Alumnus Joel Sommer’s practical, hands-on approach to ministry and empowering of BIPOC members of his Access Covenant Church are making a profound impact in their Southeast Portland neighborhood

For Joel Sommer, pastor of vision and formation at Access Covenant Church, a multi-ethnic and multilingual congregation in Southeast Portland, the challenge of impacting a community and seeing lives transformed begins with a simple premise: “The Word must become flesh.”

In short, trite greetings and feel-good sermons don’t get the job done.

“We are a community that emphasizes contemplation and Scripture, so it’s key for us to allow the Word and Spirit to lead us to action in the place we live,” says Sommer, a 2011 graduate of Portland Seminary’s Master of Divinity program who founded the church in 2013.

What does that look like? It means redistributing stimulus checks to undocumented friends, raising money to help a family recover from a fire in their home, or building a little free library in a neighborhood housing project and stocking it with new books from Third Eye Books, one of the few Black-owned bookstores in the state. “That last one was fun,” Sommer says. “It included organizing a weekly story time before the weather turned cold.”

"When we lift from the bottom, everyone rises."

It also entails organizing a space for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) to interact, allowing for the nurturing of relationships, and giving BIPOC leaders the opportunity to lead, both from the pulpit and in small groups.

As a result, the congregation has attracted people who live lives of service – educators, medical professionals, social services workers and those in helping professions – giving Access Covenant Church a profound voice in the community. “These people are embedded in the neighborhood, meaning we are present on PTAs, neighborhood associations, and neighborhood groups as a matter of course,” says Sommer, who also uses his credentials as a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) trainer to educate others in race relations. “This foundation leads us into relationship with those we can serve.

“I often borrow a phrase from the Rev. William Barber II: ‘When we lift from the bottom, everyone rises.’”

Sommer’s approach to ministry was deeply formulated at Portland Seminary, where, as he puts it, “I developed a series of life-changing disciplines in my leadership and spirituality.”

“When I came to seminary, I basically thought I had discipleship figured out,” he says. “However, I also had places in my theology and my spirituality that were ‘off limits’ because I did not have the tools and paradigms I needed to address them. My education was crucial in helping me face those things within myself, and be able to guide others as they hear God’s invitations into emotional health and wrestling faithfully with theological challenges.”

“I feel like I’m in a brand new season of saying ‘yes’ to how God has made me.”

In particular, professors MaryKate Morse and Dan Brunner made an indelible impact on him. “MaryKate’s work with anxiety changed everything for me … theology … leadership … marriage and parenting … everything. And Dan, as my advisor, invited me and several others to spend a year together studying a liberation theology text. The community and conversations that happened around that study were powerful.”

Sommer also pointed to the influence of professors Roger Nam and Randy Woodley on his ministry. “Roger’s work with the marginality of the Old Testament authors stays with me, and his teaching on Ancient Middle Eastern literary conventions made sections of the OT accessible that had previously been ‘off limits,’” he says. “I was also honored to be in the first-ever [Portland Seminary] course taught by Randy, who reframed my view of American evangelicalism via indigeneity and helped me navigate the alienation I experience as a person of color in American Christian spaces.”

So, what’s next?

“I feel like I’m in a brand new season of saying ‘yes’ to how God has made me,” Sommer says. “The next season will probably look like gathering and supporting younger leaders in anti-racist spirituality. I dream of being part of facilitating contemplative spaces for BIPOC; we’ll see how that takes shape.”

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