his time with the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the persecuted… That’s what his ministry is about.”
Dicken is the pastor of Carthage Christian Church, a Disciples of Christ Church founded in 1832 in the neighborhood of Carthage, North of Cincinnati. He has been ministering there for the past 5 years.
Born in a middle class white family, he was exposed to religion from childhood, both his parents belonging to a long tradition of Disciples of Christ followers. He initially disliked gowing to church and attending services, but this changed when, at the age of 10, he and his family relocated to Cincinnati and joined the then Tylersville Road Christian Church in the Mason area.
“The new church had a youth group, a band that played upbeat music, a beautiful sanctuary with natural light; all was appealing to me,” he states.
With the youth group, Dicken went to church camps and on mission trips, discovering other parts of the world and other communities quite different from his. It sharpened his awareness of diversity, also his exposure to social disparity.
“These were informative and profound experiences,” he says. “They opened my eyes and made me feel better about my relationship to others, to my faith, to God.”
Dicken attended Sycamore High School and was there further exposed to diversity, not only the ethnic and racial one due to the large number of Jewish and Asian students, but also his first encounter with gay individuals.
“I sang in the school choir and befriended a couple of gay students who were slowly opening up,” he says. “I realized how difficult it was for them; also how little I knew about them and the discrimination they faced daily.”
This determined him not only to be accepting of them, but also to always be open about and supportive of LGBTQ issues and rights.
At age 16, a youth minister planted in Dicken the idea of joining the ministry. The suggestion appealed to him as he felt it was a field he would relate to and at which he would be good. He had already been enjoying the religious courses offered by his church and, wanting to further his knowledge in that area, decided to go for undergraduate school to Bethany College, in West Virginia, a private, liberal arts college affiliated with his denomination. In 2009, he graduated with a BA degree in Religious Studies.
“At Bethany, my faith understanding expanded,” says Dicken. “I explored church history and learned critical analysis and nuanced interpretation of the Bible…”
During his three years at Bethany, Dicken had little to no engagement with peace and justice issues, other than openly supporting LGBTQ rights. He was, as such, an active part of the only Fraternity on campus which admitted and assisted avowed gay students.
Right after graduating from Bethany, Dicken did a one year internship in Honduras, part of the international global ministry that Disciples of Christ and United Churches of Christ offer jointly. In preparation for it he took courses on white privilege, on the various models of missionary work contrasting those coming from above and imposing their values to those based on building relationships and working in partnership.
“In Honduras, I was part of ‘La Comisión Cristiana de Desarollo’ (Christian Commission of Development) and partnered in mission with local people and organizations who already did work in this country and knew what was needed,” he says. “I was a go-between between them and the community, serving as a facilitator to make programs happen, such as educational, medical, church mission-related, etc. I also helped translate whenever needed.”
After Honduras Dicken joined Union Theological Seminary (UTS), in NYC, for his Master in Divinity. An ecumenical, non denominational and strongly academic school, UTS was also strongly focused on social justice. Dicken was exposed there to the teachings of James H. Cone, founder of the Black Liberation Theology; they helped him reframe and reshape not only what church is about but most importantly what it must be actively doing for social justice in the world. This was also compounded by a 1 year school internship he did at a Disciples of Christ church located in the Upper East side of NYC.
“I loved the church which was open and welcoming to everyone,” says Dicken. “It was diverse in gender, race, socioeconomic status, age, sexual orientation… and people attending were from all boards of society.” “There was also a banner on the front of its building saying: Divinity in Diversity. This became as well my own motto,” he adds.
When in his 3rd year of seminary the ‘Occupy’ movement happened, Dicken participated in it, adding his voice to its various activities. It was, however, a year later, in 2014, with the fatal shooting of 18 year old African American Michael Brown by white officer Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, that his real activist involvement materialized. With another ministry friend of his they drove down to Ferguson and spent 3 days affirming their presence and support of the protest going on.
“We just wanted to be present in solidarity,” he says. “We wore our religious garbs and stoles, marched with the protestors, held signs, prayed with people, blocked highways…”
Dicken was disappointed, however, that there were few people of faith, especially few faith leaders, visible in Ferguson. He returned there 2 more times, wanting each time to intentionally manifest his support and his stand in the name of his faith.
