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Congregational Vitality: Stories and Learning

Reclaiming faith with LGBTQIA+ community in Los Angeles


Reclaiming faith with LGBTQIA

Pastor Joseph Castañeda Carrera (shown second from left), with members of the ADORE LA faith community.

ADORE LA is seeking new and creative ways to do church in the city of Los Angeles. This LGBTQIA+ faith community outside of Hollywood is passionately living out their mission: “Gather as we are. Reclaim faith for everyone, anywhere.”

What started as an idea to reach out to queer and trans people of color for Joseph Castañeda Carrera turned into a mission to grow a vital faith community. Launched in 2017, ADORE LA is a Synod Authorized Worshiping Community (SAWC) developed in partnership with the Congregational Vitality team at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Southwest California Synod.

This partnership helped Castañeda Carrera make a dream reality. It is a dream held in common with many in LA — to grow an inclusive, God-centered community “driven and led by people of color and queer folks.”

As mission developer pastor for ADORE LA, Castañeda Carrera self-describes as, “a queer man of color, a husband, a son of both an immigrant and a fourth-generation parent of Mexican heritage, an artist and an outdoor enthusiast.” Castañeda Carrera is “a SoCal-rooted pastor who is passionate about sharing a loving and liberating God, reclaiming faith with queer people, undoing religious hurt and connecting with others on a journey struggle and faith.” This diverse perspective and passion are what motivate Castañeda Carrera to empower leaders who want to strengthen their walk with God.

Creative practice

ADORE LA places a strong emphasis on doing church outside church walls — experiencing God in unconventional ways. Castañeda Carrera explains: “We try to create our gatherings where people already are and bring liturgy there.” One way they do this is through ADORE Hike. On select weekends, a group gathers for a hike intentionally centered on personal reflection and community. On the hike up, they will spend time praying for things pressing on their hearts; at the top, they will share communion; and on the hike down, they will prepare to go into the world and love God well.

Other ministry initiatives are held in a public or shared space, such as ADORE Brunch or Worship Lab. As a result of this visible display of community, “People can walk up to us because they are so curious about our faith. We should bring our love for God outside of closed doors.” Encouraging this creative practice is what makes ADORE LA unique.

Creative space

Castañeda Carrera is focused on making space for an authentic liberating theology, with a goal to heal the hurt caused by the church. ADORE LA’s core values underscore this commitment, including love, truth, inclusivity, creativity and authenticity. “I may spend the rest of my life undoing the pain that the church has done in the past,” Castañeda Carrera explained. Yet, for the LGBTQIA+ community, “it is a matter of feeling brave in these church spaces that gives people the confidence to live out their faith in a profound way.” ADORE LA chooses to walk alongside people in this process and provide a community of love that is needed for any follower of Christ. Visit to learn more.


by Blake Thomas, Congregational Vitality

edited by Kris A. Mainellis, Program Director for Communication and Events, Congregational Vitality

Connecting creatively, growing authentically in Seattle


Church of the Apostles (COTA) in Seattle, Wash., does church differently. Embracing the essential Pacific Northwest traits of exploration and self-expression, the church has been drawing in young adults between the ages of 20 and 40 (and now their families) since its beginning as a storefront new start in June 2002. A key part of COTA’s identity is its focus on connecting with ancient church traditions in creative ways to grow authentic relationships with God and each other.

COTA is a mission of the Northwest Washington Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia. It became an organized congregation in May 2017. Located in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, the church reflects the broader arts culture of its community. COTA seeks to free people to grow in faith by sharing their artistic gifts, boldly, in worship and in life. “We are not about getting to God, but about finding ways for God to get to us,” said the Rev. Ivar Hillesland, pastor.


Worship service at Church of the Apostles, also known as COTA, Seattle

Church of the Apostles calls the beautiful and historic Fremont Abbey (constructed in 1914) its home. In 2005, the Mission Investment Fund of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America invested in COTA by purchasing it. COTA is currently on track to buy the building from MIF. “Without the support from both the synod and the ELCA we would never have been able to make it to our current thriving state and we are eternally grateful. Because of the support these last 15 years, we have also been able to be the springboard for at least 13 ordained clergy with 3 more currently in the ordination process,” said the Rev. Ivar Hillesland. Photo courtesy of JUMAYDESIGNS.COM and COTA.

Reclaiming the ‘de-churched’

Seattle and the neighborhood of Fremont, in particular, is well-known for large concentrations of unchurched, or “de-churched,” people. “COTA holds a particular mission towards those who are wary of, or direct victims of, the institutional church and the harms that have been caused in its name,” said Hillesland.

Church of the Apostles seeks innovative ways to replace the negatives with affirming alternatives. Church leaders continually reimagine the context and flow of worship services, finding new ways to build on ancient traditions. Hillesland says he is fascinated with figuring out new ways to be and do church. He thinks of the COTA ministry as a sort of church research and development lab. “We have tried to find as many ways as possible to let God speak through our worship and being, and we’ve had many failures along with our ‘successes.’”

In another nod to the past, the church’s home is the Fremont Abbey, a beautiful Lutheran church building constructed in 1914. The Abbey also houses the Fremont Abbey Arts Center, established by the COTA congregation to meet the community’s desire for a place to come together to create and experience the arts. COTA continues to partner with the center, currently under the leadership of an independent director, to integrate the arts into worship and community life.

Priesthood of all believers in action

Taking to heart the theology of the priesthood of all believers, the church strives to have leaders with diverse backgrounds and life experiences. The tasks of planning worship and preaching can be especially meaningful to those who have been unwelcome to use their gifts in the church because of their gender, race or sexual orientation. “Centering the voices of those traditionally marginalized speaks to our intention to expand gender and racial representation and experience, and it gives us a more expanded understanding of the imago dei, or divine image present in all humans,” explained Hillesland.

COTA members and friends come together Sunday evenings for worship—a mix of personal interaction, art, music, a message, and a time of exploration. Opening the pulpit creates space for varying perspectives and authentic reflection. Worship is also a time to experience the divine through creative expression of ancient liturgies. For example, worship music, often written by Music Director Lacey Brown, reflects “themes of ambiguity, expressed spiritual pain or longing, and expanded multigender metaphors for the Divine persons.” Brown also encourages musicians in the COTA community to create songs centered on specific themes or seasons, culminating in projects like the recently released Epiphany Songs.

In an ever-changing world, COTA grounds itself by connecting the past to the present in a way that is authentic to its identity and purpose. According to Hillesland, “As more and more things seem ephemeral, we find ourselves seeking ancient things, things deeply rooted in tradition that can anchor us in the turbulence while at the same time give us more freedom and space to creatively experience God.” It is this connection that inspires the people of COTA to go out into the world as people transformed in Christ.

by Kris A. Mainellis, Program Director for Communication and Events, Congregational Vitality