Atheists have a philosophical belief in common with the Rev. Ama Zenya, the interim head of the congregation at the Woodside Village Church. "I don't believe in the God that atheists don't believe in either," Ms. Zenya told the Almanac. "Who or what God is is really beyond our understanding. We're given access to a mystery that is greater than ourselves."
Ms. Zenya, who took over church leadership on March 29, sat for an interview recently in the dappled shade outside the church at 3154 Woodside Road. For a while, DJ, the church cat, kept her company.
Ms. Zenya has a record of revitalizing church congregations and is filling in following the December 2014 retirement of Pastor Mike Harvey.
The Woodside Village congregation is in need of revitalizing, church officials say. Members have been moving away or dying or leaving following the departure of the previous pastor, said Barry Willibanks of the church's long-range planning team. And the church is re-framing its service to be more contemporary musically while retaining some traditions, such as communion, he said.
"Ama is our interim pastor, who brings additional energy and imagination to our reformation," Mr. Willibanks said.
The search for a permanent pastor may take a year or more, said Church Moderator Becky Rudd. Ms. Zenya is providing consulting services to the recruiting team, Ms. Rudd said.
Her pastoral career includes work in youth-oriented contemporary worship services, ministering to young families, guest preaching, and revitalizing congregations, according to a biography she provided. At the First Congregational Church of Oakland, she more than tripled the size of the congregation, more than doubled its income and received a commendation in 2008 from the Oakland City Council, she said.
Ms. Zenya has a bachelor's degree in religion and women's studies from Wesleyan University and two master's degrees one in biblical studies and another in divinity from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. She was ordained in 1998 in the United Church of Christ.
She spent much of her childhood in Kenya. She is married, has two sons and lives in Oakland. Her office hours at the Woodside church are on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with a Sunday service at 9:30 a.m.
The door is wide open at the United Church of Christ, Ms. Zenya said, describing the United Church as a nondenominational denomination. Its mission, she said, is to break down barriers that denominations create, a mission in tune with a sentiment she attributes to Jesus Christ: "Please, God, let them all be one."
Like excellent art
Asked about her style, Ms. Zenya described herself as somewhat charismatic and somewhat liturgical, meaning that her practice includes spontaneity and scripted elements, such as the use of candles, robes and music.
Her goal, she said, is to create an alternate space of reality. "In that way, worship, at its best, is like excellent art that transports you to a different way of perceiving and interacting with life," she said.
Religion helps people retain a moral stance regardless of circumstances, she said. Responding in kind to a hateful person may feel right, but a religious view offers ways to put such reactions aside, she said. Religion allows ordinary people access to the moral power of someone like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi.
Having the inner resources to share food with a hungry person when you're short on food is an example. The religious person, she said, understands that "my transcendent perception is going to give me spiritual food."
Is proselytizing a good thing? Some religions require it, and it is natural, she said. "If we've found something that feeds us, we naturally want to share it," she said. Sharing is natural, then? When there is enough to go around, "I do believe it is," she said.
She noted another bond she has with atheists: vulnerability to the idea that one set of beliefs is right and others are wrong. "Even people who are atheists can do that," she said. "That's a human problem."