Prayer In Motion

The descriptors “introvert” and “public evangelism” don’t usually go together. These “things” never have held appeal for me and the last thing I wanted to do was walk around town and pray for the uninformed and the unconverted.  Yet I had committed to the Rev. Erin Betz-Shank, Bishop’s Warden Heather Armstrong, and the people of Trinity, New Castle, that I’d do whatever their priest did for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday while she was on maternity leave.  That promise turned into my first experience of an ecumenical prayer walk.

Due to Erin’s leadership, laity and clergy from the churches of New Castle participate in a prayer walk around downtown New Castle on Good Friday following a humble, draped cross.  The experience was entitled “Prayer in Motion”. We began with the library and moved to the police station, Salvation Army, United Way, medical clinic, businesses, restaurants, churches, and local government offices. At each location we prayed for the work done in each profession and for those who live the profession.  

The symbolism of the event leapt out of the concrete: in the midst of an economically challenged community like New Castle, this rain-soaked procession was a moving sign of hope. We travelled into the heart of sorrow, poverty, and decay with a message of hope, faith, and commitment. Jesus was here and he was staying.  The Church was here and the Church was staying. The youngest person was about two and oldest near 90. We weren’t many. The torrential rains kept many at home. Yet, we moved, prayed, and asked God’s blessings.

Sometimes these experiences affect those around the troop most. Perhaps that’s so; I hope so. The experience deeply affected me. We are called to show up in many ways: shelter, food, medical care, money, legal assistance, counseling, recovery, and the list goes on. We are also called to show up with faith, hope, and love. What a perfect, as in complete, way to worship on Good Friday: to step into the challenges of redevelopment in New Castle, reminding people that Jesus identifies with the suffering and with those who serve those in need.  Honestly, it turned out to be one of the most beautiful worship experiences of Good Friday ever for this aging Christian.

Thank you, Erin and Heather, for your leadership and holding me to my promise.

The Rev. Al Johnson is Canon for Congregational Vitality and Innovation for the Diocese of NWPA. 

Quiet Day in Danli – A Letter from Honduras

On March 11, 2019 my husband, Dan, and I left for a two week mission trip to Danli, Honduras. He served as team leader for a group of large and small animal veterinarians, vet techs, and spouses. His sending organization was CVM (Christian Veterinary Mission) and SAMS (Society of Anglican Missionaries and Senders). Our local contact was SAMS missionary Jeannie Loving, with whom we have worked through the years. Jeannie is also a member of The Order of the Daughters of King and asked me, as a Daughter, to prepare and lead a Quiet Day retreat for the ladies in the Episcopal Churches in the Danli deanery. A few days after the Veterinary team headed home we had our Quiet Day under the guidance of local Episcopal priests Fr. P. Francisco Midence and Fr. Victor Manuel Valsquez. The following is a reflection of the day sent to my chapter and prayer supporters:

I want to share with you the beautiful Quiet Day we held at Las Manos de Dios Episcopal church in Danli, Honduras on Saturday, March 24.  It was hosted by the Daughters of the King, but all women were invited. Fifty women and at least a dozen children were in attendance. We provided lunch for 73 which included children, teens, the kitchen help and a few men. I was able to greet old friends and make new ones.

We did the stations of the cross through the eyes of Mary. The church is a big open one and Fr. Victor had placed pictures of the 15 stations all around the perimeter.  We moved from one to the other as Fr. Victor recited the Kyrie,  Fr. Francisco played the guitar, and the women sang as they walked.  Two different women read at each of the 15 stations. One woman started to read and was so overcome she couldn’t finish. Many women commented they felt the same way. The Holy Spirit truly was present. It was extra special to me knowing you all were praying and two chapters from Central PA were also doing Mary’s Way of the Cross that very day…Apostles from Christ chapter from York, PA, and Harriet Lane Johnston chapter in Lancaster, PA.

We had fun afterward. I brought hotel soaps, shampoo, lotion, little bottles of nail polish and bags (like ones we buy at the grocery store, instead of using plastic).  We asked questions, like who has the most children, who has on a red shirt, etc., and the woman/ or women would come up and pick 2 items. They had fun with that and so did I. We had enough to give them a third and the leftovers went to the priests to give to the needy. The bags and the nail polish went first.

