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Editor’s Note: This is another entry in our continuing series that asks, “How do we come to be the ones we are?”

“The Latin root of curiosity means “cure,” which makes me wonder if it isn’t a way to heal some of our oldest sicknesses.” – D.L. Mayfield

Central Florida is a curious place to grow up. The haunted (to me at least) orange groves around every corner, the invasion of a giant Mickey Mouse being built a few miles away, a small town filled with deep South southerners, “snowbirds” from up north, and the segregated realities of the early 60s was a lot to ponder for a curious little white boy. My home life was very much a part of this segregated milieu, but also one that presented challenges to it in small ways. My dad’s curiosity led him to listen to the lived experiences of the Black employees that worked for him, and it wasn’t lost on me that he was one of the only white men I saw doing this. 

Dad’s curiosity was also displayed in his business career. He changed his model in light of new information. Of course, people questioned what he was doing. That’s normal for people who insist on growing and evolving, but not appreciated by others as it threatens the status quo. Listening and staying curious may heal “some of our oldest sicknesses,” but it also might get you in trouble along the way. Hopefully “good trouble,” as John Lewis would say. I gladly blame my curiosity on my dad; it was one of the great gifts he imparted to me. My dad was a person of cognitive flexibility, which means he had the ability to change his mind in light of new information. This, organizational psychologist Adam Grant says, is a “mark of wisdom,” in which you refuse to “let the fear of admitting you were wrong stop you from getting it right.” When we begin to live out this kind of wisdom, “the joy of learning something new eventually exceeds the pain of unlearning something old.”

Along with curiosity came simplicity. My church upbringing was simple: God is love. Love people in need. Welcome the stranger. Our church (Lakeside Baptist Church, SBC) threw open its doors to Cuban refugees. There was no fear-mongering about immigrants. We needed them, they needed us. Our reflex was simple: Love people. My mother was involved in helping Cubans learn English. One of the ladies to whom my mom taught English would one day become my mother-in-law.   

I fell in love with a Cuban immigrant named Terely.  Her family and their story became fertile ground for my curiosity. I began to see the world through a different lens and it challenged how I understood the world. Turns out, you can eat dinner at 11:00 at night. Beans that are black are actually really tasty. Bananas that look rotten taste like banana candy when cooked in a skillet. Hospitality means people show up at any time of night expecting a meal. Cafe con Leche with toasted Cuban bread and butter is sublime. Dominoes until the wee hours of the morning is a community-building event.

Interacting with her dad, who lost everything to Castro, was heartbreaking. As a privileged American, I had never encountered anything like this. I tried my best to listen and be shaped by their experiences. Listening is both how curiosity begins and how it develops. 


After marrying Terely, I left Central Florida. Off to Mississippi for seminary, where, if you weren’t from there, you could be white and still be an outsider. The networks I had no access to, the assumptions about Floridians and Cubans, the culture I had never been exposed to, and yes the painful ways in which Mississippians held on to the worst parts of their past, led to a cross-cultural experience. While some of the finest people I’ve ever met were part of that experience, I found myself yearning for acceptance in an unfamiliar place. My 3+ years in Mississippi were both magical and mystifying, part of the great paradox of the South. 

These events shaped me in profound ways. Through my parents, I learned to listen to the experiences of others. Through my church, I learned the simplicity of Jesus’ ethic of love. In the midst of all the diversity and changes of those formative years, listening and loving served me well.  

A young Fred in San Francisco

Then I met doctrine.

Doctrine was important in order to pass classes and fit in, but I could sense doctrine was taking precedence over listening and loving. Doctrine can certainly team up with listening and loving, but it easily becomes a weapon in the hands of a young man trying to make his way in life. Additionally, when you pair curiosity with doctrine, be prepared to duck! Curiosity and questioning is not something that is received with gladness by those who need doctrine to hold things together.  

The obsession with believing the right things, and the addiction to certainty that follows, took firm root in my life. People still mattered to me, but they mattered in the sense that they were “deformed unless they were Reformed,” a phrase I’m ashamed to admit I learned and repeated in those days.  

It was a relief for my anxious, traumatized self to have everything nailed down. The world was scary. The traumatic elements of my childhood, the need to show “them” (parents, naysayers, imaginary critics) that I was making my own way in the world, and the satisfaction of being “right” in my chaotic reality was the drug I needed to survive. Having all the answers was like cotton candy for my soul: sweet and so immediately gratifying.  

