“Mother. Pastor. Family Promise director. Juggler of chaos. Lover of diversity. Hope seeker.”
That’s how Sara Ewing-Merrill describes herself.
For the past 11 years, she has been co-pastor with her husband, Allen Ewing-Merrill, at HopeGateWay, a diverse United Methodist congregation that meets on Forest Avenue in Portland. Sunday services attract members of the LGBT community, immigrants from East Africa and Angola, individuals struggling with addiction and families with children and teens.
“It’s definitely a progressive community of people who are trying to put their faith and their worldview together in an integrated way,” Ewing-Merrill says. “To act justly and to love mercy: I feel like it’s not just our ideal, it’s what we’re doing together.”
After seminary, her first congregations were United Methodist churches in Old Orchard Beach and Saco, both of which were looking to replace a male pastor who had retired. She was just 26.
“I replaced two men, and two men replaced me when I left,” she laughs. “When people would say things to me that I felt were slights of my role and my authority, I would take it personally. But now that I’m past 40, if somebody says something to me, I don’t internalize it. You may not recognize that I have fully claimed this role, but I have.”
Once the Ewing-Merrills had a 1-year-old daughter, they didn’t want to be split between “mommy’s church” and “daddy’s church.”
“We asked to move to Portland and serve together and make half the money in order to have an integrated life,” she says. “We wanted to be led by our own expectations of what we would like our life to be: authentic, faithful and responsive to the needs we see in the world and compassionate to those needs, not just in thought but in action.”
She’s part of a group of Portland-area clergy that meets monthly for lunch, and half the clergy are female, including a rabbi, a Buddhist nun and members of the Baha’i faith. “In that group,” she says, “if anybody said something about women not being pastors, we’d look at them like, ‘That conversation was resolved decades ago.’”
Last January, Ewing-Merrill leaned on her interfaith connections to establish Greater Portland Family Promise, which provides housing, meals, case management and community for families with children experiencing homelessness. Thirteen host congregations house families for a week at a time in a quarterly rotation, and 30 congregations contribute funding and volunteers.
While Ewing-Merrill leads Greater Portland Family Promise, her husband is a convener with Moral Movement Maine, an interfaith political advocacy group led by clergy. He was one of nine religious leaders arrested on trespassing charges in December 2017 after occupying Sen. Susan Collins’ office for about 10 hours in protest of her support of a Republican tax cut. Ewing-Merrill was at a candlelight vigil across the street with her daughters because, she says, both parents shouldn’t get arrested. But they can both take a stand politically—and they do, nearly every week.
“For our own integrity,” she says, “we need to be voices speaking out for those who don’t have a voice or who would be endangered by speaking out.”
Amy Paradysz is a writer, editor and photographer who lives in Scarborough.