Trust and Obey… and God will do the Rest!

“Hmmmm, hmmmm, hmmmm!” That was the chant of the massive congregation gathered at The Riverside Church for the sermon last Resurrection Morning. This is a “communal embodiment practice” introduced by the church’s newest senior minister, Rev. Adriene Thorne. With years of experience in the ministerial pulpit and on the performance stage, Rev. Thorne brings a uniqueness to her leadership of the historic church located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Referred to as “a dancing theologian,” she became the eighth senior minister and first African American woman to hold that position at the historic church in October of 2022. And she brings much more than just a historic first to the church known and respected as one of the leading voices of Progressive Christianity. A classically-trained dancer, and former Radio City Music Hall Rockette, among other international stage credits, she describes herself as a mama, a mystic and a minister. In a wide-ranging Q&A interview with The Positive Community, she put aspects of all three roles in play.

TPC: After an extensive search, the congregation at The Riverside Church voted you in as its eighth senior minister. What did you find was the lay of the land on day one?

REV. THORNE: I met a congregation that was eager and excited. I was greeted warmly. They had been with an interim minister for quite a number of years and several senior ministers who did not last as long as everybody would have liked. There was eagerness and hope for what we can do together. And that primarily has been the dynamic in the 18 months I’ve been here.

TPC: And since then, what have been your most satisfying accomplishments?

REV. THORNE: Connecting the clergy staff has been one of the greatest accomplishments of my time here. That connection in the clergy has an impact on what happens in the larger membership. Another important part is that we took on a visioning process and brought in consultants I knew from my time in theater. We learned how to work collaboratively and creatively as staff, clergy, and lay leaders to help the church shape its values and vision for the future.

TPC: In your Easter Sunday sermon you posed a question to the congregation asking: “What does their heart hope for?” I ask you the same question. What does your heart hope for from your position standing in the pulpit at The Riverside Church in this time of a world in crisis?

REV. THORNE: My heart hopes for a world where all God’s people flourish; where they have food to eat, work that is meaningful and dignified, housing, and clothing. Essentially, all of what is needed to live a glorious life.

TPC: How then are you working toward being a part of that change and bringing the congregation at The Riverside Church into this world view?

REV. THORNE: The first thing that is necessary to bring people to a full and flourishing life is vision. My background is in the arts so I think one of the things I bring to The Riverside Church is an ability to imagine the next thing we cannot yet see. Particularly in this post-COVID world, the church—like many others—has to reinvent itself constantly. We have to improvise and create as we go. That’s why I think this is a moment for artists and creatives who can imagine something that has never been seen before. And that’s my life; being on stage and making movement.

TPC: Tell us a little-known fact about yourself?

REV. THORNE: I attended Catholic school from the 2nd to 12th grade and there was a time when I was expected to become a nun.

TPC: Where do you draw the inspiration for your Sunday Sermons?

REV. THORNE: I tend to lean toward practices that are contemplative. Things like meditation and yoga, plus I am an introvert. I have what psychologists will call a big internal world. So, I spend a lot of time praying and conversing with God. All these things help shape my weekly sermon. While listening to spirit, I also dialogue with members of the congregation [while] being aware of what is happening in the world around us.

TPC: What are some of the earliest influences you believe prepared you to be who you are today?

REV. THORNE: I was born eight months before Dr. [Martin Luther] King was assassinated, so I find his life and legacy to be very much an influence in my life. Then I would say my parents who were entrepreneurs. My mother was an Army nurse and then joined my father in a sanitation business, which they built together for 50 years. In addition to that, they were active in the community and very supportive of family and friends. Like many other Black folks, we had many aunties and uncles who weren’t actually aunties and uncles. My parents were very involved in setting up a scholarship fund (even to this day) so people could stay in college. I think in a small part I’m at The Riverside Church because of what they modeled in my life.
The next meaningful influence would be my dance teachers. The discipline it takes to do ballet and dance with a company like the Dance Theatre of Harlem and being a Radio City Music Hall Rockette influences you by having the discipline, determination, and ability to do the things you have to do even on the days you don’t want to do them. That gets you to a place like this.

TPC: What gets you through the tough days Rev. Thorne? When the going gets tough, from what well of inspiration do you drink?

REV. THORNE: I will have to say my daughter, who is a great, bright light in my life. She’s very smart and funny and helps me not to take myself too seriously, which can happen when you are in a place like The Riverside Church. Also, being in nature where I spend a lot of time and definitely touch the holy there. Finally, I try to get to a silent retreat at least every three months. It’s very helpful to me to pull away and hear from God rather than my own voice as someone who writes a sermon every seven days. Writing and reading as much as I can are also helpful.

TPC: Do you have a favorite scripture?

REV. THORNE: I have several but I would speak of my go-to since I was in high school. Proverbs 3:5-6 says: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not to your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and God will make straight your path.”

TPC: And in what ways, if any, has this scripture showed up in your life?

REV. THORNE: Well, I have a child that I did not expect to have. I am the senior minister at a church I had not expected to be. These are hard and tangible ways I think God has ordered my steps. But often there have been smaller and less flashy ways. Like being an African descended girl who did classical ballet. That was not on my radar. God has shown up in the friendships I’ve developed over the years and places I’ve been able to travel to and great stages on which I’ve performed. And then there are friends who have known me for decades and love me no matter what. To me, all of these are nothing else but God setting my path.

According to Rev. Adriene Thorne, not in her “wildest dreams” did being the senior minister at The Riverside ever occur. “The Riverside is not something I was looking or striving for,” she says. “A colleague said that the profile seemed to fit who I am, especially in terms of pastoral care and wanting to bring healing and wholeness— not just to the faith community, but to the larger city and nation.” In moving forward, she not only trusted that God was “making straight her path,” but she obeyed the call. And God did the rest!