Our Staff

Our Clergy and Staff

Joe Summers, Rector

I have been the pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation since 1987. I became a pastor because I was inspired by the base-community movement and drawn to the vision of the Beloved Community as the community of those who understand themselves as beloved of God and work to see that all receive what they need to know themselves as beloved.

I moved around a lot as I was growing up, but my most formative years were spent living in St. Louis Missouri. This was during the era of segregation, but my family attended Trinity Episcopal Church, an inter-racial parish. One day during a service a group of kids was playing tag outside when one of the young teenage boys named Clanton ran out into the street and was hit by a car. I and the other kids ran into the service to let people know what had happened. The largest hospital in St. Louis was only a couple of blocks away but they would neither treat the young man nor provide an ambulance to take him to the county hospital which was located fourteen miles away. Clanton died in the back of the choir director’s car while being driven to that hospital. That kind of searing experience meant that the whole congregation strongly responded to Martin Luther King’s vision of the beloved community and the congregation sent something like three busses of people for the march on Selma including many high school aged students like my older sister Mary.

From St. Louis, my family first moved to Oxford England, then to East Lansing Michigan, and finally to Rochester New York where I attended an inner-city High School. I was devastated by the inter-racial violence I encountered there. Thankfully, during this period I also became involved in the Episcopal Youth Council, a group of about sixty, or eighty, High-school aged youth who were involved in the anti-war movement and anti-racism work as part of their commitment to working for a “just and loving society for all men and women.”

After graduating early from High School, at aged 17 I moved to Ann Arbor Michigan where I had become involved with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. Not long afterwards I became involved in the Catholic Worker Movement and under the guidance of Dorothy Day began recovering so many of the things that the theology of the Charismatic renewal had demeaned. I studied English Literature as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan and afterwards got a Masters in American Culture. During my student years I was involved in a wide variety of social change movements including: the ant-war movement, the United Farmworkers Movement, the movement for Human Rights in Latin America, the student movement, and the anti-apartheid movement. It was during these years that I first encountered the Latin American Liberation theology movement and was particularly influenced by the work of the Brazilian educator and social change theorist Paulo Freire. Later I was able to participate in a six-week seminar with Freire for social change activists from around the world. Freire’s comment that the United States would never be a free country until its religious sphere was transformed was one of the seeds of fire that ultimately led me to go to seminary after dropping out of graduate school. I had also been very inspired by the work of the Rev. Jim Lewis whose work at St. Andrew’s, my home parish, did so much to make it a center for justice work in the broader community. Not long after I went to seminary Jim went onto become Incarnation’s first pastor.

Between 1984 and 1987, I got my Masters from Yale Divinity School, where I was honored to work with people like Cornel West, Lee McGee, Letty Russell and Margaret Farley. I also studied for a semester at The Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, which at the time was the world center for Feminist Theology, and where I was able to study with people like Carter Heyward, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Katie Cannon, and Fredrica Thompsett. A major part of my focus in Divinity School was striving to understand what a liberation theology for middle class people might look like. It was during this period that whenever I was back in Ann Arbor for for winter or summer breaks that I began to attend the new experimental congregation- The Church of the Incarnation which had begun the same fall I went to seminary.

After Divinity School I moved back to Ann Arbor where I became the pastor of the Church of the Incarnation in the fall of 1987. A congregation started by lay people who wanted to create a different kind of church, I had come to see its value when in seminary professors would say to me you could never do such an such in a congregation and I was able to say—I know a congregation where they are already doing that! However, the congregation had been through rough times and when I arrived only about 20 members remained. Over the years the congregation has very slowly grown. It’s been striking to see how even a small community connects you to almost every problem our country and world are facing. Beginning with a focus on reforming our criminal legal system and reaching out to people who are incarcerated, through the years different members of the congregation and I have been involved in all kinds of justice work and have been able to have an impact in a wider variety of areas. This work has ranged from establishing one of the most successful prisoner re-entry programs in the country to helping to launch an organization dedicated to moving our county from a punitive justice system to a restorative justice system, to working to establish housing for those living with chronic mental illness, to helping to launch Friends of Sabeel North American (Sabeel is a Palestinian Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem), to developing a sister church relationship with an American Baptist Congregation in Nicaragua, to advocating for LGBTQ rights and inclusion, and more recently in participating in the Poor People’s Campaign efforts to address the interlinking evils of racism, poverty, militarism, environmental devastation and the twisted moral narrative that sustains them all.

Donna Ainsworth and I have been married for over thirty years and we have three grown children: Ruby, Kate and Dylan. These days, in addition to my work at Incarnation and in the community, I am writing a book on Christian and the Practice of Freedom: The Bible and the Paradigm of Domination about how and why various Biblical texts uphold the paradigm of domination and others challenge it.

At Incarnation, I’ve found a place where people take seriously the attempt to discern where and how the Holy Spirit is speaking to us individually and collectively. Here I experience the fullness of life that comes with living in community and going through all of life with a group of people sharing our lives and struggles. Here is a place from which I can continue to work to realize the beloved community in the broader world. I’m very, very grateful.

