Friday, February 27, 2009

Journey to the Bottom of the C, as in Clergy

By Deanna Roux

I’m the type of person who likes to go to a movie without knowing too much about it. I like to be taken on a journey of sorts. When I interviewed 14 members of the clergy over the last year, I enjoyed every twist and turn. I was not afraid or intimidated; rather, I was excited and interested about what I was about to learn. Judging from my past life as a corporate writer, I knew that pastors, like executives, put their pants on the same way we all do - one leg at a time. I also knew that “what they do” is not nearly as revealing as “who they are.” For me, digging into one’s character is far more interesting to write about - and to read about.

It turns out the journey makes the person, which in turn makes the story. I have to credit, and thank, the 14 men I sat down with who graciously peeled away their layers to expose their journey to me. After meticulously quizzing these men and writing honestly about their lives, I thought it was fitting to share my journey as well.


It seems to me we’re all on some sort of journey. We all have our own paths to forge, opinions to form, and crosses to bear. At times, life may seem like a series of random events, but I’ve always held the belief that things happen for a reason. I used to think that was my way of getting through the tough times. You know, “That which doesn’t kill me only makes me stronger.” It is true; it’s just that now I know God has been there throughout my life, guiding me and giving me strength.

I grew up in a (mostly) non-practicing Catholic home. My two older sisters and I were baptized and we made our first communion. After that, we’d go to church only when we visited our grandparents. We would walk to mass with my grandmother after an early supper. I’m sure I looked very confused by all the standing, kneeling, singing, reciting and such. I tried to follow along. Going forward, I didn’t really have that much to do with my religion, except for the occasional wedding and funeral. That’s not to say I didn’t think about God or talk to God.

In my early twenties, I moved to Atlanta and began to attend mass with two of my girlfriends. They were sisters I knew from back home, who grew up in a very large Irish Catholic family. They helped me feel comfortable in the church. I felt a sense of belonging and community, which was important to me, especially being 1,080 miles away from my family. The sisters and I would have many conversations about God and His ways.

When my sisters were married, for personal reasons, they both chose an Episcopalian (non-denominational) minister to preside over their ceremonies. So when it came time for my wedding, I planned to go the same route; until my mother asked me, “Why do you want to get married in the Episcopal Church?” Of course, my answer was, “Because that’s where my sisters were married.” My mom opened my mind to the possibility of choosing the Catholic Church and that’s what I ended up doing. One question changed my spiritual journey.

A short time later my marriage ended and I still had a baby son who needed to be baptized. That brought me back to the church - for a short time. Around the same time my oldest sister, on her own religious journey, was attending RCIA sessions. RCIA stands for Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. In short, you learn more about your religion in order to make the necessary sacraments (she made her confirmation) to be in good standing with the church. She suggested I may want to do the same. I was suddenly a single mother trying to make ends meet on a 10-hour work-week - essentially working for health care insurance; RCIA was not a priority for me. But God was. I spoke to him frequently.

Next, my journey took me to a new relationship; a divorced Catholic man. We decided to have our wedding and our reception in a hotel. It was beautiful and we were happy. God gave my son and me a special gift and now He was about to give us all another - a baby girl. So again, a new baby sent me to the church. Now, many people might be thinking, “How convenient; you need something from the church so you go back.” I present a different view: that was my journey; it was meant to be. Many stages of my life have brought me back to the church. It’s God’s way of not giving up on me.

The impending birth of our daughter caused some huge turning points in our lives. We began attending mass every weekend. I opted to go through the RCIA process (several years after my sister suggested it) and finally made my confirmation. My husband and I received annulments, had our marriage blessed in the church and our baby girl was baptized. When my son (who was adopted by my husband after our wedding) made his first communion, it seemed like everything came full circle. We currently participate in religious education and our daughter will be making her first communion this spring. I look forward to seeing how the future will continue to shape our spiritual journey.


Interviewing priests, pastors and ministers has further enriched my religious journey. Talking about the reasons one becomes a pastor is quite interesting. But what I find even more intriguing is the journey they describe. Not all pastors wanted to become pastors. Some were actually very much against the idea. Some felt a calling. Some heard a calling. Some ignored a calling (for a period of time). Others felt it was more of a natural progression.


The “theater of the divine,” as termed by Father Vern of St. Francis, seemed to be a common thread as many pastors had a serious interest in the big stage.

Todd of UCC Belchertown wrote an adaptation of a 1940s radio show for a Christmas performance that benefited the town fuel assistance fund; Rabbi Bauer of the JCA (pictured at left) was an opera director for 15 years prior to his current position; and Pastor Bruce of Hope United Methodist Church has a puppet ministry, performing part of his sermon to the kids as a bear from Maine named Portland.


The nearly universal concern shared by pastors is the need for individuals to enjoy a relationship with God. Most felt it didn’t matter where - their church or a church down the street - but having a spiritual relationship with God was more important than the actual religion. Pastor Dale from the Christ Life Fellowship (pictured with his wife and co-minister Fran) suggests religion is not even necessary. He said, “God doesn’t care about what religion you are; he only cares about what’s in your heart.”


Coming from a Catholic background, and never having considered changing my religion, I was surprised to learn many pastors were not born into their religion and some didn’t even have a religious upbringing at all. More interesting, were the churches where what brought the people together was not necessarily their religion, but rather a sense of true acceptance. At the Assembly of God in Wilbraham, Pastor Brian Tracy (pictured at left) shared a surprising anomaly: they have many more attendees on a Sunday (about 325) than they do actual members (189). He cited the reason as “specifically reaching out to people in the community who aren’t of faith.”


Most pastors (Pastor Tracy excluded) were concerned about the number of members attending services versus the number of members on record. In other words, many have aligned themselves with a church, but far fewer actually participate on a regular basis. Most pastors with this concern had programs in place to help bring members back to the church community. At Immaculate Heart of Mary in Granby, Father Benoit’s congregation holds “town meetings” to help address the concerns of the people in order to attempt to fix the perceived problems. Father Vern of St. Francis (pictured at right - and my priest) implemented a post card campaign - a series of post cards sent to all members to bring awareness to the effects on the church when all members do not actively participate.

In doing this series, it is my hope that the reader has been taken on a revealing ride that shined a light in the shadows of their own spiritual journey. Where your life’s journey has taken you may not always be evident. Taking a step back in reflection may help reveal an otherwise hidden path. I would have to agree with the majority of the clergy I spoke with and say, choosing a relationship with God - in any small way you can muster - can and will improve your quality of life. I’m living proof.


Anonymous said...

Once again your willingness to open your heart to the process and share your own personal identity makes not only for interesting reading by anyone, but for someone who knows you so well it's a true testiment of your giving personality to share all. You are a special person who lives to give to others and always seeks the beauty around you. So many lessons your children will learn from you, we all will and do. I love you. - ds

Anonymous said...

This is lovely. Did you speak with any Catholic women priests? I ask as I am a member of the Old Catholic church (rec by Rome as valid/irregular since we are not under the Pope) and we have women priests. Having grown up Roman, I appreciate the openness of my Catholic church.