Highlights for September

Author uses imagination in researching family history

Review by Mel Schlachter

Some years ago, a prominent American cathedral with lots of visitor traffic reflected on its purpose in opening to tour groups and tourists. Was it just tolerating tourists, or was it in fact welcoming pilgrims who might be in those very groups but find themselves yearning for more than checking off another site? Thinking of pilgrimage changed some of the cathedral’s procedures and the mind-set of its staff and volunteers.

Pilgrimage is nearly back to pre-Reformation levels, and international travel writer and Episcopal deacon the Rev. Lori Erickson is all about teaching pilgrimage in her books and blog.

In her previous book, “Holy Rover,” she takes us to a variety of well-known and scarcely-known “holy places,” writing as a keen observer of the place and of her response to it. She is skilled at guiding the reader in how pilgrimage could work for their own spiritual insight.

Her latest book, “The Soul of the Family Tree,” digs deeper into her intuitive working out of identity by means of both pilgrimage and family of origin research.

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Q&A: Westina Matthews, on authoring ‘This Band of Sisterhood: Black Women Bishops on Race, Faith, and the Church’

By Pat McCaughan
Episcopal News Service

The unique blessings, joys, frustrations, challenges and realities faced by the first five African American women diocesan bishops in the Episcopal Church are explored in candid conversations in “This Band of Sisterhood: Black Women Bishops on Race, Faith, and the Church,” compiled and edited by Westina Matthews.

Matthews, an adjunct professor at the General Theological Seminary’s Center for Christian Spirituality, wrote in an August 1984 New York Times op-ed article of her own sense of loneliness as “the first, the only, or one of the few” Blacks in her academic and professional settings, a feeling she began having as early as age 4 when she was enrolled in a newly desegregated school.

Membership in this “exclusive club” continued throughout a 40-year career in leadership positions as an educator, researcher, grant-maker, public servant and author.

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Migration ministries’ affiliates prepare to welcome Afghan families

EMM affiliate Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services in New Haven, Conn., helps find housing for Afghan immigrants. Photo/Courtesy IRIS

By David Paulsen
Episcopal News Service

Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM) and its affiliates mobilized to respond to an expected increase of people fleeing from Afghanistan to the United States after the Afghan government fell to the Taliban in mid-August, expediting the end of the 20-year American presence in the country.

EMM is one of nine agencies with federal contracts to provide refugee resettlement services on behalf of the U.S. State Department. The agencies also have helped resettle people through the special immigrant visa program, which is intended to offer sanctuary for Afghans and their families who fear persecution because of their work in support of the U.S. government.

Taliban militants block access to the airport. Photo/Wikimedia Commons

As the Taliban took over most of the country and the capital of Kabul, EMM officials say they have received inquiries from across the United States — from immigrant Afghan families wanting to help relatives back in their native country and from Episcopal congregations and Episcopalians asking how they can support those families.

EMM was developing an online resource in Pashto, Dari and other languages spoken in Afghanistan to point families to available resources. Episcopalians interested in helping were encouraged to fill out a volunteer form or make a monetary donation.

“EMM is working in partnership with the government to assist our Afghan allies and provide resettlement services through our network of 12 affiliates,” Demetrio Alvero, EMM’s director of operations, told ENS. “We remain committed to providing welcoming services and necessary support to ensure Afghan arrivals receive the foundation they need to begin their lives in peace and safety in the U.S.”

Six of EMM’s 12 affiliates across the country already are working to resettle Afghan families, and so far this year, they have helped nearly 350 special immigrant visa recipients find new homes in the United States, officials said. EMM is working with its affiliates to increase capacity to receive Afghan families amid deteriorating conditions under the Taliban.

“Thousands of Afghan nationals and their family members who gave everything to help the American military have now found themselves in grave danger,” said Russell Smith, chief executive officer of Refugee Services of Texas, an EMM affiliate based in Austin. Smith said in mid-August that his organization has been told it will settle 324 Afghans through its offices in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston.

Refugee Services of Texas and other EMM affiliates have asked supporters to contribute in various ways, including by helping to find affordable housing for the incoming families.

“We are asking our communities to help give back to these new arrivals who served us abroad,” the Diocese of Olympia’s Refugee Resettlement Office said in a Facebook post. It called for sponsor families and donations of household items.

