"Nevertheless the Kingdom Has Come Near:" the Bishop's Address
The Bishop's Address
117th Council of the Diocese of West Texas
The Rt. Rev. David M. Reed, D.D.
Good morning! Muy buenos dias.
Thank you again for being part of this Council, but even more for being part of your church and of the Diocese of West Texas.
Bishop Rayford High
I’m overjoyed (and relieved) to welcome the Rt. Rev. Rayford High as the Assistant Bishop of the Diocese of West Texas. Bishop High accepted my call to this work, and began February 1, returning hither to the Diocese from which he sprang, or sprung, as a newly ordained deacon assigned to St. Mark’s, San Antonio, in 1966. It’s good to have him back. He served as rector of St. Francis, Victoria, and St. John’s, McAllen, before moving on to the Diocese of Texas in 1981, where he served as rector of St. Paul’s, Waco, for about 17 years. He was elected Bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of Texas in 2003, and just after his so-called retirement in 2011, he was appointed Provisional Bishop of the Diocese of Fort Worth.
I’m glad for his willingness and eagerness to leave his second retirement, and join us in the mission field here. He brings lots of experience and wisdom, a love for the Lord and his people, and a big heart for clergy and for congregations. He is joined by his wife, the Rev. Ann Normand, who served for several years as Canon to the Bishop of Texas. Ann also brings her own wide assortment of gifts for ministry. Patti and I are blessed by their support and friendship. You will be, too.
The position of Assistant Bishop was created by action of Council last year, for a period of three years, following the resignation of our Bishop Suffragan in September 2019. Council also authorized me to search for and call an Assistant. The onset of COVID delayed that, but we have arrived at the right time, and God has blessed us with the right person.
A Report from the Missionary District
In 1889, 15 years after this Diocese was formed, the Rev. H. A. Grantham, known as the Missionary of Ft. McKavett and Points Adjacent, wrote a report, giving a glimpse of his ministry. If you’re from that part of the Diocese or travel through it, you know that “points adjacent” is a term used loosely. Wherever you are, it’s a long way to the nearest adjacent point. True now, even truer then.
The Rev. Grantham begins by writing, “I have just now returned from Sonora, Sutton County, a new town in a new county started last March, consisting of a windmill and well, which two things were the beginning of the town and without which it could not exist. It has eighteen houses, two stores, a good schoolhouse and six or eight tents. … As it is attached for purposes of the law to Kimball County, I have attached it for purposes of the Gospel and intend going there every two months. Going there, a journey of sixty miles, from my last Sunday appointment, I was unfortunate enough in the middle of the afternoon, twelve miles from my destination for that night, to take the wrong road so that at nightfall, I had to camp until moonrise. Having built a fire, made coffee, fed my horses, and spent some time in reading, at last the moon rose and I proceeded, but after midnight having found no house, I camped again. Fortunately, I was provided with food for the horses, matches, hatchets and pinewood for kindling. The night was cold, and I sat by the fire trying to read, ‘How To Work A Parish’.”
I’ll come back to that. But so that you don’t worry about the Rev. Grantham’s fate, here’s a bit more.
“At 4:30 a.m., I started on foot, leaving the team grazing, and in an hour, I came to a camp where I learned my mistake and got a correct course. I arrived at Sonora late that evening, and found no one at the home where I had sent my letter announcing my visit, as they had not received it. However, I stayed a day longer and held Evening Prayer and preached to an attentive congregation.” (From Spirit of Missions, January, 1890, reported in A Brief History of the Church in West Texas, by the Rev. Lawrence Brown, 1959.)
As I thought about that missionary priest, sitting beside his fire on the lonesome empty landscape, lost without a map or familiar landmarks, reading a book written back East, “How To Work A Parish,” I imagined him, slowly tearing pages from that book, one by one, and feeding them into the fire.
And then I thought of where I have been, where we all have been – the whole Church, the whole country, the whole world – in COVIDland, an often isolating and desolating landscape, without a map or familiar landmarks, and where we are trying to get is so far away. And I thought of my shelves crowded with books, and not one of them is entitled, “How to Lead in a Pandemic” or “Following Your Bliss during COVID, Including Chapters on Being Good to Yourself at the End of the World as We Know It.” I don’t have those books, and I have been tempted during this past year to fire up the BBQ pit and enjoy a bonfire of my fine books that provide no guidance in these times.
