By Peter Bergel
Each year during the annual Salem Peace Lecture, the Salem Peacemaker Award is bestowed upon an outstanding peace advocate. This year the award was given to Rev. Gail McDougle, pastor of Salem’s First Congregational Church (First Church of Christ) in recognition of her many years of service to the homeless, immigrant communities, the peace community and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender/Transsexual (LGBT) community.
In addition to tirelessly serving the disadvantaged and participating in many progressive causes, McDougle is a Biblical scholar whose sermons regularly connect the on-the-ground reality of the life Jesus Christ led, and the society in which he lived, to the realities of current-day life. No mouther of pious platitudes, she routinely challenges her congregation and herself to live up to the best in the Christian tradition. Her church is a bubbling cauldron of projects, educational opportunities and progressive activism. However, never forgetting that she is first and foremost a pastor, she is always on hand to serve the spiritual needs of her parishioners, care for them, encourage them when they need encouragement and celebrate with them whenever the opportunity arises.
Born in Houston, Texas, McDougle grew up there and attended Houston Public Schools, becoming both a cheerleader and a champion debater. In college, she majored in English, political science and American history, preparing to enter law school with the goal of becoming an international human rights attorney.
Like many of her generation, the Vietnam War drew McDougle into the peace movement where she learned the basics of electoral politics and community organizing. While in Paris, France to learn the language of international courts prepare for law school, she got a job at the American Church of Paris and discovered the church to be an intriguing venue for peace and justice work. Accordingly, she switched to theology, earned a Master’s degree at Princeton Theological Seminary and was then ordained by the United Church of Christ. There she found a denominational tradition richly invested in the struggle for human rights and peace.
Philosophy and Achievements
Her ministry has always expressed itself outside the walls of the churches she has served in New Jersey, Virginia, Michigan, California and Salem. A believer that, “If you want peace, work for justice,” she has been an advocate for health care, housing and other programs addressing the needs of poor people, immigrants and other marginalized communities.
In Salem, she co-founded both the Salem Interfaith Hospitality Network (1999) and Congregations Helping People (2005). She also serves as President of the Board of Directors of the Willamette Family Medical Center, (a safety net clinic for Salem’s most vulnerable) and served on the Board of Habitat for Humanity (2008-2009).
In recent years, she has provided leadership on the issues of immigrant rights and the need for comprehensive immigration reform, traveling to both El Salvador and Mexico to observe how U.S. trade policy generates desperate immigration from those nations through NAFTA and CAFTA. It is her privilege to be a board member of CAUSA, Oregon’s immigrant rights coalition, the office of which is housed in her church. Φ
Peter Bergel is Executive Director of Oregon PeaceWorks. His wife, Alice Phalan, contributed to this story. Rev. McDougle is their neighbor.
Photo: Peter Bergel