These are some of the wonderful ladies of Grace Episcopal Church in St. Francisville, LA. Some I have met before, some were new friends and faces. Yes, this wonderful community is populated with all kinds of folks: men folk, women folk, retired Bishops, missionaries, mission committees, day care ministries, youth ministries, and the historic church itself is a mission in preservation. The historic church sits in the old part of St. Francisville, a lovely small town above Baton Rouge near the river. It is generally draped with moss hanging from very old oaks. It pridefully hangs flags on a blue field with a single white star in it signifying its historic revolution from Spanish rule in 1810. The region was annexed into the new Union in 1812. So the memories and deep history of this largely English settled part of Louisiana run deep. The current Rector of Grace Church is the The Very Rev. Dr. Roman Roldan. Fr. Roldan, rightfully or wrongfully invited me to preach on August 26, 2018.
As generosity and hospitality are hallmarks of this congregation I was invited to stay in an old plantation now a B&B. The area is widely known for its famous and sometimes haunted plantations. The one that I stayed at is not haunted but its oaks and moss and ravines conspired to conjure up visions of the past. The Butler-Greenwood plantation was started in 1790 and some of the early buildings remain. I was located in what had been a very early kitchen separated from the main house. One of the fun aspects of that lovely “Kitchen B&B” was an original well with a Plexiglas cover in the floor just adjacent to a large tub. Out back was a porch with a porch swing over looking a pond with ducks and such. An oak limb framed the view and yes, it too was covered with moss. I love moss. It is just so evocative.
I was taken to dinner by Fr. Roman, his delightful wife and two wonderful parishioners at a local favorite and the food was excellent. Having filled up on fresh red fish and sharing a terrific bread pudding I headed back to my lodgings to finish preparing my sermon. It was once again St. John, waxing on about the body and blood of Jesus and his eternal invitation of real presence. I was the third guest preacher invited to speak. I suspect that Fr. Roldan wanted to avoid the often repetitive nature of this part of John’s Gospel. Wise choice because in listening to it three Sundays in a row it starts to sound like the same Gospel. Of course it isn’t but it sounds like it is and thus the challenge to priests everywhere. Those that preceded me are most excellent preachers so – no pressure – right? Canon Shannon Manning had last week and Fr. Rollins of St. Alban’s Chapel the week before. No pressure? As I was sitting and musing on, “The spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” (Jn 6:63), nothing too heavy here, I allowed the night to take me in.
So, it was a deep summer’s night, the moon peeking through that moss. I sat swinging slightly in the evening wondering about this. Yipe! I looked down and across my feet wandered a small opossum! His beady little eyes gave me only a disinterested look though his little white teeth shown. So, as opossums do he continued to amble toward his bug feast near the pond. “The bread of life” seemed to depart from my thoughts. I decided it was time for bed needing to rise before the sun. So began my Sunday service – with an opossum.
I preached at both services to nice sized crowds who look remarkably unlike my own St. Anna’s. Most were well dressed “for church.” I’ve not seen that much seersucker since I was last in Perlis Men’s Store (a local purveyor of traditional deep south clothing). Anna’s folk are dressed in an array of attire ranging from shoe-less tie-dyed chihuahua carrying hippie folk, to golf shirted guys with babies, to dapper dressers and transgender folk all conspiring to confuse any fashion editor. No, this wasn’t downtown St. Anna’s. No, Grace was lovely and it was deeply traditionally southern, just like their historic church.
At the early service (7:30 a.m.) was one of my mentors and a person that I have deep respect for, the retired Bishop Charles Jenkins, D.D. with his lovely wife. Yes, he wore seersucker and he looked great. It was a joy to see them both. The “family” service (10:00 a.m.) was attended to with a very nice choral ensemble, fun young acolytes, and a goodly assembly. I preached in my usual southern style shouting and moving about. I was pumped up for Jesus! This church has supported St. Anna’s mission work for more than six years (please keep this aside in mind as it is important to the story). They are important folk and this was an important message; “to break the bonds of tradition if it means to fulfill the mission of Jesus.” Honestly, I don’t think that they are much accustomed to my style of preaching. I suspect they normally get well crafted sermons riddled with story and polished with some degree of decorum. Yet, here I was, pony tail swinging, cassock with red piping, having at it with gusto. One of the sermon reviews went like this: During the usual “receiving line” after church one very elegant lady shook my hand and said very politely, “Well, thank you for waking us up this morning.” That was it and she elegantly departed. I chuckled and understood. Maybe next time I need to tone it down a bit and take the dialogue up a notch. But it was fun and delightful worship.
After worship I was invited to take coffee in the parish hall. Some of the congregation normally join and Roman’s delightful wife introduced me and asked me to say a few words about our mission. Over the years Grace has provided so much monetary as well as spiritual support it is amazing. As I told the coffee holding members, “One cannot imagine two churches so absolutely different in style and culture; yet here we are sharing common cup and showing mutual support and affection.” During that time we joked with each other a bit; we laughed some; and I was asked to tell a couple of stories.
I told them about an impoverished family that was dependent on the drug trade as “the family business.” That was about 8 years ago. I told them that their support resulted in the oldest boy NOT selling drugs but holding down a part time job and finishing High School. SUCCESS! Of his sister graduating from Junior High with absolutely every award that can be given to a single student! SUCCESS! I told of the youngest sister still in school, doing well, and not in trouble. SUCCESS! I told them about the mother who apparently no longer was associating with drug dealers, rather, she was holding down jobs and was self supporting. SUCCESS! I told them about 4 boys who attended a Jesuit High School Summer program designed to attract minority students who live in poverty with an eye toward future High School scholarships! SUCCESS! Yes indeed. Then I switched gears…
Several times since arriving I was told that money was good but that relationships were important. Indeed such are. But there was a sense that contributing money was not on a par with or equivalent to donating. Somehow a mission trip had more worth, in our imaginations, than a monetary gift. I also came to feel if not believe that givers sometimes feel put upon. They also sometimes feel or are made to feel that their gift is not worthy of a crown of glory in the kingdom. I have a problem with that. Here is why:
- Money is effectively labor and talent reduced to an easily transportable vehicle. Money replaces bartering. So, money accumulated is effectively accumulated labor and talent.