I give that background because, like you, I am a book with many chapters. Those early chapters set a foundation for who I would become, as they do for all of us. It’s vital that we each become students of our personal stories. My story is long and full of both joy and trauma, and I’ve found that the work of untangling and unraveling my life story has been critical in developing vulnerability. I’ve learned that my vision is limited, yet the first step in becoming a more expansive and generous person is learning to be generous with myself. I hope the same for you. 


We began having children in 1990, the year we moved to Knoxville to work with students at the University of Tennessee. Living in a third city at age 27 was a big deal—my family wanted to know when I was coming back to Florida. I was scared but also game for adventure. Campus ministry was a chance to flesh out all that doctrine into the lives of a diverse group of people. My listening chops were once again necessary, but I went there with things to say, not things to learn.  

That is until I was forced to listen to the stories of those in my pastoral care—a great privilege of ministry. The more stories I heard, the more complicated the world became. The more questions I heard, the more I learned my rehearsed answers weren’t working. The more pain I heard, the more I began to yearn for deeper resources to address it.  And, to be honest, the more pain I heard, the more repressed pain I began to recognize in myself.  

The more I listened, the less I injected my answers, and the more my empathic imagination began to grow. I had learned in seminary that “theology is application” (thank you John Frame), and that my theology “should be a home and not a prison” (thank you Richard Pratt), but it took years of listening to stories before I could actually be faithful to that training.   

We now had three children, each of them unique as a snowflake. Turns out you have to be flexible with children too. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to parenting. Bummer. One more assumption down the tubes. (Where it needed to be: I’ll spare you the rant about how all ministry—and parenting—must be contextualized, and how a cookie-cutter approach to either is a path to abuse and dehumanization.)

San Francisco

In 1996, we moved to San Francisco to begin a new church. Inspired by Tim Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian Church, I set out to start a similar church on what everybody told me was “the Left Coast.” I lost track of how many times I heard well-meaning supporters say “better you than me!” when we were making our move. My curiosity served me well in undertaking such an outlandish expedition. 

I would tell people “we feel no pressure because no one seriously thinks this is going to work.” Of course, that is half true. No one thought it was going to work … but that didn’t remove the pressure. I felt an enormous amount of pressure. Pressure to please supporters. Pressure to gather a group of people in the arbitrary time frame of three years. Pressure to provide for my family. There was also pressure I was suppressing, having to do with my own self-validation. Pressure everywhere! To my surprise, God began to provide people who showed interest in this crazy idea. 

Our launch team came up with two foundational statements we have been working out for 26 years.

  1. Let’s start a church you can bring your friends to. 
  2. Let’s start a church that is good news for all of San Francisco. 

This second statement must be continually interrogated by asking the simple question: Who are we NOT good news for?

I’m often asked how on earth we started a church when we didn’t know anyone. It started with listening. Everything from naming our church to fashioning a worship service flowed out of listening to the city. We saw San Francisco, with all its beauty and brokenness, as a gift we could listen and learn from, and hopefully serve well as a result.

I was inspired by the idea that a church didn’t have to be a confirmation bias factory but a place of questioning, inquiry, and curiosity. We expected people from every conceivable background, especially when it came to religion, to be in our church. It was come one, come all, and we will do our best to be comprehensible to everyone. This was baked into our DNA. 

But with my white northern European theology, rooted in patriarchy, white supremacy, and the subjugation of entire people groups, there were problems. We weren’t listening to Jesus’ ideas. I remember during my first ride on a San Francisco bus, a person told me, “You know, if you Christians actually took Jesus’ ideas seriously, I’d be more interested in what you have to say.” Prophetic. 

The church got off the ground, we grew, and within a few years, we were up to 500 people. But our foundational questions were causing me heartburn. We were listening, and we were loving, and … we weren’t good news for women. We baptized patriarchy the best we could with a thousand equivocations—the hallmark of the novel theological construct called “complementarianism.” Invented in the 1970s, complementarianism was more palatable than simply saying “women aren’t capable to lead” (the default position of institutional Christianity for 2000 years. Apparently, nobody told Jesus, as he sent women to be the first proclaimers of the resurrection.) Being loyal to the tribe meant robbing ourselves of the wisdom and brilliance of all God’s children. 

In 2005, I was driving my 13-year-old daughter to school. I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She looked at me proudly and said “Maybe what you do, Dad!” The idea that I would respond with, “Well, your role is never to lead, but to submit to your husband and to the male leadership of your church” was repulsive. Her gifts to love and care for others were undeniable, whether she ever went into full-time ministry or not.

