Essential Service: 20 Weeks of Gratitude, Week 12

Part 1: St. Peter’s

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for the world and a strange time to be so invested in the Church. I’m not sure when I’ll have the energy to articulate what I’ve seen and heard and learned and come up against on this side of our global situation. I’m emotionally & spiritually drained. That’s why, this week, I want to articulate my gratitude for the faithful communities now thrown into self-isolation.

St. Peter’s is a minimalist building tucked away in a residential street on the edge of the International and Central districts of Seattle. It’s visually unobtrusive, and—compared to the other parishes in my life—not that easy even for neighbors to find. It is architecturally reserved in a way that is culturally coherent, but I see symbolism in how its very presence breaks up the grid of avenues that surround it.

As a community, this parish breaks with Episcopalian patterns as well. A historically Japanese church in a predominantly Anglo denomination, it has been through a lot—most notably, the years it was shuttered thanks to the evil of Executive Order 9066 and the subsequent displacement & internment of its members. There’s a note in the rector’s log on the last day before it closed that would break your heart with its stoicism. It has also endured the constant churn of wave after wave of gentrification; these are sometimes vectors of good fortune, but they also bring with them the nausea of self-doubt.

The grit and resilience of this place is what’s drawn so many new folks to St. Peter’s over the years. It’s how I ended up there too, when I first arrived in this country. It’s a church with a story that felt like home, a community that’s been through something; I identify with people who go through things. The incredible warmth of their welcome was almost unnecessary—I was already hooked. That foundational story informs the mission statement I helped write after a year of visioning: “To be a welcoming and fearless community that provides an inclusive, caring space for reconciliation and transformation.”

That statement is one of the last things I contributed to before I drifted completely due to my job at Epiphany.

But whenever I catch myself being wistful and nostalgic, I try to remember @hana.m.cooper and @ml.oakes and how, no matter where we end up, in some ways, it is St. Peter’s that’s sent us.

And like our patron saint, who in Acts 12:17 “went into another place” (ετερον τοπον), and is pretty much never mentioned again, I identify with those who go elsewhere. There’s an ethic to that. We are always called elsewhere.

Part 2: St. Paul’s

St. Paul’s is a striking building that makes itself elegantly known—you can’t miss it from any angle. The beauty of its architecture is echoed in the beauty of its “High Church”-esque liturgical feel, but is most palpable in the way its congregation embraces & commits to that beauty through every genuflection, solemn bow, and sign of the cross.

This was actually the first Episcopal parish I ever attended, a whole year before moving here for good. I was curious about their Anglo-Catholic branding & showed up one sleepy summer Sunday, not sure what to expect. What I found was familiar for the most part, as I’d been attending an Anglican parish in Beirut for a while, but I didn’t have the reference points to know if the habits new to me—like turning to face the Gospel reading or kneeling at the altar rail—were quirky local flourishes or something more. It didn’t really matter; I was awed and soothed by the gentle reverence of that space. I asked for their prayers all year, as I waited for my immigration visa to come through.

During last year’s Lenten season, I went to St. Paul’s for what was essentially my catechism, in preparation for being received into the Anglican Communion in May. Week after week, Father Rob walked us through the faith and our rites as an elaboration of one central image he’d identified: ‘New Creation.’ It was the sort of religious formation that presented Christian life as a “contrast society” and had “Anglican distinctives” as an appendix begrudgingly tacked on at the end, on purpose. At one point during these gatherings, an older ex-Roman Catholic grumpily asked if the tone of the conversation thus far implied that people had to become socialists to be Episcopalian, and Fr. Rob replied: “What God wants is far more radical than anything Marx would have imagined.”

St. Paul’s is a place that will feel a little cold and unfriendly to some, but I think it provides the kind of embrace that many people in this city are hungry for—the solidarity of stillness, the comfort of a deliberate and thoughtful pace, and the almost monastic hospitality of polite introduction.

I know that St Paul’s is going though a difficult time right now; Father Rob moved away many months ago, and now, Mother Sarah is moving too. I can imagine that some are feeling kinda low with their doors closed as well. But from what I’ve known of this place, I’m not worried. This is a community with very strong bonds and an ethos of Pauline leadership—confident, networked, and rooted in deep conviction.

