OAKLAND -- It takes a special kind of pastor to find a niche at Montclair Presbyterian Church, which proudly flies a rainbow flag out front alongside its cozy wood exterior and traditional steeple.
But the Oakland congregation has found its match in new pastor Ben Daniel, whose move to Oakland is in line with his own growth as a progressive, left-leaning church leader -- making him perfect for the church.
"Montclair has a really prominent history of progressive theology and activism," Daniel said.
For Montclair Presbyterian Church, an Oakland hills church with about 325 members, a strong message of social justice and inclusivity is an essential part of the church's identity, so finding a pastor with those ideals was crucial, according to Sloan White, a congregation member who was on the search committee.
Part of a "Faith Trio" along with Oakland's Islamic Cultural Center and Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, the church is also a member of the World Communion of Reformed Churches.
"We're welcome and open to everyone," White said. "You don't have to be Presbyterian -- you don't have to be Christian!"
With their previous pastor having left and an interim pastor in charge, the church needed to take a look at exactly what they required in a new hire. The nine-person search committee spent over a year and looked at 200 resumes, but in the end the choice was easy.
"It was very exciting," White said. "He just kind of jumped out at us."
A California native who grew up in Mendocino, Daniel received his master's in divinity at Princeton Theological Seminary. He started out from what he calls a "conservative, even evangelical place" but soon found that ideology not to be enough.
"It wasn't helping me understand the world," he said.
His journey eventually took him to San Jose, where Daniel has spent the past 16 years at Foothill Presbyterian Church, also a progressive community.
"That's a little bit of a long stay for a Presbyterian minister," he said.
White calls Daniel "a thinking pastor with a gentle manner" and said Daniel's record of being progressive on immigration, marriage equality, interfaith relations and other things made him extremely attractive to the Montclair congregation.
"He considers social activism to be part of his service to the church," she said.
The group also was swayed by Daniel's life as an author -- Daniel contributes to the "Perspectives" series on public radio station KQED-FM and is the author of two books, one on immigration and one on Islam. He also writes for the Huffington Post and Beliefnet.
"I'm really happy Montclair Presbyterian Church is excited about me being a writer," he said.
It wasn't just the search committee that felt strongly about Daniel. After the committee recommended him, he came to give a sermon to a packed congregation, who reacted unusually -- by giving him both a unanimous "yes" vote and a standing ovation.
"You don't do that in church, usually," White said with a laugh.
Daniel is excited about the move to Montclair Presbyterian Church, which he values for its inclusivity and diverse congregation, as well as its family-friendly nature -- Daniel is also bringing his wife and three children. He plans to spend the first few months listening to his new congregation and coming to know his new community, but he won't be taking it easy.
"I'm going to hit the ground running," he said.
And his new employers couldn't be more pleased.
"We hope that people will say, 'Hey, let's go see this guy and give Montclair Presbyterian Church a shot!' " White said.