If you would like to contact me you can e-mail me at jsummers@umich.edu.

Dean Aponte-Safe, Associate Pastor

Greetings, friends. My name is Dean Aponte-Safe, and I am thrilled to be here at Incarnation as your associate pastor. My name, “Dean” means “person of the valley”, and I have come to inhabit this imagery in meaningful ways across my 32 years. I grew up on my family’s dairy farm in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, in the northern end of the Driftless Region of the Midwest. My childhood was shaped by rolling prairie hills and deep valleys and steep bluffs. Faith and community in that landscape where inherently bound together as I attended Spring Garden Lutheran Church from an infant well into adulthood. My family is a 7th generation family at the congregation. My grandmother taught me to sing as she pointed to the words in our worship hymnal. It was in the prairies that I understood that the Church can be a safe place. My pastors at Spring Garden modeled the love of God by ensuring the belonging of all people, the safety of all people, and the love of all people; something that I needed as I was beginning to understand my sexuality at the tender age of thirteen. I knew that I wasn’t straight, but I didn’t have sufficient language for how I identified. In my rural community, there weren’t yet visible mirrors of my experience or feelings.

As I grew, I knew that I wanted to do something in the Church. I graduated from Cannon Falls High School in 2008 and attended Waldorf University from 2008-2012. On Waldorf’s campus, I flourished. I double majored in English Literature and Creative Writing, was involved in campus ministry and the Wind Symphony, and took studio drawing and piano. I also heard the beginnings of a call to ministry and applied to Luther Seminary as a way to begin thinking about what the next steps in service might look like.

After graduating college, I took a gap year. I went to work at Holden Village in May 2012, a remote and intentional Lutheran community cradled in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. There, I worked as a Lead Cook, served as a community worship sacristan, and engaged in community life. After my time at Holden Village, I began in the Master of Divinity program at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota in the fall of 2013. I studied rural ministry and worked closely with Dr. Alvin Luedke and am grateful for the mentorship of Pastor Megan Crouch and Pastor Dale Pepelnjak. During my time at seminary, I also began the process of coming out as a gay man – to my myself, to my family, and to my close friends. I completed my M.Div. studies in December of 2016.

Soon after leaving seminary, I began my first call in January of 2017 to Henrytown and Union Prairie Lutheran Churches in Canton and Lanesboro, Minnesota. Shortly after beginning my call, I enrolled at Chicago Theological Seminary as a Master of Sacred Theology (S.T.M.) student. Concentrating in LGBTQIA+ Studies and Theology, I wrote my S.T.M. thesis on LGBTQIA+ identity negotiation in rural faith communities. Theologians and writers such as Linn Tonstad, Carter Heyward, Gustavo Gutierrez, Michel Foucault, Martha Nussbaum, Mary Gray, and Ellen Davis guided and continue to guide my work for LGBTQIA+ people. Soon after completing my S.T.M. degree, I joined the fall 2020 Doctor of Ministry cohort at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. As a doctoral student, I am currently engaging in research and interviews for my dissertation in response to the key question: “How have your Christian practices evolved as you have integrated your LGBTQIA+ and rural identities?” I am interested in how LGBTQIA+ rural Christians build their spiritual resiliency in response to harmful experiences from their church or community and have loved being the keeper of stories that speak to a profound sense of self and worth in spaces where my participants have not always been valued, seen, or heard. Dr. Jim Lawrence, Dr. Benard Schlager, and Bishop Rev. Regina Hassanally and my doctoral colleagues continue to be important conversation partners in my forthcoming work.

My husband, Gerardo Aponte-Safe, also serves as an Episcopal clergy member. Currently he is a transitional deacon at St. John’s Episcopal in Royal Oak, MI. We have been married for over three years, and recently welcomed a new addition to our home: our six-month-old golden retriever puppy, Finnegan. Outside of church, you’ll find me either cooking or baking, reading, or playing the piano. Walks with Finn are another cherished pastime, as well as working on my dissertation and scheming my first book.

Friends, I am thrilled to be with you at Incarnation. I am hopeful that as we serve together, we continue to make Incarnation a place where all people are valued, all voices are heard, and all people are seen. I hope that we will engage diligently and intentionally with where the Holy Spirit might be calling us as we move forward into the future with both our struggles and our joys in this increasingly demanding social and political time. I’m grateful to be here, and for you all: for the gifts you bring into the world, and how through our gifts we will continue to transform it to God’s justice and vision.

If you would like to get in touch with me, please email me at pr.dsafe@gmail.com.

Brian Buckner, Music Director

In addition to serving as Incarnation's Director of Music, Brian is an award-winning composer., musical director, and pianist in the Ann Arbor area. Brian's musical direction credits include Give Me the Simple Life (a cabaret show co-authored with Tyler Kent and Karen Carpenter), which toured in China, Forever Plaid, Rent, The Music Man, and Guys and Dolls.

You may reach Brian by email at bebuckner@gmail.com