Photo of Rev. Debra McKnight from Today's Omaha Woman magazine.

Reverend Debra McKnight

Urban Abbey Founder Leads with Love, Humor and Inclusivity

By Sarah Wengert
Photo by Ron Coleman, C4 Photography

If she hadn’t had the right influences, instincts and inner strength, Debra McKnight’s calling could have been derailed by a sexist three-ring binder. Such a fate would have also denied Omahans from sharing in one of the city’s most welcoming, singular spiritual spaces, The Urban Abbey.

McKnight is the Reverend and Founder of Urban Abbey, a nonprofit, fair trade coffee shop, bookstore and church in Omaha’s Old Market. The organization defines itself, in part, as “a space of inclusion and hospitality, building relationships and community in our neighborhood and city. We serve as a hub for professionals and students, a safe space for meaningful events, and a home for modern worship.”

Originally from Plattsmouth, Nebraska, McKnight credits a local pastor/mentor—her pastor’s wife, who was also a Lutheran pastor but worked as a chiropractor at the time—with originally igniting her interest in the clergy as a career.

“I had a really affirming, supportive clergywoman when I was growing up,” she says. “During confirmation she said, ‘We think you should consider being a pastor.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m planning to go to Africa and study elephants.’”

Ever-supportive, the clergywoman helped McKnight start an ecology club in Plattsmouth and engage with church leaders to decrease waste, by doing things like getting rid of styrofoam cups.

“She really helped me see that the church is much more than Sunday,” says McKnight.

After positive youth experiences with the church, McKnight went to school at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where she fell in with The Navigators, which she describes as a “super conservative religious group.”

“I only went because they said there would be pizza and boys, and it turned out they’re on the FBI list of cults,” McKnight says with a wry smile. “I told them I wanted to be a pastor, and they were like, ‘Wow,’ but not an affirming ‘Wow.’ More like, ‘Wow, that’s a lot.’”

After that, the group changed their Bible study topic to “Why women are secondary and why women should be quiet in church.” “They included charts and everything . . . it was the worst,” McKnight says. “They gave me a three-ring binder with the same information. I took it to my pastor in Plattsmouth because I’d finally discerned out loud that I did feel [becoming a pastor] is a good fit for my life and my gifts. He gave me resources and questions to ask the Bible study people. Because everyone was 18, 19, 20 years old, it all ended in sobbing and crying.”

Despite the fact that her “question wasn’t answered by their three ring binder of ‘women should be quiet,’” McKnight dried her tears and began a new adventure with her first husband, who was in the Air Force, which brought the couple to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. She worked as an education counselor, “learned about work, life, got to travel,” and earned a master’s degree in education. When she and her then-husband returned to Omaha and ultimately divorced, McKnight, then age 26, felt a rush of freedom that let her choose a path based entirely on what she wanted.

“I didn’t have to plan around [proximity] to an Air Force base or figure anything out based on anybody else’s schedule or needs,” she says. “I decided to go to seminary like I’d always planned, at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology, in Dallas.”

McKnight bloomed on her new path. She met wonderful people, founded a gay/straight alliance, worked at the women’s center, and supervised groups involving gender and inclusion.

“I went from just surviving my divorce to really thriving and figuring out who I was as a person, without a partner, just on my own,” she says.

After seminary, McKnight returned to Omaha and worked as an intern at Dundee’s First United Methodist Church, her first church job, where she’d ultimately become an associate pastor and new start pastor.

“We did lots of community organizing, and I started a group called Wesley Pub, which was church with beer or wine,” McKnight says. “[It was] on the edge of the rules in the Methodist Church. But I did my homework, and we weren’t breaking any of the rules, just walking in the line.”

Wesley Pub launched in 2008 at Soul Desires bookstore in Omaha’s Old Market, which later became Urban Abbey’s full-time space. The group ultimately evolved into Urban Abbey in 2011. It was initially named for the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, Oxford students and sons of an Anglican pastor who co-founded the Methodist church.

“They weren’t enlivened by their faith experience,” McKnight says. “So they started small groups to discuss hard spiritual questions, read scripture, and try to do what Jesus actively did—they create spaces for healthcare, go to prisons, start schools. They’re abolitionists. There’s this phrase: ‘There’s no holiness without social holiness,’ meaning piety doesn’t mean anything until it’s a practice that matters to someone else. Social holiness means we see one another as sacred, and we’ll work for justice for one another. They did that in works of mercy, advocacy, and justice. [For example], they tried to reform the tax system in England. They never tried to leave the Anglican Church, but they also got in trouble. They’re delightful problems to the church—not doing anything technically wrong, but not staying in the lines. That’s why I used the name Wesley Pub.”

McKnight also received pushback from church leadership regarding her new model for faith-based gatherings, which she often co-led with her friend Rabbi Eric Linder or community organizers. First, she was invited to the bishop’s office, where she showed pictures of Wesley Pub—proof that, as she says, “Nobody’s doing a keg stand,” and it was merely a way to invite people into conversation.

