This is part twelve of a series on the diaconate we’re calling Diakonia looking at the amazing variety of voices within the ministry of deacons by diaconal candidate Dani Gabriel
In this installment, Dani interviews The Ven. Janet Tidwell from the Diocese of Atlanta
Previous Series Installments
Part 1: Living with Jesus
Part 2: Interview with Bishop Curry
Part 3: Stephen, the bicycle deacon
Part 5: Jess, the Bridge Builder
Part 6: The Rev Tracie Middleton
Part 8: Janice the Pioneer
Part 9: The Rev. Courtney Jones
Part 10: Chaplain Hal
Part 11: Deacon Josephine Borgeson
I could listen to Archdeacon Janet forever. What she has to say is compelling, engaging, and inspiring. She is clearly committed to learning as well as teaching. Janet was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. Following college, she became an elementary school science teacher. After years of teaching, she became a human resources manager for a media corporation, working for newspaper companies and television station. She was later employed as Deputy Secretary of Wisconsin’s Department of Employment Relations. Janet was an appointee of Governor Tommy Thompson, who later became the U.S. Secretary of Health & Human Services. Janet was ordained in 2011 and became Archdeacon in 2017.
Dani: What drew you to the diaconate?
Janet: It was some time ago I lived in Wisconsin and there was a deacon at the church where I was. We thought, or I thought at the time, “That sounds pretty cool to be able to do what deacons do.” I never wanted to be a priest. I didn’t feel God was calling me that way. I was very active in the church, you know, choir. I was never on the vestry, but I certainly did a lot with them and all kinds of projects. I got involved in things. I thought about it and I talked to that deacon. She said, “Oh, yeah…sounds [like] you might be interested in this field.” At the time, I was working, had two children, married. Kind of said, “Well, I don’t know if I can fit that in,” so the idea sort of went away.
Then, some 20 years later, the children are educated, gone to school, graduated, working, my husband passed away suddenly and I moved to Georgia. We were in Wisconsin at the time. I moved to Georgia and I joined an EFM class. You do spiritual autobiography.
At the end of the first year, at the very end, I said, “I’m interested in pursuing the diaconate.” That’s all I said. About two years later, one and a half to two years later, it opened up in the Diocese of Atlanta. They opened the process up. I said, “Okay. I’ll throw my name in the hat,” so I filled out the application, threw my name in the hat. I was selected to start the process. Okay, God, my middle name is Ruth and I’ll go wherever God sends me. I’m ready to go. That’s how it started. That was… let’s see, I’ve been a deacon for eight years, so it was three years before that. That process takes three years. One-year discernment and two years of actual formation. That’s how it happened.
Dani: Tell me about your ministry. What’s your work?
Janet: Right now, I guess I have a lot of ministry. I’m an archdeacon and the archdeacons cannot belong to any one church. I’m not assigned to a church, so I’m kind of a free agent and I go around to different churches. When I first became a deacon, first ordained, I was very interested in children. I had been a teacher, I’d been a lot of things vocationally, I’ve been a lot of things. When I started out, right out of college, I was an educator in elementary school, so kids, I loved kids. Another deacon and I who had been in the same formation class, we said, “You know, there are a lot of children out there that could use mentoring, tutoring after school, especially disadvantaged children.”
We got a program together. Lesley-Ann Drake, she’s a deacon in the Diocese of Atlanta. We’ve developed a program called Path to Shine…It’s an after school program. Volunteer, nobody got paid when it started. She started one in Atlanta, in Smyrna, which is a suburb. I was down south of her, in Macon, Georgia I started one there, so our ministry was really all about Path to Shine, getting people trained to do that kind of work. Basically, bringing the needs of the world, of these children, into the church and then, getting people involved in the church in that program, so they go out [of] the church. I eventually got an assistant to work with me. A lay person interested in the church and when I left, that particular church, and we do, we rotate our deacons every three years, and I stayed there probably a little bit longer than that, but when I left that church, I was able to have somebody who could take over that program. That’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re not supposed to take a ministry and be in it for life. It’s still going on some seven years now. And 14 more have started up. I started one in the city that I live in. That one is right now on sabbatical, but another one started in Perry, Georgia, which is a little bit south still of Warner Robins. That one’s going on. One is Columbus, Georgia, so in my area, which is middle Georgia, that there are three right now. That’s there, okay? Then, when I became an archdeacon, I was not allowed to be in any particular church. I didn’t have a particular ministry, but I feel I’m a trainer. That’s what I do. Okay? I’m involved in Safeguarding God’s Children, Safeguarding God’s People training, Dismantling Racism training, and that I feel right now, that’s really my ministry to go out and do this training, get people involved, make a safe place for people and children to survive in the church.
