by Brenda Johnson Kame’enui
Today is my second visit in 50 years to an Episcopal church. When all the leaves have fallen in the winter, the Church of the Resurrection glows down the hill onto my street. The stained glass window that fills half the church’s east wall sheds colored light on naked trees during cold, naked months. This church is a welcoming neighbor, a host to homeless people both inside and out.
It’s a bone-chilling Saturday in late January, under an oppressive fog that won’t lift. I walk half a block and climb a short hill to the front door of the church, passing a humble labyrinth formed with mossy rocks and stacked sticks. Twelve years ago, riddled with sorrow after my husband left, I walked my yellow Labrador retriever on the single path in and out of that simple labyrinth tucked in the oak trees. I sang, “Holy, holy, holy. My heart, my heart adores you. My heart is glad to say the words, you are holy, God.” I cried all the way in, paused for a moment at the center, and cried most of the way out. My lab cocked his head, nudged closer to my knee, and followed my lead.
The occasion today at this neighborhood church is the ordination of two priests. Anne, who is a relative of a relative of mine, invited me to her ordination. She told me the service would be two hours, followed by a reception. I’ve never been to a 2-hour service of any kind. I’m mildly worried I don’t have the stamina.
The usher tells me Anne’s family and friends are seated on the sanctuary’s left. I search awkwardly for an empty seat and pull up an armchair on the side. I hope I’m not so comfortable in the chair that I drift off in the third quarter, about 80 minutes into the ceremony.
The church is packed. A bevy of retired and visiting priests in white robes and bright red sashes moves down the center aisle and splits off to sit in a bank of pews in support of Anne or Iain, the other ordinand.They sing a processional they know well, and the wood rafters that reach to the clear story and the sky beyond resonate with the mixed sounds of the seasoned voices of the priests and choir in the balcony. I like this. The gathering song is fitting today, the day our president of just one day closed the nation’s borders to people from seven largely Muslim countries, claiming terror threat. Foreign travelers are stacking up in airports; Fulbright Scholars and babes in arms are sent back to wherever they came from.
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… America, land of the free and home of the brave.
The gathering song that’s making the rafters bulge is beautiful in all five verses. I don’t want it to end. The harmonizing of someone in this building makes a very big sound that gives me shivers.
Let us build a house where love is found
In water, wine and wheat:
A banquet hall on holy ground
Where peace and justice meet.
Built of tears and cries and laughter,
Prayers of faith and songs of grace,
Let this house proclaim from floor to rafter:
All are welcome, all are welcome,
welcome in this place.
Red is the color of Episcopalian ordination. I wish I’d known; I might have worn my red satin and velvet scarf. Sitting behind me, a woman and two young children are dressed in red—a toddler, curly and cute with an impressive vocabulary, and his older sister, in an ornate red dress a friend brought from China.
Two shiny red satin banners, embroidered in thick white doves, frame the chancel. The doves appear to be catapulting to the earth with an olive branch. Today we need an olive branch any way we can get it.
In the center of the chancel, a large bouquet of red roses sits in front of a table dressed in more red satin. Hidden in the roses are daffodils, and below, white daisies encircle the large vase. I don’t know if the daisies are a mistake or symbolic. I hear someone say they should be spray-painted red. I know daisies smell terrible.
The bishop of Oregon welcomes us to the service. His hat of baby-blue satin stretched front to back rests on top of his head. It looks silly, but upon closer look, I see it’s bedecked in jewels and symbols in shimmering thread. Holding a scepter, the bishop looks comfortable as master of pomp and prayer. The pastel mosaic of his vestment mimics the brilliant stained glass window behind him.
Sunshine appears outside after 15 hours of a smog inversion. I am grateful to feel warm and be distracted from an ill-advised White House administration carrying out mean-spirited campaign promises only a day into the term. The clear red at the center of the stained glass window cascades into more red and then yellow and a succession of rainbow colors. The sky breaks open just in time to cast color on the song-filled room.
The bishop of Oregon presents the ordinands. “I testify to the manner of life of Anne and Iain and their suitability to the ministry,” he offers. “Does anyone present know of any impediment or crime that would keep me from proceeding today?” Not a sound in the place. No red sashes rustle, no gray heads turn, no children chatter; the toddler remains asleep on his mother’s shoulder. Finally the bishop asks, “Anne and Iain, will you be loyal to Christ and obey the bishop?” The two solemnly declare they are willing and ready.
A layperson, confident in a dress of gold-and-aubergine paisley swirls, reads from the letter of Paul to the Ephesians. Paul reminds us to speak the truth in love. Everything I hear today makes my heart race. Our president doesn’t speak truth in anything, least of all love. What will become of us under a state-sponsored bully?
We stand to sing.
Bless the Lord, my soul, and bless God’s holy name.
Bless the Lord, my soul, who leads me into life.
These Episcopalians can sing. We sing this Taize chant at my church, but today is different. I could listen forever. It’s another verse my yellow lab knew well from our walks in and out of the labyrinth of rocks and sticks.
A woman with a swinging bob walks to the center of the chancel, wearing a white robe tied with a red silk rope that wraps her body twice. She introduces herself as Kammy. “I was born Katherine Mary, so there you have it.” Perhaps Kammy knows her name sounds young, like a sorority sister. I like her already.
“I’m from Sewanee School of Theology, not the Suwanee River down South that runs into Florida, though that’s my home state. The Sewanee School in Tennessee is where I met Anne as a student. This week I met Iain on the telephone. We talked about his hopes and dreams in ministry. I feel so privileged to be here.”
Kammy reflects on the drive from Portland to Eugene yesterday, crossing “the river that rhymes with ‘damn it’.” People in the front row laugh and offer up “Willamette.” That’s the river.
