Sitting in the pews at Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church (CHPC, 201 Fourth St. SE) on August 1st, the congregation felt an indisputable sense of a new beginning. They were gathered in person for one of the first times since the COVID-19 pandemic began. But the day marked another exciting next step for the church—the first sermon of their new pastor, Reverend Rachel Landers Vaagenes.
Articulating Her Faith
Vaagenes brings a tradition of love to Capitol Hill that she first found at home, in California. As a young person growing up in Los Angeles, she struggled to articulate the love and meaning she found in church compared with the judgement and rejection that many of her friends felt.
“I could see that there was a way to be rigorous and faithful and true to Christ’s call while not having to choose that judgment,” she said. Despite that personal clarity, she searched for the words to express what she knew church should be.
She began the process of finding this expression while in graduate school at Princeton where she received her Master of Divinity. Seemingly a departure from her undergraduate degree in math and philosophy, Vaagenes says her graduate work was a continuation of her fascination with connection and understanding how the world fits together.
“You could think about math as the building blocks of life,” the pastor said. “Once you start talking about how reality fits together, it’s a beautiful thing.”
Reverend Vaagenes spent the last ten years as an Associate Pastor at the Georgetown Presbyterian Church (3115 P St. NW) where she was particularly focused on the youth program. She re-envisioned Sunday school, engaging church elders in teaching children about their own interests all while connecting it to meaningful biblical lessons. “I like to build bridges and I like to synthesize, and I like to bring people together,” she said.
Vaagenes finds humor in all the ways that she breaks free of the stereotypes of Presbyterian church leadership. She is a young woman, married with two children, who identifies as part of the LGBTQ community. She draws on her background in improv comedy to make people feel confident and loved in church.
You are likely to meet Reverend Vaagenes riding her bike around the Capitol Hill neighborhood or sitting out front of CHPC with a “free prayer” sign.
“When I first thought I was going to be a pastor, it took me a while to realize that I could be a pastor in my own way,” Reverend Vaagenes reflected.
CHPC: New Beginning
COVID-19 has posed a particular challenge to church communities as they have struggled to maintain connections and navigate virtual platforms as a replacement for in-person worship. The Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church faced what Ami Dziekan, co-chair of the Pastor Nominating Committee, described as “a double whammy” when their former pastor, Reverend Keys, announced her departure just months into the pandemic.
While this had the potential to impair the closeness of the CHPC congregation, it was instead strengthened through discussions about their values and priorities in searching for a pastor. They were looking for a candidate that could lead them to build their internal church community, reach out to the local community and find their place in the current environment of the country and world. After an extensive search, the committee decided Reverend Vaagenes was the perfect fit for their community.
“I would never have chosen to have our pastor quit in the middle of COVID,” said Deziekan. “But I feel like the outcome is that we found someone who is just going to be great for our community and already feels like one of us and already is excited about all of the things that we are excited about doing.”
Rev. Vaagenes is thrilled to be joining Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church and hopes to lead the church to be a “helpful presence in the community and in the world.” But before she starts to do that, Vaagenes is excited to spend time getting to know her congregation, as well as the broader Capitol Hill community. “Getting to know this congregation is the first step,” she said. “I like to remember that I am called here. God has put me here with these people, so this is my starting point.”
She recognizes the strength that emerged from the struggles of the past year. “The folks who have stayed [through the struggles] are hard core. I think that’s really exciting to be able to engage with folks who stick it out and figure out who are you and what motivates you and what is your relationship like with God and this neighborhood.”
Rev. Vaagenes’s first sermon was a hybrid service. “I think it struck a note that we were hoping for,” said congregant Brian Testa. “She talked about being at the beginning and focusing on starting together. And that we can all focus on God’s love for one another, both within the congregation and for us to be able to spread that within the wider community.”
Looking forward, both the community and Rev. Vaagenes are excited for what the coming year will bring.
“This is going to be a building year for this church. Building back after covid. Building back after the disruption of a pastor leaving,” said Rev. Vaagenes. “And I love starting new things.”
Learn more about Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church by visiting www.capitolhillpreschurch.org