Wichita’s Finest: Valecia Scribner aims to reframe Christianity through activism, advocacy, acceptance
Note: This is the second in the web-exclusive series “Wichita’s Finest,” which highlights community leaders in Wichita. To read the first installment on USD 259 Equity, Diversity and Accountability director William Polite, click here.
WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - The first thing you notice is the smile.
As you drive up to Woodland United Methodist Church, there’s Valecia Scribner, the pastor, standing on the sidewalk, waiting to greet you. She accompanies you inside and explains that it might be a bit toasty because of the underperforming air conditioning. Which is fitting because Scribner’s and the church’s most defining characteristic is warmth.
The elevated temperature is barely noticeable as Scribner’s brightness permeates the congregation. While some may look at church as a spiritual Sunday obligation, the members and visitors at Woodland act as if there’s no place they’d rather be.
“They’re the most lovely people I’ve ever met,” Scribner told Eyewitness News following the 11 a.m. service on Aug. 14. “We’re generally kind of an older congregation, and it is so heartwarming to see how they embrace everyone. Because we have this idea in our head about generational differences and who’s going to accept whom and for what and that kind of thing. They buck all of those stereotypes. They’re just really, really, really good people.
“I’ve often said this church is an example of why we need the Church. It would change the world.”
Scribner’s soft exterior is counteracted by a set of values that, while not abnormal within the UMC, take belief and activism in social justice to a different level and might seem rare inside a world – organized religion – that is often seen as a highly conservative entity.
Scribner says she fights for the underdog, for the marginalized. For people whose gender identity or sexual orientation have made them feel ostracized from the Church. She’s adamant that Jesus would be fighting for those people, too.
“If I had to use one word, I guess, it’s boldness,” Woodland member Mark Smith said. “She’s not afraid of anything. She stands up there and gives the Word like, hey, she doesn’t care if somebody’s listening or not. She’s going to speak the truth and lay it out and let you hear what’s right just in a bold and confident way.”
A feminist heart
Scribner began to notice the change before she reached adolescence. She was becoming more bold, more opinionated. More skeptical of her spiritual upbringing.
Growing up in the small Butler County town of Rosalia, she did what everybody else did. She played sports, she participated in school clubs -- and she went to church.
“I actually grew up Catholic,” Scribner said. “When I’m in fifth or sixth grade, for whatever reason I already had like this little feminist heart and I was like, well, I’m not going to stay in a church that doesn’t let women lead. So I knew I wouldn’t stay Catholic, but that’s the tradition in which I was raised.”
Scribner grew up in a family of five, with two younger brothers. Her dad worked in the oilfields and her mother was a cosmetologist. Before getting on with her day after school, she’d stop at the salon inside their home to say hello to her mom, who would almost invariably be cutting hair.
She married her Flinthills High School sweetheart, Doug Scribner. He was drawn to Valecia’s fearlessness, which offset his self-professed status as “a laid-back Kansas farm boy.”
“Something just clicks,” Doug Scribner said. “I think I’m kind of the laid-back type, and she’s a little more gung-ho about stuff. I don’t know, it just kind of jells for us.
“She’s always been that way, yeah. Very independent, very free-spoken. Very strong woman, for sure.”
Valecia Scribner was going to be a therapist.
She earned her master’s degree in clinical psychology from Sterling College in central Kansas. It was a great place to learn about psychology, because she studied under the man she now calls her mentor, retired professor Arnold Froese. They also taught together for two years.
“We had regular conversations,” Froese said. “And they weren’t all about the academic works. They were about life.”
As much as her academics progressed, Sterling turned out to be an even better place to discover how her belief in social justice, her passion for standing up for marginalized people and her love of scientific concepts could align with her religious and spiritual background.
“I was feeling pulled, really, in two different directions,” Scribner said. “I didn’t quit caring about the social justice stuff, and yet God was also speaking to me and I was having a hard time. I was like, OK, the voices of authority in my life are telling me I can’t support gay marriage if I’m a Christian. I’m not willing to give up my belief that all people should be able to marry if they’re consenting adults. And yet I can’t let go of this, either.
“And so it was really the work of a mentor, a professor who said, these things are not mutually exclusive, and actually it’s really beautiful when you see how they intersect.”
Scribner gave up the idea of being a therapist – what 22-year-old can realistically offer life advice, anyway? – and had her first child. She moved back close to home and rose from case manager to director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Butler County.
Her greatest transformation was yet to come.
“(In college) I started hearing phrases like, ‘personal relationship with Jesus.’ Those weren’t words that I was familiar with,” Scribner said. “And the importance of reading the Bible – that was all pretty new to me. It was a hard time. I knew I wasn’t going to stay Catholic.”
Scribner found a home within the United Methodist Church and, after six years with Big Brothers Big Sisters, she decided on a big shift – ministry. It meant giving up on what she thought would be her career path just a few years before. Her next move was becoming a youth leader at El Dorado United Methodist Church. She also functioned as an associate pastor.
“She was very, very concerned about my reaction (to her) giving up an academic career in psychology and going into a career in theology,” Froese said. “And it was sometime after that … I disabused her of my disapproval. There was no disapproval that she was going into the ministry, because I knew Valecia’s heart.”
Scribner’s heart was full. And as she drove back from a leadership conference in Leawood in 2015, it overflowed.
At first, she recognized her crying as gratitude for a new, more fulfilling life. But as she thought more about the conference’s message of bridging generational differences, there was a momentary disconnect.
