By Catherine Shaw
My bed in the House of Prayer rectory is a comfortable full-size mattress, but my sheets don’t quite fit, since I was told I would be sleeping on a queen bed. This isn’t a big deal; I’m only mentioning it because I’m going to use this image as an analogy later on, so bear with me.
I moved to Philly from a Cleveland suburb, and, before I moved, everyone was telling me that I was in for a really big change, that I would probably be dealing with culture shock for a while, and that I should prepare to be bewildered. Well, they were right, but not in the way they thought they were. I’ve been in Philly for about six weeks now, and I’m feeling pretty comfortable with the city itself: I’m jaywalking like a pro, SEPTA and I are tight, and I’ve gotten pretty good at ignoring sirens. So the city and I are good, at least as far as I’m concerned.
However, my experience in the Episcopalian world is a different story. Although I currently consider myself nondenominational, I grew up in the Methodist Church, and my thinking about Episcopalian worship and practices before Servant Year went along these lines: “We’re Protestant, and so are they, so it can’t be that different.” Yeah, right. I’ve attended nineteen Episcopalian masses since I arrived in Philly, and I feel a bit like a full-size mattress trying to fit into queen-size bedding.
Eleven inches. That’s the difference between a full and a queen. It doesn’t seem worth noticing, but those eleven inches (five in width and six in length) lead to a difference of 730 square inches (roughly thirty square feet), which is a significant difference. In the same way, the short, “it’s all the same” distance between the Methodist and Episcopalian traditions has morphed into a vast and bewildering gulf that I cannot bridge.
Here’s a short list of some the things I’ve found discombobulating: saints; praying to saints; real wine at communion (gasp!); incense; chant during mass; it’s called mass; crossing oneself; the eerie proficiency exhibited by Episcopalians while reading responsively; bowing left, right, and center; the hymns don’t have titles, which makes finding a familiar one difficult; even familiar hymns often have a small difference in words or music that throws me for a loop; the Book of Common Prayer; etc. (Note: some of these are listed because St. Luke’s, the parish where I work and worship, worships in the Anglo-Catholic style; not all Episcopalian churches use incense or chant.)
Much of what I’ve listed is superficial, but, combined with the more profound differences, it has made finding my footing in the Episcopalian world difficult. I wish it were as easy as solving my sheet problem: I just stuffed the extra material tightly under one side of the mattress, and now I’m good to go. Unfortunately, becoming more comfortable with the Episcopalian tradition will probably take a little more effort. I’ve mostly figured out when things happen in the service (i.e. crossing, bowing, etc.), and the conformist in me wants to be satisfied with that and just assimilate as quickly as possible. The rebel in me disdains such an approach and thinks I should refuse to “give in” to assert and maintain my independence (yes, I know it’s petty). I’m hoping that they will duke it out, while whatever rationality exists in me tries to understand the questions that face me now: Where do these Episcopalian practices and beliefs come from? What is there meaning and significance? Which ones do I want to integrate into my own spiritual beliefs and practices and which ones do I lay aside?
I probably won’t have figured everything out by the end of this year, and I also doubt that I will fully embrace the Episcopalian tradition. So I will still be a full-size mattress amid a company of queens, but I hope that, instead of trying to fit into the wrong size bedding, I will be at peace with being a misfit and able to say: “This is who I am. I don’t quite fit, and that’s okay because I don’t really need to.”
Catherine Serves as Outreach Coordinator at St. Luke's Episcopal Church.
By Trish Johnston
The Maritime industry is a unique world of its own. Through working with the Seamen’s Church Institute of Philadelphia and South Jersey over the last two months, I’ve gotten to learn about this world that not many people get to see, or even know exists. 90% of the consumer goods we use each day come to us through international shipping. Take a look around you: your cellphone, the banana you brought with lunch, the chocolate bar sitting in the candy dish. You have all of these things in part thanks to international shipping and, if you’re in the greater Philadelphia region, our port.
SCI is an agency that helps the workers that keep the international shipping industry running. Annually, we see 30,000 seafarers who dock in our terminals from countries all over the world. So far, I have personally met seafarers from the Philippines, Germany, Ukraine, Russia, India, Romania, China, Latvia and Georgia. The ships these seafarers work on are massive floating structures. Two days a week I get the opportunity to actually board huge cargo ships to visit the crew members.
You truly never know what you’re going to get when you head to a terminal for a ship visit. One day I boarded a ship to discover what looked like aliens out of a movie moving slowly down the hall towards me. Turns out it was just the coast guard in full fire-proof gear, doing a drill. One day I boarded my first car ship. Imagine a twelve story parking garage that floats. That’s what this ship was. It even had an elevator on board. But I happened to board during the offload of 1,600 vehicles. Longshoremen board the ship, get in a car, drive it to a lot close by, hop in a van, get driven back up to the ship and do it all over again. It’s chaotic, overwhelming and loud as you’re standing in the hull and it was quite an experience for my first time on the auto ship.