Another EMM affiliate, Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services in New Haven, Conn., issued a similar plea last week. “Help us find housing for Afghan families!” the organization said on Facebook. “We’re excited to welcome an influx of Afghans who’ve worked with the U.S. government — in some cases, with only a 24-hour notice.”

On July 8, President Joe Biden pledged to step up efforts to resettle Afghans connected to the American war effort — an issue that had gained urgency after his administration announced its plan to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11.

A first group of about 2,500 Afghans began arriving in the United States in July, initially to be housed at military bases during their completion of the special immigrant visa process.

Afghan citizens crowd the entrance to Hamid Karzai Airport, seeking passage out of the country. Photo/Wikimedia Commons

An estimated 18,000 Afghans were in various stages of applying for and receiving the special immigrant visas, along with about 53,000 of their family members. Congress has authorized more than 26,000 special immigrant visas for Afghans in the past seven years. Pending legislation would allow the government to issue an additional 8,000 special immigrant visas to those awaiting approval.

The urgency was underscored Aug. 16 when large crowds stormed the airport in Kabul, desperate to gain access to one of the planes leaving the country under American guard.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry responded to the fast-moving crisis by issuing a prayer for the people of Afghanistan.

“There is a profound humanitarian crisis,” Curry said. “Countless people, mostly women and children, are now fleeing and vulnerable. The lives of many are now endangered. The hopes of many are forgone. Send your Spirit, Lord, to rally the resolve of the nations of the earth to find pathways to save human lives, protect human rights and to resolve the hardships of those seeking refuge, asylum and safety.”

EMM is best known for its refugee resettlement work. The Episcopal Church first began assisting refugees in the 1930s and 1940s through the Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief, supporting Europeans fleeing the Nazis.

Since the Unites States created the current refugee resettlement program in 1980, EMM has resettled about 100,000 refugees, providing a range of services for these families upon their arrival in the United States, including English language and cultural orientation classes, employment services, school enrollment, and initial assistance with housing and transportation.

Refugee resettlement was reduced to the lowest level in the federal program’s 40-year history under President Donald Trump. The president sets the ceiling, or maximum number, for refugees to be resettled in the United States each year, and Trump slashed that number to a historic low of 15,000.

Biden has said he will increase it to 125,000, and on May 3, his administration raised the cap to 62,500 for the rest of the current fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30.

The refugee cap does not affect the number of people eligible for special immigrant visas, but EMM and the other eight agencies have just begun to rebuild resettlement programs that were decimated under the previous president. Those challenges also will extend to the efforts to welcome more Afghan families.

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Highlights for July and August

Who owns a gift to the church?

The Rev. Mark Stanley

By Solange De Santis

The May issue of Episcopal Journal contained an Episcopal News Service story about St. Paul’s Church, Baltimore, which was auctioning some extremely valuable items in order to endow a scholarship for African-American students to attend St. Paul’s Schools in Brooklandville, Md.

The story prompted reader Ed O’Brien to write, criticizing the church’s initiative. Episcopal Journal followed up the story, examining the liturgical items online at the auction house’s website, viewing the sale prices and contacting St. Paul’s co-rector, the Rev. Mark Stanley, for his perspective. The Journal also contacted O’Brien for permission to publish his letter.

The Alex Cooper auction house in Towson, Md., conducted the auction of 15 silver items, including a jewel-encrusted chalice and a silver offering plate, which brought $45,000. The auction brought St. Paul’s a total of $75,000 and the church funded the remainder of the $300,000 scholarship fund from its endowment, according to Stanley.

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Lambeth to focus on science, climate change

Some Lambeth services will be held at Canterbury Cathedral. Photo/Antony McCallum/WyrdLight.com

By Mark Michael

The relationship between faith and science and the church’s response to the environmental crisis will be “big picture” themes at next summer’s Lambeth Conference, which focuses on being “God’s Church for God’s World”.

The conference’s communications office featured the issues in a series of short films released in early June, including a special release of “How is the Church Engaging with Science in Responding to Environmental Issues” on June 5, World Environment Day.

The Anglican Communion also announced the foundation of the Anglican Communion Science Commission, a group of scientists and theologians from across its 41 provinces who will equip Anglicans “for courageous and confident spiritual leadership in issues involving science.” The commission will be formally launched at next summer’s Lambeth Conference and hopes to have its first conference shortly thereafter.