This is a very special event for the women as they don’t usually have an event where they can just come and be fed…physically and spiritually.  We paid for the bus and/or taxi for them to get there – some had at least an hour ride. The most expensive was $4 round trip. Jeannie Loving, our SAMS missionary contact and Daughter of the King, said most would borrow the money to get there and we reimbursed them when they arrived. We also paid for the food. I noticed some of the women didn’t eat all of theirs but saved some to take home to their family.  I couldn’t eat mine and gave it to Mabell whose husband didn’t have a job and they have 7 children.  The cost for this was covered by a grant from the Daughters of the King self-denial fund.

People here in the US have no idea what poverty is…no electricity, no running water; rice, beans and maybe an occasional chicken added to the mix every day…mangoes and watermelon when in season.  The children at the village high up the mountain don’t attend school. It is too far to go down the mountain every day.  It took us more than an hour by truck, and they use horses for transport. At the airport, I talked with two different women who come each year to help at orphanages. They are not truly orphanages, but homes for abandoned children. The parents are so poor they can not feed them or they are abused. One mentioned an 11-year-old girl with a 1-year-old baby and this was not an isolated case. One woman said the place where she worked had taken in two infants found abandoned on the road just that week.

I’m  glad to be home. Physically we found it takes us longer to recover but we are retired so we can take our time….spiritually and mentally will take a little longer.

Please continue to pray for our Daughters all over the world. It is a beautiful bond that we have as sisters in Christ.

Kathy Paulo is a member of St John’s, Franklin. She has been a Daughter of the King since 2005 and is currently serving as The Order of the Daughters of the King Province lll president and National Membership Chair. 

A Compassionate Response: A Statement on Opioids

(Prepared by The Task Force of Province III of the Episcopal Church)

Opioid use disorder, like other substance use disorders, profoundly affects the mind, body, and spirit. Scientific research shows that addiction is a disease that originates in the brain – not a moral or spiritual failing. Much like other treatable diseases, many factors contribute to addiction, and the disease affects the whole family. Some factors include behavior, environment, and genetics. Recovery benefits from a variety of support, including medical care, counseling, and faith communities. Often the last line of defense in communities, faith communities now have an important call to foster space for conversation, prevention, education, care, healing, recovery, prayer, and advocacy. Faith communities also have an ongoing responsibility to examine and address problematic contextual factors such as joblessness, trauma, injury, family stability, educational offerings, community resources, and crime.

Faith communities offer a place for modeling life-giving relationship with persons facing the disease of addiction by considering their outreach interactions, pastoral response, and language. Certain practices and ways of avoiding persons who are facing addiction express not only cultural stigma, they actively discriminate against a person with a treatable disease. Sometimes our language labels a person as an “addict” rather than seeing them in a more dignified way as a person facing addiction. Faith communities offer open space for worship, healing, interaction with God and God’s people, safety, and prayer. This helps to break down the secrecy and shame around addicted members of family and community groups that leads to discrimination, and may discourage a person from seeking assistance toward their recovery goals.

Recovery is a life-long process requiring commitment. Addiction, as a chronic illness, requires appropriate resources for recovery. There are many pathways to recovery. For some persons, residential inpatient treatment works best. For others, medication-assisted treatment (https://www.samhsa.gov/medication-assisted-treatment) offers a pathway toward health. For still others, twelve step groups provide a pathway to recovery and community. There are recovery support institutions and virtual recovery communities. Many discover that a combination of pathways works best for their recovery journey. As new pathways are created, we celebrate new possibilities for persons seeking healing. Faith communities, depending on their gifts, abilities, and facilities, take on various roles of ongoing support for persons in recovery and their families.

Addiction is a daily struggle. It affects entire families, and children are especially at risk during this crisis. Faith communities can offer belonging, community connection, listening, prayer, comfort, care, worship opportunities, and other resources to persons in households where addiction has caused great pain and damage. Children, parents, grandparents, siblings and spouses require care and support that is open-hearted and free from moralizing judgement.

For the Victims of Addiction
O blessed Lord, you ministered to all who came to you: Look with compassion upon all who through addiction have lost our health and freedom. Restore to us the assurance of your unfailing mercy; remove from us the fears that beset us; strengthen us in the work of our recovery; and to those who care for us, give patient understanding and persevering love. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer of The Episcopal Church, page 831 with pronouns modified for solidarity.)

