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Q&A: This Episcopalian cultivates community by getting dirty

Wed, 01/03/2018 - 1:46pm

Brian Sellers-Petersen works in a garden in the spring 2016. He’s retiring from Episcopal Relief & Development to continue his food and faith ministry in other ways. Photo: Kevin C. Johnson/St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle

[Episcopal News Service] As 2017 came to a close, Episcopal News Service caught up with Brian Sellers-Petersen during a brief visit to the Episcopal Church Center in midtown Manhattan. Sellers-Petersen spoke about how his ministry has evolved, his near-death experience and what he plans to do in 2018 now that he’s moving on after 17 years working for Episcopal Relief & Development. Hint: One catalyst was his book, “Harvesting Abundance: Local Initiatives of Food and Faith,” published by Church Publishing Inc.

Sellers-Petersen is based in Seattle, Washington. For the last several years, he worked as senior advisor to Robert Radtke, president of Episcopal Relief & Development. Sellers-Petersen’s favorite way to engage people is through his fusion of food and faith. For example, he was integral in founding the Faith Farm and Food Network at the Beecken Center of The School of Theology at Sewanee in Tennessee. In August 2016, the program’s name changed to Cultivate: Episcopal Food Movement.

What is the connection between edible gardens and the Episcopal Church?

The church owns a lot of land — land not being used. We’re huge property owners … A lot of my work interests run parallel with asset-mapping work. So, I was talking to churches about their asset base. And in suburban, upper-middle class churches, there are multiple master gardeners and gardens, people

Brian Sellers-Petersen

Home: Seattle, Washington
Education: University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, B.S.; Fuller Theological Seminary, M.A., theology; Sewanee, The School of the South, fellowship at School of Theology
Positions: Director of the Center for South Africa Ministry at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California; California regional organizer for Bread for the World; special assistant to the president at World Vision; senior advisor to the president, Episcopal Relief & Development.

knowledgeable about landscaping, ornamentals. Yet a lot of [experts] are moving toward edible gardens. There’s also an abundance of commercial kitchens in our churches that aren’t used to their maximum, or even minimum capacity, as far as I’m concerned.

Why didn’t you go directly into farming like your family did?

My family is the first generation off the farm. We were the city kids of all the cousins, [the ones] who came down in the summer and worked on the farm. We were the kids without a farmer tan and calluses. My parents, they’ve never really come right out and said it, but they couldn’t wait to get off the farm. So, there wasn’t encouragement of my interest in agriculture. I mean, I remember distinctly thinking about going to [agriculture] school in Nebraska, where the family farms are. I don’t know if I ever told my parents that, but they would’ve probably convinced me that wasn’t the right thing to do because it’s a really hard life.

What did you do instead?

I went into international development. When I graduated, I had a psych degree, and I didn’t know what to do. I … ended up in South Africa. That was as far away as Nebraska and Minnesota as I could get. I was there during apartheid, at the end of it. I worked in rural areas and kept that connection with the land. I worked for Bread for the World, which is a Christian citizen lobbying group focused largely in the farm belt and on anything hunger related. And then I worked at World Vision, and I developed curriculum for kids and worked in a similar job to what I’m doing at [Episcopal Relief & Development].

How did your work at Episcopal Relief & Development take a turn toward food in particular?

Whenever I’d make international trips, I’d look and really study and learn as much as I could about the agricultural work — small-scale, sustainable agriculture. When I headed up the church engagement department at [Episcopal Relief & Development], we started the curriculum for children called the Abundant Life Garden Project.

It was viewing the garden as a classroom, where children could learn about what Episcopal Relief & Development does in terms of food, water, environment and livestock, and also, they could learn the basics of Christianity. To me … the garden is the best classroom we have to learn about God. And that’s what this curriculum was about.

Out of the experience of seeing all that work around the world, I started looking at church assets in the United States completely differently. Churches had beautiful green lawns, a lot of them. And then I started seeing those green lawns and saying, ‘You know, that acre of land that they don’t use, except for the Easter egg hunt, could be growing food.’  We need to develop a stronger sense of awareness of how important it is to be eating local and seasonal food … the church is the place to help lead in terms of awareness.

Brian Sellers-Peterson displayed copies of his book and some of the honey from his hives after a recent Sunday service in December. Photo: Kevin C. Johnson/St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle

What instigated your “Harvesting Abundance” book and career change?

Five years ago, I got sabbatical from Episcopal Relief & Development. I took a deep, deep dive looking at church agriculture here in the United States. I volunteered at this biodynamic permaculture hippie farm not far from my house once a week. And I visited a lot of church gardens and talked to people and listened to what made them glad. It was a blast. I went way beyond parishes. All the other entities within the church have agriculture, and some of them were founded on agriculture. The University of the South, Sewanee, used to be a working farm, all the students had to work on the farm. And there’s a separate high school, St. Andrews, that a monastic order founded, where again, all the students had to work on the farm … Camps and conference centers are another example. Gardens are growing all over the place.

Then what happened?

Not long after that, I almost died. I spent four months in the hospital. There’s about a 10 percent survival rate [for people diagnosed with aortic dissection]. So, I just learned about gratitude. I was immobilized, so I had a lot of time laying on my back. I never really understood the depth to which I had gone until I was out of the hospital. I had to relearn everything. I had to learn how to swallow again.

How did this traumatic event change the course of your life?

I had a lot of time to consider, and so during that period, I started finally documenting my sabbatical, and it ended up becoming a book. The process of writing the book led me to the decision that it’s time, after 17 years with [Episcopal Relief & Development], to try something different.

And so, this is how you’ve integrated your faith with your love of all things agrarian?

I’m called to put my hands it the dirt, but not eight hours a day, 10 hours a day, 12 hours a day. Maybe occasionally, but my call is more to be an agricultural evangelist in the Episcopal Church, sharing the good news of our responsibility to care for all of creation. The presiding bishop really has articulated that well, in terms of creation care. I want us to do a better job in our choices around food and caring for all of creation, and that happens in a variety of ways.

Such as, how we can do our part to alleviate climate change?

When we talk about building resilience against climate change, a kitchen garden is a pretty simple way to do it, instead of feeling paralyzed. Every carrot we pull out of our backyard or off our little balcony, if we grow on our balcony, is one less carrot where we drive our car to the grocery store to buy a carrot that’s been shipped from somewhere else. And by extension, farmers markets are vitally important.

I have a chapter in my book about churches with farmers markets. I think it’s a great way of participating in the community … If a church wants to do a garden, if at all possible, put it in the most conspicuous spot on your property. Plant it in your front yard. That serves as a symbol of your values. I think that gardens can serve as invitations. They can serve as porches. They may even serve as a front door.

Why is food considered a ministry?

I look at [the church’s current mission priorities] and all of them can connect to food. I look at reconciliation work: A garden is a great equalizer. The common table, if you can stay off of divisive subjects while at the table and enjoy food together, it really brings people together. And I think that’s an important ministry.

Evangelism: Not in a coercive way, but I think there’s good news in all aspects of food ministry.

Church growth, reinvigoration and church planting: There’s another story in there about a new church … really using the growing of their garden as a metaphor for growing their church.

And, the Navajoland [Area Mission] is doing some remarkable farming and small business enterprise through their agrarian ministry. So, in terms of indigenous ministries within the church, they’re doing it.

Do you have a garden at home?

Yeah, it’s kind of a wild garden. Since I’ve been sick, I haven’t spent as much time on it as I’d like. And since I started keeping bees, the bees have taken more of my time. But my wife is the big-time gardener. We’ve had chickens for many years, but our last chicken got out of the coop.

Considering himself a bee evangelist, Brian Sellers-Petersen keeps bees in four places: His hives at home in Seattle, Washington, at St. James and St. Columba churches in Kent, Washington, and on the roof of St. Mark’s Cathedral and diocesan office in Seattle. Photo: Kevin C. Johnson/St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle

What are you going to do now that you’re not working for Episcopal Relief & Development?

I’m still trying to figure out how it all pieces together. It is largely going to be surrounding food ministry. Growing food. Preparing food, eating food. Spirituality of food.

Basically, I’m hanging up my shingle. I’ve been in conversation with a number of groups both inside the church and a couple of government agencies and nonprofits in Seattle. My hope is to continue to work within the church to encourage better stewardship of our land.

Is there any kind of action that you’d like people to take after reading this?

Churches should be doing their own composting. I’ve come across a lot of great composting systems that churches have developed. But we’re [not even doing well] at just recycling. We’ve got to walk before we run. So, we can talk about the big things such as insulation and solar panels, but there are the small things too.

Get our kids’ hands in the dirt at Sunday school when they’re preschoolers, to put a radish seed in a Dixie cup so they can see the sprout next week. There could be huge transformations from these very little things. Sunday school kids … put the seed in, which ends up at the food bank, that ends up in people’s balconies or backyards, and these people might even live in a food desert.  And the kid can follow that food chain from a young age and learn about that.

Cultivate, one of their big jobs is to make sure this [grow-your-own trend] isn’t just a fad. We’re at this sort of this critical place where if we don’t hop on it hard now, we’re in big trouble.

Start a conversation in your churches about what your assets are. What can you do, small or large? Sometimes people get overwrought and think it’s too much, and they collapse in on themselves — “Oh, we can’t do it. We don’t have enough volunteers.” Sometimes it’s just planting a seed.