In 2006, I left my tribe of 16 years, the Presbyterian Church in America. The blowback, though predictable, was awful. I loved my friends in the PCA, and knowing they would not go with me in this next chapter was heartbreaking and lonely. The disdain, criticism, and name-calling from some was terrifying. You will have to excuse me for not being used to being called “servant of Satan,” among other things. Childhood trauma of being abandoned or forgotten was triggered. I felt misunderstood, and worst of all for an Enneagram One, wrong, even though I knew we had to make this change. When we changed, our church got 1000% wiser. And we continued to keep the question before us: Are we good news for all of San Francisco?  

A new realization began growing in me, and in our leadership. We weren’t good news for the poor in our community. We were largely a rich white church insulated from communities of color, communities of need, and communities of desperation. So, we intentionally began to listen and leaned into proximity.

This had an enormous impact on how we began to think about systemic injustice in our city. We interrogated our theological foundations to see what they said about the poor and marginalized in our community. It was right there all along: Jesus named his message “Good news for the poor.” Jesus’ ministry prioritized the poor, the outsider, the marginalized, the prisoner, the stranger, and the widow. Jesus said, “If you don’t love the least of these, you don’t love me.” It’s not that we hadn’t known this, we just weren’t applying it or asking hard questions about our complicity in unjust systems. 

Following the leadership of Pastor Paul Trudeau and countless courageous volunteers, we found ourselves leading worship services in the county jail, mentoring people coming out of addiction, and listening well to their stories. Through tears of joy and suffering while working with marginalized communities, we learned where support was needed. Out of this experience was born City Hope, which today is a seven-day-a-week presence in one of San Francisco’s most wounded neighborhoods. 

I was thrilled with the idea but short on experience, and, quite frankly, scared of folks on our streets. Through the leadership of Paul and others, our church began to lead with listening, which served to create a bond of mutual trust and understanding while developing compassionate wisdom. If not for those leading this initiative, I’d still be locked in fear. City Hope has liberated people like me to dream bigger dreams for what is possible in the lives of our neighbors in need. As Henri Nouwen said, “The rich are poor too.” We began to learn when we prioritize our personal peace and affluence we impoverish ourselves.

As I’ve noted, it’s my great privilege as a pastor to listen to the stories of many lives. In San Francisco, many of those lives are LGBTQ. Listening to their stories and experience began to change how I understood them and what the gospel required of me and our church (repentance). One of those stories was personal. 

In 2010, my son came out to me. I was not publicly affirming in my theology but he sensed somehow it would be safe to tell me. It was a holy moment, and like all holy moments, it was filled with joy, fear, lots of questions, and, thankfully, most of all love. My son is one of my heroes. His courage, authenticity, and love for others are things I aspire to embody. After coming out, he lost almost all contact with his Christian community, most of which was part of a popular Christian ministry for high school students that had no room for leaders like him who were LGBTQ. The stories of pain and rejection I’d listened to now became the story of my own flesh and blood.  

Those stories included not only rejection from family and ministries, but also harmful stories of trying to “repair” their sexual orientation. When therapists and religious leaders seek to change the sexual orientation of LGBTQ youth, those young people are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide. This is why many former “ex-gay” leaders have not only renounced their former beliefs, but apologized to the LGBTQ community for the damage they have caused. 

According to a landmark 2009 study, when families reject their LGBTQ children, their children are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide, 5.9 times more likely to have high levels of depression, and 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs than LGBTQ children who have supportive families. Suicide rates are highest among transgender people; 41% of transgender adults in the United States have attempted suicide in their lifetime, compared to only 1.6% of the overall population. Read more on this here

When people ask me why we changed our mind in 2015 and became an affirming church, I say this: stories and statistics. Through listening and loving, I saw that my theology was demonstrably and unquestionably harming people. This kind of discovery is nothing new, the church has been answering the question “Who is the gospel for?” throughout its checkered past and has a long history of “we were wrong” discoveries followed by repentance. One way to understand the New Testament is as a product of asking this question while it wrestled with the inclusion of Gentiles in the movement Jesus started. 

Making this choice shook our church to its core. I have grieved the loss of every person who left: friends, people whose weddings I conducted, children I’ve baptized, and people I’ve walked with through failure, loss, and heartache. These are personal categories for any pastor. The loss of continuing the journey with them is shattering, even as it has been life-giving for so many others. In the years following our change, tears of sadness and joy mixed each Sunday. Such is the nature of the work Jesus invites us to.

