Read an Excerpt
Backpacking through the Anglican community
A Search for Unity
By JESSE ZINK
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2014 Jesse Zink
All rights reserved.
Growing Up with Difference
Diocese of Western Massachusetts, The Episcopal Church
One of my first memories of church revolves around a handshake: one very long, hard, and energetic handshake.
I was five or six and my family belonged to St. John's Episcopal Church in Northampton, Massachusetts. St. John's is an imposing, century-old building with a tall granite bell tower. It sits on the edge of Smith College, an elite women's school, and just on the edge of the downtown core of Northampton, the heart of what is known regionally as the Five College Area, after the many institutions of higher education nearby. Parishioners at St. John's include more than the average number of university professors, and the city is more liberal and left-wing than the rest of rural, agricultural western Massachusetts.
On Sundays, I waited in line at the end of the service to shake the rector's hand, as the adults did. The rector was a young man named Jim Munroe, a Marine veteran of Vietnam who had been wounded in combat and attended seminary after his long convalescence. He had arrived at St. John's a few years earlier with a reputation for his preaching, praying, and wonderful sense of humor. Already he had endeared himself to our family with his uproarious laugh and the need to tell the exact same four jokes again and again and think they were just as funny as the first time he told them.
Other people in line, I knew, usually exchanged polite, restrained handshakes with Jim. This was not for me. When it came my turn, I pumped his hand enthusiastically. Up and down, up and down, I shook his hand for all I was worth, week in and week out. Jim was always more than willing to play along, laughing uproariously every time. But this Sunday morning in late August was different. Jim was saying farewell to the congregation before a sabbatical. It was the late 1980s and he was headed to New York City to volunteer at a hospice for people with AIDS. Standing on the top step of our granite church, I asked Jim how many Sundays he would miss. "Twelve," he said. "I'll be back just before Christmas."
"Well," I said. "I'll have to shake your hand twelve times as hard."
And I did.
And Jim laughed. Uproariously.
* * *
My entry point to the body of Christ and the Anglican Communion came a few years prior to that handshake on the other side of the continent. I was three months old and my parents took me to Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, Canada, where they were living and where I had been born. Graham Witcher, a priest at the cathedral, asked my parents and the aunt and uncle who were serving as my godparents if they would raise me in the life of faith. He asked the congregation if they, too, would support my walk in faith. Evidently, everyone agreed because water was sprinkled on my head. I died the death of Christ and was raised to new life through the waters of baptism. It sounds dramatic. I wish I remembered it.
Within a year, my mother, father, and I resettled in Northampton so my father could go back to school. Soon enough, our family had a deepening relationship with St. John's.
When I became old enough, I gathered with the children of the Sunday school in the parlors of the church house. We listened to Mrs. Jones, the Sunday school director, welcome us and lead us through the Lord's Prayer. During the week, she taught at a school for deaf children so her enunciation was perfect, tending toward the over-exaggerated. "Ow-er Fah-ther," I learned to say, drawing out each syllable carefully. When we reached "Ah-men," we were off, a confused mass of children and teachers headed up the stairs to our classrooms.
Church involved my whole family. My father and mother served on the vestry and taught Sunday school. When my brother was born, he was baptized with a splash of water from the Jordan River that Jim had collected on a recent visit. At Christmas, we geared up for the annual pageant. There were the costumes to be dusted off and lines to be learned. By age twelve, having worked my way from innkeeper to shepherd to wise man, I graduated to the role of narrator. Standing in the pulpit, I did my best to intone in my unbroken, twelve-year-old voice such weighty lines as "A decree went out from Emperor Augustus ..." and "Far away in the East ..." It was a heady moment, standing where I had only ever seen Jim and other priests stand.
One spring, when I was nine or ten, my parents took me to the home of the deacon three Wednesday afternoons in a row. Mel, a retired banker, had been ordained when he retired. One of his responsibilities now was to teach us how to receive communion. Sitting on his living room floor, he carefully set out a silver chalice and paten and began to explain what Holy Communion was and why it was important. The first time he taught us to sip from the chalice he used water. The next time, though, he poured a dark liquid in. "He's using real wine!" my friend whispered to me, excitedly.
"I know!" I whispered back, equally excited, but also nervous at the thought of drinking real alcohol. I tried to play it cool, but I still sputtered when the cup first touched my lips.
I do not remember any of the teaching we learned on that living room floor. But I do remember that on my first taste of the burn of the alcohol, I thought to myself, "Ugh. Why would anyone want to drink that?" But from that first Sunday and ever afterward, I did, dutifully tipping the chalice closer to my mouth, sipping, tilting it back, pausing, and waiting until the chalice-bearer had completed serving the person next to me before returning to my seat. It was just as I learned on the living room floor.