Learn more here:
http://www.provisionsforthejourney.org/
https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help

A companion piece with a bibliography of resources gathered by the Opioid Response Task Force is available here

Here and Now

The Holy Spirit blows where she wills, upsetting old patterns and blowing life into old adages we wear as badges, like “Careful what you wish for…you might just get it.”  Such has been the case in my life. When the first note of a priestly calling began to ring in my heart at the age of 24 years old, I was an NYU Grad Student living in Brooklyn.  The single note resounded to the core of my being and wishing to be a priest more than anything, I entered the discernment process.

Discernment requires copious research and reflection…so I read many books about the vocation; I talked to countless priests about it; and I imagined and dreamed about how becoming a priest would meet all of my desires both for service and identity.  I would be something—complete with a title, a uniform and role.

So as I began the discernment process with the requisite internship at a neighboring parish, and endured a barrage of psychological testing, all seemed to fall into place.  I even found a job working for the Episcopal Church Center (aka 815) while I waited to go to seminary.  When the time came for the interviews with “the powers that be”, all went well, and I was granted postulancy and seminary loomed on the near horizon, I thought I had it made.  I delayed going to seminary because I was learning so much working on the staff of the Presiding Bishop.

And that’s when things started to go sideways.  I was young in the ways of the world and didn’t realize how power is wielded.  It never occurred to me that the Bishop might not be the one calling the shots.  Unfortunately, as it turned out the Bishop was terribly sick and falling completely under the sway of alcoholism.  And although to my eyes it looked like he was in charge, it was his Canon who ran the diocese.  And so instead of listening to the suggestions of the Bishop, I should have paid more attention to the woman behind the ‘episcopal’ screen.  I didn’t and for that I was given an opportunity for correction.

My permission to go to seminary was revoked and I was quasi-kicked out the ordination process.  I had no status, but as my obedience still being observed, I was still being told where I should go to church and I was required to spend Saturdays doing local theology and bible classes at a local school of theology.   I’ll spare you the retelling of the anguish I experienced during this three-year period—of my scheming to find a new diocese and bishop, of my decision to nearly give up on becoming a priest and the sorted dealings through which the “powers that be” finally sent me off to seminary.

The discernment time at seminary became one of intentional formation and I grew as a one-day priest in training.  And at yet, as I finished seminary and the time for ordination approached—some 8 years after the desire to be a priest emerged in my heart—the notion that I should “Be careful what you wish for” finally struck home.  Throughout all of this time, I had expected becoming a priest to feel magical.  And while the day was very affirming…and my wish was finally fulfilled, being a priest didn’t make me feel any different.  I was still me.  No extra-significant sense of calling, no special illumination from the Holy Spirit.

You see, once we arrive at the wished-for reality and it almost never ends up being not for what we hoped.  As so, the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to here and NOW.

That is precisely what I learned after my ordination…I realized how many years I had fretted and worried, schemed and agonized. In the end, very little of it really mattered.  It only served to distract me from the really priestly work that all of us are called to participate in.  The truth is that God is not really interested in our wishes for significant and pronounced service—God simply wants us to open our eyes to the need around us NOW and to serve:  “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. “

Actually, this was the lesson I learned on the day of my ordination. You see a new bishop had been elected and when he arrived at the church, he found me changing my then three-year-old son’s VERY poopy diaper.  We were chatting and getting to know one another as I worked.  It was when I wrapped up the diaper, that I realized, much to my horror, that the bishop was standing between me and the trashcan.  He must have seen the panicked look on my face and without missing a bit.  He silently coaxed me into handing him the diaper and he quickly deposited it in the trash—without missing a beat in the conversation.

It was this simple act that truly taught me what it means to be a priest…what it means to be truly human.  If you want to be great, you must serve.  Whatever journey we are on…whatever “wish” we are working to make reality, let us practice true discernment and listen for the Holy Spirit.

The Rev. Luke Fodor is rector of St. Luke’s Church, Jamestown, NY. 

Book Review: “Resurrection Matters” by Nurya Love Parish

This post originally appeared at The Black Giraffe blog on May 13, 2018. 

