“How is your wife’s toe?”
That’s the question that the young woman at the cash register asked me on the first day of my family moving into Tyler, Texas. I had been sent midday to purchase a trash can at the local grocery store, Brookshire’s. I was in a University of the South sweatshirt and was wearing an Atlanta Braves hat.
“How’s your wife’s toe? You are the new Episcopal priest in town, and I heard your wife broke her toe moving in today.”
I knew then, exactly then, that I was in trouble. I was in a small town, where everyone knows your name AND your business. If this is Mayberry, where is Floyd, Aunt Bee, and Otis? I would find each one soon enough. But the point is, I was now living in a small-town environment.
I had grown up in Atlanta, once small but now a bustling metropolis, readying to host the Olympic Games, an “international city”, no longer a mere Chamber of Commerce hype byline. This realization of a small-town scene scared me to death. I was just getting used to wearing the public clergy collar, but now I would be known as THE priest everywhere I went. The love of my personal freedom and privacy, one of my higher values, was in jeopardy.
In the privacy of my mind, I began almost immediately to look for a fast train to Georgia to get me the hell out of Dodge, or Tyler. In the Episcopal major leagues, this involves activating what is known as the Clergy Deployment Office profile, indicating to anyone that cared to notice, that you were interested in making a move to somewhere else. Add a polite, Southern plaintive “please”.
Those search relocation processes take some time. I had spent almost six months in the search process in Tyler. Within a year, I had a call to a major parish in New Jersey, but it did not fit my bill. So I was still in Tyler.
Tyler was a major shock to my system. It was actually a mid-sized city, but nobody had told the folks there that they weren’t still Mayberry. The people acted “as if” it were a small town. It was more Southern than it was Texas, It was a bit gossipy and class conscious. I got a “pass” since I was THE priest, invited to various social soirees in spite of my economic rank.
Fortunately, or blessedly, according to your theology, I was invited by Fred Smith to go with him and the Chief of Police, Larry Robinson, to a meeting with a professor in Chicago, Ray Bakke, who had written a book entitled Urban Christians. He was knee-deep in the revitalization of some of the tougher parts of Chicago, using some basic skills of community organizing. There was this other dude you may have heard of there, with the last name of Obama. I forget his middle name.
Long story, short, we toured Chicago, particularly the work in Cabrini Green, a renowned housing project. After dinner and a trip on the L, see Ferris Buehler, we were walking on the streets of this urban behemoth late in the evening, cue Paul Simon.
I had a chance to talk to Ray alone, and I asked him what I thought was a simple question. “How do you go about changing a city?”
Ray’s answer produced steam in the cold air of the night, and a chill up my spine, “You have to love the city.”
That was not good news to me. “Ray, I don’t even like my city. How can I love it?”
I remember Ray pausing, and looking off to the horizon before responding to this impudent young priest. “That will take prayer. Much prayer. If you want to change your city, you must begin by praying to God to give you a deep love for the city.”
That is what immediately came to mind. How am I going to do that? Seriously, I don’t naturally like Tyler. There are some people I like, even love. But the city? Racism, class distinction, late to the dance of integration of schools, proud of parochial thinking….any one of those could stop my affection for the city.
But I took Ray at his word. And so I began to pray that simple prayer, every morning in my Morning Prayer. Every night in my Evening Prayer. That two-fold rhythm of prayer had lodged in my bones while training at the Cathedral in Atlanta as we did the Daily Office together at the Mikell Chapel Monday through Friday. I packed that practice up and brought it with me to Tyler, Texas, by God.
And so I prayed.
I can not tell you when it happened exactly. I believe it was gradual, incremental. No Damascus road experience for this South of God boy. Slowly. Slowly, as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, Geshe Pende, taught me, about the prolonged process of transformation. But it happened. I came to love Tyler, Texas. I found an energy, a concern, a commitment that I had never known before. I was, how do they say it, “All in!”.
I stayed for a decade, pouring myself out, not only for my parish, Christ Church, but for my city.
I left Tyler, weeping as I drove my Yukon across the country on I-20 for Atlanta. And then twenty years later, I drove south to the Georgia coast, in a Tahoe, to my new island home. This island is connected by a causeway to a South Georgia town, Brunswick.
I have been following my Chicago friend, Ray’s advice once again in the middle of this pandemic. Dear God, give me a love for my city, my town. It’s been more difficult in some ways in the time of Covid, and then again, not. Plenty of isolation, time to sit in my natural refuge of a backyard that was once hole #8 on Sea Palms golf course. My new-found, newly formed Franciscan spirituality was a God-send to this old existentialist.
As you have read recently, I have been baptised into the life of this community through six weeks of the trial involving the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. And I am amazed that the same miraculous transformation has happened again. Lightning can strike twice. What’s that line about an old dog…or priest?
I took a drive yesterday, a Saturday, through my new city. I drove through downtown. I went to the courthouse square, with old majestic Southern courthouse that could fit in Harper Lee’s story on one end, and the modern brick structure where the trial took place on the other. The news trucks are gone. The protesters are gone. Empty. Quiet. Pastoral. One of the most beautiful places I have ever been, even though some bad things have transpired right there in broad daylight and in the cover of darkness. This is where I sat with the family, this is where I prayed with my new community of Glynn County. On this gorgeous December day, I paused, and prayed again.
I drove down the highway that follows the river in the port of Brunswick. I turned onto Albany St. which took me to St. Athanasius, a historically black Episcopal church that sits a block from another predominantly white downtown Episcopal church. I would be attending church at St. A’s by way of Zoom the next morning, and then a jazz concert there in the evening. It has a freshly-minted priest who has a verve that reminds me of that time in my life.
I drove on, following Albany to a new community center, Risely, which stands as a promise to what might be here in Brunswick as an opportunity to do things right, for ALL people. I turned right, and then right again onto Altama, which becomes MLK as it nears the downtown area. This is my new city, a city that I am discovering that I now love.
I made my way onto the Golden Isles Highway, Hwy. 17, veering right on the causeway that takes me to St. Simons Island. I can look out onto the St. Simons Sound, now cleared of the wreck of the Golden Ray, cue Gordon Lightfoot. Down Frederica Road to Christ Church parish, where I enter into its iconic graveyard. Three young deer await me there among the tombstones, flicking their tongues in the December air from the marshes of Glynn. I pause for a prayer. It comes naturally, effortlessly, flowing from my soul hewn by previous times of pause and offerings. This time, it is a prayer of thanksgiving, of gratitude, for place, for home.
Not a bad day’s work for an old, broken-down priest on the eve of Advent Three: Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might, come among us; and because we are sorely hindered by our sin, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.
Grace again. Grace, indeed. Amen.