With First Communion behind me, on one Sunday a month I missed Sunday school, pawed through the closet of white robes, found one that more or less covered my growing limbs, lit my candle, and prepared to serve as an acolyte. At first, it seemed a fairly important affair—exactly how to bow and when, on which verse of the final hymn to begin marching out of the church, how to tell the water from the wine so you did not wash Jim's hands with wine before Communion—but the seriousness did not last long. There were just too many things that went wrong during a church service for it to be anything other than funny—and fun. The priest chugged the chalice wine at the end of the service! My friend got caught by his mother picking his nose during the sermon!
The oldest lady in the choir snapped at us for whispering to one another during the prayers! At a late-night Christmas Eve service I lifted the fully loaded offering plates high over my head as the congregation sang the doxology. My mind was focused more on the presents I was to receive than on keeping the plate parallel to the floor. Right around "above you heavenly hosts," a magnificent stream of bills, envelopes, and coins came pouring out, raining down over my head and shoulders.
As the years passed, I became aware that my Sunday school class was getting smaller. The number of available acolytes was shrinking too. There were just fewer and fewer people my age in church. But when I turned fifteen, the number of people my age in church surged. It was another rite of passage: confirmation. In a year-long course, I prepared for confirmation with twenty-five other young people, many of whom had returned to church only at their parents' instigation. Once a month, we got together to learn about Henry VIII and Thomas Cranmer, the Wesley brothers, and Samuel Seabury. We looked at the Nicene Creed and thought about what it means to say "Light from Light" or "Begotten not made." Once a month, I met with three other confirmands and our two sponsors for dinner. We talked about what it meant to be confirmed and what it meant to be Christians—and Episcopalians—in our daily lives at school. We did not, as I recall, reach any satisfying conclusions.
Then, on an April evening, I knelt in front of the bishop of Western Massachusetts, holding a small card with my first and middle names on it. I felt his heavy hands on my head and the light touch of my two sponsors' hands on my shoulder. In his sonorous voice, the bishop intoned, "Strengthen, O Lord, your servant Jesse Andrew with your Holy Spirit; empower him for your service; and sustain him all the days of his life." The congregation responded with a loud "Amen."
The duress under which my peers completed the course quickly became apparent. Most of those who were confirmed that evening seemed to see the service as akin to a graduation. They were finished with church and never needed to return again. Of the four people in my small group, I was the only one who showed up at church the next Sunday. I had to. By that point, I was helping to teach Sunday school to the three-, four-, and five-year-old class. I did so partly because I enjoyed it but partly because there was nothing else for high school students to do on a Sunday morning at church except sit through the service, and I was not quite ready for that. Less than a year after my confirmation, I was the only person my age left on the acolyte roster and the only one still in church on a regular basis. There were sporadic efforts to have a youth group with lots of fun activities planned—climb the rickety wooden steps in the bell tower and look over the lights of downtown Northampton; play Sardines and hide under the pews in the church; have sleepovers in the parlors. But my peers were busy. They could find fun in other places.
There was one trip that managed to draw back some of my confirmation colleagues. With a handful of other parishes, Jim organized a week-long trip to Washington, DC. We slept on the floor of the basement of a suburban parish and cooked meals in its kitchen. On the night before our visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Jim sat with us and told us how it felt when the grenade went off in his foxhole, killing the friend who was with him. It was a riveting story for a group of teenagers and we listened intently.
But it was the coda to the story that I remembered most. Some years after his discharge, Jim was in Nairobi with a group of Episcopalians visiting a companion diocese. While walking through a park, the group was mugged. No one was hurt, but the experience made Jim flash back to Vietnam. For the next few days, he was paralyzed by fear, unable to do anything without help from his travel companions. The group continued its trip and arrived in one particular village to a warm greeting from local church members. Jim described how he was wrapped in a giant hug by a woman who spoke only one word of English, "Welcome."
"In that moment," Jim said, "the fear and anxiety I had been feeling since the mugging in Nairobi melted away and I knew that I was loved and welcomed. The only thing she and I have in common is that we are both Christian. But on that day, that was all that mattered. I'll never see her again in this life, but she is a dear sister in Christ and I can't wait to see her in heaven." The story left me transfixed. I had never before thought that I had something in common with people in other parts of the world.
This was not the only time I learned that I might have something in common with people who seemed different than me. The congregation itself contained a good deal of difference. Sometimes I served as acolyte with a pair of identical twin brothers, each of whom was profoundly deaf. At first, I was put off by the difficulty of understanding them and working with them. Slowly, however, I realized they were not much different than me. On the youth group trip to Washington, DC, they taught me to swear in sign language. We became fast friends.