— Amy Sowder is a special correspondent for the Episcopal News Service and a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn. She can be reached at amysowderepiscopalnews@gmail.com. This interview was edited for clarity and condensed.

Nigerian Primate predicts positive future despite ongoing violence

Wed, 01/03/2018 - 12:31pm

[Anglican Communion News Service] The Bishop of Abuja, Nicholas Okoh, has used his New Year Message to predict a “year of optimism and happiness” for Nigerians. Okoh, the Primate of All Nigeria, made his comments in a New Year’s Message as it emerged that 17 churchgoers were shot dead as they left a midnight Eucharist service at a church in Omoku, about 56 miles north-west of Port Harcourt, in southern Nigeria’s oil-rich River State. The attack has been blamed on one of a number of armed gangs which are active in the area, mainly target multi-national oil companies in the region. The local Anglican Archbishop of the Niger Delta, Ignatius Kattey, and his wife Beatrice, were kidnapped by one such gang in September 2013. They were released unharmed a short time later.

Read the entire article here.

Heightened terror risk leads to cancellation of church’s New Year’s Eve party

Tue, 01/02/2018 - 2:34pm

[Anglican Communion News Service]  A church in New South Wales was forced to cancel its traditional New Year’s Eve street party because of the increased terror threat. Since the eve of the millennium in 1999, Saint Aidan’s Church in Longueville, New South Wales, has staged a free open-air New Year’s Eve party. Its location on the banks of the Lane Cove River with fantastic views of Sydney’s world-famous spectacular midnight fireworks show made it a popular choice for Longueville residents. Last year, 4,000 people turned up for the church’s eve-of-midnight concert and barbecue. But senior minister Craig Potter explained that security measures designed to prevent an accident are not sufficient to prevent a deliberate attack.

Read the entire article here.

Archbishop of Cape Town calls for replacement of South African President Jacob Zuma

Tue, 01/02/2018 - 2:31pm

[Anglican Communion News Service] The archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, has called on South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma to be replaced, and for a “carefully targeted cabinet reshuffle.”  Thabo, the primate of Southern Africa, made his comments during a sermon at the Christmas Eve midnight mass in Saint George’s Cathedral, Cape Town. He said that Zuma and his “cohorts of corruption” had been acting as if the South African treasury was their personal property. Thabo’s comments follow the election last month of South Africa’s Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, as the new leader of the African National Congress. Ramaphosa is widely expected to be the next president of South Africa after the country’s general election in 2019.

Read the entire article here.

Se abre el proceso de concesión de becas para los Ministerios de Jóvenes Adultos y Campus

Tue, 01/02/2018 - 11:27am

El proceso de concesión de becas para los Ministerios de Jóvenes Adultos y Campus 2018 está abierto. Las becas brindan fondos para las diócesis, las congregaciones y los centros de estudios superiores/universitarios comunitarios/tribales para un ministerio episcopal (o un ministerio ecuménico con participación episcopal).

Estas becas son para el año lectivo 2018-2019. Un total de 138.000 dólares está disponible para el ciclo 2018-2019 de un total de 400.000 dólares que está disponible para el trienio.

Hay cuatro categorías de becas:
Beca de liderazgo: para establecer un nuevo ministerio de campus, restaurar uno latente o re-energizar uno actual.  La beca oscilará entre los 20.000 a 30.000 dólares que pueden ser utilizados dentro de un periodo de dos años.
Becas para ministerio de campus: proveen capital inicial para ayudar la puesta en marcha de ministerios de campus nuevos e innovadores o para mejorar un ministerio existente. Las becas oscilarán entre los 3.000 a 5.000 dólares.
Becas para ministerio de jóvenes adultos: proveen capital inicial para asistir en el inicio de ministerios de jóvenes adultos nuevos e innovadores o para mejorar un ministerio existente. Las becas oscilarán entre los 3.000 a 5.000 dólares.
Becas para proyectos: proveen fondos para un proyecto único que aumentará el impacto del ministerio de jóvenes adultos y campus. Las becas son de 100 a 1.000 dólares.

El proceso consiste en tres etapas:

• Planeación y discernimiento de la beca (descargue el PDF)
• Completar la solicitud de beca (descargue el documento de Word)
• Completar y enviar la solicitud aquí. La solicitud debe completarse en su totalidad y enviarse en línea. 

El formulario de solicitud de becas e información adicional están disponibles siguiendo este enlace.

Las solicitudes serán revisadas por un equipo que incluye a los Coordinadores Provinciales del Ministerio de Campus, líderes en el ministerio de jóvenes adultos, miembros del Consejo Ejecutivo y personal de la Iglesia Episcopal.

La fecha límite para presentar las solicitudes es el 2 de febrero a las 10 de la noche, hora del este de los Estados Unidos / 9 p. m. hora del Centro / 8 p. m., hora de Montaña  / 7 p. m., hora del Pacífico.
• Del 3 al 16 de febrero las solicitudes de becas son leidas y evaluadas por un equipo de revisores.
• Del 17 al 28 de febrero los revisores de las becas se reúnen para discernir y hacer recomendaciones al Consejo Ejecutivo.
• El 5 de marzo se envían las recomendaciones al Consejo Ejecutivo.
• El Consejo Ejecutivo se reúne del 21 al 23 de abril y toma decisiones.
• Del 25 al 27 de abril se preparan y envían por correo las cartas para las solicitudes exitosas.
• El 30 de abril las becas son anunciadas.

Para más información comuníquese con Valerie Harris, asociada de formación en vharris@episcopalchurch.org.

RIP: Harvey H. Guthrie, Jr., seminary dean and rector

Tue, 01/02/2018 - 10:30am

The Rev. Dr. Harvey H. Guthrie, Jr., sometime dean of the Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and retired rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Ann Arbor, Michigan, died on Dec.17in Oxnard, California. He had lived in retirement near Fillmore, California, since 1995.

Serving as the head of one of the Episcopal Church’s leading seminaries from 1969 to 1985, a period of upheaval and change in the church and in higher education, Guthrie led in the creation of the Episcopal Divinity School from a merger of the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge and the Philadelphia Divinity School, in the appointment to its faculty of ordained as well as lay women, and in sometimes controversial curricular innovation stressing individual student initiative based on experience and involvement in ministry.

His educational perspective was ecumenical. He was a leader in the founding of the Boston Theological Institute, a consortium of theological schools in the Boston area, in the bringing of the Jesuit Weston School of Theology into a shared-facilities relationship with EDS involving a joint library program and much joint teaching, and as a holder of many offices including the presidency of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada.

Guthrie also participated in a historic period in the life of the Episcopal Church as a deputy to its General Conventions from 1973 to 1982, as a leader in the movement for the ordination of women, as a participant in the deliberations leading to the 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer, and as a long-time advocate for the recognition of gay and lesbian unions and the ordination of openly homosexual members of the church. For many years, he chaired the council of deans of Episcopal seminaries.

In 1985, after 35 years as a seminary teacher and administrator, Guthrie accepted a call to be rector of St. Andrew’s Church, Ann Arbor, Michigan. He saw his ten-year ministry there as practical application of his years of study of the church’s biblical and liturgical heritage. He led in establishing the liturgy as the center of parish life and in the refurbishing of a 19th century building to fit current liturgical practice. At the same time, he presided over a parish much involved in community service and issues, a significant part of whose ministry was a daily meal program for all who would come. His commitment to ecumenism continued in Ann Arbor, and he was a leader both in relationships among the churches and in the founding of an interfaith association including Jews and Muslims and Buddhists as well as Christians.

After his retirement in 1995, he continued occasional preaching and teaching, and worked as a legal aid volunteer, counseling and representing claimants of Social Security and welfare benefits at appeals. In 2012, he was honored by the Diocese of Los Angeles by being appointed an honorary canon.

Guthrie’s early contributions were as a teacher and scholar in biblical studies, particularly of the Hebrew Scriptures. He was the author of God and History in the Old Testament, Israel’s Sacred Songs, and Theology as Thanksgiving: from Israel’s Psalms to the Church’s Eucharist, as well as numerous articles and reviews. He was an instructor at the General Theological Seminary, New York, 1953-58, and a professor at the school in Cambridge from 1958, continuing to hold his chair and teach after becoming its dean in 1969. He had been a visiting lecturer at Columbia University, Andover-Newton Theological School, and St. George’s College in Jerusalem, a visiting scholar at Yale and at Göttingen University in Germany, and the Selwyn Lecturer in the Church in the Province of New Zealand. The Episcopal Divinity School honored him with the endowment of the Harvey H. Guthrie Professorship of Biblical Studies.

He was preceded in death by his wife of 70 years, Doris Peyton Guthrie, and their oldest son, Lawrence. He is survived by his three remaining children, Lynn, Stephen, and Andrew, and by three grandchildren, as well as by his brother, Jim.

The Episcopal Church’s Burial Office and Eucharist will be celebrated at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fillmore, California, on Feb.17 at 10a.m. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to One Step a la Vez (http://www.myonestep.org/) and Trinity Episcopal Church (PO Box 306, Fillmore, CA 93016).

— This obituary was submitted by the Guthrie family.

