by Mark Benton | photos by Greg Campbell
Like a priest hearing confession, former hair stylist Robert Van Ess’s listening skills helped him become an ordained, able minister, ready to guide his congregants’ life journeys.
At the age of 32, Robert Van Ess began a new journey. A hairdresser by trade, he decided to evaluate and assess the direction he was going. He wanted to forge a new path for himself and examine his interactions with the people around him. He was not seeking religion, faith or a spiritual community. Hurting and seeing a hurt world, he intentionally entered a 12-step program. A very large step for an acknowledged atheist/ agnostic. After getting stuck in the 12-step process, Robert’s sponsor suggested he attend a church and find the meaning of “prayer”. He chose the small church community called Holy Trinity Memphis. After two active years in the recovery program and participating in a faith community, Robert had found the new path he was intended to walk. He went back to college and finished his degree, and became a graduate of Eden Theological Seminary of the United Church of Christ.
Rev. Van Ess has worked as an Associate Pastor, Senior Pastor and a Chaplin for a hospital since his ordination as minister at Holy Trinity. The qualifications that he possesses through life experiences, education, being a leader of a congregation, and being a chaplain brings a wealth of knowledge to Holy Trinity’s faith community. After working many years as a hairdresser, Rob comments on his non-traditional faith journey: “The listening skills I have developed behind the chair have served me well in ministry. I have learned much from the privilege of being able to walk with others through the journey of their lives – the celebrations, the suffering and the seeking – as an essential part of my ministry. In sharing our stories, I have found that both people and entire communities with a faith in Christ will find themselves reconciled, restored and reborn by the grace of God.”
FOCUS: What is the difference between the Rob Van Ess at 32 before his awakened spiritual journey, and the man today? What would you say to that Rob of years ago?
PASTOR ROB: I would tell my younger self stop hurting myself, to love myself more fully, to not be so afraid, and to be brave, to not let anything you think that you can’t do get in your way. I would tell my younger self that one day you’re going to look back and regret all the time you have wasted, all the bridges you have burned, all the pain you have caused and carried around for so long.
I would tell myself to let it all go, to let it all go and simply be. Enjoy life, take care of yourself, and love fully. The irony of this is that I know that my younger self would never have listened to this advice. Many people, each in their own way, tried to offer me similar advice over the years. But at that point in my life I wasn’t ready to accept the fact that I didn’t have it all figured out, that I wasn’t in control. Now at least I can accept the fact that I am powerless, and with my faith for support I can be ok with that. I’m far from perfect, but over time I’ve gained the desire to at least try to live in the moment, to live life one day at a time. And I’ve learned that it is in the trying to do this that I have found a new sense of peace that I had never experienced before.
What would you say is a unique distinctive quality that Holy Trinity brings to congregants, to the LGBTQ community and to the neighborhoods it surrounds?
Holy Trinity is a church that was born out of the advent of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the Mid-south’s response to this health crisis. At a time when HIV/AIDS was commonly known as the “gay cancer” a group of people who had been excluded from their various faith communities due to their sexual orientation came together to create a place where everyone was welcome to worship God without the fear of judgement or persecution.
Holy Trinity was born out of the sincere desire to create a worship community where you could hold the hand of the one you love, having your family, the life you live, and the person you claim to be, fully accepted by God and the faith community. Holy Trinity by design is a community of faith that historically was created to welcome the outsider, the marginalized, and the oppressed.
While initially focusing on LGBTQ issues, over the past 26+ years Holy Trinity has grown to be a community that has reflected upon and embraced its identify more fully. Holy Trinity feels a special connection with and a special responsibility for those who are living as an outsider, the marginalized, and the oppressed.
Our work with the Holy Trinity Food Pantry allows us to reach out to over 200 families a month that are living with food insecurity and all the effects of economic oppression. Being located at the corner of Spotswood and Highland we experience firsthand the intersectional issues of race and economics that naturally fit with our church’s experience with gender, sexuality, and sexual orientation.
Unlike many other faith communities in our neighborhood we offer a more progressive and accepting theology that allows us I believe to love others more fully. Where many churches are born out of a position of privilege Holy Trinity was born out of the oppression experienced at the hands of an ignorant response to HIV/AIDS that allowed some terribly misguided people to persecute and terrorize those who were getting sick and dying all the while not knowing what was going on or why. Our founders’ experiences with fear and rejection and public shaming in the midst of a national health crisis that often left us to bury our dead left unclaimed by their families is in our DNA as a church. Even now I believe that we carry the institutional memory of this experience and that this part of our history is constantly pushing us to be more welcoming, more compassionate, and more loving.
Admitting to entering a 12- step group brings with it an element of vulnerability. How has sharing your personal journey directed your leadership path?
My experience with a 12- step group is an integral part of my story. My first steps into recovery lead me into a relationship with God that I believe changed my life. I have found that making myself vulnerable is key in establishing relationships with people. I try every day to live an authentic life. One where I am able to embrace who I am. This helps me to be more understanding and forgiving of myself which in turn helps me to be more understanding and forgiving of others. This is not easy. Most certainly I fail just as much as I succeed. But I keep trying. Ultimately the integration of my faith and my 12-step journey has drawn me to accept the greatest commandment from the Christian tradition as a mantra for my personal life and this also guides my leadership path. I embrace the idea that we are called to love God and our neighbor as we love ourselves. As such, I ask myself and the people I lead “how can we love this person/ situation/ more fully?”
What are your personal future goals?
My personal goals for the future at this point are to continue to settle into my call as Holy Trinity’s 4th settled pastor. I have been blessed to be called to serve a wonderful community of faithful souls who are brave and bold, loving and compassionate. I love what I do. It is the hardest thing I have ever done. But I also consider my call into ministry to be one of the greatest gifts I have ever been given.
(Some information in this story has been taken from the Holy Trinity Church Archives)