She had a degree in journalism and a job with a newspaper, but something called Christina Kukuk to the ministry — and when, after going through seminary, she set foot in the pulpit for the first time and began speaking her sermon, it was about the woman who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears.
“I never felt so sure of anything in my life,” she says. “I was a quiet kid and as a journalist was in the role of questioner and observer. But this, I felt so sure this is exactly where I was supposed to be. I felt intuitively drawn to where this energy was.”
Kukuk, 37, two months ago started as the minister at Ashland First Congregational United Church of Christ — a denomination she had come to love because of its progressive, inclusive ways, which she experienced in three earlier posts in Ohio and Minnesota, including one in “new faith community development,” where she helped set up a congregation where none had existed.
What endeared her to UCC was, “they were a diverse bunch and didn’t require any theological test for members, no dogma or doctrine. It is done by covenant, staying together by making promises to each other in a Jesus way of life, not a list of things to sign off on.”
When she went through video and personal interviews with the Ashland UCC church — which Kukuk jokingly calls “a divine dating game” — she notes, “There was something compelling about the way the search committee described their mission.
“It was an expansive view, inclusive of all communities, a ferment, an appetite, a spiritual path together that invited an expansive view of the Bible and attacked homophobia, racism, sexism. It’s a beloved community as Christ called us to create.”
She met her husband, Adam Kukuk, a singer, pianist and drummer, in 2000 at campus ministries. They have children in kindergarten and second grade. He is active in the church and is certified as HealthRhythms leader, using drumming for stress reduction and community-building.
She was born and raised in Ashland, Ohio, got her journalism degree in 2000 from Kent State University, wrote for the Akron Beacon-Journal and entered pastoral work at a time when female ministers were a novelty. She graduated from Pittsburg Theological Seminary and found pulpits in UCC churches in Minneapolis, then six years as senior pastor at Elyria, Ohio, before coming here.
Kukuk was raised in a “pretty conservative Christianity, learned the Bible really well, had a private devotional life and knew that many aspects of that childhood were not going to work in my adulthood … but always there was this sense of the presence of God and what I call the Holy Spirit that moves in and through people and nature.”
Religious practice here at UCC, she says, is “all over the board in terms of social justice and what people think about Jesus and the view of God. A lot of theological diversity, where some people might say 'he’s my lord and savior' and others are inspired by him as 'my wisdom teacher.'"
Social justice, the menace of climate change and opposition to oppression in Central America are a big part of what they call social justice.
“How we live out social justice is not necessarily because of our personal relationship with God as divine other, a supreme being ordering the universe," Kukuk says. "Is it mystic? Absolutely. I resonate with that as a sensitivity to the immanence of the spiritual, as present in day-to-day life, not an absolute other far above us.”
As for mystics who “shaped and affected me,” she points out Thomas Merton, Julian of Norwich, Mechthild of Magdeburg and the Celtic Christians of Iona in Scotland. She values the “big tent” of UCC, which embraces the divine feminine, says “our Father-Mother” in the Lord’s Prayer and “breaks from the patriarchal expression of God as the big, mean, gray-haired father in the sky who’s going to zap you for your sins.”
When she reads a psalm, Kukuk says she freely alternates between he and she, adding, “This is a congregation that concentrates on disentangling the faith from the patriarchy.”
UCC is at 717 Siskiyou Blvd. Services begin at 9 and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. It’s website is at uccashlandoregon.org.
John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.