I mean, I think right now, we are not… the church can do more. We’re not doing everything that we can do. There’re so many unchurched people out there in the world I believe who need Jesus Christ. I model my life after him. We’re doing some good things; it’s just we’ve got to keep doing it and keep doing more. In the Safeguarding God’s Children program and Safeguarding God’s People program, we’re now looking at the LGBTQ and all the other letters that follow it now and saying, “Those people need a safe place, too.” There’s now going to be another training program kind of… Safeguarding the Binary. Okay? Kind of people that are in… It’s even confusing to me right now, because I don’t know a lot about it. I know what LGBTQ, but then there’s a lot more and it was like, oh, Lord, I’ve got to educate myself before I can go out and talk with people about this huge group of people that have been under the radar for a long time and make it safe for them wherever they may be. Especially in the church.
Dani: That’s beautiful. We appreciate that.
Janet: That program will be rolled out soon. The dismantling racism part, I’ve been doing that way before I was ordained. I was in private industry. I did a lot of diversity training. You know, you do that diversity training.
In the church, our program is now saying it’s not about training. It really is about spiritual formation. We take the mind and we can deal with the mind, but this work involves the heart and the soul. You’ve got to be… all that has to come together before you can change anything. First, you’ve got to look at yourself and say, “How was I raised? What kind of beliefs and values that I have around racism?” Then, take that forward to be able to work with other people. That’s where I am now in the process and I’m very proud of the Diocese of Atlanta. We’ve got…the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing and it is about… it’s not so much about training. It’s about reconciliation, repentance, healing.
Dani: Are you involved with the center as well as the training?
Janet: Yeah. The center was opened about a year ago and even before that, before the center was open, in 2006 I joined a commission. It was called the Anti-Racism Commission at that time and I was involved in that. In addition to… that was even before I was a trainer. We met, we looked at the issues…within the diocese of our area, and said these are the needs of the church in our area. It was the training’s not very good. A lot of blame, shame, and guilt. People walked out angry, people walked out sad, it was just not real good. Dr. Catherine Meeks and I lived in Macon, Warner Robins area, which is south. We used to travel back and forth to the meetings of the commission. We said, “You know, something’s got to change here.” Then, she literally took the whole thing over. Went to the bishop. We had a change of bishops at that time, too. She went to the current bishop and said, “We need to do this. We need to get money to do more training, we need to… awareness within the diocese of what the work that we are doing.” She was a dynamo. I mean, really.
I’ve now done training in Kentucky, she has been all over Province four and Province nine, which is the Central America, the islands, bringing the work of reconciliation and healing to those areas. In October, there’s going to be a sexuality, spirituality and sexuality conference at the center. There will be a wellness, women’s wellness there, bringing people from all over those provinces to the area. We’ve had a pilgrimage, the Jonathan Myrick Daniels Pilgrimage where they recognize the martyrs of Alabama.
Okay, we used to go to that regular. Then, Catherine and I and three other people said, “Wait a minute, we have people who have been lynched in Georgia. Why don’t we recognize those people?” We started a three-year project to find out the names of people who have been lynched in Georgia and we started out the first year in my area, Macon, Georgia, we found 17 people.
Oh, that was minuscule in terms of the number of people, but we had a plaque and the plaque with their names on it, had that plaque set in front of the Douglas Theater, which was a black-owned theater started by a man who was really a millionaire. He opened that theater because black couldn’t go to the Grand Opera House which is a few blocks away. At the time, during that time, once they lynched a person in Forsyth, Georgia, brought his body back, wanted to make a statement, threw his body in front of the Douglas Theater. That’s why we chose that place for the location of the first plaque with the 17 names on it. That’s there. Then, the second year, we went to Athens, Georgia and we discovered 53 names of people that have been lynched, so we have a larger, larger monument there. In the meantime, we were collecting and found names of more and more people who had been lynched in the diocese of… well, in Georgia period. Wasn’t just the Diocese of Atlanta. We have two dioceses in Georgia. We found 600 names.
In the third year, we recognized all 600 names on a monument that’s in front of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing. It was unveiled, Bishop Curry was there, Bishop Rob Wright was our bishop. We did a pilgrimage to Ghana three years ago. Three years ago. That bishop, Bishop Victor Atta Bafoe was also there for the opening of the center. He was there for the opening of the center and then we unveiled the monument last year…The very newest thing is a program that’s been designed for youth, dismantling Racism for sixth through 12th graders.
