I moved from Atlanta to St. Simons Island, off the coast of Georgia, right after the first surge of Covid in 2020. It was not easy getting to know neighbors in the middle (midst, for religious types) of the pandemic. But that was the hand we were dealt. Back to the Gambler, perhaps. Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to run.
A surprising gift of this problem was that I was able to attend all four of the Episcopal parishes in the Glynn County area. I was able to do this through Zoom, as each one had a cyber feed of their services, forced by the shut down of public services.
Some had a highly produced feed, with four cameras and a switcher, which smoothly changed the view afforded the viewer. Sweet. Others were a single fixed camera that never changed the field. And one, my favorite, used Zoom, which meant every person “in church” also had a square where their face could appear in full glory. The priest who was leading the worship had a single camera, but you could choose to enlarge him. It was like Hollywood Squares on steroids.
The conversation before and after the service was my favorite, as the members would share stories, recipes, opinions on the primo sausage in South Georgia, and their wondering about the Falcons. I would lay back and be contented with overhearing their conversations, as they checked in on one another. It was my powerful connection with the reality of community, and I was grateful for the gift each Sunday. Zoom Church ain’t too shabby.
As I said, there are four Episcopal parishes existing in the marshes of Glynn. Christ Church, Frederica is on St. Simons and is the church we would attend when we were on vacation. It has so much history, being the church associated with John and Charles Wesley when they landed with General Oglethorpe, founding the colony of Georgia. The Wesleys were Anglican priests at the time of the landing. Later, they came up with the remarkable structure that morphed into the Methodist Church when they returned to England. Must have been a bug they caught in the marshes of Glynn.
Christ Church has an amazing cemetery where some of the leading families from St. Simons are buried. I sometimes go there, late afternoon, to feed the deer, sit and think about life, and of course death. I find a crazy mixed vibe there, a funky marsh blend of Teilhard de Chardin’s mystical connection with a warm embrace of existential reality. It’s a “thin space”, liminal in my mind, a sacred piece of ground, blessed by the lives of the saints who live there.
Sometimes for grins, I go and sit at the tombstone of Furman Bisher, the former sports editor for the Journal-Constitution newspaper of Atlanta. We keep talking about the Falcons let down to the Patriots in that Super Bowl. His tombstone, which has a typewriter engraved on it, is inspirational as I think of his fine writing, and reminds me of the fleeting nature of what we conjure and write. Selah.
There are three other parishes. Also on the island is a parish near the Villiage, the Church of the Nativity. My favorite writer at the local newspaper attends there, and he went out of his way to invite me to attend when I first arrived to island time.
St. Mark’s is the downtown parish in Brunswick, a traditional structure that reminds me of my downtown church in Tyler, Texas, Christ Church. And literally two blocks away is another parish, St. Athanasius, a predominantly black church with a rich history. It was started in 1883 as a Sunday School class “for coloreds” led by one of my friend’s ancestors who was a member of St. Mark’s. Two years later, it was formally organized as an official mission of the Episcopal Church.
The initial building was destroyed in a violent storm in 1896, but was quickly rebuilt, in new Gothic style, using tabby construction, common in the low country. It is now one of the last 19th century tabby buildings remaining in Brunswick. If you are down this way, you owe it to yourself to make a visit to this gorgeous liturgical spaces. In all my travels to such structures where God’s people gather to worship, it is one of Dave’s faves. There is a sweet, sweet Spirit there that I used to hear about as a child. “Awesome” is a popular word that seems to be over-used these days. This space is truly awesome.
I have been able to “attend” all four of these parishes during the pandemic through the magic of Zoom, providing me an interesting look at the way each parish and priest responded to the disruption of the norm. I have now been “in” all of them in person and each one has it’s own unique personality and charm. Again, if you are down this way, take your time to check them out.
Father DeWayne Cope is the Rector (head pastor for the unwashed South of God folk) of St Athanasius. He is from Savannah, and was a member at St. Matthew’s church there. He began his career as a teacher, but various people, some in bishop’s purple, saw him as a potential priest. After some encouragement and consultation, DeWayne went to seminary at Virginia Theological Seminary, and now has returned to the Diocese of Georgia to serve at St. A. as it is lovingly called. DeWayne arrived about the same time I did, only I did not have to begin my life on the island as a new priest.
I have watched his services since he began, again by way of this thing called Zoom. Imagine what churches would have done without Zoom in the pandemic. The internet allowed us to connect in spite of the mandate to hunker down. My hope is that the Church, in the collective sense, learned something worthwhile in terms of reaching out to those who can not attend physically for a variety of reasons. That would put one in the “win” column against our Covid foe. I can tell you that I could feel the community at St. A. even through the electronic signal. And the member who I could see confined to a hospital bed in his Zoom square, probably felt the same as me. St. A. and Dewayne are really something.
From Zoom to the room, that is, St. A’s in Brunswick.
I had been in Atlanta for a birthday dinner for my son, who drove down from Nashville, meeting us halfway. Our dinner was at one of my favorite restaurants, The Optimist, and it was a grand time meeting Thomas’ new friend, Taylor, and enjoying the ambiance of this amazing Ford Fry restaurant.
