After spouses Jamie Kepros and Sharon Benton wake up on a Sunday morning, they go their separate ways.
The Rev. Kepros, 46, takes a 9:10 a.m. ferry to sparsely populated Lummi Island. About 20 people fill the pews of Lummi Island Congregational Church on a given Sunday. A view of the water, a grove of trees and a small cemetery are visible outside the windows of the quaint, New England-style church.
Mike Skehan has been a parishioner on and off for 25 years. His daughter married her wife at the church two decades ago.
“What we’re doing here is very friendly,” Skehan said. “They truly do mean what they say — all people are welcome here.”
Back on the mainland, the Rev. Benton, 48, commutes a short distance from the couple’s Cornwall Park home to the First Congregational Church of Bellingham on Cornwall Avenue. Some 100 people take their seats, angled toward the sanctuary. Parishioner Mary “Frenchy” Hollander has been going to the church for about two years. She and her husband had been looking for a congregation, but “the other ones didn’t speak to us.”
“This one shouts at us,” Hollander, 76, said.
Pastors Kepros and Benton don their robes. From the pulpits in front of their two United Church of Christ congregations, they begin carefully curated sermons that differ in delivery but resonate with a shared theme: Everyone is welcome — at their best, at their worst and anywhere in between.
The hourlong Sunday sermons are a fraction of a pastor’s job. Kepros and Benton say their most rewarding role is helping people navigate the complexities of the human experience.
“There’s a liturgy professor who says, ‘We are humanity at full stretch, from the deep, deep sorrow, to the great, great joy.’ And most of the time, we wander around in this muddled middle,” Benton said. “But when we can be with people at that greatest of joy and the deepest of sorrow — what an incredible gift.”
During Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas in the Christian faith, Kepros and Benton tend to see those highs and lows amplified as people revel in the magic of the season, or reckon with grief and isolation. Out of that, comes a message of togetherness.
Kepros and Benton view church as one of a few places left in modern society that values community. They both saw that in their respective congregations when they moved to Bellingham to start their jobs in 2015.
As pastors, they’ve helmed impressive community projects.
Benton worked with her congregation to launch The Ground Floor, a drop-in space for 13–24-year-olds experiencing homelessness. Run by Northwest Youth Services in the basement of First Congregational, The Ground Floor offers showers, nap rooms, a kitchen, and free clothing and shelter gear.
On Lummi Island, Kepros helped The Gathering Place come to fruition. The building on church grounds serves as a non-religious social space that plays a vital role for often-isolated islanders.
First Congregational Rev. Davi Weasley applauded the couple’s quiet passion and investment.
“A lot of people love their communities in ways that are big and immediately obvious, and happen in a way that’s quick,” Weasley said. “Some folks, and I think Jamie and Sharon among them, love their communities in ways that are steady, and even subtle. They might do ministry here for 30 years, and you might never hear about them. But you will absolutely be touched by the lives that they change in their ministry.”
Benton and Kepros sat side-by-side on a loveseat in Benton’s church office on a recent Monday evening. When one spoke, the other listened with attentive contemplation. They traded ideas and finished each other’s sentences. They balanced each other’s weighty statements with humor and brevity. The spouses didn’t shy away from disagreement, either.
Encouragement — and challenge — are hallmarks of their 23-year-long relationship.
The pair met as graduate students at Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, California. Kepros was effortlessly cool and fun-loving, while Benton was a self-described “Type A nerd.” On one of their first dates, Benton recalled “going back and forth really deeply” with Kepros in a Claremont restaurant.
“It was like we were playing chess,” she said.
“Through the years, we’ll every once in a while say, ‘Hey, are we playing chess again?’” Kepros chuckled.
From first meeting, the two women sensed they each had a deeply rooted spirituality. Kepros was brought up Roman Catholic and spent her childhood on a farm outside Springville, Iowa.
“From an early age, I felt a call to ministry,” Kepros said. “But being a woman and a Catholic, there was no direction, obviously, to ordained ministry.”
Benton grew up in Belvidere, New Jersey, where her family was United Methodist, a denomination that granted women full clergy rights in 1956. Benton remembers strong female and church camp leaders telling her she could one day become a minister.
The path to ordination
After high school, Benton attended Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania, where she worked as a chaplain’s assistant on campus. “I was a church nerd,” she said.
When Benton came out as lesbian in her second year, “the entire religious community deserted me,” she said. Her roommate moved out. Parishioners refused to look at her or speak to her as she handed out papers prior to services. Her faith wavered.
“I would go back and forth between, if Christians are this cruel, why would I want to be part of them in the first place?” she said. “I didn’t know if I was allowed to stay Christian.”
She briefly left Christianity and began identifying as Unitarian Universalist so she could be herself “all the way.”
Still, Benton’s chaplain at Lebanon Valley encouraged her to attend Claremont for graduate school. While there, she worked as a chaplain at a Catholic hospital. Her boss, “Father Joe,” sat her down one day and asked Benton why she chose Unitarian Universalist. She explained her experience and reasoning. He challenged her.
“Much like how I described Jamie and I playing chess, I felt like Father Joe was doing that. I think it was Father Joe who helped me believe I could still be a Jesus follower,” Benton said tearfully.
Kepros came out as lesbian while she was an undergraduate at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Unlike Benton, her peers were accepting, and Kepros remained a practicing Catholic through her senior year.
“I spent years grappling, studying, journaling, praying — but all through that journey, I found myself connected with people or churches that helped me on that journey, that were supportive or affirming,” Kepros said.
Upon graduating from Claremont, Kepros and Benton moved to New Haven, Connecticut. Back on the East Coast, they discovered United Church of Christ (UCC).
Although it was not yet legal, Benton and Kepros were spiritually married on May 1, 2004 by four UCC clergy. They celebrated another wedding on July 4, 2015, eight days after same-sex marriage was legalized in all 50 states.
The progressive UCC denomination ordained its first LGBTQ+ minister in 1972. Still feeling called to ministry, Benton was ordained by UCC in 2003. Kepros was ordained in 2010.
“It is a huge gift to be in the same line of work,” Kepros said. “As you may realize, ministry is an incredibly difficult and stressful job, with various calls upon somebody emotionally and intellectually. To have an in-house partner who knows what you’re going through is profoundly helpful.”
The duo also draw inspiration from each other and help alleviate liturgical writer’s blocks. Administrative work, board meetings and on-call shifts eat up hours each week. Instead of date nights, they’ve made a ritual of Friday morning breakfasts, frequenting Diamond Jim’s Grill or Greene’s Corner.
Love in action
Pastor Weasley met Benton and Kepros in 2015 when Weasley was scoping out churches to work at in the area. Weasley, 39, was hired at First Congregational, and got to know Benton in a professional capacity. Kepros and Weasley, however, forged a friendship over a Dungeons & Dragons tabletop.
“They have differences in terms of style and energy,” Weasley said of the couple. “I think that if I want to talk about poetry, I’ll call Sharon. And if I want to talk about zombie television shows, I’ll call Jamie.”
Kepros is the godmother to Weasley’s 5-year-old son. Both Kepros and Benton treat Weasley’s child with a reverence most young children aren’t afforded.
“What my kid gets from Sharon and Jamie is a real kindness, a real respect for the ideas and questions that he’s bringing,” Weasley said.
Benton and Kepros apply that same respect to everyone they meet. As pastors, it should be part of the job, they said.
“I don’t care if you’re male, female, genderqueer — I am your pastor,” Benton said. “I want to love you and know you. I don’t care if you’re in your 90s or 2 years old.”