So there were no experts to tell us how to be the Church during this past year, and no experts are waiting to tell us what our churches will be like when we arrive on the other side of the pandemic some months from now, God willing. Professional consultants can’t tell us what new opportunities will bless us, and what obstacles will challenge us. There are plenty of theories and speculation, but nobody really knows.
Please don’t hear that as despair. What I’m saying is that God has provided for you during this hard journey and beyond. I’ve told you often that God has given you everything you need to be his Church, the Body of Christ, in your 87 places. I never imagined that I would say it in these circumstances, but nevertheless, it remains true – it's Gospel truth for me – that God has given you everything you need to figure out how to continue following Jesus faithfully, how to be his Church and his missionary people in this world and in your city or town. He has given us his Word and Sacraments, he has given us the Spirit of Christ, and he has given us one another – a community called to love one another, and to love and serve the world in the Name of Christ. We are formed and drawn together so that we might be the Light of Christ, and a people standing to say, “Nevertheless, the kingdom of God has come near.”
Notice that the Rev. Grantham, after traveling through unknown territory, arrived at a place and a people he didn’t know, either. It wasn’t what he was expecting, and it wasn’t what he had been prepared for. So, what did he do? He stayed. He got to know people. Nevertheless, he gathered them, opened his Prayer Book, led Evening Prayer, and he preached the Word of God. That is, to move into the future, he reached back and trusted in what he knew how to do, trusted in what the Church has always been called to do. At its heart, what he did was declare what Jesus declares in Luke 10: “Nevertheless, the kingdom of God has come near.”
That reminds me of what I saw so many of our churches do as the pandemic spread. Who would have thought that it would be a time of reaching back for the ancient practices of the Daily Office, and bringing them forward to be offered online? Daily Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer and Compline have become a regular part of many of our congregations’ lives, offering comfort and strength through dark days. Many have also read and prayed the Psalms, finding in that even more ancient practice comfort and reassurance AND a lens through which to make sense of our current fear and confusion.
What that missionary priest encountered and what he did in response reminds me of what I’ve seen and heard all across this Diocese since COVID began afflicting us all last March. Not one of our clergy had training in what would be required of them, and required quickly. Not even our youngest, newest, techiest clergy were tech-savvy enough to fully know what to do to keep their people together, to lead worship, to care for their people, to continue the ministries. The Church is an incarnational, embodied community, and we are not wired by our Creator for forced separation and isolation, nor baptized to stay away from each other. The learning curve has been steep, and the spiritual and emotional pain and exhaustion run deep even now. It’s no admission of failure to say our spirits have been ground down by all this.
But in the midst of all that, you – all of you, the clergy and laity together – have found ways to be the Church, gathered for worship and sent to do ministry. Not everything we’ve tried has worked, of course, and I hear lots of you cussing the technology like I like to cuss chainsaws. But we continue to learn and adapt and build on what we’re learning. That will remain true as we regroup post-pandemic: not everything will work and we will need to pray for patience and perseverance and will need to extend grace to one another as we continue to learn, try and fail, adapt and build.
A Brief Summary of 2020
I won’t spend much time reviewing how the year ended. Sometimes, it feels like it hasn’t ended yet. You know what it’s been like. So much of what we hoped for never happened. So many plans were delayed, delayed again, and then canceled. Too much sickness, death and sorrow; anger, suspicion and division. You know. We all know. But I do want to look back briefly.
We had a wonderful Council together in Corpus Christi last February. COVID-19 was in the news, but barely. Council 2020 was inspiring and renewing, and we did well all the things we love about Council, almost none of which we can do together this year. Our theme was “With the Eyes of our Hearts Enlightened,” and I called upon you to read and study the Psalms in your churches. The Rev. Becca Stevens of Thistle Farms returned and lit us up with her preaching at the Eucharist. Dr. Scott Bader-Saye, academic dean and ethics professor at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin spoke at our luncheon about living as Christians in a time of great political division. We had lively, inspiring workshops that supported our theme – stirring us to look more carefully for the movement of the living Lord among us and in our world. I rode that wave back home, eager to move forward with our plans for the year.
