By Ellen Painter Dollar
I spent much of the final week of August in a vacation bubble, ignoring the bad news that showed up on my iGoogle news feed each morning. Instead, I pondered such vital questions as where my family should get our daily ice cream fix or which Cape Cod beach to explore. But one news story pierced my bubble and left me shaken—the photos of the National Cathedral, its spires decapitated, crooked, and cracked after the Virginia earthquake.
Twenty-one years ago, I arrived in D.C. after college graduation to be part of the Cathedral Volunteer Service Community (CVSC), a now-defunct program that provided housing, a small stipend, and a spiritual adviser to six young people every year. We shared a Cathedral-owned house on Woodley Road (which flanks the Cathedral’s north side) and worked full-time as volunteers for various urban ministry agencies.
In college, my primary community had been InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). At IVCF, I found the ease with which people talked about Jesus and their faith refreshing, after growing up in an Episcopal church where my faith walk was centered more on singing in the church choir than on exploring what it means to follow Jesus. Through IVCF, I learned to pray and to read the Bible, to claim Jesus as my savior, to explore how my faith intersected with daily life, and to love a rousing guitar-accompanied, hand-clapping praise song.
But my formative Episcopal childhood lingered. I could not embrace my IVCF friends’ positions on many social issues. Attending a nondenominational church decorated in shades of mauve with all the charm of a doctor’s waiting room, and where sermons took the form of plodding 45-minute “teachings,” I missed the structured liturgies, artful spaces, and poetic language of Episcopal worship. I was also seeking more guidance on how to model Jesus’ ministry with the poor, the sick, and the outcast. In my sheltered college world where “mission” involved mowing elderly people’s lawns and going to Fort Lauderdale over spring break to talk to drunk people about Jesus, there was little opportunity to explore Christian responses to poverty and related issues.
So when I learned about CVSC, I jumped at the chance to apply, and when I was accepted, didn’t think twice before saying, “Yes, I’ll come.” In both CVSC and my workplace (an Episcopal agency called Samaritan Ministry, where I provided job counseling and other support, mostly to homeless men), I was engaged with progressive Christians who often spoke a different language than my IVCF friends, but whose faith was equally vital and vibrant. Each Sunday, I worshipped somewhere different—the Cathedral’s cave-like lower chapels, the nontraditional Church of the Saviour in the diverse, ethnic-restaurant‑saturated Adams Morgan neighborhood, and Episcopal churches ranging from St. Alban’s (nestled in the Cathedral’s shadow and spiritual home for many a U.S. congressperson) to St. Stephen and the Incarnation (a small, diverse, funky congregation in the not-yet-gentrified Columbia Heights neighborhood). My office occupied St. Stephen’s worn basement space; one morning I arrived at work to see a crowd gathered around a stabbing victim who later died, while another day, my colleague was robbed at gunpoint as he ate lunch at his desk.
My CVSC year fundamentally influenced the trajectory of my life and work. I continue to live out my faith with one foot in the progressive, mainline world of rich liturgy, Mozart anthems, and the “big tent,” and one in the evangelical world of Jesus-centered language, praise music, and an intimate, well-defined, and personally transformative faith. My CVSC housemates are still some of my closest and most trusted friends. At Samaritan Ministry, I started editing the newsletter along with providing counseling, which first led to a career in nonprofit communications and eventually to my current freelance writing work.
On one of my first days in D.C. in 1990, my housemates and I stood in the Cathedral nave, listening to the choir practice while we waited for our adviser to show up. I breathed in the Cathedral’s unmistakable smell, a mix of damp stone, incense, and communion wine. When I visit the Cathedral now, I breathe in that smell and immediately feel grounded, reminded of who and whose I am. During my CVSC year, I would lie in bed in my tiny third-floor bedroom, turning my face toward the window that looked directly onto the Cathedral’s central tower. I would stare at the tower, letting its transcendent but firmly planted heft remind me that I was here, in this bewildering city, doing this important but confidence-shaking work, because God had brought me here. The Cathedral was my talisman, my towering and sturdy reminder that the God of heaven and earth was here with me, in my tiny bedroom, in my work with ex-cons and addicts whose lives were so very different than mine, in my house full of seeking and flawed and wise young Christians figuring out our place in this world, what exactly we believed, and what God wanted us to do next.
Though I haven’t lived in D.C. for 12 years, the Cathedral still feels like my spiritual home, the place where I first started figuring out what I really believe as a Christian, and how God was calling me to live out that faith. After my CVSC year was over, I continued to live in the Cathedral neighborhood, in two different apartments on Wisconsin Avenue. Even after I joined one of the Church of the Saviour worship communities, I continued to attend Cathedral services and events. My husband proposed to me on the Cathedral’s south transept steps, and we were married at St. Alban’s church next door. Every time we visit D.C., we drag our sometimes-reluctant kids to the Cathedral for a visit, pointing out the house where I lived, the moon rock in the space window, the statues of presidents, the mighty towers with their clever gargoyles.
My attachment to this grand building is somewhat out of character. I tend to look for signs of God’s presence far from church buildings, in the broken, muddled, messy corners of this baffling world, where faithful people hang onto resurrection hope even as wars rage, children suffer, bodies fail, and loved ones betray. The Church of the Saviour purposefully avoided having dedicated worship space; we worshipped in a coffee house that served food during the day and hosted local musicians at night. Now, at my Episcopal church in Connecticut, I am the type of congregant who only reluctantly writes checks to help replace the roof or fix the furnace, because while I understand the need for building maintenance, it’s so much more compelling to give money to suffering people than to suburban church buildings.
Yet this one building, this National Cathedral, continues to shore up my faith in a most concrete way. The Cathedral is both solid and soaring, tangible and transcendent, rooted in this beautiful, complicated, hurting world even as it reminds me to look beyond it, to the God whose beauty is everlasting, in whose complexity lies the most simple truth, and who heals every hurt.
Seeing the towers that I gazed on from my little third-floor bedroom so badly shaken has left me shaken. The Cathedral’s earthquake damage appears to be significant, but far from fatal. The Cathedral still stands, and likely will (please God) for many years. It will continue to be one of my spiritual homes, one of the places I have encountered God in obvious and life-changing ways. The Cathedral will continue to remind me that I worship a God who is intimately engaged in this earthquake- and sin-ravaged world, who abides in all the cracked and crooked and crumbling places, while offering us a wholeness, healing, and grace that rises from the rubble. Our God, unlike my beloved Cathedral towers, is rock solid. Into his hands I offer my shaky, shaken faith.
Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work focuses on faith, parenthood and disability. She is writing a book on the ethics and theology of reproductive technology, genetic screening and disability, and she blogs at Choices That Matter and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.