“We’d host conversations with different people—one voted for Huckabee, and another just didn’t feel like Obama was Black enough,” she says.

At a typical gathering, McKnight would share “Colbert Report” clips, a sermonette or feminist poetry, then lead intentional discussions that “kept everyone anchored in a conversation with each other instead of just spouting slogans.”

Wesley Pub gained recognition from McKnight’s district superintendent (the pastor’s supervisor for an area), who was a fan of the effort and put her on the spot at a meeting about developing new church communities. Next, the conference (the level above the district) wanted her consult. Despite her success, McKnight still felt the sting of being a minority within the clergy. While attending church classes for new church development, she was often mistaken for a pastor’s wife.

“The Methodist Church has ordained women since the ’50s. We’re at a Methodist event. You shouldn’t be surprised I’m here. But everyone else is a cute, white guy who plays guitar, has three to seven children, and a tattoo or piercing, but never both,” McKnight jokes with a large grain of truth.

“My role is translating the toxic, domination-focused way of church into just showing up to be present with people,” she says. “That’s why I wanted to make an everyday space where people can come no matter what they need, what’s happening in their life, or how they feel about “church, Christianity or faith leaders. A place to meet people where they are and be relevant and supportive.”

In 2015, after being attached to First United Methodist thus far and coinciding with the closure of Soul Desires, McKnight knew it was time to cut ties and let Urban Abbey stand on its own. It was a leap of faith, so to speak, involving much learning and help from friends, colleagues and volunteers. The community stepped up to invest and continues to sup- port the organization. Now McKnight coaches, consults and provides information for others wanting to launch a faith community via Urban Abbot, a sister website. She provides curriculum, leadership tools and more, including a section on “church planting for girls” with a sermon titled “Unraveling the Patriarchy A Latte: The Story of Our Starting Place.” Why “unraveling” as opposed to the typical “smash”?

“I didn’t want to meet their violence with violence,” says McKnight. “We do have a drink called ‘smashing the patriarchy a latte’ because it’s such a common phrase, and ‘unraveling the patriarchy a latte’ doesn’t roll off the tongue. But when we start exploring injustices around us, we often start with what’s closest to us. We start pulling on that thread, then realize it’s attached to all these other things. So, it’s the constant work of unraveling all these knots, ties, binds and limits.”

Paraphrasing a poem that asks, “If one woman told the truth about her life would the whole world fall apart?,” McKnight borrows from the poem’s concept of reweaving a new world. Part of her efforts to unravel and reweave include firmly advocating for inclusion within the church.

“The church has such a bad history with inclusion, gender and equity,” she says. “A colleague asked me, ‘Why are you so aggressively inclusive?’ I said, ‘Well, first, thank you for noticing’ and [expressed that] after all the violence and verbal abuse the church—‘the church’ universal—has given women, queer people, and other groups over time, we must be very clear. Not just in words but in actions, and center identities that aren’t centered in most churches, and get left behind.”

Urban Abbey’s popular Drag Story Hour draws many attendees and, unfortunately, angry, often abusive protestors. McKnight stands her ground but attempts to do so in a manner counter to the protestors.

“They can’t come in, yell and intimidate people,” she says. “But I can’t do anything about them being on the sidewalk. I can have a choir with ukuleles singing welcoming songs, which is what I do.”

For her efforts, McKnight’s been harassed, received bomb threats, called a groomer, pedophile, witch and worse. In response, she dressed up as Glinda from “The Wizard of Oz” and read the nasty emails in a sermon. In response to harassment from one man so bad the FBI got involved, Urban Abbey started a giving campaign in his name that raised $4,000. McKnight emailed the man (let’s call him “D”) to thank him for inspiring the effort and say they’d continue to raise money in his name each time he harassed them. He didn’t respond, and the harassment stopped.

“Doing that changed my experience of [D]—it went from this heaviness I grappled with to: ‘OK, well, thanks, [D]!’ A creative response helped us build resilience and resistance. That’s not to say if someone behaves violently towards us, I’m just gonna send them a ukulele. But we try to respond in peace and with a bit of whimsy,” she says.

McKnight welcomes all who come to Urban Abbey in good faith, even those who aren’t religious and may be nervous to approach the space.

“Connect in any way you feel comfortable, including our community partner events, drag story hour, or coming for coffee,” McGill says. “If you feel hunger for a spiritual space, give us a try. It’s probably different from [your previous church] experiences. If someone’s seeking an inclusive church and we don’t fit for them, I’m glad to help them find another church. Rather than them going somewhere that says everyone is welcome but isn’t embodying that—that’s such spiritual violence. The most important thing is not if someone decides to identify as Christian, not Christian, or whatever. It’s about: How do we practice living well for ourselves and for others? How do we practice making social change that makes the world a better place for everyone? Not in a way that controls or micromanages, in a way that just shows up in love.”