Deacon Reflection: Are We Doing All We Can?
We need deacons in this diocese! Deacons of all shapes and sizes, all ages and ethnicities. How do we help make that happen? I believe it begins with us.
Last year I shared a story about planting my first garden. It began:
In 1975, I planted a garden in the middle of the Kansas plains. It was my very first garden, my very first attempt at growing food. Farmer Fred, our landlord and one of the great heroes in my life, asked me how much ground he should till for me. He did not know this was to be my first attempt at gardening. I considered for a moment, then replied, “About an acre, okay?”
He laughed and said “Ok, if that is what you want.” Then he took his mighty tractor and plowed up an acre of land for me. I went to the seed store he suggested, purchased a serious amount of seeds and plugs, and went back to plant my first garden. I thought I could plant that garden in a day or two, but I quickly learned farming and gardening are hard work. I had not planned how to water the newly planted field, so I ended up carrying water out by the bucketful. By the end of the first month, I was exhausted and realized how foolish I had been in my naivety! Farmer Fred was right to laugh because I had not planned well at all - perhaps not planned at all, if I am truly honest….
It was 44 years ago I met Farmer Fred and his wife, Delores, when I lived for a time in Wakefield, Kansas. I am ashamed to say I do not remember their last name. They changed my life forever. I can honestly say they even saved our lives. My firstborn was just six months old when we arrived, and almost everything I have done since then has been influenced by the two of them in some way. They helped me to see what it was like to depend on the land, to live in harmony with the land, to respect the land. When we were short on food, they shared their harvest, leaving baskets of vegetables, eggs and scrumptious pies. They never judged, never made me feel inadequate and never felt sorry for me.
When we started Inter-Faith Food Shuttle in 1989, it was their example I tried to emulate. In truth, I think of that whole mission as way to thank them for all they taught me about stewardship of creation and love of neighbor. Most importantly, they taught me those two things - care of creation and love of neighbor – never can be separated. “They are fingers on the same hand,” I remember Farmer Fred saying. When I have prayed about that phrase through the years, as when I first heard him say it, I am reminded of what it says in First Corinthians: The body has many parts, but there is only one body.
When I retired from Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, I was supposed to write “the book,” the explanation of how this small, local, grassroots non-profit, started by two women of different faiths and their respective congregations, changed this region and helped create change across the nation. But it was too close; I didn’t have enough perspective on how to start. So instead I started writing down quick remembrances of the people who helped make it go and the people who got in the way, the people who put up barriers and the people who removed them, the nay-sayers and the yea-sayers. After a few weeks of this, I realized that one list was very, very long, and the other list was very, very short. It should come as no surprise that the good guys always outnumber the bad.
Those reflections caused me to see with a new appreciation exactly how I became an ordained deacon in The Episcopal Church. I can name names, as all deacons can, of the pushers: those people who said, "You should be ordained, you are a deacon and don’t know it, get with it, get going, do you need me to talk to someone?" My parish priest was relentless; she wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. Then there were the people of my parish: all the supporters and the sustainers of this call. The people who were willing to walk beside me and let God mold me through their love and support. I am who I am because of the people of Nativity, Raleigh.
The lessons I learned on a Kansas plain were solidified in Winston-Salem. I came to the Episcopal Church because of one friend, a neighbor in Winston-Salem forty-some years ago. Our sons were playmates. She invited him to go to St Paul’s with her sons, and she invited me to come along, too. I had been a lapsed Catholic for a long time, someone who no longer missed church. The amazing thing is that I felt completely at home in that first worship experience and completely welcomed by the members of the congregation. After several visits, the rector, a very tall, gentle priest, knelt down beside my six-year-old son, asked him a few questions, told him a funny story, and my son was elated. We had found a church home.
I have been a deacon for more than 12 years, blessed to serve St. Philip’s, Durham. I was blessed to be mentored during my internship by a priest who instructed and encouraged with love and patience, one who pulled out the best in me. I am continually blessed by members of the St. Philip’s congregation, who stretch me beyond my comfort zone. Because of them, my call has evolved over the years, as I am sure our calls evolve for all of us. We walk this path of love and service because we ourselves have been loved and served.
So during this strange pandemic time, when life is so different, I have done some true introspection and found myself lacking. How many people have I “invited” to church? How many times have I watched a member of the congregation serve with gladness and joy and asked, let alone encouraged, that person to think about seeking ordination? How many times have I prayed wholeheartedly about people I think should consider ordination, asking God to call more loudly?
I vow that I am going to be better, I am going to become a better advocate for the diaconate. I want to be on the list of people who help make it go, who encourage and enable. More than anything, I do not want to be one of the ones who get in the way. Yes, we need to start reviewing the process, work on remediating the barriers, removing them as possible. We need to have more deacons able to find more ways to bring “church” to the people, into the community itself, because it could be a long time before “church” happens in the old way. We need to remember that new calls start and are encouraged the same way that they always have been: with the supporters and sustainers of a call.
I am encouraged because I know I am not the only one prayerfully considering these things. I invite you, my sisters and brothers, to join in specific daily prayers that we may support and encourage calls to the diaconate for those we feel have gifts to share. We need them and they need us.
The Rev. Jill Staton Bullard is a deacon at St. Philip's, Durham.