I will pray for St Paul’s as they close one chapter and begin another, just as they did for me.

Part 3: St. Andrew’s

Today is Transit Driver Appreciation Day, & if there’s a time to show our deep thanks to these civil servants, it’s now, during this crisis. Our freedom of movement is a cultural holy of holies, though we seldom pause to think about why and how.

You may recall how the first serious announcement from the Governor explicitly mentioned transit workers as county employees who will NOT be asked to stay home. I confess that, at my lowest points, that idea kept my spirits up—every time we’d come to a difficult decision to keep doing what we’re doing at work, I’d mentally complete the sentence with: “just like bus drivers.”

I’m a bus rider through & through, and even I was surprised by the number of churches in Seattle you can get to very easily by public transport. Stay long enough on the 2 and you‘ll connect Epiphany to St Paul’s, & then onwards to Queen Anne UM, where the County gathered faith leaders at the start of this crisis.

St Andrew’s is another one of those churches accessible by bus—there’s a stop right in front of it on the 26. I didn’t have any reason to go to Green Lake before interning there last April, & I didn’t think I’d ever work with children or youth, until I saw that St Andrew’s was looking. Something about the tone of their job posting was so inviting, like a real opportunity to be a novice & actually learn. I figured I’d bring something back to St. Peter’s from the experience, & getting paid for my time was definitely appreciated. St Andrew’s took a chance on me when others found me interesting, but no one was actually hiring.

My first gig at this parish was Mardi Gras, where I felt the most useful in months, working their industrial dishwasher with a half dozen of their youth. It was genuinely a blast.

I loved how much this community felt like an old-timesy parish, where people lived close enough to actually walk to church. By summer, I was thrown into the job I wanted the least, but ultimately, enjoyed the most: teaching kids as young as 5 about baptism and the Lord’s Prayer and other faith milestones that wriggly children are just *itching* to hear about…

That was not my natural skill-set, for sure, but every time I remember little Adaira or tiny Tal reaching up to grab my hand for comfort or courage, I feel like a million bucks.

There are too many kids stuck indoors today, and too many parents stuck on the bus. Life’s not quite ground to as much of halt as many of us may think. You seriously can’t do all jobs from home. What St Andrew’s gave me is a glimpse of that life, the one I’m yet to know more intimately—childless millennial scum that I am.

The future matters, but it involves a lot more than merely surviving. The future requires work and difficult decisions. The future is constant negotiation, weighing of alternatives, and, yes, compromise.

Part 4: All Saints

Isn’t it strange how quickly we’re used to this happening everywhere & to everyone? There are variations in intensity, for sure, as different locales react to our global threat through different readings of right & wrong—which is so fascinating, this return/revenge of morality—and yet, all in all, our moment is universal. We don’t get many of those.

This hit me hard when I realized that all the churches in my life—in Edinburgh, in Beirut—are closed this Sunday.

I think many of us are trying not to read meaning into what’s going on, and I think that’s a healthy precaution. At the same time, it’s clear that plenty of us are also trying to refashion the pandemic as “opportunity”—a chance to rewrite the social contract, to tax big business, to roll out universal income, to infect the situation with new modes of acceptable speech. And that’s just what I’ve heard from the good guys…

But leveraging the facts in ones favor is a wholly hermeneutical act—there’s no escaping the circle: we are meaning-full creatures. And as this communicative arena expands to encompass more & more of us, all “in this together,” I wonder: is it naïve to hope for some shared understanding to emerge?

All Saints Beirut was a place that I experienced as smoldering with meaning. For over a year, Sunday felt like a conduit to the heavens—I felt spoken to there.

I don’t feel that as much anymore. Part of why that is has something to do with context. Sunday in Beirut was a complete work, from the number 5 bus, to the walk through Downtown, to our stop for coffee & cats, to the sermon and the hymnal and the contemplative walk back, sometimes all the way to Bourj Hammoud. All Saints was all of these things.

But it also had much to do with anticipation. I was looking for clues, connecting the dots, allowing myself to be addressed by the universe—this time by a hymn, next time by a hawkmoth.

Call it delusion, but this is how self & other are negotiated: by reading the signs of our times. Not to search for new ways of extending our established routines through opportunities & openings, but to be fully present, to see things more honestly—as though for the very first time.