I was at All Saints’, San Benito, to lead Ash Wednesday services the week after Council, then St. Peter’s, Kerrville; then St. Mark’s, San Marcos; then, on March 15, Reconciliation, San Antonio; and then… everything started closing down, like lights winking out. It would be August 30, at Good Shepherd, Corpus Christi, before I made another official episcopal visit.
While every aspect of church life was seriously impacted, the Church – your church – remained the church. Our identity is God given, and you never lost our identity or mission. We remained the Body of Christ in our parts of the world.
I’ve noted already the perseverance and determination of our clergy and congregational leaders who have done so much, by grace and in the power of the Spirit, to keep your church together amid so many limitations and disappointments. I also need to thank so many others who have helped guide us through this uncharted landscape where adjacent points have been few and far between.
In the months after the pandemic hit home, I met often with the diocesan Standing Committee, along with our Chancellor, in their role as my Council of Advice. They have been an incredible gift to me and to you, too. We spent many hours, together with diocesan staff, wrestling with and developing the COVID Guidelines that, I hope, continue to support your life together in your own congregation. The Executive Board also met several more times than usual to offer perspective and guidance, and to take action for the relief of your churches. Our Treasurer, Finance Committee, and diocesan staff met often to review budgets and to gather financial information from churches. The Executive Board cancelled the April apportionment, and gave opportunity for Vestries and Bishop’s Committees to request relief from apportionment payments for May through August. The Budget you approved yesterday includes a ten percent reduction in each church’s apportionment for 2021.
Meanwhile, the diocesan staff reduced their program budgets and cut expenses, even as they continued to find ways to do the ministries that they lead or support. How does World Mission get done when you can’t send missionaries out? How does campus ministry happen when campuses are closed? How do you minister to youth and families in your summer camping programs when everybody is semi-quarantined at home? How do our Episcopal schools safely serve children, families and staff?
How do search committees search and clergy consider calls and begin new ministries when you can’t get together? How do you communicate effectively when everyone is overwhelmed with constantly changing information?
You heard the reports from various diocesan ministries yesterday, so you know that the work went on, that we did the best we could, given all that we couldn’t do. We offered our efforts to the Lord. By grace, and with stubborn faithfulness, all of these individuals and the staff together, continued doing all they could to support the life and ministries of the entire Diocese and each church. If we were together in a convention center right now, I’d expect thunderous applause and chairs being knocked over as you jumped up to give a standing ovation for all of them who have served so well. As it is, I hope you’ll take a moment to offer thanks to God for them, and when the chance comes, please say, “Thank you” to them.
We have all, of course, learned much during the past year. I look at things I wrote to the Diocese early in the pandemic, and it seems so innocent and naïve. Things like, “We’ll be closed for two weeks… We’ll hope to reopen by Easter… We’ll have resurrection festivals around the Diocese this summer…” But when I look at our comprehensive Guidelines for the Phased Reopening of Churches, I think we did pretty well. And it was wise to trust the lay and clergy leadership in your congregations to make the best possible decisions regarding opening and closing and local protocols.
We anticipated four distinct Phases. We’re currently in Phase 2 – “A Modified Return to Public Worship.” Actually, I think we’re officially in Phase 2b, but if we’d continued along that track, it’d probably be more like Phase 2k (subsection 33). Returning and reopening has been gradual and not in a straight line. Just as closing down was like lots of lights going out over time, so reopening has not been – and won’t be – the flipping of a single switch, but the gradual flipping of many switches, and sometimes we will need to back up and begin again.
We haven’t gotten – and won’t get – everything right. But as the poet Maya Angelou says, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
There is growing confidence that we will arrive at Phase 3 “A Full Return” this year, which will likely also include Phase 4 “A Time for Reflection.” But again, the Phases end up having phases within them, and each church has its own context and its own demographics, and so while I have high hopes that we will fully reopen this year, for some it will wisely and faithfully be delayed longer than for others. The “all clear” for all of us will come, but none of us can predict just when that will be.
