Pastor Rod Echols: Raised in Memphis, he loves Laguna and the Neighborhood Congregational Church

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Just when Pastor Rod Echols decided he was ready to become a full time pastor, Laguna’s Neighborhood Congregational Church reached out to him. “I was approached by this church right when I started my search,” recounts Pastor Rod. Not intimately familiar with Laguna Beach, Pastor Rod says it did check one of his non-negotiable boxes: it was in southern California. So he did some research. “I started looking into the community. It was so strong, so progressive...It was evolving onto everything I wanted to be as a pastor. I was honored to be hired.” 

Finding the right place to make a big change

Now, with almost a year of full-time ministry behind him, Pastor Rod is nothing if not enthusiastic about the future. “I feel, especially being so new in my role, like a kid in a candy store.” He has embraced the city’s quirks, and is delighted to be in a community that is so close-knit. “I’ve never served in a town like Laguna. It’s a town that values conservation, healthy living; it has strong connections and values. You can feel it here; it’s so strong. I really love that.”

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Pastor Rod Echols of the Neighborhood Congregational Church

Finding it easy to honor his mother’s wishes

Pastor Rod is a member of the United Church of Christ (UCC). The UCC is a mainline Protestant Christian denomination. It is known for being socially progressive with an emphasis on interfaith efforts. As for how he came to be a pastor, he says with a laugh, “I was toldI was going to be a pastor.” Raised in Memphis, Echols says his mother had plans for her son. Those plans included him being part of the church, albeit a different church than the one he represents now, and not just as member of the congregation. It didn’t take long for his mother’s wishes to take root. “I had the desire very early,” he recalls. 

Leaving Memphis for Brown University

Another one of his mother’s wishes was that he seize his opportunities. This meant leaving Memphis to attend Brown University in Rhode Island. Echols originally planned on becoming a doctor. However, once there he says his eyes were opened to a wider world-view. All of this newness profoundly affected him. “There were so many different people and beliefs. I found myself going back to where I started.” He became an informal, in-house pastor to his fellow classmates, and this planted the seed. 

Seeing religion through a new lens

What helped the seed flourish were some of Echols’ professors at Brown. “They blew my mind,” he remembers. “They exploded the categories. Christ, salvation, love, grace…they made them more inclusive, more colorful.” This inspired him to go to Boston University for graduate school where he received a Master of Divinity. “Without them, without their persistence – and it was very strong persistence – I would not be here now,” he says with a laugh.

Despite his faith and the calling to serve, Echols’ paying job was that of a professional fundraiser. He has worked for universities and non-profits, like the United Way. A job with the University of California San Diego brought him west. 

Seeking counsel to take a very big step

Then he had an epiphany, of sorts. “In 2010 I shared my heart with the pastor at Fairview Church in Costa Mesa,” he says. He had been a volunteer pastor there for many years. “I opened up to her and expressed my feelings and my story to her. I started as a conservative, fundamentalist, black preacher and had become an open, affirming man of faith.” And he wanted to preach. “I knew my calling was to make this step.”

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Inside the lovely Neighborhood Congregational Church at 340 St. Ann’s Drive

A love for something greater, kindness and social justice

He believes he is well-suited to make an impact as a church leader because of his focus on three things: one is a “proactive” commitment to loving and worshipping something greater than one’s self; the second is a focus on kindness; and the third is a fierce belief in social justice. “I feel strongly for people who don’t have the built-in advantages that other people have. People of color, the homeless, the LGBQT community…I want to help people searching for wholeness. These are the things that drew me into being a pastor as opposed to staying where I was.”

These tenets of his belief fuel his ambitions for the Neighborhood Congregational Church. “I want this church to be an indispensable part of the community. I want our kids to have a safe place for nurturing. Here, we are seeking wisdom together.”

The World Peace and Justice Weekend, June 9-10

To that end, the weekend of June 9 and 10, the church is hosting its first World Peace and Justice weekend. Pastor Rod describes the weekend as “an embodiment of seeking wisdom. It’s active. You are embodying peace in action.” There will be interfaith dialogue and meditation, a hands-on justice initiative and a concert benefitting world causes, as well as a presentation on compassionate parenting.

A deep gratitude for his parents

Pastor Rod speaks devotedly about his own parents. “My mom is so proud of me. Her strong faith is now my strong faith. Her passion for helping others is my passion, Her kind soul is what I’m trying to be for the church,” he says. He is equally grateful to his father. “He has been a real rock for me. He is my practical guide. He has been so tremendous.” Pastor Rod hopes to pass on their example to his own family someday, but first he needs to find the right woman. And it would be a plus if she loved IMAX movies and comic books, as he does, though it’s certainly not a requirement.

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Historic plaque welcomes congregants to the Neighborhood Congregational Church

Making the NCC a vibrant part of the community

In the meantime, Pastor Rod will put his considerable energy into growing the Neighborhood Congregational Church and making it a vibrant part of the community.

When I ask him to describe the United Church of Christ he says this, “An old pastor friend of mine used to tell this joke: UCC stands for Unitarians Considering Christ.’” Pastor Rod insists that it’s funny (my religious ignorance made glaringly obvious by the fact that he had to assure me of its humor). But he went on to explain that while we could debate the joke’s humor, it was a fairly accurate description of the UCC. 

“It’s not rigid or closed off. It speaks to the idea that Christ is a unifying force. Some call it Buddha, some call it a spirit, some call it light. We call it Christ.” 

This is what Pastor Rod believes. He also believes in the power of his church to be a unifying voice in these fractured times. “What we are seeking to do, our goal, is to orient ourselves as the sacred gathering space for seeking wisdom in Laguna Beach and the wider community,” he explains. An ambitious goal, to be sure, but one to which Pastor Rod is committed.