Stone by stone, repairs gain steam at Washington National Cathedral 6 years after earthquake

Tue, 01/02/2018 - 9:39am

Stone carvers Andy Uhl, left, and Sean Callahan work on pieces of Washington National Cathedral that were damaged in the 2011 earthquake. Photo: Joe Alonso/Washington National Cathedral

[Episcopal News Service] The earthquake that struck the Washington, D.C., area in August 2011 caused an estimated $34 million in damage to Washington National Cathedral. More than six years later, less than half of those repairs are done, and the remaining work could take another decade to complete.

Progress is being made, however, and the Episcopal cathedral last month received a year-end donation from a foundation that will allow it to embark this spring on the next phase of repairs. This latest $1.5 million project will focus on the structure around an interior courtyard, which is the last part of the cathedral still closed to the public.

“It took 83 years to build this place. We’ve had scaffolding on the outside of our building more than we have not. In some ways, we’re kind of used to it,” said Kevin Eckstrom, the cathedral’s chief communications officer.

Repairs to the west towers at the front entrance to Washington National Cathedral were completed in summer 2017. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

It remains a beautiful building and an iconic religious landmark in the U.S. capital, but Washington National Cathedral also is more than the stones that form it, Eckstrom said. “The staff and the leadership feel very strongly that what’s really important about the building is what goes on inside.”

The courtyard project is a prime example. Known as the garth, it features a fountain and a patio, and reopening it will allow it to be used for weddings, banquets and other gatherings. There also are separate plans to add a columbarium and memorial garden to the space.

The walls surrounding the courtyard aren’t the problem. It’s the two pinnacles above that rotated during the earthquake, causing pieces to fall onto the courtyard below.

“It’s just a lovely space, and it’s another entry into different parts of the cathedral,” said Joe Alonso, the cathedral’s head stone mason. “The northeast end of the cathedral is kind of looming over you.”

The work this spring is just one of nine projects, some completed and other pending, that make up the second phase of earthquake repairs. Phase 1, costing about $10 million, was completed in 2015, focused on the interior of the cathedral and on the largest and oldest buttresses toward the rear. The cathedral was fully closed for just three months in 2011, as crews completed stabilization work in time to reopen that November to host the installation of Diocese of Washington Bishop Mariann Budde.

The rest of the work is being completed as the money is raised through private donations.

“We are committed to finishing the earthquake repairs and returning this glorious building to its original grandeur,” Dean Randy Hollerith said in an emailed statement. “However, those repairs must not, and will not, come before the ministry and mission that happens here. The building is important, but it is just a vehicle for the more vital work of ministry. What happens on the inside is ultimately more important than what people see on the outside.”

Washington National Cathedral’s initial construction was completed in 1990, though it continued to need maintenance and restoration, even before being damaged by the 2011 earthquake. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

The cathedral is a solid masonry structure, so “the only thing that’s holding it together is gravity and physics and a whole lot of mortar,” Eckstrom said. As it is being repaired, stone by stone, crews are installing stainless steel rods between the stones to make the structure more resistant to the next major earthquake, if and when it strikes.

Crews in 2016 reinstall a pinnacle that was damaged in the earthquake. It was reinforced with the stainless steel rods. Photo: Colin Winterbottom/Washington National Cathedral

About 80 percent of the exterior of the cathedral still needs to be repaired. Some of the fixes have merely entailed reinforcing the structure, while other pieces of towers, pinnacles, buttresses and transepts have been damaged beyond repair and need to be replaced by carving new stone.

Alonso has worked at the cathedral since 1985 and was part of the final phase of its original construction, which was completed in 1990.  The structure continued to need maintenance and restoration in subsequent years but nothing like the aftermath of Aug. 23, 2011., when the magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck. It was centered 84 miles southwest of the cathedral near Mineral, Virginia.

“My God, the day of the earthquake, that was a punch in the gut,” Alonso said. He and his team, though, are making the most of their present work by cleaning and renovating parts of the cathedral that would not have been spruced up for years, such as the ceiling and the stained glass. “The access that we’re gaining with some of the earthquake work, we’re able to do some other needed repairs.”

The biggest repair project left is the central tower, which will cost an estimated $5 million to fix.

“When the quake hit D.C., the seismic waves went to the highest part of the city, which is the hill we’re sitting on,” Eckstrom said. “And they traveled up to the highest part of the building. … That happens to be our central tower.” A similar scenario occurred at the Washington Monument, which is expected to remain closed to the public until 2019.

The cathedral’s central tower is 300 feet, but its four grand pinnacles lost 20 to 30 feet of stonework when the stones fell or had to be removed. What remains is being stabilized with scaffolding until the repairs get the green light. If the cathedral were to receive enough money today to complete the project, it would take about three years, but this and the rest of the repairs on the list likely will stretch over the next decade.

Scaffolding is seen on the central tower of Washington National Cathedral, which was damaged in a 2011 earthquake. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

Washington National Cathedral is one of only two cathedrals in the United States, and the only Episcopal cathedral, with an active stone shop, Eckstrom said, and Alonso and two stone carvers have been busy since the earthquake. The second phase kicked off with repairs to the cathedral’s north transept in spring 2016. Another project, fixing the iconic west towers at the front of the cathedral, was completed in spring 2017.

These carved faces of Old Testament prophets were part of a turret that was disassembled in summer 2017 and lowered to the ground until it can be repaired. Photo: Colin Winterbottom/Washington National Cathedral

One additional silver lining in the earthquake’s aftermath has been the opportunity to see parts of the cathedral that otherwise would be out of reach. That’s because they’ve been brought down to eye level for repairs.

Last year, a damaged turret 20 stories up had to be taken down and placed on the ground outside the cathedral, allowing for close inspection of its defining feature: the carved faces of eight Old Testament prophets.

The cathedral, unfortunately, has no record of which prophet is which, but “it really gives you a chance to see the craftsmanship that went into creating the building,” Eckstrom said.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.

Archbishop of Canterbury’s Christmas Day sermon

Mon, 12/25/2017 - 11:13am

[Lambeth Palace] Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s Christmas sermon preached at Canterbury Cathedral on the morning of December 25.

Luke 2:1-7

We are drawn to stories of freedom and purpose. In Star Wars an abandoned orphan on a desert planet turns into a knight leading the struggle for freedom. Platform 9 and three quarters takes Harry Potter into a world of magic and purpose.

Not so in the gospel stories, even those of Christmas. Yes, the shepherds see angels. Yes, Mary and Joseph have dreams and are chosen as special people.

Yet after the moments of miracles life goes on almost as before – the shepherds return to their sheep, Joseph settles back as a carpenter, Mary raises children. They flee as refugees, like over 60 million people today. Yet their story is the beginning of ours, it is an invitation to lives of freedom, found through God’s freely offered love.

Delivering freedom is usually seen as the role and the promise of political leaders. The French philosopher Rousseau famously started his book on the social contract by writing, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains “. But he goes on and sets out the problem that besets all offerings of freedom: “One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are.”

In the manger is something completely different from all human strivings for freedom. The baby in the manger is a paradox from the first breath he draws in his mother’s arms to the last cry he utters on the cross. He is power seen in humility, and He offers freedom expressed in loving service.

It is this Christly paradox of freedom springing from the overflowing of love that leads to salvation, to the common good and human flourishing. There is no power in the universe stronger than God’s love and it is directed towards the liberation of human beings.

This liberation begins with the risky, counter-intuitive birth of God in the form of a baby of a teenage single mother, in a poor family in a war-torn country ruled by an infant slaughtering, family murdering psychopath. Jesus’ life continues mostly in obscurity and appears to ends in betrayal, abandonment and humiliating execution.

Even Jesus’ brief periods of fame, of celebration and decisive action look like God’s apparent mistakes. An host of angels appears to a bunch of shepherds. Shepherds were the low life in those days – the butt of many jokes. They were armed, used to fighting, lived rough and were often untrustworthy. Bethlehem is less than ten miles from Jerusalem, the angels could have announced the Messiah to the important and influential just down the road. Instead a bunch of shepherds confuse the sheep by leaving them, frighten the town police by entering Bethlehem, surprise a mother who was probably, having just given birth, not entirely in the mood for entertaining, and then return. One could be forgiven for thinking that this was a good plan badly executed.

Yet this is no mistake, but the greatest plan there ever could be, because this baby is the way God calls us to relationship with Him, to lives of purpose and to being witnesses that God is with us.

The manger offers a compelling invitation to life. Each year at Christmas we have a guest Carol service at Lambeth Palace. We hear from those who have recently begun to find the life Jesus offers. They come from all sorts of places, from people who have been trafficked into slavery to people who have known only power. Their stories of responding to the invitation of the manger born baby are the best part of my year.

Not only is the manger an invitation to life, but of life abundant, full and free. Mary is the second of God’s beautiful apparent mistakes. Surely, God should have chosen someone accustomed to the demands of a political life? Yet in Mary we see the kind of life that is ours when we accept the invitation of God. It is abundant, suffering, dramatic, but above all a life of fulfilling freedom. This divine-human leader Jesus does not subdue, or diminish His followers, but enables them to be all that a human being could be, to be truly liberated.