When that great day arrives, and we can gather freely, you will be invited to a series of Convocational conversations to talk with one another about what we’ve learned and the things we are doing to reconnect, regather and restart congregational life and ministry. We all have hard-earned wisdom, and we all have something to teach and something to learn. As always, every congregation will have something to offer every other congregation. I’ll ask the Executive Board to help plan and host these meetings… when the time comes.
The 2021 Bible Study
Yesterday, I introduced our Council and diocesan theme for this year: “Nevertheless, the kingdom of God has come near.” “Sin embargo, el reino de Dios ya esta cerca.” Linked with our theme is the annual diocesan Bible Study. I invite you during 2021 to read and study the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Its 66 chapters will keep us busy. Our Christian Formation Committee will offer resources this spring, but I want to give you some explanation of why I chose this particular book of the bible.
Isaiah informs the New Testament writers, providing links between God’s promises to Israel and the person and work of Jesus. Isaiah announces that God is sending his chosen Servant to redeem and restore Israel. And so, in Advent we hear, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Is. 39:3) And, “Behold my servant whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights. I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations.” (42:1)
But God’s servant who comes to us will suffer for love of his people. So, we hear also, on Palm Sunday and Good Friday: “He was despised and rejected; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom people hide their faces, he was despised and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our grief and carried our sorrows.” (53:3-4)
I chose the Book of Isaiah for the same reason I chose our theme: because of the Prophet’s resistance to despair and his insistence on hope during long, grinding years of exile. There is a holy resistance in his words, a refusal to give up. His call to hope is not some vague wishful thinking, but is grounded in the memory of God’s persistent faithfulness and love, and grounded in the signs of God’s faithfulness and love in the present moment. Time in Babylon leads easily to amnesia – to forgetting God, forgetting yourself as beloved by God.
Prominent themes in Isaiah are exile and return, dislocation and disorientation, followed by restoration and renewal. Isaiah doesn’t unveil a plan for Israel to follow, he doesn't produce a map to get them from Babylon back to Jerusalem. Instead, he proclaims God’s vision for them. It’s a vision of the identity, relationship and life to which God is calling them. God’s voice, spoken by the Prophet, thunders to wake them up, so that they can remember their God. In those memories lies the possibility and the promise of homecoming. And this returning will be not just to a geographical place, but to their true spiritual home, in a mended and reconciled relationship with God.
Part of the power of this vision and this remembering lies in the people knowing this return from exile is not just for them, but for the whole world.
“It is too light a thing,” God says. “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant (only) to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (49:6)
I think God speaks a fresh word through Isaiah to us in our time, and the prophet now sheds light on the road we’re on. We haven’t been exiled by COVID and hauled away into captivity, but we certainly know the pain of being forced apart from one another, and from much that is loved and familiar. We have had to work much harder to hold onto things – important things – that we used to take for granted. As churches, we’ve had to find new ways, and adapt older ways, to bind ourselves together and remember that we are God’s people.
From the outset of the pandemic, the Diocese in all our guidance, and in your own churches’ policies and protocols, have tried to keep in mind Jesus’ command to “love one another as he loves us,” and to “love God and love our neighbor,” so that we would act not only for ourselves, but for the well-being of our communities. In the same way, when we are able to regroup and regather, we will do so knowing that it’s not just for us – it’s “too light a thing” for this to be just about us – but that we return for love of our neighbors and communities, too.
And that, I believe, will be a primary work for us in 2021: to remember and to move forward. How will we come back together? How will we restart worship and fellowship and outreach and evangelism and hospitality when long habits have grown rusty for more than a year, and the best we can do has been nowhere near what we long to do? How will we reconnect with one another and with our communities and neighborhoods? What have we learned – or remembered – that we will want to carry forward with us? What will we eagerly discard and leave behind? Those are questions for us individually, for your church family, and for the whole Diocese. The vision proclaimed in Isaiah is the same vision that becomes incarnate in the Word-made-flesh when Jesus says, “Nevertheless, the kingdom of God has come near to you.”
