Progressive Religion… Is Not an Oxymoron – May 2013: Bryan’s & Edie’s (Swan) Song

Progressive Religion… Is Not an Oxymoron – May 2013: Bryan’s & Edie’s (Swan) Song
Bryan Jessup, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno, and Edie Jessup, a community activist focused on food, nutrition and hunger-related issues, are leaving Fresno after 15 years of service and commitment to our progressive community.
David Roy
David Roy

By David Roy

Our friends in all matters progressive, Bryan and Edie Jessup, are leaving Fresno for good on June 30. Bryan has served as pastor of Fresno’s Unitarian Universalist Church for 15 years and has been central to numerous ecumenical events and projects. Edie has done a large cross-section of work to promote and expand options for healthy food, particularly for those with few resources, by developing the community garden and by offering nutrition education, among other activities.

Bryan’s last Sunday at the Fresno Unitarian Universalist Church is June 30. The church will hold a goodbye event that evening as a way to honor and recognize him for what he has done for them and the community.

Bound for Humboldt

Then, he and Edie will be headed for Humboldt where he will assume the fabled “half-time” ministry status at the local UU church. I say “fabled” because, in my years of assisting clergy, I have found few who can consistently maintain their time boundaries in full or part-time positions. Every person’s request for something becomes a potential issue if the pastor is unavailable, particularly if it is time off for rest or anything else that is not fixed. “Get or put it in writing right from the start. Don’t make good faith assumptions.”) My experience with Bryan over the past 15 years is that he will spend a lot of time connecting to the various local religious leaders and, eventually, to the various programs and services in the area that aim to help those in the lower (and lowest) portion of the resources hierarchy (the poor and otherwise marginalized).

Edie said she plans to “get to know the territory!” She anticipates getting involved with food and social justice issues, but she says, somewhat wistfully, “I hope to take time at the seaside and among the redwoods, and time for a garden and a little art in my life. Other than that, some longer time visiting grandchildren when possible. I have some things to write about.”

These sound like the softer pursuits that loom ahead, always around the next bend in the road. These softer pursuits can easily fall away when the hard issues of food—good, healthy, organic, locally grown and distributed—and the array of social injustices in our communities come together to clobber our hearts and minds and we feel called to do something about them now! Hopefully, Edie will keep in mind that taking time for these more solitary and quieter pursuits requires a fierce resolve to do that regardless of the circumstances.

Bryan and Edie have steadily contributed enormously to the health and well-being of our community. Although it would not be fair to suggest that all will be lost without them, because it won’t, whatever uniqueness they embodied certainly will be missed.

My Lunch with Bryan

I had a long conversation with Bryan over lunch recently where I invited him to share his views of what Fresno still needs, needs for the future, what approaches work and anything else that might come up as we talked. Although it was not exactly My Dinner with Andre (it was, after all, lunch with Bryan), we did cover a lot of ground (and sky) as is typical of conversations with Bryan.

Something like that old movie, we did do a rock-on-water skip across topics imbued with some world-view talk, some philosophy and theology, politics and social justice, and the negative trends in the financial world where fewer and fewer own more and more of just about everything.

Bryan framed current struggles in Fresno, the United States, and the world by saying that there are two religions. One is the religion of love. In this religion, the emphasis is on the ways in which love can be expressed, such as through compassion, generosity, connection, I-Thou, we-ness and the awareness of abundance. The other religion is that of fear. This religion emphasizes danger, suspicion, “otherness,” guardedness, possessiveness due to scarcity, and even hatred and the desire to annihilate the threat.

The Persistent Progressive

Bryan sees the role of the progressive to be the one who calls people away from the second and toward the first. “This is very difficult work,” he said. Our economic systems, the design of our cities and towns, all of this and more keep us separated.

The only way change in the direction of connection, of love, of care, happens, he believes, is by being “persistent,” by staying with something and not giving up. Just getting people together to listen to each other can be extremely difficult to do. But there are some who are persistent.

He streamed a series of individual and organizational names who embodied this “persistence.” The first he named was Walt Perry, who grew Metro Ministry from almost nothing into a well-funded program with the ability to receive grants and carry our several projects simultaneously. Walt was consistently persistent about involving all facets of the community and of asking that all involved strive to listen and understand.

At the real risk of leaving out names, my notes include Mike Rhodes, Robin McGehee, Richard Stone and the Center for Nonviolence, the Islamic Cultural Center and its efforts to promote peace and better understanding, the Interfaith Alliance, the Sikh community and their efforts to promote peace. He noted as well the efforts of the late Bishop John Steinbock and his opposition to the war in Iraq (ignored by the media) and his initiating what is now a huge effort to coordinate services to the homeless, the current Bishop Armando Ochoa who is continuing this work and ongoing help for the poor. He called Jim Grant the “Energizer” bunny for his efforts to give exposure to numerous social causes.

The Fresno UU Church: Fully Involved

Bryan also lifted out the UU church he has served, stressing the fact that its members are traditionally and intensively involved in a broad range of programs; they have built a phenomenally “green” church and have made it available for any number of community projects and programs, including a steady circuit of progressive musicians.

Knowing many clergy and churches through my work (including several years directing a mid-career and crisis program for clergy), I ventured that perhaps his congregation will face some definite challenges as they transition from his long-term ministry to someone new. Bryan strongly disagreed, emphasizing he saw them as an unusually capable and resourceful group with many talents, capable of doing much by themselves.

