Rev. Jessica Wright is the associate pastor of First United Methodist Church Allen, a post she accepted after a stint at a church in Denton.
How did you get into your line of work?
I didn’t grow up going to church. When I did go with friends, I never saw a clergywoman. I never knew this was something I could do until I moved to Texas in 2002 and got an admin job at First United Methodist Church in Denton. There I witnessed the powerful ministry of women. It was like seeing a door that I had never seen before. I couldn’t go somewhere I didn’t know existed.
I received my call to ministry while I was working in Denton. I was eating lunch at my desk and reading news stories about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. I had lots of friends who had joined the National Guard to help pay for college. Back then, we hadn’t been at war in a long time, and being in the Guard meant one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer. Then 9/11 happened and everything changed. My friends were being asked to put their training to use, to follow orders and possibly take life in the name of their country. I thought about how they might feel far from God’s presence. They needed a reminder, a person alongside, to remind them that God was absolutely with them, no matter what. And I felt called to be that person.
I tried to get out of it, of course. If you have read much of the Bible, you know that I’m not alone in trying to avoid God’s call. I told God that I didn’t know enough, I hadn’t read enough of the Bible – not me, God. But the call was there and eventually I listened.
What are some of your proudest achievements?
I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to be a positively impact the lives of others. In 2019, I led a community study of how to have grace-filled political conversations, which feels more and more relevant. I’ve held the hands of the dying and baptized babies who still smell like heaven. I’ve accompanied police officers as they notified a family of a tragedy and received the remains of fallen airmen on the tarmac. I’ve talked about God in the middle of the night with college students and navigated “big Baylor” at 4 a.m. to pray with a person before surgery. I helped a high school student create a ministry to feed people experiencing homelessness and sold hundreds of pumpkins to raise money for disaster relief. I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to love God and love neighbor.
In what ways do you think people can find spiritual comfort in moments of suffering?
This is a great question because I find that a lot of the “pop piety,” especially among Christians, teaches that if we’re doing everything right and if we’re following God, then we will always be rich and happy. And that’s just not true. I mean, look at the example of Jesus.
So the first thing to realize to find spiritual comfort in suffering is to know that it is a human reality. You might be a really good person and make all the right choices and you will still experience suffering.
The second thing that gives me comfort is to know that God doesn’t cause our suffering. God gives humans the tremendous honor of being stewards of creation, to use our skills, talents and gifts to work alongside God to take care of all the things. And sometimes we use that freedom to make bad choices. And the weight of terrible choices accumulates like an avalanche, such that none of us gets to come into this life in a neutral place. We see this all around us in the systems that we’ve created that cause so much death and destruction for God’s beloved children around the world.
There are different ways to address suffering, depending on whether you’re trying to help a friend or change the world, but the best source of comfort in times of suffering is God. And God often works through the people around us. Being surrounded by folks who can sit with us in our pain, without trying to explain it away or solve it, is an amazing gift. I’m thinking of Job and his friends – they were great until they opened their mouths to the one suffering. Humans are social creatures and we are not made to do life alone. We need each other; we belong to each other. Good friends and mentors who can make space for our stories are a blessing.
Now, there are also practical causes of suffering that need practical solutions. God calls us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the imprisoned. We are to love mercy and do justice, to love our neighbor as ourselves. In every season, our work is to figure out what is ours to do to express God’s love, to embody God’s reign of justice and peace.
Why did you become a Christian?
My mom is Jewish and did an amazing job leading our faith at home since the one synagogue in town wasn’t very welcoming. My dad was a fair-weather Christian who struggled with alcoholism. As a kid, the only time I was in a church was when I had a sleepover with a friend on Saturday night. My mom would pack nice clothes for me, affirming that I would find God in my own way, and warn me about not handling any snakes. Growing up in the Bronx, she wasn’t sure what they did in churches in Arkansas.
One time when I was in elementary school, I was in a church with my friend, wearing one of those awful visitor stickers that left residue on my good clothes. It was the beginning of worship, before the man with the big voice droned on and my friend and I played tic-tac-toe or hangman, and it was time to shake hands. I’ve always been an extrovert, so after I’d shaken hands with my friend, her mom, and her sister, I turned to my other side and saw a man. Noting my sticker, he asked, “What church does your family go to?” And, not knowing I should be more cautious, I said, “My family doesn’t go to church. We’re Jewish!” And without missing a beat, he said, “Well, then your family is going to hell.”
I knew all about hell from the pastor’s loud, lengthy descriptions. I was heartbroken and felt physically sick. And after I got home that day, I didn’t go back to church until I was in college. And then it wasn’t a church, but a campus ministry, a persistent friend and the promise of a free lunch that got me in the door. I would only consider it when my friend promised that no one would tell me I was going to hell while I was there. And when I saw the pastor – a tall, middle aged man flipping burgers and laughing – I was willing to have lunch. And after a while I was willing to try worship. And then Bible study. Then one night, when I was feeling completely overwhelmed and was afraid of failing all my classes and losing my scholarship and ruining my life, I suddenly felt absolutely certain of God. I had always known about God and most days I believed, but I had never been truly certain. I felt God’s assurance that of course I couldn’t handle life by myself, none of us can. God is the one who can bear it all. And God is there for us to lean on.
Since I had this epiphany while I was exploring Christianity, I knew this was my faith and I was baptized the next morning. I still have the utmost respect for people of other faiths, especially my mom.
What are your favorite local restaurants?
How much space to do we have? I love food! TwoRows for a family dinner. Cru for a date night with my husband. Saltlight Station for the lunch special, Ramen Hakata for miso vegetable ramen and Torchy’s for the airstream salad. And I’m always game to try a new place!
What are some of your go-to comfort movies and TV shows?
My favorite movie of all time is The Princess Bride. The Shawshank Redemption and the Back to the Future movies are also on my go-to list. My husband and I watched the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, in chronological order of the storyline, during the pandemic. As for TV, I’ve watched The Office a ridiculous number of times. I really like period series like Downton Abbey, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Outlander. My husband and I are currently re-watching How I Met Your Mother in the evenings when we’re not sure what else to watch.
What are some of your favorite hymns?
My Methodist is showing, but I really like a lot of Charles Wesley’s hymns because the theology is solid and, more often than not, we all get to Heaven by the last verse. Some of my favorites of his are “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” and “Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies.”
The youth choir at Denton often sang “O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High” and it makes my soul soar to sing it. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “Canticle of the Turning” stir my heart and align me with God’s work toward justice, toward enough for all God’s children. Music can be so powerful and we haven’t even touched on any of the newer praise songs out there.
Tell our readers about your family.
I met my husband, Andy, when we were in high school band together. I was in the color guard and he’s a saxophonist. We are in Texas because he pursued his career in music through two graduate degrees at the University of North Texas. He’s now the music program director at Grayson College and plays lots of gigs around the Metroplex. We have two sons at home – James in fifth grade and Ethan in first grade. Thanks to my boys, I know a lot about Cub Scouts, Pokémon and Beyblades. We also have an 18 year old cat named Hailey who inspires me with her nap skills.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I hope the world is a better place, in whatever small ways, because I lived into my God given gifts.