Life and Ministry in 2021
Zoom fatigue is a real thing. So, as much as I’d like to tell you a whole lot about mission and ministries in West Texas this year, I want to highlight only a few. Mindful also of how weary almost everyone is, in general, and how much time and energy has to be devoted to just getting through these days, I would encourage all of us to keep our goals modest – to be challenged in the Spirit, but not driven to crazy overachievement. Seek in your life and in the life of your church, to be right-sized, to choose a few things to be prioritized.
Almost nothing we planned to do in 2020 happened. Nevertheless, the ministries continued. Yesterday, you heard the good news from World Mission about the continued development of our partnership with Navajoland, and our new partnerships with the Lakota Sioux in the Diocese of South Dakota. You heard how our camping ministry adapted and adjusted more than once to offer places of grace and rest this summer. You heard how campus ministry persevered and served students who were in school online and not on campus. You heard how the St. Nicholas church plant has continued and will continue. You heard how we graduated, ordained and deployed our first homegrown class of seven bivocational clergy. All of that is good news to remember and celebrate.
Here are a few other things you can expect to hear about this year. I hope you’ll listen as participants, not spectators, and prayerfully consider how you and your church might have a share in these ministries.
Bishop’s Youth Commission
The Bishop’s Youth Commission, which I announced was re-forming last Council, had barely started when we had to stop. The BYC’s primary purpose will continue to be to seek ways to gather young people from across the Diocese, particularly in smaller places that often don’t have organized youth ministries. The focus remains on fellowship, service and formation for discipleship. Our Diocese is already blessed with strong youth leadership – young people eager to serve the Lord and the Church. They need the Church and the Church needs them and their enthusiasm, energy and liveliness. In addition to working with young people, the Commission will be a resource for churches trying to figure out how to invite, support and make room for younger members to grow in service and leadership.
Latino Ministries Commission
I’m excited to tell you of the formation of the Latino Ministries Commission, which West Texas once had, but hasn’t for many years. I had planned to have this well under way in 2020, but COVID… now, I’m just repeating myself. We have begun now.
For the past year and more, I’ve been in conversation with the Rev. Will Wauters and the Rev. Al Rodriguez about the shape and direction this Commission might take. Will is part-time vicar of Santa Fe Episcopal Church in San Antonio, and Al is a not-so-retired parish priest living in South Austin. He is a San Antonio native and has served as interim director of Latino/Hispanic Studies at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin. He's nationally recognized for his leadership in Hispanic ministries. The two have been instrumental in laying the groundwork for this endeavor. It is my pleasure to announce that Margarita Mejia, a member of St. Helena’s, Boerne and a leader in the Cursillo Movement, has accepted my invitation to serve as chair.
The Commission has two major tasks in this first year. First, to learn about, gather information about, and raise up for all of us the many, many ways that ministry by, with and to Latinos is already happening across the Diocese. It would be wrong, and even insulting, to say, “Now we’re going to start ‘doing’ Latino ministry.” Or to say that the Diocese is initiating something new. Instead, we will seek to learn from and build upon the wonderful things the Spirit is doing – and has been doing for a long time – in so many of your congregations. The second major task for the Commission will be to serve as a resource and clearinghouse, so that congregations can connect with one another learn from one another, and connect more effectively in the Name of Jesus with the largest ethnic demographic in our Diocese.
I’m pretty sure nobody wants to be wanted because they improve an ethnic profile. We want to be wanted and valued for who we are. We want to belong for our own sake. The purpose of the Commission is not to set up a separate ministry or program, but to help strengthen and inform all our ministries – evangelism, youth ministry, congregational development, discipleship formation, pastoral care, outreach, world mission.
Sometimes, when I meet with congregations that are struggling and anxious, I’ll talk about the importance of knowing their community, finding ways to invite others to join with them. And sometimes, people will say, “I’ve invited everyone I know!” I think maybe we all need to get to know more people. My hope is that the Spirit will stir us up to be curious about those we don’t already know.