Few months after his graduation from UTS with a Master in Divinity, Dicken was ordained a Disciples of Christ minister and joined Carthage Christian Church as its pastor. He promptly made it open and affirming to the LGBTQ community and worked at increasing its diversity. Its membership is now quite diverse comprised of white and people of color, black, asian, hispanic; young and old; openly gay individuals… The church also participates with other congregations of Carthage in inclusive services. Every Thanksgiving, for instance, celebratory events are held in partnership with San Carlos’ Catholic Hispanic church, New Jerusalem Baptist Temple led by Damon Lynch Jr, and a Nigerian emigrant church in the neighborhood. Different preachings, different music, and different church experiences are all brought together for the occasion.
Carthage Christian Church is also increasingly becoming a community center for the area where different resident activities are held and various services offered. A Seniors group and a Narcotics Anonymous one meet regularly there. It also includes a food pantry and serves free meals every Friday to members of the community or from elsewhere; this is done in rotating partnership with other churches of the neighborhood (New Jerusalem Temple, Wyoming Baptist Church, etc.), each taking responsibility for a given week; also with Temple Shalom 4 times a year. All these activities include and are sometimes facilitated by lay members of the congregation.
The church is also involved in the Amos project, hosting its meetings and supporting its activities; also in MARCC, the Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati. When ICE decided to deport Maribel Trujillo Diaz, an Ohio Mexican mother of four and a Catholic lay leader who has been living in the US for 15 years, a candle light service was organized in the church and was followed by a vigil walk throughout the neighborhood. This prompted a multifaith movement called JustLOVE that Dicken, in partnership with the leaders of Temple Shalom, the Clifton Mosque, the Clifton United Methodist Church and the Shiloh UMC in Price Hill, co-started. The purpose of the movement is to bring people together to share their experiences, connect by love, and work for justice.
Dicken and members of his church also participate in solidarity with the Immigration Sanctuary movement; they march every year in the local Pride parade; they held a candle light vigil in response to the Orlando shooting; and after Ferguson, offered Black Lives Matter regular faith services to help its activists heal.
“We do our own individual work but also we plug in the various peace and justice movements in the city,” says Dicken. “Social justice, diversity, multifaith sharing, and community building, are at the heart of our ministry.”
Dicken’s faith has evolved over the years. It is now strongly connected to and at the service of the “diverse” other. It also seeks enrichment from other faiths. Over the past 5 years as Pastor of Carthage Christian Church he has contributed to the building of a “congregation open and affirming to all of God’s Children regardless of political opinion, economic status, educational background, cultural identity, age, race, mental or physical ability, gender identity, sexual orientation, or any other human division.” Dicken has also embarked himself and his congregation on a constant path for social justice.
What is the Disciples of Christ Church (aka the Christian Church): The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a mainline Protestant Christian denomination in the US in the Reformed tradition with close ties to the Restoration Movement. It grew out of two movements seeking Christian unity that sprang up almost simultaneously in western Pennsylvania and Kentucky – movements that were backlashes against the rigid denominationalism of the early 1800s. The Disciples celebrate the Lord's Supper. Through Communion, individuals are invited to acknowledge their faults and sins, to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, to remember their baptism, and to give thanks for God's redeeming love. Communion is open to all who confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, regardless of their denominational affiliation. The Disciples practice believer's baptism in the form of immersion. Their one essential is the acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and obedience to him in baptism. The Disciples have three key beliefs that set them apart from other Christian groups: 1. Autonomy, as they have no denominational creed, giving them total independence to determine their own doctrine. As a result, their local churches vary widely in their beliefs from liberal to conservative 2. Ecumenist Philosophy, with a long heritage of openness to other Christian traditions having come into existence as a 19th century protest movement against denominational exclusiveness. They try to bridge gaps by reaching out to other Christian denominations. In 1977, they engaged with the Roman Catholic Church in an official international dialogue, to explore the possibility of realizing full visible unity in Christ. And in 2007 they were instrumental in the establishment of Christian Churches Together in the USA (CCT), an organization that brings together Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Evangelicals and Pentecostal Christians to seek to make a common Christian witness in the United States. 3. Welcoming LGBTQ As they state, part of the Disciples' mission is to answer God’s call for justice, particularly in the areas of care for the earth, the challenges for women and children, poverty and hunger and immigration. They seek to do this work in cooperation with other people of faith. In 2015, there were 497,423 baptized Disciples members in 3,267 congregations in North America.