Many books about cutting-edge, transformational ministries are told after the fact.  A new opportunity arose, the Holy Spirit nudged a few faithful, gifted leaders, and, looking back, the whole enterprise seems almost inevitable.  Resurrection Matters: Church Renewal for Creation’s Sake by Nurya Love Parish takes a very different approach.  Nurya tells her story of starting a farm-based ministry while still in its early phase.  Instead of three easy steps to replicate this ministry in your own context, we are blessed by the courageous account of someone struggling to answer her call in a confusing time for the church and critical time for the environment.  How God has led her smack dab into the middle of the fledgling Christian food movement is both challenging and inspirational.

Throughout this book, we are introduced to Nurya’s deepest passions.  Her central passion is her faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Flowing out of that faith are her dedication to the renewal of God’s church and the stewardship of God’s creation.  In Resurrection Matters, we journey with Nurya through the personal stories and the facts and figures that led her to taking a huge risk with her family’s home and savings to start a farm ministry.  Along the way we learn about the infinity loop of organizational renewal, the contemporary church’s “rummage sale”, the modern history of Christian farm ministry, and why millennials seem more interested in organic farming than churches.  Most importantly, we share a Christian leader’s struggles as she finds the necessary wisdom and courage to begin a non-traditional ministry that is beginning to make a difference in the church and the environment.

Resurrection Matters’s engaging style makes for an easy and enjoyable read.  The book contains appendices with a study guide; planning processes for households, congregations, and judicatories; information on community supported agriculture; and lists of resources for further study.  I highly recommend this book to those interested in how the church might engage creation care, as well as to anyone feeling like God may be calling them to start something new.

(Disclaimer: I have worked with Nurya Love Parish on a number of projects, and I received a review copy of Resurrection Matters.)

You can order Resurrection Matters from church publishing or Amazon.

The Rev. Dr. Adam Trambley is rector of St. John’s, Sharon. 

Ordination of Nicholas Evancho

We wish congratulations and blessings to the Rev. Nicholas Evancho on his ordination to the priesthood and upcoming move to the Diocese of Southern Ohio, where he will serve as a curate at Christ Church in Glendale.

Photos of the ordination service, which was held on Saturday, June 2, at Church of the Epiphany in Grove City, are below.

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The Gift of Diversity

This article first appeared on the A Positively Poetic Priest blog on May 22, 2018.

I want you to take a look at your hand.
Right or left, it doesn’t matter.
Every day our hands do impressive amounts of work.
They influence our experience of the world.
Look at your fingers.
You probably don’t think about them often.
They are very similar in nature to each other,
yet each is different.
Each is unique from the others.
Even our fingers have diversity!
Each of our fingers have different purposes and gifts.
The fact that our thumbs are at an angle and move slightly
differently than the other fingers… opposable thumbs!
What a gift our thumbs are in our daily lives!
(Especially when you consider animals without opposable thumbs,
we have all seen those internet memes.)
We may look at our hands and think they are all the same.
In fact, we have diversity right in our hands.

The word diversity really means a range of different things.
Not that it has a range of different meanings,
it quite literally means, “a range of different things.”
Having a collection be diverse means that there are different things in the collection.
So speaking about diversity in the context of people
requires two things: community and different gifts.

This is where we go to the passage from acts,
the bedrock of Pentecost.
The passage starts with the community.
“The disciples were all together in one place.”
Here we have a collection of people, already diverse in nature.
Tax collectors, fishermen, carpenters,
all gathered together in a room because of the same glue.
It’s quite obvious that the only reason the disciples ever managed to stay together
was because of Jesus.
Together, this little community of men
has an amazing experience.
A rush of wind and tongues of fire,
a change of heart and feeling of presence,
and a sudden new knowledge filling each of them.

Diversity is one of the first gifts the Holy Spirit ever gives to the church,
simply by giving the disciples the ability to speak different languages.
When the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples that day of Pentecost,
it didn’t tell the disciples to go only
to the Aramaic speaking good Jews to spread the good news of Jesus.
No, the Holy Spirit gave the disciples new languages,
the gift of speaking to people wholly different from them.
With the gifts of the Holy Spirit there were going to be
Egyptian followers of Jesus
and Parthian followers of Jesus
and Mesopotamian followers of Jesus.
People from all over the known world
who didn’t all have the same background or the same ideas.
The Holy Spirit came and made the disciples more diverse, even than they had been before.

