It was an emotional Sunday for me at St. James Episcopal Church.
I have prostate cancer, and on Monday I had surgery to remove my prostate. Any time you have cancer, any time you have major surgery, you think about life differently; you thank God for each new day with special fervor. And I am so grateful not only to be alive, but to be well enough to go to church on Sunday morning, even with some wounds that are healing. More about the prostate cancer in another post soon.
But this Sunday was also emotional because, three years ago, on July 5, 2015, we had our first Sunday services in the park. Our bishop, Jon Bruno, had locked the doors of the church, to punish the congregation for having the chutzpah to challenge his decision to sell the church to a developer. And the congregation had decided, rather than simply disband, to continue to worship, in the small park across the street from the locked church building. That first Sunday was chaos; there were news cameras and reporters and we had no idea what to do or how long we would be doing it.
Week after week we held services in the park; in the heat, and in the cold at Christmas. When it got too cold outside we started holding services in a rented museum space and then in space at the city hall. For almost three years, until April 8, 2018, we were in exile from our church, holding Episcopal services every Sunday in spite of the bishop’s claims that we were no longer an Episcopal congregation.
I was not much involved in the fight at first. But before too long I was deeply involved in the legal aspects of our struggle: preparing witnesses for deposition, reviewing documents and producing them for the bishop’s lawyers, reviewing documents provided by third parties and (ultimately) the bishop’s lawyers, working closely with outside lawyers and (in the canon law case) with the church attorney; and explaining all this to the congregation on some Sunday mornings.
I was also involved in other ways. Some Sundays I would help to set up and take down the folding chairs that we used in the park. Some Sundays, I would help our music and sound team in taking apart and carrying and putting in Dan’s truck the various instruments and cables and stands. I donated more money than I have ever donated to any cause and persuaded my parents to donate even more money than that.
Many people give me a lot of credit for getting us back in the church, and I am happy to have played my part. When I walk in the doors today, I think that, if Bishop Bruno had had his way, the church building would be a pile of rubble, with construction about to begin on townhouses. When I walk in the doors today, I think that Bishop Taylor kept those doors locked for many months after he had control over them—from early August 2017 through early April 2018—on the specious basis that we were not an Episcopal congregation. I think about Nancy Knight, a faithful member of the congregation for forty years, who died in April 2017, and whose funeral service had to be held in the city hall community room, because the doors to the building she helped build were locked by the bishops.
But as I think about the work that I did I think about the work that so many other people did. Our priest, Reverend Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees, getting up every day, both fighting to save our church and fighting to keep us on the high Christian road. Our sound team, bringing all that equipment and setting it up and taking it down every Sunday morning. Our choir, rehearsing in people’s homes, struggling to sing in the wind in the park. Our altar guild, bringing the sacred elements, setting them up in the park, taking them down and taking them home in their cars. Our Sunday school children, meeting in the tiniest imaginable room at the rented museum.
It was terrible, but it was wonderful, because we got to know one another. We got to know one another in the way that soldiers get to know their comrades in the midst of a war. I have often thought that we were far more like the Confederate soldiers than the Union soldiers because we were the rebels; we were the ones who had to scape and improvise and suffer in the cold. I often thought it would end up like the Confederacy; that we would eventually face the facts, give up the armed struggle, go home and live on our memories of the Lost Cause.
The scripture this Sunday morning was the section where Jesus sends the disciples out in pairs, telling them to take just the clothes on their backs and their sandals. In her sermon Cindy forced us to think about that for a moment; what would it be like to get on an airplane flight with no suitcase, with no personal computer, with no cell phone. (She of all people could not live without her cell phone.) To arrive in a strange city, to stay with strangers, and then to go out on the street corner and talk with people about Jesus. Then she said that she had some Bibles at the back, and that she was going to send us out in pairs, to the nearby hotel and restaurants. “We could be back in half an hour,” she said.
She paused. There was a silence, concerned, frightened. Because Cindy is slightly crazy, and she just might send us out in that way. Then she laughed and said she was not going to ask anything quite that hard of us, she was just asking us to work church into our conversations. She gave us some humorous examples, skits in which Cindy played both sides of the conversation. Let me revise and extend one of her examples, between two workers talking at the water cooler.
“God, I have so much work; my boss is so unreasonable.”
“Me too; she is always do this, do that, all day long, even on the weekend.”
“I really look forward to Sunday morning, when I can go to church, find some peace and quiet, see my friends there.”
“Really? What church do you go to?”
“St. James Episcopal Church.”
“I tried church but it didn’t do too much for me; what is so great about your church?”
“Well, we battled the bishop, who wanted to sell the church for $15 million, and we won. The church was not sold, it was not destroyed, and after three years of holding church services outside, we are back in our church.”
“Wow, that is amazing, sort of like Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt.”
“Yes, and like Moses, there was some complaining, a lot of complaining. But we got to know one another.”
“But doesn’t that mean that there is no room for newcomers? That you are sort of like a veteran’s club, only veterans welcome?”
“Not at all; we welcomed people in the park and we welcome them today. Indeed, there are lots of folks in the congregation now that were NOT there when we were in the park, that have joined us in the past few weeks.”