As I approach the tenth anniversary of my shared ministry with and at Grace Episcopal Church, I am amazed by what we have accomplished and by how much I have changed and learned over the years. I remember the fear and excitement I felt when I walked through the doors of Grace for the first time as its rector. I remember the challenges we faced, all of the uncertainty, all of the rebuilding of trust that needed to take place in the wake of the previous years’ trauma and conflict. I remember also those leaders who are no longer there, who have moved or passed on to the larger life, such as Sally Phelps who was Senior Warden for the first months of my tenure.
I like to tell people this. When I was working through the ordination process in the Diocese of Upper South Carolina from 2002-2005, if someone had asked me about my dream job, I would have replied, “a downtown historic church with an active homeless ministry in a city with a major university.” On August 1, 2009 I began working in my dream job. Ten years later, it still is. There are constantly new challenges, new people to meet, new opportunities for learning, new opportunities to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Days like today remind me of that.
It began with a meeting of the Community Advisory Team of the Beacon, the Day Resource Center operated by Catholic Charities. The effort to site and operate such a facility was a focus of my work for a couple of years as the lack of such a facility put enormous stress on downtown churches and put the lives of people experiencing homelessness at risk. At some point, I finally gave up as it seemed such a facility would never materialize, and then out of the blue, the miracle happened. A site was located, Catholic Charities received the contract to operate it, and now, nearly two years after it opened, it is seeing an average of over 200 guests a day. Supporting it, even if only by attending quarterly meetings of this group, is a blessing. Hearing about its successes and helping in some small to address challenges is incredibly rewarding.
In the office later, as I was working through the email accumulated over the weekend, I received a phone call from my friend and colleague, the chaplain at Capitol Lakes, who requested I come to administer last rites to an Episcopal resident. I walked the two blocks, administered the rite, and returned to the office and to that email inbox that had continued to grow.
Lunch was a lovely conversation with my downtown (Protestant) clergy colleagues. When I arrived in 2009, while I was warmly welcomed by my Episcopal colleagues, I had no contact with my neighbor clergy, except that I initiated. I resolved that I would reach out when new clergy came. Now, I’m the veteran. Of the other three at the table, one is in his fourth year; one started just a few weeks ago. In addition to the simple joy of getting to know each and spending some time together, we talked about the issues that we all share, most significantly, the challenges of ministry with and among people experiencing homelessness.
I’m writing this from a coffee shop on Monroe St., where I am holding open office hours on Tuesday afternoons throughout the summer. One of the emails I sent earlier in the day was to the chair of the Personnel Committee to let her know that I would be working on staff ministry reviews if I was undisturbed by visitors. Fortunately, for that task, I was able to finish the ones I was working on. By the way, the office hours experiment has been a success. Not only have I had visitors and conversations I would not otherwise have had, last week the presence of two newcomers to Madison and Grace, both recently retired, was an opportunity for them to connect with each other as well as with me. And in between visits, I’ve been able to get a lot of work done without the distractions of the office.
One of the things I did before beginning this post was to go back to my blog archives from 2009. I was curious whether I wrote much about the beginning of my ministry. The answer is no, except for in my sermons. The transition to full-time parish ministry wasn’t particularly difficult. What was challenging and unexpected was simply the level of administrative detail, the constant new challenges of ministry in an urban environment. Nothing could have prepared me for that or for the ways in which those challenges, and the changing city itself would affect my ministry.
In some essays over the next few weeks, I hope to reflect on some of the themes I detect in my and Grace’s shared ministry over the last decade: homelessness, our relationship with the political life of city, state, and nation, racism, and the transformation of American Christianity. All of these are themes I’ve preached and written about over the years, but I think it would be helpful for myself and others to reflect on them in light of our past experience as we think about the future.
The last ten years have been exciting and challenging. They have been difficult at times, and there were periods where we weren’t certain that Grace and I were a good fit. I have caused pain to others and have suffered some pain as well. But through it all I have sensed God’s presence in my life and in our common life, ministries, and outreach. We have sought to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ, to be his body in this place, and to be a place of healing, hope and witness to Christ’s redemptive love. I pray that we continue to do all of this in the years to come, with God’s help.