This self-emptying, helpless, stable born baby who is God has brought and continues to bring more freedom than all earth’s most powerful leaders. The nature of those who have power is to seek to hold onto it. In 2017 we have seen around the world tyrannical leaders that enslave their peoples, populist leaders that deceive them, corrupt leaders that rob them, even simply democratic, well intentioned leaders of many parties and countries who are normal, fallible human beings. We have experienced across our country terrorism that kills the innocent, claiming that it is the path to freedom in God.

The nature of God who has all power, and from whom all power comes, is to lay it aside for love’s sake and thus without fear, force or manipulation to offer true freedom for every human being. God is showing all truth in its completest form, all love in its purest aspect, the true light of freedom all wrapped up in the baby in Bethlehem.

The light needed witnesses at the beginning and needs them to this day. It is the calling of every Christian to be a witness to the light, in word and deed, in all circumstances.

In Coventry Cathedral is one of my favourite pictures, the Stalingrad Madonna. It was drawn on paper in charcoal on Christmas Day 1942, 75 years ago, by a German medical officer under siege from the advancing Russian armies near Stalingrad. It shows Mary huddled against the terrible cold, holding Jesus, sheltered, to her cheek. Round her are the words “Licht, leben, Liebe” (Light, Life, love). Christ offers life of true freedom in love, in the darkest places his light shines. Every human being is invited to share that life and freedom. Christians are its witnesses.

Pittsburgh bishop treks to China bearing a sentimental and historically significant gift

Fri, 12/22/2017 - 2:09pm

The Rt. Rev. Dorsey McConnell of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh visited China in early December to give back the blanket that Chairman Mao gave his father to Chinese World War II historians and to build relationships with religious leaders in China. Photo: Diocese of Pittsburgh

[Episcopal News Service] It looks like a tiny, old blanket with deer on it. Nothing to warrant a pause for second glance.

Yet that small Mongolian saddle blanket, draped across a chair in Diocese of Pittsburgh Bishop Dorsey McConnell’s childhood home for decades, has crossed oceans multiple times, first from the hands of one of the world’s most famous political figures.

In September 1945, Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung had to fly from his base in Yunnan province to a tense conference with General Chiang Kai-shek of the Nationalist Party in Chongquing. This was about a month after Imperial Japan announced its surrender, one of the major actions to end World War II. For a moment, the United States was an ally of China’s against Japan.

The Allied Forces, which included China, the United States and Great Britain, are honored by this memorial with 2,000 military helmets at the World War II Museum in Tengchong, China. Photo: Dorsey McConnell

McConnell’s father, U.S. Gen. John Paul McConnell, was the pilot assigned to fly Mao to and from the conference — safely. Mao was visibly nervous that he’d never come back. Hunting him for years, the Nationalists considered Mao a rebel and criminal. He hugged his wife at the airport, a public sign of affection not deemed appropriate in that culture at that time, McConnell explained.

The elder McConnell returned Mao safe and sound to Yunnan province after a disastrous conference that didn’t create any good solutions. To show his appreciation, the chairman gave McConnell that deer blanket. It’s been in the McConnell family home ever since.

More than 70 years later, when religious officials and those from the World War II Museum in Tengchong and Martyrs Cemetery invited him to visit as they honored his father, McConnell knew he had to bring a gift.

He saw the blanket, and decided returning it to the Chinese people would be an appropriate and meaningful gift. McConnell’s Dec. 6-8 visit was an act of personal friendship and goodwill, despite all these years of deep division in political, philosophical, cultural and theological beliefs and practices between the two countries.

McConnell could tell the fact that he journeyed to see these Chinese dignitaries and present them with this gift meant the world to them.

“I don’t think I’ve been more graciously received in any place in the world. It was breathtaking and very moving, for personal reasons as well as the promise it holds,” McConnell told ENS. “Personal-relationship building does something that states and diplomats can’t do. We had no political agenda. We were simply there to give back to them something precious that they had given us.”

Bishop Dorsey McConnell ceremoniously returns to officials at World War II Museum in Tengchong, China, the blanket that Chairman Mao gave his father in 1945. Photo courtesy of Dorsey McConnell

There were elaborate dinners with multiple clinking of glasses, in which each glass that made contact with McConnell’s glass was lower, in honor of and in deference to him, as is customary. Officials gave him a tour of the new museum, which has an impressive collection of about 80,000 artifacts.

Three walls were covered with 2,000 helmets from fallen Allied troops.

“And they’re all mixed together,” McConnell said. “You can see American helmets next to British helmets next to Chinese.”

Museum officials held the blanket with a curator’s care, using protective gloves. That blanket was precious to McConnell, but he recognized that it’s easy for stories to get lost in time.

Communist Party Chairman Mao gave this saddle blanket to U.S. General John Paul McConnell in 1945, as a token of appreciation for safely piloting him to and from a U.S.-organized conference with the Nationalists. Photo: Dorsey McConnell

“I didn’t want to see something with this much symbolic value to lose its place in history and end up in a garage sale held by one of my great-grandkids and sold for 5 bucks,” he said with a laugh. “Given to the museum, it will be taken care of and preserved.”

On the last day of his visit, McConnell visited the Three-Self Patriotic Movement headquarters, the Chinese government department that oversees all officially sanctioned religious activity, giving licenses to churches to function openly and vetting them to ensure they don’t undermine the goals of socialism. “Three-self” refers to the requirement that religious organizations be self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating.

He met with the Rev. Melissa Lin, the deputy head of the China Christian Council, and her assistant Meiying Shi.

The council is the umbrella organization for all the recognized churches in China. Lin is also dean of the seminary in Nanjing, the country’s largest of 23 established seminaries. She earned her Master of Divinity from Church Divinity School of the Pacific, the Episcopal seminary in Berkeley, California.

The bishop toured the church next door, the former Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral, neglected for years but now restored. The cathedral has stained-glass windows in the apse donated by the Episcopal Church. The renovation has won a UNESCO world heritage award, and the council hopes to plant a worshiping congregation here next year, he said.

Pittsburgh Bishop Dorsey McConnell gazes at the military helmets placed on three walls at World War II Museum in Tengchong, China. Photo courtesy of Dorsey McConnell

McConnell was the first diocesan bishop from the Episcopal Church to pay a visit to Three-Self Patriotic Movement headquarters since Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s visit in February, said Peter Ng, the Episcopal Church’s officer for Asia and the Pacific, now retired. Ng helped arrange McConnell’s meeting with Chinese officials.

“It’s very important to keep relationships open,” Ng told ENS.

Nurturing relationships is a way to spread the gospel in a respectful manner, McConnell and Ng said. The “official” estimate is that there are 40 million Christians in China, and that number is growing, as churches have gained a bit more leeway in recent years, as long as they follow the rules. In a country of 1.4 billion people, the number of Protestant Christians has grown an average 10 percent annually in China since 1979. Bible printing presses can’t keep up with demand, McConnell and Ng said.

McConnell also saw his visit as an act of reconciliation by an Episcopalian bishop. And reconciliation happens best on a personal level, McConnell said. Chinese culture places more emphasis on building friendships without immediately diving into business than American culture does, Ng and McConnell said, so taking the time for this visit meant a lot.

“It really struck me how deeply they took that in. You don’t have to use church talk; as a matter of fact, it’s a disadvantage. People know healing when they feel it. They know reconciliation when they see it and feel it. They could sense the authenticity of this moment,” McConnell said. “It’s sort of like St. Francis says: Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.”

— Amy Sowder is a special correspondent for the Episcopal News Service and a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn. She can be reached at amysowderepiscopalnews@gmail.com.


Teenagers use Advent pilgrimage to take message of hope across Central America

Fri, 12/22/2017 - 1:51pm

[Anglican Communion News Service] A group of young people from Chimaltenango in Guatemala have undertaken an Advent pilgrimage of the five dioceses that make up the Iglesia Anglicana de la Region Central de America – the Anglican Church in Central America. Led by their parish priest, Father Miguel Salanic, and his wife Roselia, the 14 teenagers visited Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Panama. They shared a message of unity, and sought to inspire other young people, the clergy and bishops they met. 

Read the entire article here.

A Christmas message from Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby

Fri, 12/22/2017 - 1:45pm

[Anglican Communion News Service] The archbishop of Canterbury’s ecumenical Christmas letter to churches around the world.

“Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10)

Earlier this year I made a very moving visit to the Holy Land. Amid a busy schedule of meetings and visits there were some moments of stillness and prayerful encounter with the living God. At the traditional sites associated with Our Lord’s life, ministry, death and resurrection we were able to stop and to pray. In Nazareth we prayed with Mary, the Mother of God, at the site of the annunciation; in Bethlehem, amidst the activity of restoration works in the Church of the Nativity, we found that place of quiet where Christians come to venerate Jesus’ birth; in Jerusalem, in the restored aedicule within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre we rejoiced in the resurrection of our crucified Lord.

The gospel story, the saving story of Jesus Christ is good news indeed. The Gospel according to St Luke tells us the story of the good news announced to the Shepherds. On the hillsides above Bethlehem the Angel of the Lord appeared and brought good news. The good news was none other than the birth in Bethlehem of a Saviour, the Christ, the Lord.