I love the fact that someone thinks this rush of speaking in languages from Jews
is because of wine.
As if having some wine could give us the ability to speak a new language.
The work of the Holy Spirit in this way
was so new,
so amazing,
so profound,
no good excuses could be made to justify the event away.
Someone in the crowd tried to blame it on wine,
but we all know that was simply out of fear.
You can see the bystanders trying to push the idea away,
out of fear, out of wanting to stay away from the unknown.

Unfortunately, for many the gift of diversity looks like a threat.
The unknown quality of people being different from one another leads to fear.
Thankfully, this fear can be overcome.
Recognizing and accepting diversity does put us outside our comfort zones.
It is the work of the Holy Spirit,
and God doesn’t call us to be comfortable.
In a world increasingly separating into groups of like minded people who do not play well with people or groups who
are differently minded,
the world asks the grace of living into our gifts as diverse people.

However, everyone is different in this world.
Everyone deserves the dignity and respect which we each crave for ourselves.
Everyone is different and has different gifts.
One of the greatest gifts we can give another person
is acknowledging them as uniquely themselves.
It is only by working together,
using all the gifts which we bring to the table,
can we really ever accomplish anything.
The world is worth working with other people who are extremely different than us.
Not everyone can speak Spanish or German or Hindi or Swahili,
but the Holy Spirit has given us the gifts that we need in order to work together.

Many people feel that the church is, and has always been,
a place for people who all think, feel, believe, and look the same.
You have to be and act and speak in a particular way in order to be a part of the church.
Unfortunately, there are many parts of the church in which this is true.
There are rules governing what you can wear, what you can eat or drink,
who you can talk to, and so forth.

By no means am I advocating a standard of lawlessness or anarchy,
there are standards for being a follower of Jesus
however none of them are based on what clothing you wear
or what you can eat or drink.
In fact, Jesus would probably have broken any and all rules
given to him by the religious authorities of his own church
in order to be involved and part of the lives of the people who needed him.

Diversity is a strength, not one of the church’s greatest strengths,
though thankfully one that we are more and more recognizing the need for.
Here in this community, we have a range of diversity
Episcopalians, Lutherans, a few Catholics,
we have people who speak languages other than English,
we have people who are differently abled,
we have people who can program electronic devices,
and people who stay as far away from such devices as they can,
and all these diversities make for a better community.

We come together today to join our diverse hands
to be together as a community with different gifts
experiencing the Holy Spirit in this time and in this place,
so that when we go out into the world
we can meet God at work through the Holy Spirit
in all the diverse places and people we experience.
God sends us out to find ourselves and Him
in all the beautiful diversities of His creation.

Amen.

The Rev. Elizabeth Yale is Priest in Charge at St. John’s, Franklin. 

Boundaries

This article originally appeared on March 6 at A Positively Poetic Priest, the blog of Mother Elizabeth Yale, Priest in Charge at St. John’s, Franklin. 

“He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
and to whom I was like to give offense.”

This is a portion of Robert Frost’s poem, Mending Wall.
The poem talks about mending a wall in the spring with the neighbor on the other side.
It goes through how the wall fell apart, and as we heard, we hear him wonder
about why there is a wall in the first place.
The only thing the neighbor says in the poem is
“Good fences make good neighbours.”
But Frost brings up a good question in these lines
why do good fences make good neighbors
why build a wall
is it because you’re walling something in
or walling something out?
It seems that there are good walls,
which keep people safe,
and then there are bad walls,
which keep people apart.

Though Frost wrote this poem more than a hundred years ago,
it still pertains to us today.
The question of walls or boundaries
is quite a serious one.
Recently the question about President Trump’s wall between Texas and Mexico
has gotten many people up in arms, both in favor and against.
Even more recently, the Winter Olympics in Korea
reminded us all of the tension between North and South
split with the DMZ, the demilitarized zone,
a long fence splitting the country in two.
And while we have these recent examples
controversial walls between neighbors is not a new thing.
The Berlin Wall
The Israeli West Bank wall along the Green Line
The wall in Baghdad.

