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Meet Jeff Rock, the scientist who became a Toronto pastor

Rev. Jeff Rock, centre, has been selected as the senior pastor for the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto. He will be replacing Rev. Dr. Brent Hawkes, right, who is retiring after 38 years with the church.

Taras Karpiuk

In 2015, Jeff Rock's name was on a ballot. He was running as the federal Liberal candidate in the Alberta riding of Red Deer-Lacombe. Two years later, his name was on a very different ballot: to become the next senior pastor at Toronto's Metropolitan Community Church.

On Sunday, pink smoke wafted out of the church's chimney. Rev. Jeff Rock had won.

Mr. Rock grew up in Sudbury, and in high school decided he was going to come out and live openly and proudly as a gay male. "People often ask, 'Oh, it must have been really tough growing up gay in Sudbury?' and my response is 'no,' because of a lot of hard work of people who went before me," he said. He attributes the shifting pro-LGBTQ landscape in Canada to some of the work by people like Rev. Dr. Brent Hawkes, who Mr. Rock is succeeding as leader of MCC Toronto, an inclusive Protestant church that ministers in part to members of the city's LGBTQ community, among others.

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Dr. Hawkes is the church's retiring senior pastor who has led MCC for almost 40 years. He is known for having officiated at the world's first legal gay marriage, as well as at the funeral of NDP leader Jack Layton. In January of this year, a judge acquitted Dr. Hawkes of sexual-assault charges dating back to the 1970s.

Mr. Rock, 33, will work with Dr. Hawkes for four months before officially taking over the congregation in the fall. He sat down to talk to The Globe and Mail from Red Deer, Alta., where he is getting ready to leave his friends and his congregation at the Gaetz Memorial United Church for this new chapter ahead.

MCC prides itself on representing a diverse community. Were there any critics looking at you as another white male being elected? Have you run into that opposition?

Absolutely. There were some questions about why the committee was presenting a cisgendered, middle-class, educated, white male. And my response to that was when I applied, I said, 'Really you should hire me, but I would urge you to consider people of colour and people who are gender-variant as well.' Interestingly, it was people from the straight community who wanted to make sure that they felt fully included in the congregation. They just wanted to make sure I was fully inclusive of them as well, so that was a great learning opportunity.

The legal issues that Dr. Hawkes faced last year, what kind of impact did that have on the church and the congregation? What is your role in the process of moving forward?

I look at myself as a 33-year-old young gay man in ministry and I know I wouldn't be where I am today without people like Rev. Dr. Brent Hawkes. I think the congregation was very intentional in their support of Brent [during the trial], and really held him tenderly with their prayer through that process.

As for moving forward, one of my deepest beliefs is that we connect as human beings in our places of vulnerability, weakness and pain. I think MCC Toronto has the potential to lead some of the conversations around inclusion in the city on other issues such as ability and disability, on race and power and privilege. So I know that will be a big chunk of the work in the future. I am really looking forward to building bridges with the Indigenous community in Toronto and having some of the difficult conversations around truth and reconciliation and the continued systemic oppression of Indigenous people. I think that there are deep conversations that need to happen in Toronto about class, and about housing costs and poverty. And you know, I am a pretty well-paid person, professional, yet the concept of moving to Toronto is terrifying because I can't quite afford to live there.

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You were on sabbatical last year, an 80-day trip around the world. What did you take away from that? Where did you touch down?

Where didn't I? Iceland, Spain, England, Scotland, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam. I was really focused on pilgrimage. So I did the Camino de Santiago, which is an 800-kilometre hike across Spain. I met my mother in Southeast Asia and we toured around there. I was at a religious community called Iona in Scotland on a week-long pilgrimage there as well. So it was kind of about the journey of life, and it's interesting because now my own journey of life has taken me on this next step to Toronto.

Before pursuing a career as a member of the clergy, you earned a degree in microbiology and immunology from McGill University. What motivated you to make the switch?

I still consider myself a scientist and a skeptic and an inquirer and a question-asker. And the reason I went into the sciences was a hope to make the world a better place; I had hoped to go into HIV education and research. But on the day my parents came up for my graduation, I said, 'Mom, Dad, I think I want to be a minister.' My mother always thinks that I wasted four years on a science degree but I think it was deeply formative to the person I am today. So I don't see science and faith as competitive at all, rather I find them complementary as we seek to understand the world in which we live.

What are you hoping to achieve during your time at MCC?

I want everybody from the city of Toronto to know they are loved and that MCC Toronto is a place of inclusion, whether you are a young Muslim man in Etobicoke or a first-generation immigrant in Markham or a Canadian-born elder in central Toronto – I want people to know they are loved and that they belong.

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This interview has been condensed and edited.

Editor’s Note An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Brent Hawkes has been the senior pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto for 38 years. In fact, he has led the church for almost 40 years.
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