Those who live on the border may understand this best, but all of us in the Diocese live on una frontera, a borderland. It’s a complex cultura; more than bicultural and bilingual, it’s a blending of many histories, traditions and values. Just looking at the variety of community festivals around the Diocese will reveal much about the landscape of our common life, and the opportunities and challenges of being the Church. From Fiesta in San Antonio to George Washington’s Birthday in Laredo to Charro Days in Brownsville to the Wild Hog Festival in Cotulla and the Goat Festival in Brady, we are blessed to live within a beautiful, lively, and sometimes confusing borderland.
A jacked-up pick-up rolls up next to you at a traffic light, and you don’t know if you’ll hear rap or George Strait or conjunto blasting from the stereo. Go into a restaurant for breakfast, and choose Belgian waffles or machacado con huevo. Walk down the street and you’ll catch bits of mingled Spanish and English as people talk about, well… guess what?... We all talk about the same things: the weather… politicos…the economy… los Spurs… los pinche Cowboys… If you’re lucky enough to attend a Quinceañera, you’ll get a picture of the cultures within the culture: grandparents who may not speak English, bilingual parents, and the teenage honoree and her friends who don’t speak Spanish.
The hope of the Latino Ministries Commission is that, together we can build on good things already happening and find new ways to deepen our engagement with the people around us – not as a large demographic percentage, but as persons, as people loved by God and in need of Jesus, just as we are. The multifaceted vision will be fleshed out in the on-the-ground context and available resources in various parts of the Diocese. The vision is to strengthen the Latino presence in our churches and strengthen our Church’s presence across the wide variety of Latino communities.
There is no one-size-fits-all program, and there is not some magic plan from the diocesan office coming your way. The Commission will offer resources and support local initiatives. For some churches, it may be offering English as a Second Language courses or Spanish classes for Winter Texans. For others, it might be learning how to do Quinceañeras or Las Posadas well. For some, it may be offering Spanish-language or bilingual worship and Bible study. For others, it might mean planning ways to more effectively reach the second and third generations, often a fertile ground for evangelical ministry.
The Commission will gather information and will invite you to gather and talk, offering themselves as a support to those who want to explore opportunities to bring more people into a life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ within his Church, deepening the spiritual, liturgical and pastoral life of our Diocese.
Vamos a platicar. Vamos a ver. Let’s get together and talk, and see what happens.
Camps & Conferences
Of all diocesan ministries affected by the pandemic, none took a harder hit than Camps and Conferences. The loss of our summer camping programs was all the more painful because people of all ages needed to get away and get outside where they could move about unrestricted and breathe freely.
As we eagerly await and plan for the full reopening of our camps, please understand that the Diocese does not offer these beautiful sites as just nice getaways or as another vacation option. That’s never been the case, but it’s even more true now, as we learn more of the impact of enforced isolation, lack of social interaction and the heightened fear in the lives of all of us, but maybe especially in the lives of children and teenagers. As we only now can begin to assess and try to understand the emotional and spiritual harm of the pandemic, the life offered in these holy places – the hope, joy, love and friendship in Christ – will be key to the physical and spiritual healing of many, maybe including you, your children and grandchildren.
Even as we near the end of the master-planning process for Duncan Park, well-led by Tommy Mathews of St. Helena’s, Boerne, we are convening a Master Planning group for Camp Capers, chaired by Brian Kates, of St. David’s, San Antonio, to update our longer-term plans to continue building upon almost 75 years of camping ministry there. We are also revamping the Capers Program Committee to explore opportunities for more home-grown events in the non-summer months and to consider conference and retreat offerings that reflect people’s needs, post-COVID.
In Rob Watson’s report, you heard the exciting news about the coming expansion at Mustang Island with the addition of long-needed housing and an open-air chapel in the dunes. This has been several years in the making, and we can all be so grateful to the Waves of Growth Steering Committee for their perseverance through many obstacles, including Hurricane Harvey, constantly increasing construction costs and the pandemic. Other than that, they haven't had a whole lot to deal with...
They have raised $4 million for this project, and we still need to raise $1 million. Nevertheless – notice that word? – we are “breaking sand” on this project on March 20, confident that God will bless and prosper this ministry and that the money will be given. All of our churches will be invited to give, not because I think anyone’s rolling in dough right now, but because I know the generosity of this Diocese, and am confident that those who are able to will gladly support this ministry that so effectively brings people into a place of awe and wonder in God’s presence, and proclaims so joyfully that the kingdom has come near.
