July 31, 2012

Be Not Afraid

I found it hard to imagine St. Mary’s going on without its rector - or rather, its former rector - and yet that’s exactly what was happening. Vibrant worship was taking place, new vegetables were being planted in the garden, a summer concert was planned, and there were even a few new visitors.

Two Sundays ago, I headed up to West Harlem to preach at St. Mary’s Manhattanville church, my former parish. It was the first time I’d been there in a long while, and it was the first opportunity I’d had to see the full impact of the recent departure of its beloved rector, the Rev. Earl Kooperkamp. I was one of the many people who’ve since been invited to preach in Fr. Earl’s absence.

I was excited to be back at St. Mary’s. St. Mary’s was the church that first welcomed me into the Episcopal Church; it was also where I made my go at the ordination process. Throughout these ups-and-downs, Fr. Earl was a constant, larger-than-life presence who challenged me, the neighborhood, and wider Church to “Be Not Afraid.” (How larger-than-life? Check out this New York Times profile of him and other Harlem clergy, his recent arrest at Duarte Square, and his outspoken witness against the New York Police Department’s “Stop and Frisk” policy and criminal profiling of Muslims.)

Even so, St. Mary’s is moving on. This was evident all around me as I sat in the courtyard waiting for the 8AM service to begin. Dappled light was streaming through the trees; different kinds of lettuce were emerging from raised beds; a man who had recently become a member joined me in the courtyard to wait for the red doors to open. At one point I saw one of the vestry members and had a chance to ask how everyone was doing. “We’re doing okay, though a bit exhausted” she said.

Clergy transitions can be opportunities for new beginnings. At their best, these transitions can serve to build up the lay leadership of a community, can open a window of opportunity to examine the way things have always been done and try something new. Nevertheless, it is also a fragile, seemingly exhausting time in the life of a church, one which needs abundant support and prayers.

It says a lot about St. Mary’s that they chose a rector like Fr. Earl in the first place. Over twelve years, he challenged us to live out a mission to “be not afraid” amidst the din and complexities of West Harlem. These days St. Mary's is praying its way to a new beginning, reciting on a weekly basis the wonderful prayer I've copied below. As you’ll see, it embraces the complexities of clergy transition - the loss as well as the sense of hope - and encourages members to face the future without fear.

Oh faithful God
As your people, we cherish our memories
and our history as a sacred inheritance.
Guide us in this time of transition
with your wisdom and knowledge.
Strengthen our hearts to say goodbye to what is past
and to face the future without fear.
Open our hearts to know your goodness in new ways.
Bring us together as one people in your Holy Spirit.
Help us to stay faithful to your call
To stand up as a community of faith in this place,
To pursue justice and peace for the poor and oppressed,
To pray and care for the sick, the lonely and at risk,
And by the power of the Holy Spirit to follow the Gospel call
“Be not afraid.” Amen.