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Kelly Latimore: Iconographer of a new “imago dei”

“Mama,” 36 x 48 in., 2020 All paintings gouache and gold leaf on board. Photos/courtesy of the artist

By Pamela A. Lewis

Any lingering ideas we might hold about artists who paint — or, more precisely, write — icons quickly disappear when we meet iconographer Kelly Latimore and his large body of work. The affable 34-year-old suburban Chicago native (now living and working in St. Louis) does not align with the image of an elderly monk bent over a panel and silently and reverently applying pigment or gold leaf to the sacred face he is depicting. Latimore is transforming old notions about icon writing with regard to what or whom should be represented.

In contemporary usage, the words “icon” and “iconic” have come to denote objects and people who have assumed a larger-than-life, emblematic status. But the fundamental definition of “icon” remains unchanged: image. Not merely an artwork, the icon has traditionally been a sacred image used in religious devotion. Most commonly a painting (although they have been produced in other media), the icon has its roots in the Eastern Orthodox church, as well as in the Roman and certain Eastern Catholic traditions.

Describing himself as a “Baptist preacher’s kid,” Latimore acknowledges that his personal background stands in contrast to the icon’s history and tradition. Although he was “always drawing and painting,” he had no acquaintance with the art form, yet had always connected with the arts as a vehicle for creating things which he deemed beautiful. Serious study of art took root during his years attending Greenville University in Greenville, Ill., where he learned about different genres, artists, and techniques.

After completing his university studies, Latimore moved to Ohio, where he met a couple who had started the Good Earth Farm, supplying food for pantries. Subsequently, he encountered a community called the Common Friars, centered on the monastic way of life and prayer from the Book of Common Prayer three times a day.

The new relationships he cultivated in this community, as well as learning about how to care for the earth, inspired Latimore to readjust his spirituality, from one which had been, in his words, more about “personal transcendence,” to being “up there with God,” to a consideration of how we care for the earth as Jesus did. The “lilies of the field” was the subject of his first icon.

Left, “Mary Oliver,” right, “John Lewis,” 12 x 16 in., 2019

Latimore began icon writing at Common Friars. He has enlarged the genre’s scope, informed by a wide range of artistic influences, such as Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, and Alice Neel, and strongly focused on relationships, community, and social justice.

Given his experience as a farmer, connecting to the land has been very important to Latimore, and in many of his icons, he gives equal attention to the surrounding landscape as he does to the figures occupying it.

It is not simply a decorative background, but an element that interacts with and comments on the human subjects (such as “La Sagrada Familia”). Earth, sky, and vegetation are strongly delineated, impelling the viewer to engage with the totality of the icon, instead of solely on the subjects. Latimore’s handling of the background is a decided departure from writing traditional icons, where that pictorial element is rendered in gold (symbolizing the celestial realm), and the figures and their garments are pigmented.

“The Good Shepherd,” 20×24 in., 2019

Having grown up in a primarily-white environment and church community where he did not see or interact with people different from himself, Latimore has set out to fill those gaps by making visible in his icons those whom society has chosen to keep invisible. In that regard, the artist has peopled his icons with a different type of sacred figure, literally and figuratively drawn from the full spectrum of humanity.

This new imago dei comprises disparate public figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., the late Senator John Lewis, author Flannery O’Connor, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and Oglala Sioux Holy Man Nicholas Black Elk.

By today’s lights, these were the “envelope pushers,” who challenged the prevailing social order and protested injustice. To Latimore, these are people “who have connected the word ‘Christian’ (even if they were non-Christian, non-believers, or whose racial attitudes were not necessarily evolved) with the liberation of the poor. They lived lives of presence. They were not focused on being holy; they were focused on being present.”

These are not the canonized saints of the church, whose sainthood was determined by miracles of extraordinary healings, but by bringing justice to those who had been deprived of it. Regardless of faith or creed, Latimore gives all of the figures in his paintings a gold nimbus (halo) to signify sainthood.

Icon purists have not been pleased with Latimore’s iconographic choices, and many have denounced his work. Ironically, most of the threats have come from Eastern Orthodox individuals in Russia and Ukraine, according to Latimore.

