At Coral Gables Congregational Church, Parishioners Have Come to Expect the Unexpected. And Are All the Happier for It.
Reverend Dr. Laurinda Hafner, senior pastor of the Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ, is quick to let it be known she’s not all that formal. The tagline for the church says it aptly: “We’re a Church that thinks out of the box.”
The church itself, built in the early 1920s across the street from the iconic Biltmore Hotel, may be a stately reminder of a more traditional past, but under Rev. Hafner’s leadership, their parishioners’ way of approaching religion lives up to the tagline. A perfect example: Sunday, Feb. 15. If the City of New Orleans was wondering where its Mardi Gras went to this year, they could’ve found it in Coral Gables, strutting under the palms and oaks in the parking lot of a Spanish Colonial Revival church. That’s when the multicolored, feathered, beaded and Mardi Gras-masked reverend led a New Orleans-style parade. The parade featured an umbrella-toting, marching, Bourbon Street-style jazz band. You can just imagine the old Spanish saints rolling over in their graves. After all, how many times have you heard your minister, rabbi, priest or shaman begin the sermon with the words, “Let’s get this party started”?
Rev. Hafner has been senior pastor of this colorful group of untraditional parishioners since 2006. And she has reveled in that role. “I heard someone describe ‘ministry’ as one of the last generalist jobs. In most other professional positions, folks are specialists in a particular area,” she says. For instance, in law, you might be a corporate lawyer; in medicine, you may choose to be an allergy specialist. “The pastor is not only a preacher and teacher,” says Rev. Hafner, “but often a sociologist, psychologist, landscape architect, life coach, building code enforcer, social worker, CEO, plumber, custodian, copy machine fixer and, now in the days of Covid, a producer, director, and choreographer.”
Rev. Hafner doesn’t see her multiple roles as a burden, but rather a welcome challenge. “In a deeper sense, my job is about creating a safe space where people are welcomed in as they explore and grow a vital and meaningful faith, to ask important questions and to serve beyond themselves. It is also important to accompany folks as they face life’s challenges and changes, and to be a living reminder of the presence of God with them.”
Anthony Cabrera, who’s been a church member for 21 years and sings tenor in the choir, says, “The spirit Laurie has brought in her 15 years here has been transformative. She has made this place truly welcoming to all people.” Adding to that sentiment are two relatively new members who recently moved to the Gables from Delaware: Robert and Sara Platz, “This church was one of the major attractions to our moving here.”
It is hard not to be drawn in by the reverend’s outsized personality, and her embrace of the human experience. “I’m fully engaged in life, meaning I’m curious, a dreamer, a bit of a risk taker, a worrier, an observer of others and a frustrated stand-up comedian,” Rev. Hafner says. A comedian? For that sense of irreverence and humor you needn’t go farther than the sign posted over her computer. It reads: “Jesus Saves. So Should You.” This went up after she kept losing files that she forgot to save.
One of Rev. Hafner’s deepest concerns is food scarcity and hunger in South Florida. To fight that, she has literally gone to great heights. On Jan. 16, she climbed the Tower of the Church, where she staged a hunger fast, vowing to stay aloft until she met her goal of raising five tons of food for the hungry of South Florida. She almost doubled that goal in less than three days.
“For me, one of the great injustices in the world is food scarcity, especially when we know that we can feed each person living on this earth. I’m appalled that in our own community [Miami-Dade County], with all its extravagant abundances, that one in five children goes to bed hungry each night,” she says. “Every year I go up to the tower for my hunger vigil as a way to bring attention to the problem of food scarcity and to help raise not only awareness, but support, with folks bringing food and financial resources to help the hungry of our community.”
Three days after climbing the tower, Rev. Hafner came down, several pounds lighter, but more than 17,000 pounds richer in food donations. “It shows what is possible and the goodness and generosity of people,” she says.
Preaching to her flock weekly, Rev. Hafner says coming up with new sermons isn’t a challenge. After 40 years of Sunday sermons, it comes naturally to her. “I once heard someone say that preachers only have a couple of good sermons in them. All the others are just variations on the same theme,” she says. “As I look back, it seems clear what my themes are [that] all people, no matter who they are, are God’s beloved, that we are called to love one another, and we are to use our precious lives well and in the service of others.”
In additional to those themes, the reverend strives to make her sermons relevant to the world outside of the church. “I also stand by the adage that preachers should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other,” she says. “I always hope there is something in each sermon that resonates with what is happening in people’s lives, or in the world around them, that then [provides] hope in the week ahead.”
Rev. Hafner’s favorite quote is by author of “Charlotte’s Web” E.B. White, who said, “I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult.” It is a quote that captures how the reverend intends to live each day. “While I hope to be a transformative agent through my life, work and faith, I also want to enjoy life and live in its fullness, joy and beauty,” she says. “Ultimately, loving and being loved is what’s important. And if I can achieve a semblance of that while having a good time, then at the end, I will be grateful.”
Under Rev. Hafner’s leadership, the church has implemented “out-of-the-box” ways to attend services during the pandemic. You can attend in-person, masked, and outside. You can stay in the comfort of your corona cave home and Livestream the service. Or you can sit in your car in the parking lot, observe the service, listen on your radio and honk along with the applause or hymns. And if you’re sleeping in, you can listen to the recorded service at any time. And with so many ways to attend services, she will call your bluff on the “Gee, I just couldn’t get to the church” excuses.
Photography by Emily Fakhoury