Rick Eisenlord knows firsthand what it’s like to live alone and closeted in a small town, having grown up gay in small-town Michigan before embarking on his calling as a pastor in small-town Texas. He was originally married, afraid to acknowledge his true orientation until he came into more and more contact with local gay individuals who were living in fear and with the feeling that God didn’t love them.
Upon coming out, Eisenlord was forced to leave his Lutheran denomination and moved to Pasadena in search of a more welcoming environment. He became active as a fundraiser for AIDS/HIV-related charities and started a successful career as a graphic designer until he felt the pull to create an actual church for the LGBT community.
But after five years of struggling to survive with a small and financially challenged congregation, Eisenlord shut down the physical location of the Church of the Good Shepherd. Yet he has found stunning new life for his work by taking his message online for the past year, using Facebook Live to reach an audience that’s bigger than he ever thought possible.
“We struggled for years with our 30-member congregation, trying to pay rent and salaries for staff or a music director,” recalls Eisenlord. “But we saw that we always had as many or more people watching our live stream during services via Periscope, and I didn’t want our message of inclusiveness and God’s love for everybody to go away, and so we started using Facebook Live a year ago.”
That decision has freed him to pursue another of his passions — sightseeing in Southern California — as he follows in the footsteps of his longtime favorite TV host Huell Howser to tape his messages at locales as diverse as San Juan Capistrano, the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Huntington Gardens. As he honed his approach of providing a Scripture reading and a positive sermon as well as a lighthearted tour of each tourist hotspot, he found that word was spreading fast on the Internet.
“I thought if we got to 1,000 people I’d be thrilled, and we started with a couple hundred, then 500, then well past 1,000 until our last monthly report from Facebook shows we were watched by 137,000 people in 23 countries,” he says, laughing incredulously. “It’s beyond my wildest dreams.”
Eisenlord’s Do It Yourself approach is a natural outgrowth of the spirit he used in paying for the brick-and-mortar of Good Shepherd Pasadena out of his own pocket. He does each shoot completely solo, picking a prime location and setting up an iPhone camera on a tripod for himself to speak into. He frequently “bumbles,” with the camera jostling about as he moves between shots each Sunday, and as he contends with such distractions as passing emergency sirens and people accidentally walking into his camera frame, but notes that people love those minor mishaps as “examples of authenticity.”
While he’s awed by the fact that he has viewers in such far-flung nations as India, Thailand, Germany, Mexico and across northern Africa, Eisenlord remains focused on the forgotten LGBT community members right here in the US, especially in the Midwest and the South.
“My message is of the inclusiveness of God’s love, and that God doesn’t care if you’re LGBT, pink, purple or grey, it just doesn’t matter,” explains Eisenlord. “The church loves them, God loves them, and they’re not hated. This gay couple was watching us when we started livestreaming at our old location and they have followed us for years from Meon, Kentucky, population 600, in coal country, with the nearest major city two hours away. They’re thrilled they’ve been able to contact us because they’re kind of isolated where they are.
“That kind of story I hear repeated all over again from small towns in Texas, Tennessee, all over the South and the Midwest, of people who hear no message of love and compassion,” Eisenlord continues. “They just get hated, like ‘You’re going to burn in hell.’ We’ve got that message people are looking for, and the days of brick and mortar churches are over.”
Eisenlord compares the state of traditional churches and those on the Internet with the advancement of Amazon, Target and Walmart’s web presence, pointing out that retail stores are losing out as people prefer to order retail items at home. He believes that “in the future, people will get their spiritual nourishment online.”
Eisenlord, 67, sees his mission as a “pioneering” one, noting that his web ministry now has nearly 2,800 followers, of “a little community messaging and emailing back and forth.” Yet he also believes that his message is crossing over beyond the LGBT community to also reach a good number of straight listeners.
“There’s so much negative news online and on Facebook because people are angry and upset these days,” says Eisenlord. “My calling is giving people a message of hope and a break from all the gossip out there. I really think that has contributed to our success, because we’re the light on the hill that they’re looking for.
“I keep our message positive, and we’re real,” he continues. “We’re real. What you see is what you get. People walk in front of me, so let’s go with it. What matters is a message of love, which is so important at a time when you’ve got young people cutting themselves or causing mass shootings because of harassment from bullies. If you remember nothing else, just know that you’re loved for who you are, and God just wants you to be the best person He made you to be.”
To learn more about the ministry and view Rev. Rick Eisenlord’s videos, visit the Good Shepherd Church Pasadena page on Facebook.