Dani: I love listening to you talk and how everything you say is about connections.
Janet: Absolutely. If God wanted me to do one particular thing, I think that’s what it is. To make connections with people. It’s all about relationship building. You cannot go into a neighborhood, a depressed neighborhood or whatever we in the church think that neighborhood is, you can’t go in there and just say, “Well, we’re going to start this program for you and we going to do this for you.”…when we wanted to get the Path to Shine program going, we started out with what we wanted to do a vacation bible school in a neighborhood. Linmoor Estates it was called. Depressed. I mean, really a depressed area. Mixed area, blacks, whites. What they had in common was they were poor. There was a tornado that hit that area, and we took some of the churches, the Episcopal Churches went in and stayed with the people, helped them in whatever way that we could. Got money from fiscal relief and development to get gift cards to give them for food. We brought in some food, helped them pack that food into bags to give to people, helped… The Red Cross came in, too, and helped to get trees off of houses and things like that. One of the questions that was asked of us at the time was, “Okay, you’ve helped us this far, are you coming back?” Because they were used to people coming in, do-gooders coming in, doing good, and the good was with all those do-gooders, and leaving. Okay?
We started relationships with the people in that area. Just go by, found out… One of the things you have to find out first is who the leader is. Okay? A lot of times, especially in African American communities, who’s the matriarch? You’ve got to find that person, talk with her, because she’s going to be your in to the people because people, that first year that we tried the bible school, we had one child show up. The next year we tried it, we had 50-some. The next year we tried it, we had a hundred kids show up.
You’ve got to establish relationships with people, and they may be depressed monetarily, but ABCD tells you that all of us have assets, everybody. May not be monetary assets, but we can do something. We can cook, we can make things, we can sew, we can do art, everybody, so when you go into the neighborhoods and form relationships with people, you find out they have some talent. Now, how can we best use that talent. We talk about it. I mean, I’ve got some really good stories on that one. How people and they then discover that, okay, I am, I have some value. I may not have a lot of money, but I have some value. That’s what God has put in all of us, that we do have value. Everybody has an asset they can share with somebody else. That’s what asset-based community development is all about.
Dani: Okay, so here’s a question. The church is changing, the world is changing. What is your vision for the diaconate?
Janet: Well, that there would be a true understanding among clergy as to what vocational deacons do and are. There are a lot of misconceptions, we were talking in the elevator, a lot of misconceptions about deacons. I would want deacons to be totally accepted. I know there’s lots of books out there about being an equal order, but there still are a lot of people out there who believe bishop, priest, deacon, lay. We used to talk about this in corporate, in a corporate setting where you start out with the CEO and then eventually you get down to the workers and how that needs to be turned around because there are more workers, there are more lay involved in churches. These people have value. It’s not like they’re at the bottom of the ladder. Okay?
Dani: My last question is, and this is kind of a fun one, why do we need deacons?
Janet: Within the church, we need deacons to be out there. To be out there in the streets, doing, as our bishop says, getting our fingers dirty, working with the people who need the assistance. I mean, that’s what we do. The poor, the hungry, the incarcerated, the immigrants, that’s what we do. The church, you have people, you have people out there who are counselors and social workers and everything. They’re needed, don’t get me wrong. They are needed, but who’s going to bring the word of God, the good news of Jesus Christ to people out there? That’s why we need deacons. That’s why I think we need deacons, to bring that out there. Then, as we say, we go out in the world, Lord knows there’s a bunch of needs out there. There’s a bunch of people sitting in the churches who think, “I’m doing real good because I come to church every Sunday, I hear the word. I can really feel good about myself.” Not all, but a lot. There’s needs out there, there’s people here, there’s money, you know, in this church there are, there are assets. Okay?
At this one church, you know, it’s a big church. Big church. They’ll write you a check in a heartbeat, which is needed. I’m not saying it’s not needed. Church is needed, but what about being out there and getting a relationship with those people out there with needs? Our bishop is a super example of that. One of the first things he did after he was ordained, he went out and spent a day with the garbage workers, rode in the trucks, picking up garbage in Atlanta. I mean, he’s a real example of getting out there, and he wants us to get out there, his deacons to get out there…there’s work to be done.
Dani Gabriel is a poet, writer, and teacher. Dani is a Candidate for the Diaconate in the Episcopal Diocese of California, aspiring to ordination and service in the church and community. Dani is the current Poet Laureate of El Cerrito, CA. Learn more about their work at www.allthepossible.com.