“La Sagrada Familia,” 12 x 16 in., 2016

Reactions have been especially strong to two paintings in particular: “Refugees: La Sagrada Familia” (2016) and “Mama” (2020). “Sagrada” was inspired by the story of a young Guatemalan man who told Latimore about his struggle to come to the United States, and of the remains of women holding babies he had seen along the way.

The family in this icon refers simultaneously to the New Testament account of the Holy Family fleeing state terrorism and to the countless refugees from Guatemala and other Central and South American countries fleeing terror, yet seeking refuge in an America whose tone sounded anti-immigrant and anti-stranger.

Soon after the murder of George Floyd, Latimore painted “Mama,” as a way to mourn the man whose brutal death was seen around the world. The artist has written it in traditional icon style, and arranged the figures as a latter-day pietà, where a Black Madonna holds her dead son, whose likeness is unmistakably that of George Floyd. (When asked whether the son is George Floyd or Jesus, Latimore always answers, “Yes.”)

Whereas the Madonna would normally look at her son, the artist shifted her gaze to the viewer. This subtle shift moves the focus outward, establishing a community of mourners who may reflect on what they have witnessed and act to prevent its reoccurrence. In some places, protesters displayed the image as they marched.

Some have also questioned whether a white male artist such as Latimore should represent people of color in religious paintings, to which the artist responds that white artists have been painting Christ as white for centuries, when the truth is that he was in all likelihood a person of color.

“Racism,” says Latimore, “is the denial of the Incarnation; the image of God is within all of us. In my interactions with other congregations and clergy of color, they are looking for other ways to represent Jesus. This is what it means to be human and to be present.”

There is growing concern that in the so-called “post-Christian” West, which is witnessing declining church attendance, creating religious art such as icons may be a futile activity. Latimore strongly believes that the church can participate in movements against war, racism, hunger, and poverty, and that it can be a “living, breathing, visible community of faith, which is but another word for ‹learning›. The main task of the church is the formation of people who love where it hurts.”

Based in New York, Pamela A. Lewis writes about topics of faith.

Highlights for June

Indiana Episcopalians open state’s first LGBTQ youth shelter

A ribbon-cutting ceremony opens Trinity Haven. Photo/courtesy of the Diocese of Indianapolis

Diocese of Indianapolis

Even before the ribbon was cut to officially open Trinity Haven, Indiana’s first residential facility for LGBTQ youth and young adults who are at risk of homelessness, two people were living in the house.

“As soon as we announced our opening date, young people began contacting Trinity Haven,” says Leigh Ann Hirschman, a member of Trinity Episcopal Church, Indianapolis and founding president of Trinity Haven’s board of directors.

“Because they knew they would be imminently homeless. So, our opening is something to celebrate, but it has also been poignant to see how real this is; to see this need and to put faces on the need, and to watch the project move into reality.”

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Shakespeare’s musings on religion require deep listening to be heard

William Shakespeare

By Anthony D. Baker, The Conversation

William Shakespeare’s role as a religious guide is not an obvious one.

While the work of the Bard has been scoured at various times over the past four centuries for coded messages about Catholicism, Puritanism or Anglicanism, the more common view is that his stunning explorations of humanity leave little space for serious reflection on divinity. Indeed, some Shakespeare scholars have gone further, suggesting that his works display an explicit atheism.

But as a scholar of theology who has published a book exploring Shakespeare’s treatment of faith, I believe the playwright’s best religious impulses are displayed neither through coded affirmations nor straightforward denials. Writing at a time of great religious polarization and upheaval, Shakespeare’s greatest pronouncements on faith are more like curious whispers — and, like whispers, they require deep listening to be heard.

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In North Texas, Episcopalians take a deep breath

 

A previous service at All Saints Episcopal Church before the property was removed from the congregation. Photo/Courtesy of Diocese of North Texas

By Katie Sherrod

Sherrod

Let’s talk about what makes a “real church.”

In 2008, the former bishop of this diocese and many diocesan leaders left the Episcopal Church to become part of another church. They left because they refused to ordain women and to welcome out LGBTQ people into the full life and ministry of the Church, claiming their interpretation of Scripture was the only right one.

But even though they left the Episcopal Church they continued to claim Episcopal Church property and the name “Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.”