This year we have learned a new phrase in various parts of the world. This phrase is ‘fake news’. Fake news is dishonest; it is deliberate misinformation published in order to deceive, to confuse and disrupt. Fake news is used as a weapon to achieve dishonest advantage and to subvert honest debate and discussion. It is the antithesis of the good news. Fake news is but lying and does not come from God.

But we like the Angels proclaim good news and, like the Shepherds, we receive good news. The good news is good news for all people, whatever their situation in life. It is good news for politicians and leaders but is also good news for the refugees and displaced persons who continue to flee from danger and seek safety and sanctuary. As St Gregory Nazianzen writes:

He who gives riches becomes poor, for he assumes the poverty of my flesh, that I may assume the richness of his Godhead. He that is full empties himself, for he empties himself of his glory for a short while, that I may have a share in his fullness. (Oration 38. 13)

This is truth and this is good news. As receivers of the good news we are called to pass on the good news and to make real the promise of that good news to those in need. In a poem reflecting on the evangelist St Luke, the poet and priest Malcolm Guite wrote:

“He breathes good news to all who bear a burden
Good news to all who turn and try again,
The meek rejoice and prodigals find pardon,
A lost thief reaches paradise through pain,
The voiceless find their voice in every word
And, with Our Lady, magnify Our Lord.”

(from “St Luke”, in Sounding the Seasons, (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2012))

This Christmas I pray that we might, as Christians with one voice, proclaim again the good news that is our salvation in Jesus Christ.

In His Peace
+Justin Cantuar

The Most Rev. and Rt. Hon. Justin Welby
Archbishop of Canterbury

Companion dioceses work to rebuild Puerto Rico

Fri, 12/22/2017 - 10:21am

This hurricane-damaged statue at Lord at Mision la Santa Cruz in Puerto Rico inspires Episcopalians there and in the Diocese of Maryland in their ministry to help the island recover. Photo: Eugene Sutton

[Episcopal Diocese of Maryland] – The Dioceses of Maryland and Puerto Rico are committing to several years of hard work to rebuild Puerto Rico. Two killer hurricanes this past fall delivered devastation and privation. The fallout from those storms was felt and heard. Maryland and Puerto Rico have been companion dioceses since June 2016.

Churches and individuals in and outside the Diocese of Maryland responded to the call to raise money for its “Rebuild Puerto Rico” fund. More than $20,000 for immediate emergency needs was raised the month after Hurricane Maria’s knockout punch. So far, a total of $47,000 has been given.

Maryland Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton and the Rev. Canon Margarita Santana, Latino missioner in Maryland, presented the first of these funds last October to the Puerto Rico Bishop Rafael Morales when they visited the island territory.

The Diocese of Puerto Rico now operates two centers for emergency relief and supplies, one at the Diocesan Center near San Juan, the other at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Ponce. During a post-hurricane visit by Morales to an especially devastated rural community, a parishioner declared: “somos una diócesis de la esperanz” (we are a diocese of hope). This became the rallying call for the people of the diocese; a mantra of resurrection faith, prayer and spirit-inspired action.

Sutton sent the Rev. James Snodgrass to the diocesan convention in Puerto Rico last month. Snodgrass read a letter from Sutton. For Snodgrass, it was a return trip to the diocese where he’s still canonically resident. He and his wife, Patty Parsley, spent 5 ½ years as missioners in the rural, mountainous region of Aibonito. They founded a retreat center and new mission congregation before moving to Baltimore in 2012.

Sutton asked Snodgrass to assess the damage done seven weeks earlier. Damage was extensive to vegetation, landscape and buildings — huge trees uprooted, wooden structures demolished.  When the sun set, some places had electrical service, often provided by generators; many places were surrounded by darkness, some lit by a candle or abandoned. Snodgrass recalled the words of John’s Gospel: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

On an island with a high density of automobiles and 9 percent of the population living in urban areas, driving without traffic signals, especially at night, was harrowing. In some places, foliage had reappeared; debris had been collected along the roadsides; and businesses had reopened. In other places, especially among the very poor, destruction lingered. People were worn down.

During the 110th Asamblea Diocesana (diocesan convention), Morales, newly consecrated in July, delivered a hope-filled address to the delegates. He thanked all who’ve responded to emergency needs, encouraging all to pitch-in and reach out, outlining his vision and priorities for the diocese in the foreseeable future. He proclaimed a new Christian year, that began with Advent, as “El Año de Discipulado” (the Year of Discipleship). And he concluded: “Nuestra iglesia es dinámica, misionera y evangelizadora” (our church is dynamic, mission-oriented and evangelizing).

It was said this diocesan convention was one of the most upbeat, well-organized and harmonious in recent memory.

After the convention, Morales told Snodgrass his top priority is to complete the retreat center, Centro Espíritu Santo, in Aibonito. It would serve the clergy and people of Puerto Rico, as well as those from the United States and beyond. The project would entail building a church and overnight facilities. Morales and Sutton have discussed this project, and how, as companion dioceses, working together and with God’s help, it can happen.

Morales enthusiastically agreed to a proposed parish-based mission work project in Aibonito, sponsored by St. John’s Church, Havre de Grace, Maryland, and led by Snodgrass, who is priest-in-charge there. The group will stay in a church-owned house, pray daily and cook their own meals, repair damaged houses in the surrounding neighborhood and plant new trees. The group expects to go in early March.

The experiences of this initial group will help the Diocese of Maryland advise other church groups interested in going to the island to help in the physical and spiritual restoration and rebuilding effort. Canon Rafael Zorilla, canon to the ordinary, oversees all groups coming to Puerto Rico. He told Snodgrass he’s overwhelmed by requests from church groups around the U.S. wanting to come and help. He asked the Diocese of Maryland to develop a screening process and recommend which groups come to Puerto Rico. Those groups would then be partnered with a church in Puerto Rico, and together work out travel and work project arrangements. He stressed that groups coming to Puerto Rico need someone who speaks Spanish.

When Sutton visited Puerto Rico in October he saw a statue of our Lord at Mision la Santa Cruz. It reminded him of the words of Teresa of Avila: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” The hands on the statue were missing. It was Sutton’s hope the Diocese of Maryland would become the hands of Christ together with its sisters and brothers in Puerto Rico.

— The Rev. Dan Webster is canon for evangelism and media in the Diocese of Maryland.

Maryland priest Dan Webster named interim dean at Albuquerque cathedral

Thu, 12/21/2017 - 6:12pm

[Episcopal Diocese of Maryland] The Rev. Dan Webster, canon for evangelism and media in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, has been named interim dean at St. John’s Cathedral, Albuquerque. The announcement was made Thursday (Dec. 21) by Charles Hawkins, senior warden, on behalf of the cathedral’s chapter and vestry.

“We are excited about welcoming Canon Webster as he joins us in our faith journey toward discernment of a new Dean,” said Hawkins. The full announcement was posted on the cathedral’s website.

Webster has served nearly eight years in the Diocese of Maryland first as canon for evangelism and ministry development. Two years ago he was given responsibility for all media communications.

“I announced last May at our diocesan convention that Dan was transitioning toward retirement,” said the Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, bishop of Maryland. “Dan has long wanted to return to the southwest and this is a blessing for both him and St. John’s Cathedral.”

Thirty years ago Webster was news director of KOB-TV, Albuquerque. A friend invited him to a mid-week Holy Eucharist at St. John’s. Webster has said that was the beginning of his transition into the Episcopal Church.

“I’m thrilled to be returning to Albuquerque in this capacity,” Webster said in the cathedral announcement. “I’m honored and blessed to be walking with the people of St. John’s Cathedral during this transition.”

Webster earned his Master of Divinity degree from the Seminary of the Southwest in 1996. Prior to entering seminary, he worked for 25 years in broadcast journalism. Half of that time was with NBC News in Burbank, CA and Washington, DC, as news writer, producer and deputy bureau chief.

It was in Salt Lake City when he was news director at KUTV where he explored a call to the priesthood. He was ordained in the Diocese of Utah nearly 21 years ago. He’s served in four dioceses as curate, interim vicar, rector, direction of communications and canon for congregational development. He also was media relations director at the National Council of Churches in New York City for two years.

“We have been blessed by his ministry among us,” said Sutton. “I, for one, will miss his expertise, collegiality and passion for spreading the Gospel.”

A nationwide search for a director of communications has been underway. An announcement is expected in early 2018. Webster’s last day in the office is Jan. 19. He officially begins his new call in February.

The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland has more than 100 parishes in 10 counties and the City of Baltimore in western, central and southern Maryland. It is a part of The Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion.

The Rev. Justin Lewis-Anthony to be deputy director of Anglican Centre in Rome

Thu, 12/21/2017 - 3:43pm

[Anglican Communion News Service] The Anglican Centre in Rome has announced the appointment of a new deputy director, the Rev. Justin Lewis-Anthony, to succeed the Rev. Marcus Walker. Walker, who was appointed to his post in May 2014, is leaving to take up a post in London, England.

Read the entire article here.

Anglican chaplain in Baghdad honored as one of Iraq’s Personalities of the Year

Thu, 12/21/2017 - 3:40pm

[Anglican Communion News Service] The Iraqi Ministry of Culture has honored the chaplain of Saint George’s Church, Baghdad, the Rev. Faiz Jerjes, as one of the country’s Distinguished Personalities of the Year for his role in supporting human rights work in the country. Jerjes, whose surname is sometimes transliterated Jerjees, has been involved with Saint George’s since 2006. After ordination, he served as curate at the church, before being licensed as priest in charge in January 2015 by the bishop of Cyprus and the Gulf, Michael Lewis.