When you include a group that has been rejected it leads to more interrogation of where else this is happening. We are not an inclusive church if we aren’t also doing a deeper dive into white supremacy. Our church, which I’ve now handed over to new leadership, seeks to listen and love in creative and transformative ways because God’s vision for the world is for all creation to flourish. 

What are the lessons I’ve learned?

#1 Listening and loving create a healthy theological foundation. When Jesus was asked to summarize the law and the prophets, his answer was all about love, which brings us back to the guy on the bus telling me to take seriously what Jesus actually taught. Combining the ideas of Jesus with listening and loving to the lived experience of people will leave you asking hard questions about yourself and your community, including questions about systems rigged to favor one group of people over another. Jesus’ love imperative demands interrogating how we’ve benefited from this rigged system while others have been crushed by it. The central discipleship question that has emerged is, “How can I use my power and privilege for the liberation of others?”

Christmas preaching on Zoom

#2 Listening and loving are critical for a healthy Christian spirituality. Jesus set up an ever-evolving spirituality, saying in John’s gospel, “I have things you aren’t ready to hear…but the Spirit will lead you into all truth.” That’s the story of the church.  As my friend Stan Mitchell points out: “From the Gentile inclusion to slavery, from our understanding of the cosmos to women’s rights, from inter-racial marriage to divorce, and now the inclusion of LGBTQ folks, this history of correction should remind us at the base of our approach to scripture should be a loving humility that is willing always to hear Jesus say, “You heard it said but I say unto you.” Epistemological humility is built into Christian spirituality when Paul says “We see through a glass dimly.” Yes, we do.

#3 Listening and loving takes courageous curiosity. Misunderstandings and attacks will come from within the church, not outside of it. Jesus experienced much persecution from within his own tribe. If you become serious about loving and listening, you might find yourself on an Island in your own family system. Jesus certainly was at points in his life. Jesus said the quiet parts out loud, and people reacted differently—for some, his words provided relief, for others a necessary pain, and for all, liberation if they would listen.

Who are we not good news for in our community?  When you ask that question, anti-racism training is logical, and interrogating white supremacy is embraced. You discover that people leaving because you have made them uncomfortable is sad, but not debilitating. The work is thrilling when the gospel is good news for everyone. If it’s not for everyone, is it really good news for anyone? Trusting this will result in the ride of a lifetime. 

In my early years, I talked about the need for lives to be changed.  The work City Church San Francisco is up to these days goes deeper. Lives are being saved. I know this because congregants tell me. They have begun believing God’s vision is for the flourishing of all creation. 

And as I like to say from time to time, “All means ALL.”  

Fred Harrell

The Rev. Fred O. Harrell is a native of Central Florida and moved to San Francisco in 1996 to start City Church San Francisco (RCA). He and his wife, Terely, have been married since 1986, and they have four adult children.


  • Jack Ridl says:

    I have waited for 65 years for what you have with courageous vulnerability and the holy wisdom of ALL-ness firmly affirmed. Had you been the pastor I turned to during my trauma instead of one Jerry Kirk I would likely have been spared stays in five different psychiatric hospitals. I have been fine now for 40 years, and as a poetry professor began my first class by saying to the students, “Let’s get this out of the way right away: l am a heretic for Jesus.” My gratitude to and for you is endless.

    • Fred Harrell says:

      thank you Jack for sharing your story and I’m so happy that mine is encouraging to you!

  • V says:

    Thanks for sharing all of this! Still my favorite guru.

  • Leanne Van Dyk says:

    Thank you, Fred – your journey names moments that many of us share with you. (By “us”, I simply mean curious humans who are trying, against all odds, to follow Jesus!)

    • Fred Harrell says:

      So good to connect on this post with you! And yes, against all odds! Happy holidays to you my friend.

  • Christopher Poest says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, Fred!

  • Jeffrey Petersen says:

    Thank you for putting this journey in writing Fred! I’m grateful for your curiosity and courage. The statement, “Making this choice shook our church to its core,” and everything that follows describes my lived experience right now. Reading this helps me feel less alone.

  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    Thank you, Fred, and “Amen!” Your journey is inspiring. It renews my hope that the church will continue to learn from your curiosity, humility, and honesty and that, instead of splitting up into ever-more exclusive (and smaller) congregations by retreating into past beliefs, will follow the Holy Spirit’s lead into welcoming and and loving ever more of those among us on the margins–because “All means ALL.”

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Beloved Fred. Thanks for this. I count it a privilege to having been a little bit alongside you listening and loving.

  • Taylor W Holbrook says:

    Thanks for sharing this beautiful journey. Stay curious!