This is part four 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. Canon Nina Pickerrell of the Diocese of California
Previous Series Installments
Part 1: Living with Jesus
Part 2: Interview with Bishop Curry
Part 3: Stephen, the bicycle deacon
The Ven. Canon Nina Pickerrell sits in a garage stuffed with baby bibs, diapers, toys, and several hundred towels donated by the Hilton. We’re in a cleared out corner with a fridge, a rug, and two plastic chairs. The door behind us is open to the yard, with a sandbox and kids toys everywhere. Behind that is her house, in which, she tells me, she keeps it simple. Deacon Nina is firm. Deacons must model justice and compassion and live out the Good News in all aspects of their lives. Don’t just serve in church on Sunday. Serve the people at all times. Don’t take up too many resources. It’s not about you.
Nina lives in Bayview, probably the most resourced starved neighborhood in San Francisco. I have heard reports that it, like the rest of the city, is starting to gentrify. But as I drive in past piles of trash and dozens of crumbling RVs where people shelter I think maybe not yet. The neighborhood is predominantly African American, with the most violence in the city, and almost entirely ignored. Nina directs Bayview Mission out of her home. “I don’t have a permit” she says, uneasily. She’s been operating for 15 years, running a weekly food pantry that also gives out diapers, and clothes, and anything else she gets donated. She never turns down a donation or a volunteer. She gets people from Google volunteering and people who need the food pantry themselves. She finds projects that suit everyone. Every week people get fed and supported with other items. Last year she did a free summer camp for neighborhood kids. She did a Gun Buy Back. “We even got an assault rifle!” she exclaims “We’re going to do it again. Three times as big.”
Bayview Mission was founded in 1993. When Deacon Nina moved to the neighborhood, the violence and drug epidemic in the neighborhood were overwhelming. She got into it deep with her neighbors. She founded Bayview Mission at her home, pulling in every resource she could get. And she has a lot of supporters.
Deacon Nina writes “When I moved into the house my grandparents had purchased in the 1950′s, I began making big changes. I cleaned up the yard and replanted the vegetable garden to give the neighborhood children a safe place to play. I cleared the clutter from the garage in order to set up a food pantry that now serves over 400 families every Monday. I tidied up the old garden room in the basement to house a children’s library that includes over 2000 books. The next project is the renovation of the barn. It’s the future location of the worship space for The Bayview Mission, a ministry of Grace Cathedral that is supported by The Episcopal Diocese of California and nearby parish St. Gregory of Nyssa. The impact of the Bayview Mission’s food pantry, community garden, and free library may be in the bringing of hope and abundance to those who have only known want and isolation.”
Dani: What drew you to the diaconate?
Nina: A priest came to me and said, “I feel that you have a calling to the diaconate.” And I said, “No way, nobody would want me, nobody would want me.”
Dani: You said that?
Nina: Absolutely. Cross my heart and all of that. I said, “No, no, no, no, no.” And he said, “Nina, for me, would you at least go to the interview?” I said, “Okay, fine, I’ll go for you.” I went and interviewed with the very Reverend Judith Dunlap. When we finished the interview, she says, “Congratulations, I’ll see you at school in August.” And I looked at her and my little voice was saying, “You have got to be kidding me. You do not want me there.” Then I had to go back to Father Cliff Blinman and say, “Well, they’ve accepted me. We’ll see how this works out.” I get to school and I’m waiting for someone to say, “You don’t belong here. We’ve made a mistake.” I had two teenagers. I had divorced my husband and I had this big blonde hair and these long red fingernails. I thought, once they get to know me, they’re going to ask me to leave. Who would want this damaged woman in her, what, her forties at the time.
Things kept going along and nobody asked me to leave and then I start getting comfortable and I was getting a little louder and louder. I was passing my classes and I had someone look over my papers when I submitted them because back in the day, there was no computer and all of this business. Some of my classes were honors classes, which was a first for me and then ordination, and I thought, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.” [Walking up the steps of the Cathedral] I had my spiritual director on one side of me and a friend on the other side for fear I’d turn around and bolt.
Nina: It’s all true. So insecure, oh my gosh, insecure to the max. If they found out about my childhood, they’d ask me to leave because who would want someone so damaged as I? Then Rev. Judith Dunlop Dean of SFD came to me after ordination and said, “Grace Cathedral is looking for a deacon and I’d like you to interview.” Of course they’re not going to want me. I interview and “Yes, we’ll see you in August.” It was others who held me up. Other people could see it and I couldn’t see it at all. To answer your question.
Dani: Thank you. That’s a great answer.
Nina: It’s been wonderful to be able to give back and overcome some of my own issues. It has enabled me to see [that pain?] in others, recognize it and have more patience with certain folks. I know what it’s like to feel like you had gum on the bottom of a shoe. I do. [But] when Cliff Blinman came up and said, “Why not the diaconate?” And I thought, “Go talk to somebody else.”
Dani: How old were your kids?
Nina: Teenagers. They were teenagers. 11 and 13.
Dani: Really? Mine are 11 and 13.
Nina: No kidding.
Dani: Yeah. No joke. Sam is 11, Maggie’s 13.