Read the entire article here.

One disaster after another: Coping with compassion fatigue can be a challenge

Thu, 12/21/2017 - 1:24pm

A woman breaks down and cries in the rubble of her burned-out home after a wildfire in California destroyed her home. Photo: Reuters/John Gress

[Episcopal News Service] People would be forgiven if the running list of natural disasters around seemed to pile up in 2017, especially in the months since May.

There is such a thing as compassion fatigue. While the first studies centered on individual professional caregivers and how they lose the sense of caring that once inspired them, there is also an understanding that organizations and even society as a whole can suffer from what some call “empathy fatigue.”

Studies show that public empathy does wane within a few weeks of a disaster, but what happens if the disasters keep coming?

Diocese of Fond du Lac Bishop Matt Gunter in late October summed up his feelings. “I’m tired. My heart hurts. My soul is weary,” he wrote in a blog post titled “Loving Your Neighbor in an Age of Compassion Fatigue.”

The post “seems to have struck a nerve,” Gunter told Episcopal News Service during a Dec. 20 interview. “It skyrocketed to the top of my all-time clicks almost immediately, so that suggests something,” he added.

The world has contended with a lot of hurt this year. First it was torrential rains and flooding in Sri Lanka in May that killed at least 224 people. Then it was the series of hurricanes – Harvey, Irma and Maria – that tore through the eastern Caribbean and deluged Texas with historic amounts of rain from August into early October. The storms killed as many at 800 people, although the death toll is controversial because of accusations of manipulation of the process of attributing fatalities to the storm. Property loss estimates range close to $350 billion.

In the midst of those storms, two major earthquakes struck central Mexico in September, killing 470 people, displacing thousands and causing an estimated $2 billion in property damage.

Satellite image from Dec. 5 shows smoke from Thomas, Rye and Creek Fires in Southern California. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory

Then, Northern California erupted in fast-moving and devastating wildfires in mid-October. Some 44 people died, and property insurance claims have topped $9.4 billion. And Southern Californians are still battling the remnants of fires that swept through the greater Los Angeles area beginning on Dec. 4. Just one person has died, and estimates of property damage are still being calculated. The costs of the U.S. disasters have a ripple effect, with affected municipalities anticipating revenue shortfalls both because of the cost of fighting the fire and because they will not be able to collect taxes on destroyed properties.

Add to the mix the human-caused disasters: mass shootings at a concert in Las Vegas and a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas; deadly riots in Charlottesville, terror attacks in Manhattan. Remember that five years ago, it was Newtown Elementary School, and people thought things would surely change after children were gunned down in their classrooms. Thus far this year there have been 413 mass shootings in which four or more people were shot in the United States, according to statistics kept by Mass Shooting Tracker, a crowd-sourced database of U.S. mass shootings.

News of environmental disasters and sectarian violence across the world, coupled with partisan divisions fought across media platforms in the United States and elsewhere, add to what psychologist Jamil Zaki has called a “habituation [that], paired with a feeling of numbness, can drain our empathy, motivating us to stop caring about victims of tragedies.

“Cynically throwing our hands up at the surreal death tolls of natural disasters or massacres and changing the channel can be self-protective, ‘costing less’ psychologically than vicariously experiencing the suffering of strangers,” he wrote in 2011, the year Twitter came online. The years since have seen an explosion of news, graphic images and videos, and opinions flooding into people’s brains and hearts.

“Communicating the suffering of others does not always stir empathy, and can even be counter-productive, for example when an inundation of suffering depicted in stories and pictures leaves people feeling helpless or exhausted,” Zaki said.

Fond du Lac’s Gunter told ENS that he is “just not sure we’re wired to absorb it.” There was a time when people lived fairly isolated lives, knowing about what he called the “normal human heartaches” of people in their communities, things like house fires and heart attacks and people dying far too early. Perhaps they got news of earthquake and other kinds of faraway destruction. But now, “you turn on the TV you’re faced with trains wreck and fire and images of war and hunger.”

That instantaneous news raises the question of “how do we manage the input from all the 24/7 news,” Gunter said. “And you add on to that the 24/7 political commentary which is mostly geared to agitating you in the first place. We’re all on edge because here are people making money and gaining power and influence by keeping us agitated. That’s a whole other sermon, but it is a place where I think the church has something to say.”

In his blog, he suggested that many people have experienced the symptoms of compassion fatigue: disturbed sleep; unwelcome involuntary thoughts, images, or unpleasant ideas; irritability, impatience or outbursts of anger; hyper-vigilance “and a desire to avoid people who we know are hurting or who you know will disturb your equilibrium.”

Outsized anxiety and fear can develop. Gunter told ENS that in the past weeks, at least two priests have told him that their congregations are calling for armed guards in church. He has cautioned people to realize that the Texas church shooting was a domestic dispute that played out in a locale that could just as easily have been a post office or a store.

All of these pressures, he wrote in his blog, can lead to a “psychic numbness” that makes people want to hunker down and give up trying to live with compassion for neighbors.

“And yet, as Christians, we must resist this tendency even as we acknowledge its reality and power. In his summary of the Law, Jesus enjoins us to, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ That is a call to compassion, a call to care,” Gunter wrote.

The question, he told ENS, is “how do we break through the fear and anxiety that in many is not rational; it is emotive.” And, Gunter added, given the polarization in society, “people are pretty quick to say you’re being liberal or something else and they can write you off because you are not giving them what they want.”

The good news of the gospel needs to be preached and lived “in a way that can be actually be heard” above all the din.

That call to do that and to remain compassionate is not always easy to answer, and answering it can lead to the very fatigue that many people are experiencing. The bishop offered some steps for finding balance:

  • Finding time each day to pray, and not just alone, but with others.
  • Finding someone to talk to who will encourage you, rather than reinforce the things that agitate you.
  • Setting aside Sabbath time to “rest from the worries of the world” (including avoiding the news and the internet) and do something restorative.
  • Acknowledging human vulnerability and dependence on God.
  • Doing what you can and trusting the rest to God, focusing on self-care and taking on only what you can manage.
  • Dwelling on the positive, not the negative.
  • Ending each day by naming the good and thanking God for at least three things.

Gunter elaborates on these practices in his blog post.

Many people have told Gunter that they are trying to take on that last discipline of thankfulness. His understanding of psychology says that “just that simple practice can reorient your perspective in ways that are measureable.”

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is interim managing editor of the Episcopal News Service.

South Dakota mission priests to cover hundreds of miles for crunch of Christmas services

Thu, 12/21/2017 - 11:10am

The Rev. Lauren Stanley takes a selfie with members of the congregation at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Corn Creek, South Dakota, during the church’s Christmas festivities in 2016. Photo: Lauren Stanley

[Episcopal News Service] If your parish priest looks a little ragged after surviving this long weekend’s marathon of Advent and Christmas services, mention the Rev. Lauren Stanley. On Dec. 24, she will preside at seven services in seven different churches over 14 hours, and at those services, she potentially will officiate at dozens of baptisms while putting 210 more miles on her Toyota RAV4.

All in a day’s work for a mission priest in South Dakota.

“This is when I earn the big bucks for being a mission priest,” Stanley told Episcopal News Service by phone this week – those “big bucks” being just one of the punchlines in her spirited account of Christmas Eve. Holidays at the Rosebud Episcopal Mission are exhausting but rewarding, she said.

“This is a marathon, but I look at it as a joyful marathon. … I’m in the privileged position of being able to proclaim God’s love to people who may not get to hear it the rest of the year.”

Stanley shares responsibility for the Rosebud mission with the Rev. Anne Henninger, with Stanley covering the mission’s west side and Henninger serving the congregations to the east. Henninger, whose five congregations are farther apart, will preside at three services on Christmas Eve and two on Christmas Day.

Would she ever consider scheduling a marathon Christmas Eve like the one awaiting Stanley?

“Absolutely not,” she said by phone, seemingly with a shudder. “Honestly, by the time you finish three services, I’m totally wiped out.” But if anyone has the personality and endurance to pull it off, she said, it’s Stanley.

Congregations across the Episcopal Church have found this year particularly challenging in scheduling services, with Christmas Eve falling on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, and some are gearing up for a packed worship schedule to accommodate the surge in attendance that is typical around Christmas.

Attendance is expected to surge, too, at the Rosebud Episcopal Mission’s 12 tiny congregations, located on and around the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota on the Nebraska border. But that is where the similarities end with larger congregations.

On an average Sunday, Stanley and Henninger may see as few as five people in the pews of some of the churches they serve. Organists are hard to find, so the priests typically lead the hymns in the Lakota language unaccompanied by music. Only three of the congregations worship every Sunday, while the others are part of Stanley’s and Henninger’s monthly rotation.

When Christmas and Easter roll around, scheduling services at South Dakota’s far-flung mission churches takes a bit of planning. The Pine Ridge Episcopal Mission in the southwest corner of the state has scheduled five services over two days. In the center of the state, Episcopalians living on or near the Cheyenne River Reservation will attend services at seven churches on Dec. 24.