Falling back on the My Dinner with Andre role, I invoked the Gestalt psychology principle that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, which, I explained, meant in this case that I was right. No, sorry, it meant that removing the part named Bryan would change the essence of the whole and that the outcome might be unforeseen. Of course, this might mean I was wrong, too. So, for those who feel that prayer may have some efficacy, you are invited to pray for the well-being of this important congregation and for their wisdom and discernment when they get around to hiring someone new to be their combination spiritual leader and pot stirrer (these being two of Bryan’s roles).

Bryan’s Unique Interfaith Role: To Bring Us Together

I suggested, too, that he has played an essential role among the many faith communities in Fresno because of both who he is as a person and because of the openness of the UU tradition to the full range of religious expression. As a person, he is felt to be warm, accepting, intelligent, committed and possessing a sense of humor and occasional bemusement at the quirks and contradictions of the human family.

On the interfaith side, there are numerous examples (more than could possibly be listed here). One prototypical example: Bryan was a major reason for the inauguration of the 9/11 interfaith community services, skillfully leading and guiding the planning and execution of the first service so that it was fully inclusive, that it spoke to the raw pain yet did not call out for revenge or retribution.

His presence has been felt in many places in Fresno’s interfaith and progressive gatherings, whether the Thanksgiving service or the Fourth of July picnic or one of the numerous additional programs. He knows well clergy, pastors, priests, rabbis and other religious leaders. He has been steadfast in making and maintaining relationships with religious adherents on the “outs” with mainstream American society, Muslims in particular, helping to maintain those threads of connection that can easily be destroyed when the pressure of fear turns peoples hearts to hatred and the thirst for revenge.

I know Bryan to be genuine in his quest for peace on earth and that he sees this as something to be done freely and generously on a personal basis wherever one happens to be. His spirituality seems to reside in the wisdom and grace that is present in the loving heart of all the great world religions.

Edie Jessup: Food, Nutrition, Hunger… and Politics

While I have not known Edie as well, I’ve always sensed a determined good heart. Her list of accomplishments and her demonstrations of care and passions are worth lifting up: She worked as the hunger and nutrition coordinator for Fresno Metro Ministry for nine years. More recently, she served as the director of the Central California Regional Obesity Proven Program (or, CCROPP, a suitable acronym that explains why such a long name). CCROPP is under Fresno County Public Health and CSU Fresno.

Edie’s philosophy of community organization to effect change starts with listening to people, particularly to those hurting, hungry, in need of shelter. This helped her realize that they tell a story about basic needs and rights and how our economic and social systems affect the poor. She has found that at least some people in better circumstances want to hear this story, and “if people can hear, they will want to change themselves and the system.”

Her aim has continued to be finding ways to humanize the food system, that is, to make the focus on people’s needs first and everything else in a supporting role.

Many Awards and Honors

She has worked with organizations in sub-communities of Fresno, with the city and county, and at the state level as well. She has received a number of awards and honors for her extensive work. The latest, which came in mid-April 2013, was the 2012 Guardian of Health Award, a statewide awareness of recognition from the California Center for Public Health Advocacy (CCPHA). This came during the “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” event that included a screening of the film Ripe for Change about the juncture of food and politics in the Central Valley.

Among other awards and honors she has received the 2003 NAACP Image Award, the 2006 Fresno Center for Nonviolence Way of Peace Award and the 2012 National Hmong American Farmers lifetime achievement award. She also served on state and regional committees, including 10 years on a state Department of Health committee focused on cancer prevention and nutrition.

She has stitched herself to many organizations, and them to each other often, working rather tirelessly to keep things moving and growing (and not just plants).

Edie’s shared in a recent article in the Community Alliance her amazement and excitement seeing a fundamental shift in orientation by Big Ag and the conservative politicians who trend in the same direction as Big Ag. They have pivoted from the more typical conservative stance to one that has begun to see that the poor and the hungry, who live amid such an abundance of food that goes elsewhere, are consumers who could be an important component of any economic recovery if they could “access and purchase local produce,” she said. Furthermore, if the local food programs could buy from local farmers, this would mean having access to truly fresh food.

Change in the Heart, Change from the Heart

This trend makes her (and the rest of us) hopeful. Though I am sure Edie would agree, we need to remain watchful because many of us have seen how these well-intentioned movements can be abandoned or co-opted by other interests working in the background. It is fortunate when powerful, well-financed corporations decide that it makes financial sense to help those in need. The vulnerability is exactly at that point, too: If it stops making sense financially, or they feel it no longer does, then they will not hesitate to withdraw their support.

This is why hearts have to be changed as well.

And this is a final testament to both Bryan and Edie: They are two wonderful human beings who have brought their intelligence and their heart to bear on a whole range of serious issues; and they will continue to do this in Humboldt. We thank them for their inspiration that also is our challenge to do likewise—to persist!


Ordained in the United Church of Christ, David Roy is a pastoral counselor and a California licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who directs the Center for Creative Transformation. He has a Ph.D. in theology and personality from the Claremont (California) School of Theology. Send comments to him at or 5475 N. Fresno St., Suite 109, Fresno, CA 93711.


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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