For more than a year now I have been a member of the Board of Directors of the Stockton Leadership Foundation, affiliated with the Leadership Foundations of America. This is a group of Christian leaders, laity and clergy, bearing a variety of denominational labels, who are concerned about the disintegrating fabric of our urban community and share a desire to come together and minister somehow to the very concrete needs of that community, and do so explicitly in the name of Jesus, because we feel it is an integral part of our Christian vocation.
I mentioned "a variety of denominational labels," and I wasn't lying. Yet, those labels are overwhelmingly free-church evangelical. Along with one of my parishioners who is also a board member, I'm a sort of token representative of the liturgical-sacramental wing of the Christian tradition. Having grown up Baptist in the Chicago suburbs in the 50s and 60s, it helps that I can pretty much speak their language, though the dialect has evolved over the years, because they definitely cannot speak mine!
These are good people, and I am growing to love them. They love the same Lord whom I love and serve, and they are several times more welcoming to me as an Anglican than I would have been to an Anglican during most of the time I was a Baptist. But there are some real disconnects, which, from my perspective, can be quite amusing. Many of my fellow board members are involved in the annual San Joaquin Leadership Prayer Breakfast--a large event held at the Memorial Civic Auditorium each February. For a lot of reasons, it's not the sort of thing I would choose to participate in of my own volition. Sensing that, I think, they invited me this year not only to attend, but to sit at the head table, and offer a prayer. How could I decline?
They asked me to pray specifically for the churches and pastors of the greater Stockton area. Now, I can comfortably hold my own with extemporaneous public prayer. But I figured, why not give them a taste of something a little different for them? So I put together a series of simple biddings covering the assigned subject area, and invited them to make a repeated verbal response to each, following a brief period of silence. Anyone familiar with liturgical worship would have recognized it as a permutation of the genre known (to Episcopalians) as the Prayers of the People (the oratio fidelium of the historic western rite).
Without intending anything of the sort, that simple and brief period of prayer was a big hit. Several individuals have taken the trouble since to tell me how much they appreciated it. I could sense a palpable difference the next time I met with the SLF board. It was like I somehow had an aura that commanded more respect. At the same time, they seemed more relaxed and at ease around me. Who'dve thunk it?
So, yesterday (Thursday) the Stockton Leadership Foundation went completely public with a luncheon for around 150 invited guests. The pastors of all the major evangelical churches in town were there--Pentecostal and mainstream, Anglo and Hispanic and African-American. There was even one Roman Catholic priest present. Also there were the Mayor, the Vice-Mayor, a member of the county Board of Supervisors, and the opinion page editor of the Record. Last week, I learned that I had been tapped to deliver the invocation and bless the food. Yesterday, I learned that this job came with the perk of once again being seated at the head table. As we were taking our places, just before I was to offer my prayer, the MC, another board member, jokingly told me that the main reason they wanted me in a visible position was that my clerical collar added a patina of sanctity to the entire event! I think he was speaking only half in jest, actually.
So now I'm a table decoration!
There is certainly an amusing element to this, but, upon further reflection, I suspect there may be a subliminal undercurrent of great seriousness. Let's face it, with my funny outfit and my funny way of praying ("funny" simply in virtue of the fact that I don't use the word "just" at least twice in every sentence), I'm something of an enigma to these friends and co-laborers of mine. If they were to attend the principal Sunday Mass at St John's, they would be perplexed to the point of mental meltdown.
Yet, somehow, I am a sign to them of something. There were probably at least fifty pastors--full-time "religious professionals"--at that luncheon yesterday. But I, with my collar, was the icon of the presence of the Transcendent. They wouldn't be at all able to name what it is that I sign-ify. My theory, of course, is that it's the organic Christian tradition that connects the church of the New Testament, which they revere, with Christian community and experience and action in the 21st century. I'm a little weird, by their lights. I'm religioiusly "para-normal," as far as they're concerned. And they don't all want to rush and join my church. But they're glad I'm around. They're glad the kind of religion I practice and teach is around. They feel like the day may come when they need it.