Me, Owen Meany, and Spiritual Autonomy
After a major falling out with another congregation (not an Episcopal church) in 2018, I knew it was time to grow up spiritually and begin my own faith journey instead of relying on the faith and beliefs of my family. Part of me was tempted to go all Martin Luther and nail a list of my grievances to the front door of the sanctuary, instead I mailed my missive instead and began the search for my new church home.
I first learned of the Episcopal Church in my ninth grade AP Literature class when reading A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. I was struck by and jealous of the title character’s seemingly unshakeable faith. I related more to the narrator when he said, “I make no claims to be especially pious; I have a church-rummage faith—the kind that needs patching up every weekend.” I felt a longing for a church that would accept me, my doubts, my fears, and my many questions. I found that and more here at St. Paul’s.
To me, our church means spiritual autonomy. As a “refugee” from the church I grew up in, I was in desperate need of a faith community that aligned more closely with what I felt in my heart to be true regarding social justice issues, women’s place in the church, and the importance of science. I was attracted by the pageantry of the church and how organized and uniform the church services are. As Robin Williams is credited as saying in a list of Top 10 Reasons to be an Episcopalian, “All of the pageantry, none of the guilt.”
I first visited St. Pauls’ on Father’s Day in 2018. I initially intended to visit both Episcopal parishes in Murfreesboro and then decide which would be my new church home. I never made it to the other one because I enjoyed the very first service I attended so much. I hesitated to make any new connections since I was still trying to figure out what to do. After the service ended, I attempted to sneak out undetected. Joyce Adkins clearly had other plans! She ambushed me in the best way possible, introducing me to Rick and Pam Burcham (who would later become my Shepherds and good friends). Over several days that week, I received a phone call, an email, and a packet in the mail that detailed St. Paul’s mission and how I might begin to integrate myself into its many ministries.
St. Paul’s is a place where I feel comfortable even when I feel as though I am in the Garden of Gethsemane, spending the long night praying for relief and struggling with doubt. Something I learned early on as a member of St. Paul’s is that questions often lead to more questions—and that’s alright. Christ Himself struggled with doubt as he was being crucified, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” My prayer as I began my Pilgrimage journey last year was the prayer of the father of the possessed boy in Mark Chapter 9, “I believe, help my unbelief!”
The first ministry I felt called to at St. Paul’s was the Death Row Prison Visitation Ministry, led at that time by Ronny Clemmons, may God rest his soul. He brought a large painting to the parish hall that the prisoners at Riverbend had collaborated on, depicting the Stations of the Cross. I asked Ronny to pass along to the prisoners that I appreciated seeing Jesus portrayed as a person of color as opposed to the whitewashed Savior I had grown up seeing. He convinced me to sign up for the orientation at the prison to get started in the ministry. I had the privilege of touring parts of the prison that are usually off-limits to outsiders. It was in the arts and crafts room where I met the man who would become my friend. He was working with wood and leather and showed me a handbag he had almost completed. I jokingly asked if I could place an order for one, and our friendship began in earnest. I will always cherish one of the first letters he sent to me, “The way you interacted with me and others in the class, you talked and acted like you were in a Sunday school class of everyday adults, not men on death row … Thank God you wrote to me.”
I had the privilege of working as overnight security at the women’s Coldest Nights homeless shelter on St. Paul’s campus for most of the season last year, before going back to school at MTSU. The fellowship I enjoyed with the ladies who stayed in the shelter was such a blessing. I also help out with an Altar Guild team and serve as a lector. I benefitted greatly from attending both sessions of Pilgrimage in preparation for my Confirmation in June of this year. Receiving communion after the bishop confirmed me was life-changing. It finally hit me that I was forgiven and loved deeply; a full circle from baptism that made my relationship with Jesus feel more real.
I give to St. Paul’s because I believe in its mission: to worship God, bring all into a loving relationship with Jesus Christ, and equip all for ministry. I believe in the mission because I see it in action in the love of my parish family. Father Colin was instrumental in helping me through a personal crisis recently and gave me the tools I needed to take on one of the hardest things we as Christians are called to do: to forgive others. I wrestled with forgiveness for months and even sought out a “second opinion” at another St. Paul’s in Naples, Florida, this summer where I worshipped while my husband, bonus son, and I stayed with my in-laws. To my surprise, the rector there echoed almost verbatim the words of encouragement and comfort that Father Colin had spoken to me months earlier. I will forever appreciate the fact that we are not necessarily told what to believe or how to think as Episcopalians. Instead, we are encouraged to take responsibility for our own spiritual growth and understanding, with support always available.
As someone who grew up in a church that had very limited roles for women, I was very excited to learn that our seventh rector—The Rev. Dr. Kristine Blaess—was a woman! I’ll never forget when I first read the email announcing the decision. I was in the gym cooling down after working out, and after I read it, I cheered out loud, unable to contain my excitement. I got some odd looks for that, but I was beyond caring. I know that it shouldn’t matter what gender our rector is but for someone from my background, it feels like a win. “Male and female, God created them; male and female, we ordain them.” (Again, Robin Williams).
I usually attend the 7:30 a.m. service. Because I’m a bit of an old soul, I enjoy the Rite One liturgy and really enjoy hearing Morris Hamby on the piano. I also have been known to attend other services. I wish we could combine Rite One with our excellent choir and fantastic organist, Angela Tipps. I sometimes find that I have to sit on my hands to prevent myself from applauding and bite my tongue to keep from shouting “Bravo!” after a particularly rousing musical piece. I wish my husband Craig could attend St. Paul’s with me. Unfortunately, he works every Sunday but does attend whenever he can. I continue to benefit greatly from being a member of the Episcopal Church in general and St. Paul’s in particular. I cannot wait to see what God has in store for us.
- WORSHIP—7:30 a.m. service (sometimes 8:30 a.m. or 11 a.m.)
- SERVE—Pilgrimage, Death Row Ministry, Coldest Nights, Altar Guild, Lector
- GIVE—I give to St. Paul’s because I believe in its mission: worship, bring, equip.