“I kept processing – why, why, why?” Scribner said. “And then I finally got the answer, and it was, ‘Maybe you’re here to help open the door for younger leaders who share that kind of vision and share that understanding of how the world could be.’ I mean, that’s what has to drive us as Jesus followers. This vision of a world that is based on love, and it is just and we are merciful toward one another, that is the thing. And so if it’s here and we’re (over) here, we’ve got to close this gap.”
Scribner was ready to become a full pastor.
“I just feel like, if that’s her calling, her pursuit, I don’t want to be the person that holds her back from something she thinks she ought to be doing,” Doug Scribner said. “I was all for it. I was like, yeah, let’s do it. As we progressed, I said that I didn’t want to hold her back.”
At home in the UMC
To become a pastor at a United Methodist Church, one must go through a discernment process, where UMC leaders interview church members and leaders and attempt to match the style and values of a pastor to those of an individual church.
Woodland had several women pastors prior to Scribner, so that wasn’t an issue. The church was also in tune with the social issues for which Scribner advocated. It was a near-perfect match. She became pastor at Woodland in the summer of 2020.
“She’s been very well accepted,” church member Anita Martz said. “And I think it’s because she does have these beliefs and doesn’t just stand there and say, ‘God loves you, and have a good day.’ She’s got important things to talk about.”
Those things include women’s rights, bodily autonomy, racial equity and gender identity. There’s a banned books club, where she and members of the church read literature forbidden by various institutions. They’ve read and discussed such works as “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” and “George,” about a transgender youth.
These aren’t subjects that all church members are ready to embrace. Scribner understands that, which is why she approaches them gently and kindly, and welcomes discussions that can help her and more reticent members find common ground.
Like when she wanted to put a sign that said, ‘Voting NO is faithful, too,’ in the lawn at Woodland to show support for abortion rights but left it up to the leadership team. It was allowed.
“Something that I appreciate about her is that she hasn’t been belligerent against those that are still on the fence, so to speak, about a lot of the community issues,” Woodland member Steve Martz said. “Because there’s still a lot of people that feel maybe some old-style prejudices and those things.
“She’s treated it more as an educational-type, let’s work toward resolving that and move towards more of the social justice issues, rather than, ‘You’re totally wrong and we don’t want you here anymore.’”
Putting words into action
During the Aug. 14 service, Scribner held up and passed around the collar she wears to some public protests for women’s rights or racial equality.
She knows that many of her fellow activists are there because the church gave them warped messaging or total unacceptance about their core, identifying, self-defining beliefs. She wants them to feel comfortable around someone representing something they may have once associated with broken feelings.
“I would be there regardless,” Scribner said. “I think it’s important for people to see faith leaders in those roles, to kind of push back on that narrative that the Christian church only teaches this. So my family went to Pride events in June, and I actually wore a t-shirt that says, ‘This pastor loves you,’ and ‘pastor’ is in rainbow colors.
“But the number of people who are members of that community who came up and said, ‘I needed a pastor like you 10 or 20 years ago, because I did not believe my life was worth anything’ – that’s heartbreaking. And it’s important that they now see pastors at those things say, ‘No, I love you. God loves you. You are worthy.’ I would be there regardless. I wear the collar or the t-shirt for that reason.’
Scribner isn’t just there to give marginalized groups a happy feeling or to let them know a pastor has their back. She believes that social justice is Biblical, and that many of the battles fought when Jesus walked the earth are the same ones being waged today.
She talks about the New Testament, how those living in the Roman empire were oppressed for their differences. How those in power abused the privilege. How early Jesus followers worked against the empire in subversive ways. She loves the Sermon on the Mount for its compassion for the poor.
“For the last 3-4 decades at least, we have kind of let one segment of Christianity define for the world what this thing is,” Scribner said. “And we have never all been that. There are segments that social justice has always been a core part of the beliefs that we teach. And it’s scriptural. We’re not making this up. There is scriptural support for all of these ideas.”
A full, fulfilling life
Scribner’s life extends beyond the church, but her faith is what drives her.
This summer, she drafted and signed an open letter, along with 29 other ministers, about why they’d be voting ‘No’ in the abortion amendment election.
“For Valecia, having a public base to social justice is important,” said West Heights UMC associate pastor Bev Baumgartner, who also signed the letter. “Letter-writing has been important to her; visibility has been important to her.”
This summer she worked briefly as the chaplain at Prairie View mental health center, where she made an immediate impact working with those who felt damaged by the Church.
“You’re kind of drawn to her,” said Stefanie Roth, Scribner’s former supervisor at Prairie View. “She’s open, she’s accepting. Kind of some of her ideas are right along with what you would think of as a pastor, the characteristics they have. But she just has a way to make you feel welcome. I’ve heard a lot of the patients that maybe didn’t have the best experience in the Church have really been able to open up and feel comfortable speaking with her.”
She and Doug have four kids – one son off to college and another beginning eighth grade. Her daughters are 15 and 11. Scribner is attending seminary to complete her education at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa.
How does she balance it all?
“Well, she drinks a lot of Diet Dr. Pepper,” Doug Scribner said.
She’s raising her daughters to each be a confident, independent thinker like she became around their age. Whether they follow her spiritual guidance, well, that’s up to them.
She attends her sons’ sporting events and her daughters’ dance recitals. She supports Doug in his exploits as a science teacher at Remington Middle School. Doug says they may want to travel more someday.
Her purpose is all of those things. It’s also to guide, to lead, to teach, and to amplify the voices of those who struggle to be heard.
“I think it comes back to the idea of the Kingdom of God and this vision that God has for the world,” Scribner said. “Where that is what we do. It is rooted in love and justice and mercy. If I’m going to preach that, I have to live it. If I’m going to be authentic about who I am – and authenticity is a big value for me – those are the jobs I’m going to want to do, because they’re the ones that do good.”
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