Immigration & Refugee Ministries
Shortly after Council last year, thanks to a grant from Episcopal Relief and Development, I was able to employ a part-time, short-term Coordinator for Immigration Ministries. My hope was that Flor Saldivar could serve in that role for about six months, helping us communicate more effectively to the diocesan family about the immigration situation and humanitarian needs along our border with Mexico, so that individuals, congregations and the Diocese might better understand and respond faithfully to the human suffering being experienced by almost everyone involved.
Flor, a member of St. John’s, McAllen and a first-generation American, has watched, learned and worked closely with many within and beyond the Diocese. She has begun building a network of interested persons and churches within the Diocese. It will be my honor soon to appoint an Immigration Ministries Council to carry forward this ministry with Flor.
Our focus remains on humanitarian relief. It is a Gospel focus on serving Christ in those in great need. We are one of four Episcopal dioceses that share a border with Mexico, and at about 450 miles, ours is the largest. Changes in presidential administrations bring changes in immigration policies, but through the past several administrations, whether Republican or Democrat, there have been new approaches, new policies, but no real resolution. So, we who are Christian members of this beloved nation of immigrants continue to be called to serve in the Name of Christ and to announce in our serving, “Sin embargo, el reino de Dios ya esta cerca.”
Because these are times in which we all tend to leap to conclusions and make assumptions, let me very clear. The immigration and refugee ministries of which we are a part as a Diocese, and the ministries we support, are fully within “the system,” broken as it is. That is, the ministries of, for example, Team Brownsville, and Acción de Gracias out of Grace Church, Weslaco, and of many others that have been done in the face of relentless heartache and suffering, compassionately serving persons in great need. When we transport those seeking immigrant or refugee status, they have been processed and released and are among us legally. We and our partners communicate with and try to coordinate with Border Patrol and local immigration authorities. When we talk about our Church’s refugee ministries, we are talking about work done in coordination with the U.S. State Department.
For those on the ground in this ministry, it is hard and frustrating work. As they seek to alleviate suffering and offer hope, they are deserving of our support and prayers. They help us remember that behind the “issues” there are always human faces, and the face of Christ.
As of February 1, Flor is now full-time on the diocesan staff. Her work as Coordinator of Immigration and Refugee Ministries will continue part-time, and she will have other duties within the Diocese. I encourage you and your church to contact her and learn more about how you can serve.
Racial Reconciliation Committee
This past summer, racial tensions erupted following the killing on May 25 of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Not only was our nation horrified at the cell phone video of Mr. Floyd’s dying with the policeman’s knee on his neck, but a veil was pulled back, revealing the enduring power of racism.
The nationwide reaction, both peaceful and violent, to that moment led to a counter-reaction, both peaceful and violent, and led further to the linking of many other social ills and grievances, so that it seemed that those most harmed by racism were sometimes co-opted and overlooked. The week after Mr. Floyd’s death, I wrote a letter to the Diocese. I didn’t hear a lot back. Some thanked me so profoundly that I remain touched by their words. Others were angry that I said anything at all, or read into my words things I hadn't said. Some were angry that I hadn’t said something sooner. Such are the times we live in. It is not easy to have civil discourse when people are so eager to be angry. It’s not easy to practice reconciliation when people are still choosing sides and backing away from one another. Of course, everything – everything – was made worse by the pandemic.
Here’s what I did. I talked to people, and listened. I met with Dr. Adena Lawston, President of St. Philip’s College in San Antonio, an historically black college with its roots in the school founded by Blessed Artemisia Bowden, who answered our Bishop James Steptoe Johnston’s call to come to San Antonio in the early 20th Century to begin a school for young black women. I met with Mr. Simon Salas, CEO of Good Samaritan Community Services, founded by our Diocese more than 50 years ago, in one of the most impoverished parts of San Antonio. I talked and listened to several of our school leaders. I talked and listened to angry young people and fearful older people, and angry older people and fearful young people.