Unfortunately though
it seems these walls
haven’t created good neighbors.
The amount of fighting, rallying, negotiation talks, and protests
which happen around these walls
doesn’t make it look like any of them are helping
develop good boundaries.
Just because we have physical walls
doesn’t mean we have good healthy relationships.

However, boundaries are very important in our human lives.
We need boundaries
to lead happy healthy lives.
Boundaries are involved in pretty much everything we do as human beings.
In order to be clear, the definition of boundary
is what is okay in a situation and what is not okay.
Basically, knowing where the line is between okay and not okay.

We have boundaries in all aspects of our lives.
Physical boundaries
such as our skin
our personal space
our privacy.
We have emotional boundaries
our circles of trust and confidentiality.
We have financial boundaries
our own personal accounts
business accounts
and lots of laws to keep those boundaries in peace.
We have social boundaries
both stated and unstated
which let us know what is okay to do with other people and what is not okay to do with other people.
We have occupational boundaries,
which determine what is our job and what is not our responsibility.
(We all know the phrase, “That’s above my pay grade.”
which is a boundary we all know when something is not our responsibility.)
In every aspect of our lives there are healthy boundaries
necessary to keep us whole, safe, and able to function.

Yet, we also have lots of unhealthy boundaries floating around in our society.
Where it seems acceptable to break other people’s feelings of what is okay and not okay.
We have seen this explode with issues of sexual harassment and abuse in the last year.
Unhealthy boundaries lead to conflict, disrespect, and distrust.
All of which we have in gigantic amounts throughout our society.

In her research on people living wholehearted lives,
Brene Brown, a social researcher working in topics of shame, resilience, and living healthy lives
points out from the data
that one of the most compassionate things we can do as human beings
is have good clear boundaries.
Where we know for ourselves what is okay and what is not okay
and we talk with other people in respectful ways when boundaries are broken.
Respectful, healthy communities are built around people who have healthy boundaries.

And while Brene Brown’s research has only come out in the last couple of years
this idea of good community being born out of having good boundaries among people
is so ancient
its biblical.

We see the first example
in our reading from Exodus for today.
Exodus was written sometime in the 15th century BC,
So about three and a half thousand years ago.
God gives Moses the Ten Commandments
which are to govern the community of Israelites in their life together
and in relationship with God.
The Ten Commandments
are rules, effectively, good boundaries of what is okay, and what is not okay,
for the people to do.
God says, it is not okay for us to have any other gods than God.
Its not okay to murder other people.
Its not okay to covet what other people have or to gossip about them with other people.
God says we definitely should
keep sabbath time, to rest,
we need to respect other people, especially our parents.
The people who had fled from Egypt
were trying to create a new kind of nation
a new kind of community
and having healthy boundaries
good rules for communal living
were very important to the health, safety, and longevity of the community.
Even in the gospel story for today from John
the story of Jesus overturning the market tables in the temple
is a story with boundaries
and the breaking of boundaries
at the heart of it.
Jesus goes to worship in the temple
and finds the place having been turned into a marketplace.
Understandably at that time
there was still animal and crop sacrifice going on in the temple
and people did need to buy cattle or birds
or grains or fruits in order to give to the temple.
However, the understanding is that the money changers and market sellers in the temple at that time
were gouging the people who came to worship.
They were lining their own pockets and being unfair to the people.
They were breaking the good boundaries of living in community
they were preying on the poor people of the land.
Jesus drives them out.
He reinforces the good boundaries of the community
making clear that what was going on is not okay.
Jesus’ mission in the world is to return the people
including us
to right relationship with God.
Which does mean pointing out the ways in which we have strayed from that relationship
and broken its good healthy rules.

What does this mean for us today?
During this season of Lent
we are called to remember the ways in which we have broken the boundaries of good community
we are called to repent for the ways in which we have strayed from right relationship.
We are called to return to good healthy clear boundaries and community.
We are called to repair the relationships which have been broken among us.
Thankfully, Jesus has already promised us
that he will forgive us
he will rebuild the temple
though we chip away at its walls
with our brokenness and unhealthy boundaries.
Thankfully, God loves us more than we can imagine
and continues to try to meet us in right relationship.
Thankfully, we can rely on God’s grace to catch us when we fail
and return us to faith and trust.

