In the 90’s I was vicar of St. Andrew’s, Trenton. This was a parish of white, working and lower middle class people. The parish had been established by English immigrates coming to work in the pottery factories of Trenton.
- There had been several dramatic moments in the first year or so.
- On the day when I first meet the congregation, the wardens took me aside and said, “there’s something we thing you need to know. This is the most racist congregation we have ever seen.”
- Later there was a dust up with the choir, which mostly came from one family. As the processional hymn began, they refused to process. Later in trying to sort that out I learned that they felt that I didn’t pay enough attention to them. They told me that the previous vicar came to all the choir rehearsals.
- A called the previous vicar and asked about this. He said, “Yes I did go to almost all of the rehearsals. I was afraid of what they would do to one another if I wasn’t there. That’s when he also told me that over the years he found more and more social ministry projects to get involved with as a way to avoid spending time with people in the parish.
- I also asked a young woman, a single mother, who was in the choir but not of the “family” to help me understand what was going on. She then broke into tears and described how the choir had abused her with ridicule and belittlement week after week. They made fun of her voice, they commented on her unwed status, and they mocked her appearance and body shape.
- The few new people that came talked about feeling welcomed by the clergy but not by the congregation.
Henri Nouwen might say that there was a bit of hostility in the congregation.
We managed to get pass all that. I abolished the choir, the “family” left the parish, the congregation’s singing improved and no one ever said that they missed that group. Of course, once we have tossed out the scapegoat, we usually feel better for a time.
I want to tell you about a day that was a turning point for that community.
Nouwen writes, To the degree that our prayer has become the prayer of our heart we will love more and suffer more, we will see more light and more darkness, more grace and more sin, more of God and more of humanity.
That’s what happened after that day. They suffered more and they saw more darkness and sin, especially their own. And that was their redemption.
The working retreat
The vestry had agreed to a working retreat day. We would set aside the usual business, have a consultant, and see what we could learn about our life as a parish church, as a microcosm of God’s Holy Catholic Church.
A part of the retreat day was that our consultant, Linda, was going to have us complete a history line.
In the history line you stretch out a lot of newsprint across a wall and you draw a line that represents the parish’s history. You start at the beginning of the parish’s life, and you walk through it step by step, recounting the high points, and low points, the times of conflict, and the times of joy. So we did it. I was very interested in the exercise. I had done it with other parishes and knew how powerful it could be.
When the vestry began to speak of a period in the 1960s they were clearly uncomfortable. We continued on and competed the overview of the time line. Linda then came back to that time where they had been so uncomfortable. She asked them to say more. At first they were very quiet, and then bit-by-bit they began to unfold the story.
I gather they didn't especially like the priest and didn't think he was doing a very good job. So, there were resentments and tensions that had emerged and were bit by bit getting set in stone.
Then the son of the priest, a young boy, developed cancer and died.
As they told their story some had tears in their eyes. Almost everyone spoke. They were embarrassed by how they had behaved toward the priest. The man’s son was dying and then gone.
From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory,
and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice; and from all want
Good Lord, deliver us.
All these years they carried this burden of their unacknowledged sense that they had not dealt with it very well. They had not supported the priest in his time of grief. They had just been inadequate to the situation and unfaithful as Christians.
The illusion they had was that they could not talk about this. But if they did talk about it somehow everything would fall apart.
But this was not a thing that was to be kept private. This was not about the mystery of personal uniqueness. This was about our corporate sin and alienation.
The years of silence had made them hostile. It had made them lonely.
That it may please thee to bring into the way of truth all such
as have erred, and are deceived,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.
The Bishop’s Visit
It just so happened that the day after this retreat the Bishop was coming for a visitation. At the end of the retreat, Joan, the senior warden, came up to me and said, “Father we better take down all that newsprint about our history. We don't want to Bishop to see it.”
I was stunned. Her words seemed to unravel all we had just done. But before I could speak she got a look of surprise on her face, she smiled, and she said, “I'm doing it again.”
So the newsprint stayed up. The story was there and it was now public. The Bishop wasn’t especially interested; he was consumed by his own anxieties.
That it may please thee to strengthen such as do stand; to
comfort and help the weak-hearted; to raise up those who
fall; and finally to beat down Satan under our feet,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.
The illusion that was under it all was that God had no mercy, that forgiveness was not possible. And that illusion was in its roots atheistic. It meant that there was no God, no communion of saints, no company of heaven, in which we rested and were embraced and loved.
Acknowledging their hostility around events taking place 20 years earlier freed that congregation to shape a new future. It wasn’t easy. There was movement forward and reversals. But a new openness emerged over time. It did become a place that was much more at home with its inner life. For many people it was a place in which they could grow up, mature in Christ – they could, as Nouwen put it, “find the courage to enter into the desert of (their) loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude.”
It did become a community that was both a place of acceptance and challenge, of receptivity and confrontation.
I think it started at that vestry retreat as a group of people confessed their limitations and sins, their loneliness and hostility. They moved beyond the illusion that the world would fall apart if the undiscussable was discussed.
Henri Nouwen’s concern is that we find our “deepest selves” and that we find “community.” His approach to the spiritual journey is typically Christian – we are to nurture both an inner life and life together; we are called into our deeper self and we are called to life in relationship. And the two are interdependent, the one requires the other—hospitality is only true when built upon solitude. And both rest in the arms of God, the communion of saints, and the whole company of heaven.