Like many of you, I wanted to try to understand better what we were experiencing. I also needed to test my own assumptions. Mostly, I wanted to know how the Diocese of West Texas, with so many gifts and strengths, could be a servant in offering the reconciling love of God in this divided and angry season. I began looking at the points of connection we are already have and are blessed by; the places where, at the diocesan level, we are already joined to the larger community beyond the Church. So, I turned to St. Philip’s College and Good Sam; to TMI and our day schools; to our camping ministries, college ministries and world mission – to wonder together, to have conversation about how we might do something more, for Christ’s sake.
To carry this work of healing, repair and understanding forward, I am regathering the diocesan Racial Reconciliation Commission. They will work to be a resource across the Diocese, and identify resources that are available to us, so that we might announce and embody the kingdom of our God – a kingdom of love, healing, reconciliation and peace.
I’m delighted to tell you that the Commission will be co-chaired by Claudia Clark of Grace Church, San Antonio and I'm hoping to hear any minute from the other person I've invited to lead this ministry. The initial membership is drawn from across the ethnic, racial and geographic breadth of the Diocese, and includes teens and young adults as well as more seasoned citizens. I am thankful for those who so readily accepted my call to serve on the Commission. It is not an easy road, but just because we can’t do everything doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do the something that we can do.
The older I get, the simpler my mind becomes. I don’t understand all the loosely defined terms that get attached to the racial discussions and arguments these days, many of which seem to push people farther apart. What I do understand is that the Lord we follow commands us to repent of our sins, turn and follow him. And he tells us to love one another like he loves us, which means our lives are an offering to God and to the world. We will not solve the sin of racism, any more than we solve any other sin. But we will try to figure out what we can do, as a Diocesan family, to be continually converted by the mercy of God to the “still more excellent way” that St. Paul describes in First Corinthians – the way of love, the way of Jesus. The prophet Isaiah tells us, “By his wounds we are healed.” Our personal and societal healing will come only when we are humble enough to admit our own woundedness, to recognize how racism devalues and hurts every person, and to pray for God to move mightily in our lives to restore and reconcile us. Humility and curiosity about one another will be necessary tools for this hard work, as will the willingness to say, “Nevertheless, the kingdom” in the face of that which divides and tears at us.
I can’t think of a better prayer to carry us forward than this from our marriage liturgy in the Prayer Book: “Make our life together a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.”
Patti and I have a dog named Scout. She is a cuddly 60-pound puppy. Back in the spring when COVID shut things down, and I was spending a lot of time at home, a bunch of my routines changed. I wasn’t rushing to get to the office, or anywhere, in the morning. I sat in the backyard with Scout, or I’d sit on the sofa with coffee and a book and Scout would hop up on the back of the sofa and take her first nap of the day.
Now that I’m back, busy being busy, doing important bishop things, Scout refuses to let me fully return to my old ways, up to and including this morning. I have to sit and read for a while, or she barks and whines. It’s a new habit, and I’d like to keep it. During the enforced slowdown, Patti and I have gotten to know a bunch of our neighbors far better than we had in our previous 14 years in the neighborhood. We also had a lot of fun and satisfaction giving away more money, since we weren’t spending it on the things we normally spend it on. Friendship with neighbors and increased generosity are habits we like and would like to keep.
I’m sure that similar things are true for you, too. In the midst of letting go of so much, we received grace to find things of great value.
As we travel further into this year, we will be sifting through all that we have encountered during the pandemic, as individuals and in our churches and as a Diocese. What will we carry with us toward the Kingdom that has come near? What have we rediscovered that is precious and life-giving?
Together, we will be praying and planning and working for the renewal of the Church, for returning and restoration from this exile-like season. But renewal is never about getting back to the way things were. Return from exile brings you to the same place, but changed. Renewal in the living Christ always includes a sifting – things are set down and left behind, new things are picked up and carried forward. In our congregations, we need one another in order to see more clearly where the Spirit is leading us. Remembering what I have seen and known of you, what I have witnessed in your churches, I am confident that God has given you everything you need, and that renewal will come – not by our own efforts, but as gift and as grace. I believe that when we gather together for Council a year from now, we will be rejoicing and telling each other, and the whole world, “Nevertheless, know this … know this, the kingdom of God has come near to us.”
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