This morning, I stood next to Southwest alumnus the Rt. Rev. Greg Rickel, MDiv ’96, as he consecrated the Eucharist at a clergy retreat in Seattle. As I listened to the familiar words, spoken in Greg’s familiar twang, I drifted back in memory to what has turned out to be the pivotal moment of my life: the beginning of my return to faith fifteen years ago.
At my lowest ebb, suffering from life-threatening depression, I walked in the door of St. James’ Episcopal Church in East Austin. It was the first time I’d set foot in a church in a very long while, and I slumped into the back pew, expecting I would be safely unnoticed there. I was wrong. A dozen people leaned—or walked—over to me and greeted me before the service began.
At the passing of the peace, what seemed like every single member of the congregation shook my hand and offered me the peace of Christ. It was a flood of touch, a cascade of welcome.
It was a bit overwhelming.
When the time came for the Eucharist, Greg stood up behind the altar, looked out at us, and said, as I discovered he did every Sunday, “Wherever you are in your walk of faith, you are welcome at this table.”
At a time when I did not feel welcome anywhere on the planet—including in my own body—the welcome I received from Greg and from the people of St. James’ was startling, and although I cannot say it healed my broken heart that morning, I did realize that I was in the presence of something holy and life-giving, something I wanted to experience again.
I came back, Sunday after Sunday. I passed the peace. I took communion. Greg reached out to me, as did his seminarians Hunt Priest and Roger Joslin, both MDiv ‘05. I forged relationships with them and with others from the church, who welcomed me each Sunday and seemed to have been loving and praying for me all week long.
And finally I looked up one Sunday morning, surrounded by the good people of St. James’, and realized that although I never thought I could be a person of faith, through their ministrations, I had become one.
When I first set foot inside the doors of their church, they began to walk alongside me, and they did not stop.
I reflected, as I watched Greg consecrate the bread and wine this morning in Seattle, that they never have. Wherever I go and whatever I do, he and the people of St. James’ continue to accompany me, to lift me up, and to remind me how much we need each other. So do my classmates from Seminary of the Southwest. So do the parishioners of St. David’s, Austin, my home church.
I had written liturgy for the clergy retreat, and in the prayers of the people, I bid prayer
for the saints of old, miracle workers, God-bearers,
for the saints who have shaped our lives and work
Although Greg would never claim sainthood—nor would most of the good people who have journeyed with me as I moved from my own place of brokenness to a place where I could begin to accompany others in theirs—I think of them as saints, and I give thanks for them daily.
As I do here. Now.
Spirituality is an individual matter. We can study the Scriptures, the Talmud, the words of the Buddha. We can seek our own individual enlightenment, and for that, perhaps we don’t need others. But faith, in my experience, is about relationship. It happens in community.
In the Episcopal tradition, we do not center our faith and practice on a set of beliefs. We focus it on bread and wine, consecrated to be for us in some mysterious way the presence of the Holy One, and consumed alongside our sisters and brothers.
It is communion in every sense.
Being with Greg and his clergy in the Diocese of Olympia this week has offered another necessary reminder of the importance of Christian community, not only in my past, but in our ongoing journey. In our own busyness, in a culture that encourages us to believe that we are self-sufficient, it is important to remember that we need the saints, all the saints, both those who have inspired us from the far past, and those who walk alongside us today.
And it is important to remember that we are called to be those people who accompany, that a world full of broken people awaits our welcome.
Who are the saints who have been instrumental in your own faith journey?
How might you—and the community you serve—be a more welcoming home for the broken-hearted?
Greg Garrett (@Greg1Garrett) currently serves as the Writer-in-Residence at Seminary of the Southwest. As a member of the adjunct faculty of the seminary, Greg helps future leaders of the Church to write, interpret, and communicate effectively.