I’m not expecting anyone to have some kind of metaphysical conversion because of all of what’s happening, but I do wonder what this time of pause is bringing out of all of us… at least, for a moment or two.

Part 5: St Mark’s

“I am the bias—I am the virus, I am the virus.”

It’s funny how the YouTube gods work in mysterious ways. I’d forgotten that Killing Joke album—which, according to my data scrolls, was in heavy rotation in my life in 2015—but sure enough, the Algorithm knew to recommend a listen last night. Praise be.

“This virus has come to roost in the Episcopal Church in a big way.” I can’t shake those words out of my head since I first heard a priest say them God knows how many days ago now. Let’s examine the facts:

We are an institution that reassured people about the safety of drinking wine from a common cup, wielding one scientific opinion against another, for arguably one Sunday longer than advisable. We are a network of community gatherings that remained open to the public two weeks too many, coming to our eventual conclusion after the PC(USA) and the Roman Catholic Church in Seattle had both already decided to close. We are also the church that created at least six confirmed vectors of contagion after leaders at some of our largest & most financially solvent parishes came together in Kentucky some weeks ago.

What does this all mean? Everything and nothing, depending on how you read the signs. Here are some other facts to consider: ours is a church where many people who fall into at-risk categories—over 60, sometimes 80, immunocompromised, in need of a heart transplant, etc.—would not have stayed home if the Bishop didn’t close our doors.

Is this ignorance? Fanaticism? A death wish?

Christians have long been accused of worshiping death. Nietzsche called ours a nihilistic, life-hating, & world-denying philosophy. And though most Episcopalians are unused to sticking out like a sore thumb, the typical Christian response is something of a culture jam, turning these notions on their head.

As a communicator, it has become very clear to me that we all use the same words, but not in the same way. “Is it a death wish or a life wish,” one person asked—another set of words I can’t shake. The only answer right now? It depends on whom you’ve asked.

“I am the fire—I am the virus, I am the virus.”

No one is expecting us to justify ourselves right now, because, quite frankly, no one is paying attention; our immunity from social critique is proportional to our cultural irrelevance. But that might change very soon. Praise be.

Part 6: Epiphany

I started this week with a lot more angst than I’m ending it with, for which I’m grateful and much relieved. Some of why that is has to do with trusting the process of this writing exercise; much has to do with getting to WFH a bit more this week. A lot is also due to friends like @postrocking & the irrefutable evidence she provides of the existence of true kindness. And still more has to do with a renewed sense of purpose in this uncertain time.

Epiphany has been a laboratory of every kind of emotion; it’s a place of incredible vision, competence, & drive, and it is maddening, and it is problematic, and it is open to feedback, and it is always learning. Even in my moments of deepest frustration, I’ve felt privileged to be at the front lines of some of the most interesting battles at the heart of this nation.

Big words, I know. But spend some time here, and you’ll see what I mean.

I don’t really know what it’s like to worship here—at least, not without the added layers of context and subtext informing every moment. But I don’t know what it’s like to simply clock in and clock out either—at least, not without the added sense of urgency and insurgency and megalomania that only people of my Myer-Briggs type would thrive under. It’s a lot like being in a theatre company, somewhere in Montmartre, back when people really believed that theatre could change the world…

The most significant thing I’ve learned here during this outbreak is how easy it is to get lost in our worst instincts during a crisis, & how wonderful it is to have a framework to reorient ourselves back out of that dark maze.

Even churches can forget that this whole thing is happening during Lent—an arbitrary quirk of an ancient calendar, if you want it to be, or a thinking tool and decision tree, if you allow it.

What Lent has to offer is a much needed reminder: before Easter, there is the Cross, before joy & ultimate triumph over death, there must be a time for lament. We are people of the Resurrection and alleluia is our song, but every year, the calendar asks us to mourn—not as a re-enactment, but as a return to first principles, again & again.

Even churches can forget that reality in their rush to reassure & reassert.

My small role in this crisis began with a homily on the Sign of Jonah, which I worried was rendered irrelevant by the fast pace of events. But of course, I now see how foolish it was to think that way.

No other sign will be given but that one.

“I see a stairway so I follow it down
Into the belly of a whale
Where my secrets echo all around.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *