By James Roll
In late August, a motley group of young adults embarked on a challenging year of intentionally living together while serving at various placements such as The Bethesda Project, St. James’ School, and the Office of Family and Young Adult Ministries for the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. I am proud to admit that my community initially bonded over the boy who lived, Harry Potter, as well as a mutual love of puzzles. Since then, we’ve somehow navigated situations such as the washing machine catching fire and the uncanny ability of Ozzie, the lovable yellow Labrador in residence at St Mark’s, to take a chunk out of any cake in the kitchen. I could certainly go on about the moments that our community has shared, but lately I have been pondering about what makes my current community intentional rather than just a bunch of individuals merely coexisting in the same place.
I think that Servant Year is intentional because we strive to take the time to share our joys, our stories, and our inevitable frustrations. Whether it is taking the time to prepare and enjoy a meal together, or going out for coffee, or simply listening to each other venting about life, or going for a late night walk with headphones in. I think that the members of a Servant Year community offer incredible support to each other, which has helped us to grow throughout the course of this year. Then again, Servant Year is about more than just service. Take for instance, my friendship with a fellow Servant Year member, Trish.
During the fall, Trish brilliantly proposed that a few Servant Year members join a volleyball league in pursuit of stardom. While there was some hope that we would get a good group together, in the end, only Trish and I ended up pursuing our dreams of volleyball glory. Instead of volleyball glory, we found an amazing group of people who we have built good and hopefully lasting relationships with in the throes of an eight game losing streak. While our team has finally discovered a winning formula of late, Trish has continued to soldier on with the wonderful work that she happens to be doing with the her Servant Year placement, Seamen's Church Institute, an organization that annually aids 30,000 seafarers, who form the backbone of the international shipping industry. I’m certainly jealous that Trish has had the opportunity to engage with individuals from a wide range of countries such as Latvia, Georgia, and the Philippines. I’m even more envious of the stories that she’s managed to be a part of during her time there. She has been enabled through her service to help a seafarer who needed to wire money home to pay for an operation for his daughter. Or there was the day that she managed to be a part of a reunion for family members who have not seen each other for over eleven years. Trish has the fortune to begin graduate school at Penn part time while continuing with Servant Year as a Second Year Fellow, serving at SCI next year. Servant Year has made it possible for us to share stories that inspire us to do more at our own placements; however, Servant Year is more than just service. Another one of my fellow Servant Year members, Catherine, is a prime example of this.
Catherine just so happens to have a sister who knows my sister as both engage in some capacity at Haverford College. Small world, huh? Catherine arrived this year as a complete newcomer to the Episcopal Church having grown up as a Methodist. She serves as the Youth Leader at St. Luke’s, Germantown--a church that I had the chance to explore as a counselor there for City Camp. Catherine recently remarked in a blog post that she once questioned how different the two protestant denominations could be. She quickly was struck by a bunch of differences that we perhaps take for granted. Why is there real wine? How are these Episcopalians eerily good at reading responsively? Do we really need to cross ourselves this often? Perhaps the biggest question was why don’t these hymns have titles? For some, like Catherine, Servant Year offers the opportunity to explore a church that is unfamiliar, and to see whether the shoe fits.
The shoe of the Episcopal Church definitely seems to fit for the members of Servant Year who just so happen to hail from Georgia. I’ve spent most of the year working alongside another person returning to the program next year as a Second Year Fellow- Ellen Doster, who engages with the families and children of St. Mark’s through the Boys and Girls Choir and Schola. While she may be a little bee crazy at the moment since the arrival of a hive or two of bees at St. Mark’s, Ellen, I think, has thrived in a place where she has been able to explore in more depth what her faith means, along with discovering more about various liturgies in the Episcopal Church. While I may not be overly excited to engage in a theological discussion, it has been evident that Ellen has the enthusiasm to indulge in a long conversation about why we do things in a particular way because she cares about the way we do things.
Servant Year arranged a road trip to Sewanee's School of Theology, and it was evident to me the excitement that Ellen had at returning to a place that she considers to be a home and it seems to me that Sewanee is a place where she can return to further her theological education. For some reason, various individuals at St. Mark’s love to ask me the question, “Is seminary in your future?” To which I often find myself replying, Not mine, but Ellen will probably be the one going down that path.
So then, where do I fit in? As a cradle Episcopalian, I grew up playing Satan’s on the Warpath, engaging with various communities on mission trips, serving as an acolyte, and going to four services in 12 hours beginning on Christmas Eve like every good little Episcopalian does. I went to college at Kenyon, a historically Episcopal school. I served for a youth leader for a local church. I was elected to the vestry at Harcourt Parish twice, I ran mission trips for Youthworks, I was let loose to run amok at Camp Mitchell in the Diocese of Arkansas. I guess that you can say that the church has been a large part of my life. Why then am I left to muse exactly when I stopped believing in God? Somewhere along the road, Jesus lost his place in my heart, and my once surefire faith disappeared. Was it after my priest cheated on his family with a member of the congregation? Was it during the summer I spent running mission trips in the closet? Was it when I was removed from being a youth leader and forced to leave a charismatic church because I was honest about the fact that I was gay? While it would be easy to place the blame of my loss of faith with a broken church or two, honestly, that doesn’t quite leave me satisfied.
I elected to come to Servant Year because I had hope that I would find something that I lost in an intensely religious community. I wanted to reflect upon the hollowness that I felt whenever I attempted to participate in any particular worship service. I wanted to rediscover the meaning behind the cross. A part of me imagined that serving a vibrant community would bring me in from the wilderness that I’ve long been wandering as I try to come to terms with all that has happened. Instead of finding God, who appears to be better at hiding than Carmen Sandiego, I’ve found something better. I’ve found myself.
I don’t know who God is right now--but that’s okay because I’ve realized that I have a purpose. I am here to serve a wonderful community in which I have had the opportunity to create wonderful relationships. Several of my food cupboard clients have realized that I’ve been dealing with hip tendonitis, which has brought several offers from various clients to come and help me unload the large delivery that we get from Philabundance every other week.
Mr. Ballard is planning on being there again next week to help me out again, which is delightful--but even more touching is the fact that Mr. Ballard asked me for advice on how to deal with a particular troublesome volunteer at another organization. Then there’s Robert, who had been an avid attendee of Evening Prayer and Masses at St. Mark’s before he reached out to get involved in the Food Cupboard and the Soup Kitchen. I remember that there would be days that the only people at Evening Prayer were Robert and I. A part of me wonders whether he would have reached out to join a valuable ministry at St. Mark’s had I not been present enough to engage with him. While Robert hasn’t been around lately due to a recent surgery, I have had the joy of being able to visit him and to continue to build a friendship with him.
While there’s certainly the irksome thought that someone else who has a firm belief in God would be better suited to working at St. Mark’s, I think sometimes it’s easy for me to get lost in the minor details. Sometimes it’s important to remember that even if something like the words I say at a mass or at the Daily Office don’t mean anything to me, they matter to someone else. These services give us the chance to be a place for someone else to enter our doors to engage with our outreach--and to be a part of something wonderful. For me, I constantly find myself lost in the laughter of an early morning at the Soup Kitchen and realize that this is where I’m meant to be for this moment--purely because the outreach at St. Mark’s can be fun. Whether it’s watching someone play chess, having conversations, walking the dogs, or changing the way that the Food Cupboard is run, or simply being present, I am here for this community. It’s funny that a part of me feels like I had to let go of my relationship with God and take a step back and remember what I love about being at St. Mark’s. I am here to serve a vibrant community full of small joys, regardless of the fact that I’m currently faithless--and that’s okay.
James Serves as Ministry Resident at St. Mark's Church.