The Rev. Kim Fonder, who serves Episcopalians on the South Dakota side of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation scheduled himself for six services on Dec. 24, from 9 a.m. in Mobridge to 9 p.m. in Little Eagle.

“You hope your voice holds up,” he said in describing his Christmas Eve worship “relay.” His wife, Tammy Fonder, will join him on the journey, which he expects will cover more than 130 miles. He also will preside at a service at a nursing home on Dec. 23 and a residence on Dec. 25.

“You have to be dedicated to your congregations,” he said. “They’re your’ families. You don’t just have your immediate families, you have all your church families.”

This year, Stanley decided the only way to give each congregation of Rosebud West a Christmas Eve service was to sacrifice the separate service for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, though she will incorporate some of those themes into her sermon.

This will be the fifth Christmas she has celebrated on the reservation since taking the job of mission priest in February 2013. “The first year I did it, it was quite a shock to the system,” she said.

In past years, she would celebrate a few services on Christmas Eve and the rest on Christmas Day, but a woman in one of the congregations suggested she could spare herself on Christmas if she bunched all the services into the day before. That made sense to Stanley, and the congregations preferred Christmas Eve services.

So, on Dec. 24, the Episcopalians of Rosebud West can take their pick: 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m., 5 p.m., 7:30 p.m., 9 p.m. or 11 p.m.

“We’re hoping this all works out perfectly,” Stanley said.

Church of Jesus in Rosebud, South Dakota, is seen decorated for Christmas in 2016. Photo: Lauren Stanley

Her schedule unofficially begins Saturday, when she will drop her dog off at the kennel. Christmas Eve leaves no time to tend to a priest’s best friend.

Then at 9:30 a.m. Dec. 24, she will leave her home in Mission, South Dakota, and head northwest to Corn Creek for the first service, at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church. Her driving route is precisely plotted to ensure that if she has an emergency she will be only a two-mile walk from a farmhouse to get help.

She’s not expecting an emergency – the RAV4 has snow tires, after all – but she has a winter survival kit just in case. There’s not snow in the forecast for Christmas Eve, just clouds with a high of 28 and a stiff wind blowing from the west-northwest.

For music, she’ll have Handel’s “Messiah” playing on repeat. For her feet, a rotation of boots and shoes. For food, Tanka Bars, which are buffalo jerky and cranberries. She’ll also mix up a couple of protein shakes to get her through the day.

Her most important cargo will be the four bags of priestly gear, containing everything from vestments and bulletins to the bread and wine. Before leaving home, she also will fill up three Thermos containers with hot water for the baptisms. Henninger, who drives a Mercury Sable, travels with her own supply of hot water, which she transports to the churches in a Coleman jug. The hot water in the insulated containers will have cooled to the right temperature by the time it is poured over those little heads.

“Not all of them have running water or functioning bathrooms,” Henninger said of the mission churches.

The Rev. Lauren Stanley baptizes a baby during the 2016 Christmas service at Holy Innocents Episcopal Church in Parmelee, South Dakota. Photo courtesy of Lauren Stanley

Christmas and Easter are the times of the year when people who have moved away from the reservation return home to visit family, often bringing children who need to be baptized. Stanley and Henninger never know how many baptisms they will end up performing, but it is guaranteed to be part of the service. Some of the children are the fifth generation to be baptized at the family’s home church, Stanley said.

Stanley’s largest service likely will be the first, with up to 100 people filling St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church. This and the other early services on her route will be followed by holiday parties at the churches, while the churches toward the end of her route are reversing that schedule and planning their festivities before the evening services. Stanley, though, won’t get to stay for much of the fun.

“I don’t have time to stop after the service and go to the festivities,” she said, adding that she also functions as the altar guild at some of the churches. “I have to get in the car and drive to the next church and set up for the service.”

As she works her way southeast toward Rosebud, South Dakota, she knows she will get a 20-minute break during her stop in Mission for the fifth service, because she lives a block and a half from Trinity Episcopal Church. She will use that time to go home and get more water for the rest of the evening’s baptisms.

“It’s a crazy schedule, but it works for the people here,” she said. And as tired as she will feel after four or five services, she won’t complain. “You get to proclaim this great message. … If this is the way it works for the people, then my job as servant for the people is to serve them.”

Henninger, who will celebrate her eighth Christmas at Rosebud mission, echoed that sentiment: “The ministry’s difficult, but honestly there’s nowhere I’d rather be than serving with the people here.”

After finishing her day at Trinity Episcopal Church in Mission, Stanley expects to make it home before 1 a.m., and with Christmas Day off, she will drive about seven hours to visit relatives in Colorado. Don’t wait for her for dinner, she told them.

And given how exhausted she expects to be Christmas morning, she has joked with members of the Rosebud’s congregations that they should only try to contact her in a grave emergency.

“If you are not dead, don’t call me.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.

Un desastre tras otro: hacer frente a la fatiga de la compasión puede resultar un desafío

Thu, 12/21/2017 - 8:36am

Una mujer se echa a llorar en los escombros de su casa quemada luego que un incendio forestal en California la destruyera. Foto de John Gress/REUTERS.

[Episcopal News Service] Sería de perdonar que  a la gente le pareciera que se le agolpan los desastres naturales en 2017, especialmente en los meses transcurridos desde mayo.

Existe tal cosa como la fatiga de la compasión. Si bien los primeros estudios se centraban en socorristas profesionales y cómo perdían la preocupación solidaria que alguna vez los inspiró, también se entiende que organizaciones e inclusos sociedades como un todo pueden padecer de lo que algunos llaman“fatiga de la empatía”.

Ciertos estudios muestran que la empatía pública se esfuma a las pocas semanas de un desastre, ¿pero qué ocurre si los desastres siguen ocurriendo?

El Rvdmo. Matt Gunter, obispo de la Diócesis de Fond du Lac, resumió este sentimiento a finales de octubre: “Estoy cansado. Me duele el corazón. Mi alma está fatigada”, escribió él en el artículo de un blog titulado “Amar al prójimo en una época de fatiga de la compasión” [Loving Your Neighbor in an Age of Compassion Fatigue].

La publicación “parece haber tocado un nervio”, dijo Gunter a Episcopal News Service durante una entrevista el 20 de diciembre. “Elevó al máximo casi inmediatamente mis clics, luego, eso sugiere algo”, añadió.

El mundo se ha enfrentado con mucho sufrimiento este año. Primero fueron las lluvias torrenciales de Sri Lanka en mayo que mataron al menos a 224 personas. Luego vino una serie de huracanes —Harvey, Irma y María— que arrasaron el Caribe Oriental e inundaron Texas con históricas precipitaciones desde agosto hasta principios de octubre. Las tormentas mataron a unas 800 personas, aunque el saldo de muertes es controvertido debido a las acusaciones de manipulación al proceso de atribuir bajas fatales a las tormentas. Los daños a la propiedad se calcula que bordean los $350.000 millones.

En medio de esas tormentas, dos grandes terremotos sacudieron México en septiembre, dejando 470 muertos, desplazando a miles de persona s y dejando daños por un valor estimado de $2.000 millones.

Imagen del satélite del 5 de diciembre muestra el humo de los incendios de Thomas, Rye y  Creek en el sur de California. Foto Observatorio Terrestres de la NASA.

Luego, el norte de California estallo con devastadores y voraces incendios a mediados de octubre. Unas 44 personas murieron y las reclamaciones por seguros de la propiedad han ascendido a $9.400 millones. Y los californianos del sur están ahora sofocando los restos de los incendios que se extendieron por la zona de Los Ángeles a partir del 4 de diciembre. Ha muerto una persona y los daños a la propiedad aún no terminan de calcularse. Los costos de los desastres de EE.UU. tienen un triple efecto,  ya que las municipalidades afectadas esperan una reducción de sus ingresos tanto debido al costo de combatir los incendios como a la imposibilidad de recaudar impuestos sobre las propiedades destruidas.

Añada a todo esto los desastres causados por los seres humanos: los asesinatos masivos en un concierto en Las Vegas y en una iglesia en Sutherland Springs, Texas; disturbios con fatalidades en Chalottesville, Virginia; y ataques terroristas en Manhattan. Recuérdese que hace cinco años, ocurrió lo de la escuela primaria de Newtown y la gente pensó que las cosas seguramente cambiarían  después que los niños fueron muertos a tiros en sus aulas. En lo que va de año, ha habido 413 agresiones a tiros en Estados Unidos en las cuales cuatro o más personas han sido alcanzadas, según estadísticas de Mass Shooting Tracker, un banco de datos de información pública sobre  agresiones masivas en EE.UU.

Las noticias de desastres medioambientales y de violencia sectaria a través del mundo, se acompañan de las divisiones partidarias que se libran a través de las plataformas mediáticas en Estados Unidos y en todas partes, añaden lo que el psicólogo Jamil Zaki ha llamado una “habituación [que] pareja con una sensación de insensibilidad, puede agotar nuestra empatía, motivándonos a dejar de preocuparnos por las víctimas de tragedias”.