Nina: Oh, for heaven sakes. Okay.
Dani: I’m going to take that right there as a really good sign.
Nina: That’s a very good sign, there you go. For me, these 23 years has been years of healing, a lifelong process. I get to work with women who’ve been verbally and sexually abused. Women will recognize that in one another and they’ll say, “I think we’ve walked in the same shoes.” Yeah. It’s been good. I’ve run a senior program, run the columbarium, done pastoral work, done funerals, weddings as a deacon. We’ve got it all in my book – I appreciate our role in the liturgy, our role in the world. Priests can’t be in the office and behind an altar and be out in the world. Our job is to bring the concerns of the world to the church and then take it a step further. Live out your baptismal vows, preach, Jiminy Christmas, everything. The priesthood seems so restricted.
Dani: It’s funny because people have asked me things about like, “Well, don’t you want to be a priest?” And I’m like, “Heck no. Absolutely not.”
Nina: Well, back in the day they’d say, and I haven’t heard it lately for some years, but they’d say, “When are you ready for the priesthood, Dani?”
Dani: I’ve heard people say, “Why don’t you want to go all the way?”
Nina: Yeah. There’s another one. I said, “No. Not interested.” I’m here, you can ask anything of me. I’m here. You want to sell a columbarium space? I’m here. You want to do a funeral? I’m here, I’ll support you, guide you, give you every tool you need. But priests tend to be in silos and that’s unfortunate for the church because the church is drying up. So, who knows?
Dani: Why do we need deacons? Why? I heard the other day that someone was telling me that there was a diocese and the bishop was like, “Nope, don’t need them. Not interested.” Why, why do we need deacons?
Nina: There’s dioceses where you get to wear your collar in church. The moment you leave that door, you take the collar off and you wear gray. You don’t wear black with your collar in church in some dioceses. Yeah. Well, okay. Let me ask you, to turn the question around, what is the church lacking? [What do we need other than] a liturgy, nice music, nice words and all of that? At a wedding or a baptism we are asked to support those two loved ones or support that child or support that adult who’s being baptized for the rest of their life. When the wedding [or the baptism is] over, [should] the doors shut and then we forget about them? No.
Why do we need deacons? Because we need deacons out in the world, to be models as we are to be Christ like. If everyone lived out their baptismal covenant, wouldn’t we be in a good place?
Dani: We would be in an excellent place.
Nina: All right, I can turn around the question to you. Why deacons in the world? What do we need them for, Dani?
Dani: Well, you said it, the icon, right?
Dani: Someone to look to as an example and someone to inspire. It’s not just looking to and seeing what they do, it’s like deacons are all in the business. You know what I mean?
Dani: Say more about how you encourage others.
Nina: I’ve got one volunteer she doesn’t like other people talking to her. She likes to do her own thing. I’ve got her doing the toiletry bags. That’s her niche. Well, I’ve got someone else saying, “Well, Nina I like to do those consignment shops. Can I go have those designer clothes consigned? Can I do that? We’ve got some pretty good quality things here.” And I said, “Well, let me talk to the folks who donate and say, if you give me a sequin dress, can I take it to a consignment shop?” They said yes of course. That volunteer has raised $31,000 in 15 years just by taking things to consignment shops.
Nina: That buys a lot of eggs. I have volunteers who are trying to make it from week to week, forget the month to month thing and this is their safety. I had a woman stop the other day. The garage door was open; I was doing something in here. And she goes, “Oh.” She says, “I’m so glad to see the garage door open. I just want to say, Cindy is now five years old and raising her in this area, she said, I never had to worry about diapers or food for my daughter. And I thought, hot damn. And the thing is, I don’t have a permit.
I’ve sat on the top of those stairs thinking, what if the city comes along and says, what in Sam Hill are you doing? Where’s your permit? And let’s say they closed it all up and people said, “Well, what would you do? What would you do?” And I said, “I’d give thanks for the people we have served.”
Dani: What is your vision for a changing diaconate in a changing church and a changing world?
Nina: Wow. I’m glad you asked. We’re on the same page. I’m glad you asked that question, Dani because [now that I’m retiring] after 23 years of doing all the diaconal things I’m asking the question, what can we do for our future deacons? [Let’s make the diaconate more] multicultural. Let’s say a new deacon’s coming along and her name is, Sue. We say, “Sue, please come on board. We have Spanish speaking instructors, we have a support group, two other deacons that will support you through the process.” Wouldn’t that be nice?
Dani: It would be lovely.
Nina: I don’t know about your life experiences. I’ve shared a little bit about mine and I’m guessing I’m not the only one in the boat.
Dani: No, you’re really, really not.
Nina: I didn’t think so.
Dani: No, but I don’t talk about it. Yeah.
Nina: Okay. And, and I never pry.
Dani: No. It’s really, really amazing to hear you talk about it though, because I always am like, there’s that part of me that’s still like, “Are the churchy people going to judge?”