Other forms of difference were more challenging. The state mental hospital in Northampton closed in the mid-1980s and a whole host of people who needed psychiatric care ended up on city streets with little support. Several made their way to St. John's with some regularity. Len sat in the very front row every Sunday. I knew it was impolite, but my young eyes could not help but stare. He was overweight, his hair askew, and his face never seemed quite right. He had a vacant expression, but his eyes always seemed a little bit crazed. He was not like me and he was not really like anyone else I knew. But somehow, maybe, he was. He did go to St. John's, after all.
St. John's hosted a soup kitchen in its undercroft every Sunday morning. We passed the guests on our way out of church. They were also not like me. They smoked, swore, laughed too loud, smelled bad, and carried all their possessions with them in a single bag or two. But even if they were not like me, I was learning, they could still be part of St. John's. Not only could they be, I realized, they already were.
When people for the soup kitchen were not coming to St. John's, we were going to them. My first experience sorting cans of food at a food pantry and working for Habitat for Humanity came with the youth group. In addition to carefully enunciating the "Ow-er Fahther," the Sunday school collected school supplies for children affected by hurricanes in Florida or in new schools in Tanzania. When we marched into the service at the offertory to join our parents, we often rolled wagons full of canned food for the food pantry down the center aisle while the ushers carried the plates of money.
Carved in stone over the main entrance to St. John's were the words "Given to hospitality." Hospitality, I was learning, meant that everyone was welcome at St. John's—even people I did not usually meet in my life outside of church. They may have seemed different than me, but they were still, somehow, part of my life.
* * *
There was one aspect of life in Northampton whose difference some people found to be challenging. I learned this when my cousins came to visit when I was about ten. Sandy rushed in the door and breathlessly told me what he had seen on the drive in. "Jesse! There were two women walking down the street." He paused to make sure the significance of what he was about to say would sink in. "And they were holding hands!" To a young boy raised in a rural farming community, this was a piece of exceptional news. But Northampton is known for its tolerance of same-sex relationships. When Sandy told me the news, I shrugged.
Growing up in Northampton—which I heard described more than once as the "San Francisco of the east coast"—meant that a major part of the difference I encountered while growing up involved sexual orientation. Classmates of mine in school had two mothers. There were same-sex couples living in our neighborhood. They were friends we invited over for parties and saw walking their dogs. They were our fellow worshippers at St. John's. One woman in a lifelong relationship with another woman sponsored me for confirmation. By the time I graduated from high school, both the mayor and city council president were openly gay people. Homosexuality was not something foreign or unusual to me. Rather, it was the opposite—so commonplace as to attract hardly any notice, except from a visiting cousin.
But the issue took a surprising turn the autumn after I turned thirteen. The city council proposed an ordinance that would legalize what were called "domestic partnerships." The law would allow same-sex couples to have hospital visitation rights and share custody of children. The ordinance did not call the relationships marriages, and same-sex marriage was not then seriously on the political horizon. But the ordinance was an opening salvo in a debate that would take shape around the country a decade later. The ordinance ended up on the November ballot and the city was consumed with debate.
The opposition was led by Northampton's Catholic parishes and the one evangelical church in town. They called their coalition Northampton for Traditional Values and ensured the ordinance received major attention in the media. At the time, I had a school assignment to research an issue where people had "taken a stand." I chose the ordinance, though it is no longer clear to me if I thought those opposed to or in support of the ordinance were the ones taking a stand. I followed the news closely and clipped articles from the newspaper relating to the proposal. A week before the vote, I interviewed Jim to ask him why he supported the ordinance. "This is something we can do," he said, "to honor and include people who have often been excluded and rejected by society." On election day, I accompanied my father to the polling station and interviewed a man holding a sign opposed to the ordinance. "This is not just about same-sex partnerships and allowing gay people to register," he said. "This is about the values we have as a community. We need to remember Christian values."
To the surprise of those who took its passage to be a foreordained conclusion, the ordinance was defeated by a single percentage point. The church-led opposition was the decisive factor in defeating the measure. I finished my assignment and moved on to other projects. What I did not do, in retrospect, is consider the sharp divide the vote revealed. Jim was a church leader and he—and many other clergy in town— supported the ordinance. Yet other priests and other churches did not. I had heard both support and opposition to the ordinance defined in explicitly Christian terms. What explained this division? Why was there no consensus on the issue? At the time, I asked none of these questions. Whether they could register their relationships or not, gay people were going to continue to be a part of my daily life. In some ways, they seemed different than me and my family, but so did a whole host of other people I was encountering at St. John's. Having people from different backgrounds and walks of life all together in one place was just what it meant to be the church.
Excerpted from Backpacking through the Anglican community by JESSE ZINK. Copyright © 2014 Jesse Zink. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.