While working for SCI gives me great stories to tell about the Maritime industry, the best stories come from the seafarers we serve. 98% of them are male and usually work a 6-9 month contract, have 3 months of vacation and then are back out at sea. They live a hard life, away from their families for long stretches of time. SCI provides little things like phone cards, transportation, and home cooked meals, to try to make these guys’ lives a little better.
On one of my first days out visiting, the seafarers asked to be taken somewhere they could transfer money. It had already been a stressful day and then we got lost trying to find the Western Union. When we finally arrived, we sat in the van so the seafarers could go inside. It felt like it took them forever to go what they needed to do. My fellow visitor Sharon and I fervently discussed how much gas we were wasting idling outside the shop, how much time we had spent waiting and how many more stops we had left in our day (it was several). We were anxious to get moving so that we could get everything done. In a later conversation with the seafarer I learned that he was wiring money home because his 7 year old daughter was in the hospital and his wife needed money to pay the doctor. He assured me that she was going to be ok, that it was just a high fever and that he was very appreciative of the van ride. It was a nice reminder of how much our work means to the people we serve. It didn’t matter how long we waited or how much gas we burned. We were making a difference for someone who really needed it.
Another day, we got word that a Filipino seafarer who had family in Philadelphia was coming into port in Camden, but lacked the proper visa to get off the ship. We worked with the security of the terminal and family to get them access to the ship. We were able to facilitate a reunion between the seafarer and his sister and nephew. It was the first time they had seen each other in 11 years, since before the sister and her children emigrated to the United States. I was able to be there as they came on board, hugs were exchanged and tears flowed (maybe a few of mine too).
Its experiences like these that make me so grateful that I was placed at SCI. Every day when I hop into the van, I never know what’s waiting for me, every day is an adventure, just the way I like it!
Trish serves as Volunteer Coordinator at Seamen's Church Institute.
By Michelle Day
Earlier this week a student left a note for me in my mailbox. The topic of the note consisted of self-esteem troubles, arguments with peers, and other typical thirteen year old challenges. Towards the end of the note though, this student wrote that they wished that they had “a perfect life like [me].” I let out a sarcastic laugh when I read that sentence.
I’m now two months into my placement, and every day continues to present its own challenges (in addition to dealing with coffee stains). In case you’ve blocked out ages 11-14 from your memory, life for the average middle schooler is a constant battle of juggling school work, sleep, extra curriculars, and of course, socialization. Now add in factors such as poverty, violence, abuse, limited food, lack of sleep, death, sickness, and a public school system that continues to fail into that equation. The world has been against most of these students for their entire lives, and now it’s up to a small group of passionate and determined teachers and staff at a small school with a bright red door to take these students who have been living tragedies and show them that they can make their stories into an epic, if they’re willing to push through the pain and suffering in order to get there.
As a bright eyed and optimistic 22 year old recent graduate, it’s easy for me to dream about a future where underprivileged children overcome the obstacles placed before them and become the world’s best readers and write stories that get turned into movies and go on to graduate college and become doctors, lawyers, and teachers; creators and dreamers and world changers in their own right, all because of what education was able to do for them.
Before moving to Philly over the summer, I decided that I was going to challenge myself to use the phrase “present over perfect” as my motto during my time of service. Throughout my time so far at Saint James, this simple idea of being “present over perfect” has morphed into my mantra, my battle cry, and my whispered prayer on days filled with chaos, spilled coffee, bruised hearts, and tired eyes.
In order for these future world changers to become successful, I now understand that there are going to be days where I feel helpless, where I feel like I’m failing and wish I had stayed in bed. There are times when the future violinist decides he doesn’t want to do his reading homework, and the future doctor gossips about the future actress and the future athlete lets a moment of anger and frustration turn into a half hour long temper tantrum.
Vowing to be present over perfect means that I still get out of bed on days when I feel sick and dread the long day ahead. It means saying “Good Morning” and shaking a student’s hand even when they refuse to say hello back to me and accuse me of not caring. And when a student brings me to the point of tears, it means that I have the courage to walk away, take a deep breath (or a hundred), and try again the next day.
Throughout my time at Saint James School so far, as I focus my time on being present in the moment, I’ve discovered that even with the long hours, sore feet, and stuffy noses, I’m learning how to appreciate the journey in front of me more and more. I still have goals and I still have hopes and dreams, but the stories of the kids who can’t read or who break down on a daily basis, the ones who hate math and refuse to write-they are a part of something bigger, and I get to play a part in this story.
I’ve found that when I take the time to pull the future nurse aside and talk to her and ask if she’s okay, when I eat lunch with the fashion designer and sit next to the artist in class and work besides them on their level, I am able to show them that I care-that their progress each day fills my heart with joy. And as a result, we all move a step closer towards healing and creating a better future filled with real life superheroes and world changers..together
Michelle's Ministry Placement is at St. James School as an Instructional Assistant.