On the way home on Sunday, on the monotonous drive from Macon to Savannah on I-16, I tuned in on my telephone on Zoom for the service at St. A.. I was paying particular attention this morning as DeWayne had asked me to fill in for him the coming Sunday (this coming Sunday, y’all! Light some candles!). I wanted to sear in my mind “how” DeWayne did the liturgy for the Eucharist so that I could deliver as close a facsimile as possible when it was my day.
During the middle of the service, my wife stopped the car in Dublin to get lunch. They went in, ordered lunch, got it, came back out to the car. My wife handed me a huge Diet Coke, thank you Jesus and my benefactor, Mr. Woodruff. And then my daughter shoved some package of food at me while I was concentrating on watching DeWayne’s manual actions of celebration at the altar. I wanted to get them just right. With my daughter’s insistent push of this package of fried gastronomical delights in my face, I became irritated, and responded in a very non-Christian way. I will let you imagine my expletive. I did not go all Will Smith on her, but I snapped back with some words that were hurtful. My wife later commented, as only a spouse can, that my reaction was truly ironic, seeing as how I was watching a church service on Zoom. Point taken, and given. There was no grace to be had for my poor showing sitting in the back of the Highlander. I was not even given a chance of offer a compensatory speech. Guess this is the closest I get. At least my outburst was not televised. Too soon?
That was Sunday. Today, Wednesday, I met with DeWayne to go over how I am going to manage on Sunday. I’ve been around the altar from back when Jesus was boy, but this Sunday will be the first time to serve as celebrant at an altar in a church since tearing my quad tendon. Most of you know, I tore my tendon, had two surgeries, the first by an Emory friend. When that failed, I was referred to the surgeon for the Atlanta Falcons. When people ask how the surgery went, I respond, “Did you see the Falcons play this year?” Nuff said.
I am going to hope that I don’t mess up too bad this Sunday, as my mobility is an issue. “Nimble” is a word that I love, and how I would have once described my movement on my sailboat. Today, not so much. I suggested to DeWayne that we could raise money for the church by having a betting pool on “when” in the service I will fall. And a side bet on how many times! “Broken bone count” would be gauche, a bridge too far.
Seriously, I am honored to be asked to “fill in” at this wonderful parish. And pleased that I can help a brother out by giving him the day off on a vacation with his family.
As I work with a variety of clergy as a coach, I am struck by what a difficult time this is to be a pastor. Many are honest in admitting to being distressed, a bit overwhelmed. In our deeply divided country, how do you maintain relationships across these divides while maintaining your integrity? How does a pastor say anything with any bite, for fear of it being identified with a right or left position? With social issues swirling within the so-called cultural wars, how can one negotiate the sensitive skins of folks that line up on opposite sides?
I remember when I was Rector (careful how you say that) of Christ Church in Tyler, Texas, we were a mostly Republican parish. Half of my church had George H.W. and Barb on speed dial. The Bushs would stay in some of my members’ homes. What was I to do when we went to war in Iraq with Desert Storm? Those are tough times for pastors who care about their parishioners, while also holding their own opinions, hopefully informed by the Gospel. This is not a new tension for ministers. Even Jesus found himself in tension with the Roman government, as he pushed Kingdom values over and against prime loyalty to Caesar. So, this tesnion should not be unexpected, but it seems to rub against our native preference for comfort.
I got lucky, or blessed, depending on your cosmology, that some of the Greatest Generation, who were the parish leaders at Christ Church, stood behind me and my right to have my own beliefs and opinion. When I was pushing the envelope hard on race relations, upsetting some in the community who wanted me to be a “nice” hush, or some who wanted me to get the hell out of Dodge, the Greatest Generation had my back and let me, and my detractors know that they were with me. Sadly, that generation is gone. Long gone. Gone.
The Boomers, my generation, is a group that was schooled in consumerism, even, and perhaps especially in religion. We live out of a rather loose affiliative style. “What have you done for me lately?” informs our sense of loyalty, and seems ready to go with a “better deal” if we can find it. I have seen people change churches because of preferences in programming and style. A loyal church person who will “stick” when there are disagreements is a rarity these days. This makes a pastor’s job worse than in the past, where every week is a referendum on your tenure. The pressure is high on clergy today and is prompting many to leave a calling that they have invested in with blood, sweat, and many tears, I am working with my best energy to help them find good reasons to “stick”.
It makes me relish my role as a priest free of such political burdens. I can say, and have said, pretty much anything that is on my heart, mind, and soul. I’d like to think I exercised that freedom even before I cut free from the institution. I know some of the members of the parishes I served feel that I did, some happily, some not so happily. My man, Carlyle Marney, taught me to tell the truth, the best that I knew. I can say that, like Merle’s mama, I tried.
This Sunday, the lectionary throws me a fast ball on the outside corner, Mary and Martha. Will I serve up the standard sermon on the differentiation of the two, or press for some new insight, or as Chuck Yeager used to say, “push the envelope”? I guess we’ll find out on Sunday.
That is, if I don’t fall on my way down the aisle in the procession. The betting windows are open.