“You may wonder what the director of contextual education and a lecturer in contextual theology does,” Kammy says, referring to the title following her name in the program. “My job is to weave the Bible into life, into practice in the world.” I know a little about this. “The stuff we gather together to do as a church is real,” Kammy reminds everyone in the open amber room studded in red. I am comfortable in this place of progressive Christians, not unlike my own church.
The members of this church know real. Every night when the temperature dips to 30 degrees, the Church of the Resurrection welcomes into a warming center people who have nowhere to sleep. Volunteers pass casseroles and dinner rolls, pillows and bedrolls. I often walk through the parking lot of this little church, which is also home to three tiny wood homes on wheels, local innovations for people without housing. The men who live in the tiny homes work a garden in the summer. Today pumpkins languish in the garden, soggy and misshapen from freezing and thawing. Deep green kale grows tall and narrow and rumply.
Kammy continues her homily without notes. “We are gathered in by a God who gives us a place to find our joy and way in life. Reconciliation and hope are real.” We all need hope this week and this month and this year.
“Bryan Stevenson, author of the New York Times bestseller Just Mercy, reminds me that we do the work we’re called to do by God,” Kammy tells us. “Bryan is a Harvard Law graduate and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. He works against mass incarceration.” I’ve heard of the book. Where is Rev. Young going with this?
In her soft Florida-panhandle accent, Kammy, here to honor the two ordinands for their future work in the name of God, tells more of Bryan Stevenson’s story.
Kammy continues. “Sometimes Johnnie Carr, the woman who organized the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, invited her friend Bryan to her Montgomery home to visit. Every now and then, Carr called Bryan to tell him her friend Rosa Parks was in town; would he like to come over and listen? Bryan said he would and he did. One time, after Bryan listened to the women talk for a couple hours, Rosa Parks turned to him, ‘Now what is this Equal Justice Initiative? Just what are you trying to do?’”
Kammy tells more of the story. “Bryan told Ms. Parks that the EJI is challenging injustice and helping people who’ve been wrongly convicted. ‘We’re trying to end life-without-parole for children,’ Bryan told the listening Rosa Parks and Johnnie Carr.”
The full house of Episcopalians is now listening as intently as Bryan did in that Montgomery parlor. I don’t care how much time has gone by. I’m all in.
“When Bryan was done, Rosa Parks turned to him, rocked back and forth, and said, ‘Mmm, mmm, mmm. That’s going to make you tired, tired, tired.’ Then Johnnie Carr leaned forward, put a finger up to Bryan’s face, and said, ‘That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.’”
Kammy Young continues. “God’s love reaches across all divides. We must all be brave—and bold, nurtured as we are by God’s grace.”
Today people traveled from bombed-out Damascus and war-torn Yemen and other places around the globe. They were brave and bold to leave the home they loved. Midway across the Atlantic, some of them learned that as of today, America would not welcome them. I hope, against extraordinary odds, they will feel nurtured by God’s grace.
Mother Teresa said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other.” Kammy Young and Mother Teresa both know God doesn’t know borders. We belong to strangers in Honduras and Amsterdam and Syria. The apostle Paul, the same one the woman in paisley read, wrote of the goodness of God; Paul was converted on the road to Damascus. Damascus, Syria, founded in the 3rd millennium B.C., the center of four civilizations. Damascus, now bombed and blasted into bits, spilling refugees across the Mediterranean, fleeing for their lives as children topple out of the boat.
No one wants to leave home. Today Syrians are turned away at U.S. airports. “Go back where you came from.” I don’t want to imagine where they came from, so much of their ancient homeland rubble and dust, friends and family lost or dead. We have forgotten we belong to each other.
As testament to Kammy’s message and a celebration of Anne and Iain, everyone in this overflowing Episcopal church is invited to break bread together, to belong to one another. The silver chalice is wine; the pottery chalice is grape juice. A taste of wine to warm my bones sounds inviting, and I prepare to go forward and kneel at the rail, until I see that not only the ordinands drink from the chalice, but everyone does. Everyone. A server in a white gown wipes the chalice with a linen towel after each person drinks, but it’s not enough for me. At my church, we dip a cube of bread in grape juice. Our way is more antiseptic than intimate, but I’ve skirted the flu all season and I don’t want it now. God is too busy to protect me this week. I stay back in my armchair. I may be the only person here who doesn’t take communion.
The bishop cloaks Anne and Iain in broad red vestments and commissions them to conduct God’s work. A few more resounding hymns and chants move through the sanctuary, golden and red now as the sun sinks lower. We end the service singing, some harmonizing, beseeching God out there and in here, “may your care and mercy lead us to a just society.” Less than 90 minutes.
After Anne’s family and friends congratulate her and the sanctuary empties, I introduce myself. We’ve never met in person, and Anne is gracious. She expresses her gratitude for this day that marks her accomplishment and her faith forward and invites me to the reception downstairs.
I don’t know anyone gathered in this church basement, but I recognize the gray-haired men and women who make this hub of Christianity hum, from the parking lot to hymns.
Children return to the decorated refreshments table for more chocolates and cashews. I enjoy a piece of white layer cake with Anne’s name scrolled in cranberry red across the top. I enjoy it so much I have a second sliver before I slip out the patio door.
Just minutes before the sun sinks behind the hill, splinters of sunshine find their way through clouds. I pass the church’s garden, fenced off to deer and turkeys, to walk the short distance home. A handmade sign hangs on the garden gate: “Food for People, Not Profit.”
I must be brave, brave, brave.
Brenda Johnson Kame’enui is a retired public school teacher and a fellow traveler in compassion and justice. She is grateful for the rain and shine of the beautiful Pacific Northwest, where she live and roam the mountains, bikeways, and ski trails.