Like Robert Frost in his poem Mending Wall
we are given the opportunity each year
to mend the relationships
the broken places in our lives
and return to healthy good relationships
with each other
and with God.
Amen.

Caring and Connection – Stephen Ministry in NWPA

Have you ever had a time when a book quote or song lyric came into your life at just the right moment to teach you something invaluable? I recently read The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown, the author/research professor whose work on vulnerability we explored at the last diocesan convention, and there were several times when I stopped mid-paragraph to take notes. “THIS! This is ABSOLUTELY true for me!” may have popped out of my mouth more than once. (Aside: If you have a chance to pick up ANY of Dr. Brown’s books, it’s well worth your time. If you’re short on time, though, Youtube has several clips of her talks as well that are worth exploring.) 

There are several sections throughout the book that I’m adding to my “personality traits to work on” list, but one quote in particular caught my eye in relation to an interview I had with Robin Murray of St. John’s, Franklin: 

“One of the greatest barriers to connection is the cultural importance we place on “going it alone.” Somehow we’ve come to equate success with not needing anyone. Many of us are willing to extend a helping hand, but we’re very reluctant to reach out for help when we need it ourselves. It’s as if we’ve divided the world into “those who offer help” and “those who need help.” The truth is that we are both.”    ― Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

It particularly struck a chord because Robin and I were discussing Stephen Ministry – a one to one lay caring ministry that is based on creating connections between people who are currently hurting and those who have experienced similar situations.

From the official Stephen Ministries website:  “Stephen Ministry is the one-to-one lay caring ministry that takes place in congregations that use the Stephen Series system. Stephen Ministry congregations equip and empower lay caregivers—called Stephen Ministers—to provide high-quality, confidential, Christ-centered care to people who are hurting.”  Stephen Ministers are not counselors, but they are laypeople trained to be caring, non-judgmental, confidential listeners for those in need due to job loss, divorce, grief, chronic illness, or just going through a difficult time.

The program began in 1975 when Lutheran pastor Dr. Kenneth Haugk trained nine members of his congregation to assist with pastoral care as ‘lay listeners’. Stephen Ministry has since expanded to include over 12,000 Christian congregations around the U.S. and abroad, including the Stephen Ministry program at St. John’s, Franklin.

The group at St. John’s began their journey in 2012. The Rev. Holly Davis had initially mentioned the ministry to Robin Murray, who already had a leaning toward pastoral care (“I was convinced I was going to be a deacon!”), and told her that it was about matching people up that have similar problems. Robin’s response? “Well, I can do that!” Robin then looked into attending a free seminar about the ministry in Butler with the Rev. Ed Lowrey, Mother Holly and Linda Trikur from St. John’s, and, after Mother Holly spoke to Bishop Sean about the program, they applied for leader training in Pittsburgh. Within three months enough people in the congregation had shown interest that they began training their first group of Stephen Ministers – twice a week meetings for the next four months.

While Stephen Ministers are well trained to be lay listeners and caregivers, the thing that really strikes me about the ministry is connection. People who might normally try to “go it alone” are put in touch with people who have been in a similar place, so they can share their feelings openly and be understood on a deeper level than with someone who hasn’t experienced similar hurts. To paraphrase Brené from the quote above, we can both need help and offer help, and this ministry encompasses both sides.  I come from a family where it’s strongly encouraged NOT to talk about problems. Over time that approach becomes very isolating, and you assume that no one else has gone through what you have – you’re alone. Stephen Ministry, by pairing you with someone who’s already ‘been there, done that’, gives a feeling of deep connection to those who may well feel like they’re alone in their pain. 

Care receivers (those who need help) have different avenues available to get in touch with a Stephen Minister. They can contact the church directly, or they may be referred by a friend, family member, or a service professional. Robin has said that the Visiting Nurses Association has occasionally contacted the Stephen Ministry group on behalf of a client who has expressed interest in the program. After the initial contact is made with the church or one of the Stephen Leaders, a representative meets with the person and explains what Stephen Ministry is and is not (a caring ear, not a maid/personal shopper/etc). They are then matched with a Stephen Minister within a few days.  Meetings are usually once a week for about an hour, either in person or on the phone (though Robin says in one instance they have a care receiver who likes to stay in contact via email with their Stephen Minister when the person is away over the winter months). People are paired women to women, men to men, with similar problems if at all possible, and care receivers must be over age 21 to be put in touch with a St. John’s Stephen minister.