At that time, many Episcopalians in this diocese were forced out of their Episcopal church buildings because they wanted to remain a part of a loving, inclusive church instead of realigning with another church.

They had to find new places to worship. These congregations of displaced Episcopalians were creative and courageous, and they found worship space in unusual places such as storefronts, in wedding chapels, in a woman’s club, in a theatre, in a social service agency. And in those unusual spaces, they created holy spaces that were, and remain, “real churches.”

In 2021, as the result of the U.S. Supreme Court declining to hear our cases, the judgment of the State of Texas Supreme Court was allowed to stand. The Texas state court decided it has the right to decide who is the real Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, and so the state decided it was the group who left the Episcopal Church in 2008.

So, April 19, 2021, Episcopalians who had remained in six of our buildings were forced out of their historic church homes and forced to find new places to worship. And they have done so.

They are worshiping in spaces offered by Lutheran, Methodist, and Disciples of Christ churches as well as in the chapel on a church school campus, the back room of a real estate office and in an office building on a college campus.

And just so we’re clear — all of them are worshiping faithfully in holy spaces that are “real churches.”

Yes, it’s heartbreaking to be forced out of beloved church buildings. Yes, it’s sad to lose lovely stained glass windows, needlepointed kneelers, and sanctuaries filled with memories of baptisms, weddings, funerals, graduations, ordinations, confirmations, and perhaps most of all, the weekly ritual of worship with the glorious liturgies that shape and feed us all.

But here’s what we’ve learned — holy spaces can be created just about anywhere. Set up a table, get a cup and a plate, bread and wine, gather faithful people with a priest who begins “God be with you,” — and there it is. A real church.

It happens again and again and again. The ancient words are spoken, the people respond, and the Holy Spirit shows up. Every damn time. People here have never tired of that miracle.

We aren’t yet sure what’s next. We are still a bit in shock, we are still trying to get used to a new and different name, to new and different locations, and we are all pretty tired of having to explain why the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth isn’t part of the Episcopal Church anymore, and why all those ACNA buildings with Episcopal Church still in their names are NOT Episcopal churches aligned with the Episcopal Church.

We do know this, however. We are held in the arms of a loving God who is always present with us, in traditional stone churches, in back rooms, in store fronts, in school chapels, in theatres, in all the places we gather in our beautiful, unusual, and creative “real churches.”

Thanks be to God.  

Katie Sherrod is communications director of the Episcopal Church in North Texas.

North Texas Episcopal parishes plan new locations

Episcopal Journal

Six congregations in what is now known as the Episcopal Church in North Texas are sorting out worship locations after being evicted by a breakaway group affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America, or ACNA.

Congregants at All Saints’ Church in Fort Worth gather for worship, prior to the pandemic. Photo/Katie Sherrod

The U.S. Supreme Court in February declined to hear an appeal by the Episcopal Church’s Fort Worth-area diocese of a state court ruling [see the story in the April Episcopal Journal], leaving more than $100 million of diocesan property in the hands of the ACNA’s Diocese of Fort Worth. The court’s decision not to hear the case settled what had been a 12-year legal battle.

In 2008, a majority of clergy and lay leaders in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth voted to leave the Episcopal Church over disagreements about the ordination of women and LGBTQ people. The breakaway congregations continued to occupy their buildings.

Most congregations that remained in the Episcopal Church found new places to worship after the split, but six congregations in Fort Worth, Hillsboro and Wichita Falls, remained in their buildings.

Since February, the Fort Worth Episcopalians and members of the breakaway group have been going through the buildings in preparation for the transfer. Like the rest of the dozen-year dispute, that’s been “a fairly complicated, fraught process,” said Katie Sherrod, the Episcopal diocese’s director of communications.

The breakaway group is using the name Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, though it is no longer a diocese of the Episcopal Church. The congregants loyal to the Episcopal Church are using the name Episcopal Church in North Texas.

One of the parishes, All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Fort Worth, is moving to the chapel at All Saints’ Episcopal School. Another, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Hillsboro, has been using the back room of a real estate office and plans to move into another commercial building, Sherrod said.

Some of the churches had not held indoor services for a while because of the pandemic. St. Luke’s in the Meadow in Fort Worth had been holding outdoor services and had just begun the process of reopening the building for socially distanced worship when the eviction order came.  

This story was prepared with files from Episcopal News Service.