“Darnos cínicamente por vencidos ante el saldo surreal de desastres naturales o de masacres y cambiar el canal puede ser [una reacción] autoprotectora, que cueste menos psicológicamente que experimentar vicariamente el sufrimiento de personas extrañas”, escribió él en 2011, el año en que Twitter entró en la Red. Desde entonces, los años han sido una explosión de noticias, de imágenes gráficas y vídeos, y de opiniones que han saturado los cerebros y corazones de la gente.

“Comunicar el sufrimiento de otros no siempre genera empatía, e incluso puede ser contraproducente, por ejemplo, cuando una inundación del sufrimiento que se muestra en relatos y fotos deja los sentimientos de las personas impotentes y exhaustos”, dijo Zaki.

Gunter, de Fond du Lac, dijo a ENS que él “no está seguro de que estemos programados mentalmente para absorberlo”. Hubo un tiempo en que las personas llevaban vidas bastante aisladas, enteradas de lo él llamaba  “las penas humanas normales” de las personas en sus comunidades, cosas como incendios de casas y ataques cardíacos y personas que morían demasiado pronto. Quizás tenían noticias de un terremoto y de otras suerte de destrucciones remotas. Pero ahora, cuando “enciendes la televisión, te enfrentas con trenes descarrilados e imágenes de guerra y de hambre”.

Esas noticias instantáneas suscitan la interrogante de “cómo vamos a manejar el influjo de todas las noticias las 24 horas los 7 días de la semana”, dijo Gunter. Y a eso tienes que añadir el constante comentario político, que está fundamentalmente orientado a agitarlo a uno en primer lugar. Todos estamos nerviosos porque aquí hay personas que hacen dinero y adquieren poder e influencia por mantenernos inquietos. Eso es completamente otro sermón, pero es un lugar donde yo creo que la Iglesia tiene algo que decir”.

En su blog, él sugirió que muchas personas han experimentado los síntomas de la fatiga de la compasión:  trastornos del sueño; pensamientos negativos involuntarios, imágenes o ideas desagradables; irritabilidad, impaciencia o acceso de cólera; hipervigilancia y “un deseo de evitar a personas que afectan o que sabes que perturbarán tu equilibrio”.

Pueden manifestarse ansiedad y temor desmesurados. Gunter dijo a ENS que en las últimas semanas, al menos dos sacerdotes le han dicho que sus congregaciones han solicitado  [la presencia de] guardias armados en la iglesia.  Él le ha advertido a la gente a darse cuenta de que la masacre de la iglesia de Texas fue una disputa doméstica que se ventiló en un local que podría fácilmente haber sido una estación de correos o una tienda.

Todas esas presiones, escribió él en su blog, pueden conducir a un “entumecimiento psíquico” que provoque que las personas quieran resguardarse y dejar de tratar de vivir con compasión por sus prójimos.

“Y sin embargo, como cristianos, debemos resistir esta tendencia  incluso si reconocemos su realidad y su poder. En su resumen de la Ley, Jesús nos conmina ‘ama a tu prójimo como a ti mismo’. Eso es un llamado a la compasión, un llamado a al acción solidaria”, escribió Gunter.

La cuestión es, le dijo él a ENS, “cómo sobreponerse al temor y la ansiedad que en muchos no es racional, es emotivo”. Y, añadió Gunter, dada la polarización en la sociedad, “la gente está pronta a decir que eres liberal o cualquier otra cosa y pueden descartarte porque no les estás dando lo que quieren”.

La buena nueva del evangelio debe ser predicada y vivida “de una manera que pueda realmente oírse” por encima de todo el bullicio.

El llamado a hacer eso y seguir siendo compasivo no siempre es fácil de responder, y la respuesta puede conducir a la misma fatiga que muchas personas están experimentando. El obispo ofreció algunos pasos para encontrar el equilibrio:

  • Reserve tiempo cada día para orar, y no sólo en privado, sino con otros.
  • Encuentre alguien con quien hablar que lo estimule en lugar de reforzarle las cosas que lo agitan.
  • Reserve un tiempo sabático para “descansar de las preocupaciones del mundo” (evitando incluso las noticias y la Internet) y emprenda algo reparador.
  • Reconozca la vulnerabilidad humana y la dependencia de Dios.
  • Haga lo que pueda y confíele el resto a Dios, centrándose en el cuidado personal y asumiendo sólo lo que pueda manejar.
  • Viva en lo positivo, no en lo negativo.
  • Y cada día mencione las cosas buenas y dele gracias a Dios al menos por tres cosas.

Gunter abunda sobre todas estas prácticas en su artículo del blog.

Muchas personas le han dicho a Gunter que están intentando asumir esa última disciplina de la gratitud. Su entendimiento de la psicología  dice que “sólo esa simple práctica puede reorientar su perspectiva de una manera mensurable”

– La Rda Mary Frances Schjonberg es la jefa de redacción interina de Episcopal News Service. Traducción de Vicente Echerri.

Blue Christmas services offer comfort on longest night

Tue, 12/19/2017 - 1:32pm

[Anglican Journal] For those experiencing grief, loss or hardship, the Christmas season is far from the most wonderful time of the year. Typical holiday festivities—merry carol singing, decorating, gathering with family and purchasing gifts—emphasize joy and cheer, leaving little room for pain and grief.

In response, some churches offer special services leading up to Christmas that accommodate those for whom the season is trying and difficult.

These services, called Blue Christmas or Longest Night services, emphasize the pain of loss felt by many at this time of year, and offer a somber, gentle space to gather. Symbolically, many of these services are held on or around December 21, the date of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year.

St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Jarvis, Ontario, has been holding Blue Christmas services for the past decade. “This is designed specifically for people for whom Christmas is not a happy time,” says Canon Richard Moorse, who began the services 10 years ago after adapting the idea from a United Church minister he had worked with. The service, he says, is meant as a way to acknowledge the birth of Christ without the joyful, celebratory trappings of a typical Christmas service, which can be painful for those coping with loss.

“The constant refrains on radio and television, in shopping malls and churches, about the happiness of the season, about getting together with family and friends, reminds many people of what they have lost. The anguish of the death of a loved one can make us feel alone in the midst of the celebrating and joy,” the liturgy for St. Paul’s service reads. “We need the space and time to acknowledge our sadness; we need to know that we are not alone. We need encouragement to live the days ahead of us.”

St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Ponoka, Alberta, began holding a Blue Christmas service about 15 years ago in collaboration with the local United Church, says the Rev. Donna Willer, who has been with the church since 2013. Willer has continued the tradition, and sees the service as an important expression of grief. “The service is very important, as it gives them [attendees] permission to grieve openly, offers hope and comfort—consolation that they are not alone in their grief—and that others care, most especially Christ.”

Maxine Jonson, a parishioner at St. Mary’s, had never attended the Blue Christmas service, as it fell on her wedding anniversary, December 21. Last year, her husband passed away after a two-decade battle with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. She attended the service for the first time that year, and is looking forward to attending again. “Our secular world is so busy and noisy all year round,” she wrote in an email. She praised the quiet, reflective nature of the service: “The service is simple and focused on our Lord…We light candles and focus on our personal needs in an atmosphere of quiet contemplation.” This quietness “restores our hearts and enables us to carry on.”

Another parishioner, George Crowhurst, will be attending the service this year and lighting a candle for his wife. A volunteer with Victim Services for many years, he has encouraged individuals to attend the service, which he says offers a “quiet time for meditation [and] reflection.”

The service is open to anyone, and often non-church-goers and even those who practice other religions attend.

At St. Paul’s, the service is meant to be ecumenical in nature and open to any worshipper who needs it, regardless of denomination. “We don’t get that many people out,” says Moorse, noting that it is typical to have only around a half-dozen attendees. But, he says, the numbers don’t matter. “I just do it because I think it’s important.”

While attendees are often coping with the loss of a loved one, Moorse says, there are many types of grief that are expressed in these services. “It could be the loss of a child, it could be the loss of a marriage…any sort of substantial loss. Any loss like that creates a hole in our life.”

The service at St. Paul’s includes a candle lighting ceremony done in memory of those who have been lost, which in turn symbolizes resilience and hope. Congregants are invited during the service to come forward, light a candle and place it in a bowl of water. While the bowl symbolizes feelings of loss and pain, the liturgy states that the candles act as a reminder that loved ones’ “presence is still with us…A symbol of what they meant to us, how they loved us, and formed us, and can never be taken away.”

“Grieving with others is so valuable because one will be offered empathy, comfort, prayer, Scripture and temporary or long-term relationship,” Willer wrote, in an email. “The Church of Christ is relational.” While Willer believes it is important to face pain and sadness, “and not tuck it away on a shelf, hoping someday it will go away,” she believes that Christ offers hope.

“Christ suffered for us once on the cross, [and] he suffers with us in our sorrow.” She cites Matthew 11:28 as an important Scripture to this service: “Come to me, all who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

“In all this darkness, there’s light at the end of the tunnel—and it’s not another train coming. There’s the light of comfort that’s coming down,” says Moorse. “I think more than anything else, that’s the heart of it.”

Moorse likens the pain of losing someone to a physical scar, saying, “It never really goes away.” But in a season dense with emotion, a recognition of that pain brings some hope and comfort to those who mourn.

Read more about it

Many Episcopal Church congregations host Blue Christmas or Longest Night services. Episcopal News Service wrote about the trend in 2007 and again in 2010.