One example of how this works involves Robin’s best friend, who lost her son when he was 21 – just a few months before Robin went through Stephen Ministry training. Initially the woman refused to speak to anyone about what had happened, but during a later visit Robin asked if her friend would be interested in speaking with a Stephen Minister. Her friend agreed, and Robin placed a call on a Tuesday to locate a Stephen Minister. Within two days someone was in touch with her friend, and for the first time since her son’s death she was able to discuss the issue. 

While St. John’s is currently the only congregation in the diocese with trained Stephen Ministers, Robin would like everyone to know that if there is someone in need outside the greater Franklin area, the St. John’s group can put them in touch with other, closer churches who also have a Stephen Ministry program. They network regularly with groups in Clarion, Grove City, and Meadville, and there are several non-Episcopal congregations in the Erie area that have Stephen Ministers available as well.

If Stephen Ministry is of interest to you or your church, either as a point of connection for people in need or for discerning whether a Stephen Ministry program has a place in your community, you are welcome to contact Robin Murray (ralfiny@zoominternet.net).  

We don’t have to do all of it alone. We were never meant to.
 Brené Brown, Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution

Megin Sewak is Assistant for Communications for the Diocese of NWPA. 

St. John’s and Grace – A Relationship in Christ

A long long time ago… well, at least thirty years ago, two congregations in Franklin decided to do something radical. They decided to prepare for Christmas and Easter together, spending the seasons of Advent and Lent having soup suppers and sharing the Word of God.

The radical part about this whole idea is that one congregation was Episcopalian, St. John’s, while the other congregation was Evangelical Lutheran, Grace. Way before the official agreement between the national Episcopal Church and the national Evangelical Lutheran Church on shared ministry, St. John’s and Grace in Franklin were sharing fellowship, bible study, and prayer.

Fast forward almost twenty years and that same shared ministry of soup suppers in Advent and Lent was still going on. However, one of the congregations had fallen into some difficult decisions in financial and facility matters. Yet, since the members of Grace Lutheran knew the congregation at St. John’s and were familiar with St. John’s Church, they had an option beyond closing. They decided to sell their building and rent space from St. John’s.

After another almost ten years, the relationship between St. John’s and Grace is still going strong. Not only do the congregations share Advent and Lent soup suppers, but now also Sunday School, Adult Formation, an annual Church Picnic, Coffee Hour, Vacation Bible School, and both congregations have members in the Grace Chapter of the Daughters of the King. Joint services are held regularly and almost all the high feast days are celebrated together.

Given this great relationship, the clergy, vestry, and council of St. John’s and Grace undertook this past year to put together a document entitled the Shared Ministry Agreement. The Agreement outlines the relationship and shared ministry of the two congregations, while presenting some new ideas to help both congregations move into the future.

All this culminated in a great celebration this past December. On Sunday December 17th, 2017, Bishop Sean Rowe and Bishop Ralph Jones joined the congregations of Grace and St. John’s in a special Eucharist which included the signing of the Shared Ministry Agreement, confirmation, and the Blessing of the new Elevator Lift in the Parish Hall. Both the Vestry and the Council stood before the bishops and committed the churches to the development and partnering of this relationship.

While we can all thank the Holy Spirit for its work in bringing together the congregations of St. John’s and Grace over the years, the members of both congregations state that the real reasons the relationship has withstood the testing of time and troubles is that we have become one community. The members proclaim, “We are better together,” “We like working together, we like being in community together.” Being a part of Christ’s one Body means working together even when we are different. We strive to live this out as one community made up of Episcopalians and Lutherans in Franklin.

No longer is either congregation defensive about which ministry is whose or how they fit together. The reality of the situation is that neither Grace nor St. John’s would be able to follow through on the mission of the church in Franklin without the other. However, together, we are able to follow God’s calling to us in Franklin.

The Rev. Elizabeth Yale is Priest-in-Charge of St. John’s Church, Franklin.