Profiles in Prophetic Voice - Rev. Tim Ahrens

Frank Brown

On a Saturday morning last October, Rev. Tim Ahrens encountered a quote by televangelist Rod Parsley, the leader of a conservative Ohio megachurch that jolted Ahrens. The day before, Parsley had launched the Reformation Ohio movement, aiming to register 400,000 voters and bring a quarter of them to Jesus. “I’m reading the paper,” Ahrens recalls, “and come across where Parsley says, ‘We are locking, loading, and firing on Ohio.’ I almost spat out my coffee. This was the crack in my liberty bell.”

Ahrens, who describes himself as “the most excitable person in Columbus,” went into high gear, e-mailing his friends, sharing his outrage. He called a meeting in the parish hall of his Columbus Church, the first Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, and gathered 50 like-minded pastors. “It is amazing how coming together like this has people finding their voice,” says Ahrens, 48. “It’s not my voice. These are the voices of Scripture.”

Those voices are now one loosely organized organization called We believe Ohio that spans the state and includes over 400 pastors, rabbis, imams, and other religious leaders. Ahrens credits the group with energizing and emboldening pastors statewide to object to the use of Scripture to promote a con- servative political agenda, an agenda that in the near term was aimed at electing Ohio Republican Ken Blackwell as governor (Blackwell was unsuccessful in his bid).

Taking a stand isn’t easy for some pastors who, as a result, have lost members and, in the case of one junior clergyman, have been banned in their own churches from preaching on certain subjects. Still, says Ahrens, “They all feel like they did the right thing.” And, six months into its formal start, the group is gaining traction, not only garnering much local and some national press, but also unnerving those in Parsley’s movement. “We start appearing with [people from Reformation Ohio] on stage and they don’t know what to do with us,” says Ahrens. “They’d written off mainline churches as so secular as to not matter anymore, as dead. What really unsettles them is that we preach the gospel.”

Despite—or because of—the success of We believe Ohio, Ahrens is deeply wary that the group will be too closely identified with individual clergy or a political agenda, or find itself co-opted by politicians. He is keenly aware of the temptations of being seduced by power, of slavishly serving media needs for shrill voices. “You talk about Falwell becoming a caricature of himself,” says Ahrens. “I think Jesse [Jackson] has become that, too.” That’s why Ahrens has removed himself from a formal leadership position in We believe Ohio and relentlessly sounds the message that the movement is about serving the poor, not taking power. “If a movement is to succeed, it has to continue to return to the poor,” says Ahrens. “The Old Testament prophets stopped being prophets when they got too close to the king.”

This wisdom of the wizened activist comes from over twenty years of experience, beginning in the mid-1980s while a student at Yale Divinity School and traveling to Groton, Connecticut, to protest the launch of a new submarine, the Corpus Christi. It also comes from sporadic but intense contact with William Sloane Coffin, Jr., who Ahrens first met while at Yale. “My roommate used to babysit the Coffin kids. I came into our apartment one day on Mansfield Street and there was Bill Coffin. Whoa!” Ahrens recalls that Coffin’s periodic guidance was key to honing his sense of purpose. “If there is a theme in my life, it is that God calls us to justice. In God’s reign, justice is the order of things set right. God’s Justice is the light for my path and guides my walk with Christ.”