Nina: Well, that was my big, big, big fear. But I think of it differently now. I’ve had women come up and say, “I heard you were divorced. You actually asked your husband to leave?” I say, “Yes.” And Dani, he was just here. He’s six foot six, came out of Vietnam, 160 pounds. We were both immature. We both didn’t know what marriage life was all about. We played house there for a while and then had children. He’s done a lot of healing. I’ve done a lot of healing. And if he needed something, I’d be there today as a human being, I’d be there. Becoming a little more comfortable with your life experiences will feed more into your ministry in many ways. Like I say, I know nothing and I would never pry.
Nina: At the same time, I’ve told people numerous times, like at Grace Cathedral my door opens and closes and opens and closes all the time. Because the rule is this. If the door is shut, anything that is said stays in that office. I’ve had clergy women come to me, lay women come to me and made accusations against another clergy person or another lay person. Now, I don’t know if she’s telling the whole truth or not, but what’s my first thing to do? To be her advocate. You sit there, I’ll be right back. Bishop Marc available? No. When will he be available? Okay, I’ll just sit here and wait and boom, and then the process. Bishop Marc knows if he texts me and he needs something, I’m there. Now, it doesn’t happen a lot, don’t get me wrong.
Nina: I’ve been in a position to help other women lay and clergy through some very delicate [things]. I know where to go for my support, and I’m sure you have a spiritual director.
Dani: I do.
Nina: Good. For a lot of us deacons, we need therapy hence, do you know?
Dani: I have that as well.
Nina: Good. [I went to start training as a chaplain and my therapist], this poor guy, he said, “You’re going to start CPE?” And I said, “Yes.” He goes, “Oh.” He goes, “Okay. You don’t see any problem with that?” And I said, “No, why would I see any problem with that?” And he says, “Well, I believe your sister died in that hospital.” “Yeah.” “And that’s not going to bother you?” “No.” “I believe your grandfather and grandmother three years apart died in that hospital.” “Yeah.” “That’s not going to bother you?” “No, that’s not going to bother me.” He goes, “Now, okay.” He says, “Okay, fine.” He says, “Sometimes when people go to CPE, they need a little extra spiritual guidance. If you need an extra time, another appointment,” He says, “You just call and let me know.”
Nina: Dani, I walked into St Luke’s hospital, ended up in the same room where my sister had died. I went to the instructor and I said, “I can’t do this. [This is] a mistake. And I said, “Judith has made a mistake.” And [the director] looked at me, I will never forget. She looked at me right in the eyes. “Judith doesn’t make mistakes. Sit down and shut up.” I go, “Okay.” And went through the classes and things. But the other class was a year ahead of me and there was one deacon who caught me in the parking lot that evening and said, “You’re meant to be here.”
Nina: Our insecurities, do they get in the way? Yes. Anyway, I think to go back to one of your questions to be a deacon is to be real. You can’t be a deacon and not give of yourself to the point that you have turned your wounds in a way that assists other people. You have to be real. I cannot be with an alcoholic saying, ‘I’m so sorry. I understand what you’re going through.” No. Now, come to me as an abused woman or a child…
Nina: I’m there 100% and that person will know that our experiences are different, but I’ve been through it. I’m not there patronizing you are saying, “The most pastoral thing to do is ask how you’re doing.” No. No. No. Deacons are called to be real in the world and that’s very, very hard because to be real, you need to expose, you need to be vulnerable. And I’m not saying you go out there with a sign on, don’t get me wrong, but just a little what you’ve heard today. That’s this much.
Nina: But you get it?
Nina: We all react, respond differently. But if we have a safe place, then we don’t have to go into the deep details, but just to say, “I’m not alone. There’s another woman. There’s another man that would understand.” And you look at your congregation. You can’t tell me [there’s not] someone in your congregation [who has experienced abuse.]
Dani: I know. I am absolutely aware of that. Yeah.
Nina: Good. We all have to get to a point where we can say, “Yeah, I can understand some of that. I’ve had that experience.” I don’t have to go into detail. That alone says, “She understands, she’s not going to judge me.”
Nina: Yeah? And they’re not going to turn away from you, and you can say to them. “I’m not turning away from you. I’m here. I’ll walk, crawl and run with you.” Sometimes it takes all three.
Dani: Sometimes it does.
Dani: Can I ask you one last question?
Dani: Let’s say there’s someone who’s just starting to think, “I wonder if I might be called to be a deacon.” What would you say to them?
Nina: The first thing I do is say, go to the Prayer Book and look for the different holy rites.
Dani: My mentor made me read those every day.
Nina: Every day?
Dani: Yeah. Every day.
Nina: That’s good. Well, and you’re darn sure, right?
Nina: I started off by modeling it. People inquire because they see that in you that they see in themselves. You can ask yourself the same question.
Dani: Any other advice?
Nina: A couple of years ago, I was made Canon at Grace Cathedral and it was a complete surprise. I thought, “Why would you want Nina Pickerel as a Canon?” It’s an honorary Canon and I carry that title until the day I die. Once again, I didn’t see it. I didn’t go for it, I’ve never had an agenda. I’ve never had a ladder to climb. It’s just, a lot of it is giving, that’s part of the diaconate for sure. Forgiving, giving, loving and serving. Very simple, piece of cake.