- Jesus on a few occasions talks about the wealthy or even just money. In each case he does not ask for poverty but he does ask (a) do you worship money over God the Father? (b) What do you do with your money? and etc. He did say, “For where your money is there will be your heart also” Matthew 6:21. So, money, according to Jesus can be used for the good of the world or hoarded and used outside of “the Kingdom” community.
I then asked the coffee community that I was visiting if they knew what Mary Magdalene did for a living? Two women quickly raised their hands. I told them to put their hands down because, “they read the book (Mary Magdalene a Novel by Diana Wallis Taylor).” A quick laugh by us all. Then I explained that it was likely that Mary Magdalene was a wealthy woman who helped fund the ministry of Jesus. Remember the grumbling about Judas and the purse (John 12:6, 13:29) Money was important. According to much biblical research the earliest church was likely often funded by female patrons including Lydia who was a patroness of Paul’s early missionary journey in Philipi. Phoebe was also a deacon and patron of the church. The point is that money is not so abstract and is urgently needed for missionary work. I had hoped to elevate the sense that giving is not a disposable sacred act but was as important biblically and contemporaneously to Christian missionary work. It is important.
I will be the first to admit, like many Episcopalians I feel awkward in “the ask” part of all of this. But I love our work and the kids that we attend to so to heck with being a tawdry money beggar. So I am. It must have worked because the generosity was immediately apparent. One nicely dressed lady came to me with a folded script in her hand and simply said, “So, OK, you talked me into it.” She smiled and walked away – $500.00. Another wonderful patron gave me an envelope which contained a very brief note: “Use this where needed” and inside, again, a script for $1,533.00. Such generosity is humbling indeed. But here is my favorite and the most humbling of all.
There are two dowager women who are sisters. They are late in years. I have seen them during each of my visits. They are always there with a smile and a story or two of their own. They have been associated with Grace since childhood. I believe that their father was a one time Rector of the church. They are in the picture at the top of this post. I suspect that they are not wealthy women. I suspect that like many of us they are on a fixed income. Like all of us they have fond childhood memories. I expect that they have all sorts of memories. But their faces tell a story of more happiness than sadness. The lines around their mouths point upward in a perpetual smile as do the lines at their eyes. They seem to smile when simply looking out at the world.
Now, it is a custom in the south not to be so bold as to flash money in front of others when handing it to a clergy person. So, the technique, a finely honed one, is to palm the gift and to shake or hold the hand of the receiver and then to very quietly say some words about the gift (Matthew 6:4). One of the ladies approached me at the very end. With very gentle and very soft hands she gave me a palmed note (money). With the most delightful smile she whispered, “I don’t have much but I want you to take those children out and buy them each an ice cream cone. Children deserve an ice cream cones.” She then retired.
What a delight! What a gift. Not that the others were not a gift. They were and are and will be put to very good use to help children and families in very real ways. But what she was giving was a hope. It was a hope that children who don’t have much; children who are surrounded by violence; children who live in poverty might have, at least for a moment, a delightful encounter with whimsy. I am sure or I believe and in my imagination think that someone took our dowager by the hand as a little girl and bought her an ice cream cone and it was MAGNIFICENT! It was so magnificent that to this very day, maybe almost a century later, she recalls the delight in her own heart. Her hope is to give these children a moment of delight.
Two churches each very different:
Grace Church is a traditional bastion of the old south; Rite I; “East facing” Eucharist; bell towers and cemetery dating back to the civil war. Her bricks standing erect with a “low church” interior that is not austere but minimalist according to her tradition. The worship is clean and well done without undue excesses of ritual action. A church that has as its lot a congregation of mothers, fathers, grand fathers and mothers, that live generally in safety and delightful summer nights perhaps only bothered by an occasional opossum. They are a congregation of contributors, they do missionary work with journey’s to Honduras, they helped rebuild their civil parish after great floods. Most send daughters and sons to LSU and enjoy the fruits of their collective labors. They are a wholesome crowd. Likely many are conservative in political views yet generous of spirit. Old school perhaps; a sense of duty in giving and hard work. This great church is busy and and doing good things. They are partners with other churches and understand collaboration. They join us in common cup.
The other church, St. Anna’s is a “liberal” bastion of High Church liturgy. She too is old, starting as a seaman’s mission house along the rough and tumble dockside of the river. Her sanctuary precincts are littered with all manner of statuary and worship is not complete without incense and ornate vestments. Her congregation is relaxed wearing shorts to boaters and bow ties. Dogs are often in pews as life companions of members. Children are crying in the background and the sound of sirens and buses punctuate the High Mass. The building is a tribute to 1950’s architecture for small churches with slabs of Texas limestone. The interior of the church is made ornate and stately only by the good works of artist in residence Joel Dyer. The mission work of this church stands just outside of the front door. The worn floors and sagging ceilings play host to a varied and very urban bunch of folk. In general, we suspect that most, not all but most, are a politically a liberal bunch of folks that also believe in giving and doing mission work. Our mission work takes us only steps beyond our front door. Some of our people imagine only that their children will stay off of drugs, graduate from High School and not get shot. We join Grace in Common Cup.
Then there is that universal gift: an ice cream cone. AMEN