My Lenten vow was to be happy. I did not expect Lent to be great but I decided to try and something good has come out of Lent this year. That good thing is community and it came by surprise in a place that I did not expect.
Community is one of the things that I have struggled with throughout my time as a Christian and especially is a military chaplain. I have often lived in places for brief periods of time. Even when I was able to develop some sense of community and support it disappeared when I left.
I am by nature an introvert. Put me in a room with a bunch of strangers and I can put my Romulan cloaking device up faster than the Enterprise can go to warp. Work is another matter, I push myself hard to be with people in the moment and to be present. I work in the ICU and Pediatric ICU of a teaching hospital. I do a lot more listening and watching than talking most of the time. This helps me to have the feel of the environment and know when and how to approach a patient, family member or staff members. The ICU staff has become a part of my local family and community.
However, I lacked a local faith community. I love some of my fellow military priests but most are quite far away. These are close friends but we are separated by geography and military duties. We may go two or three years without seeing each other. This week I realized that I really need comunity locally.
My church is very small, maybe 70 parishes in the U.S. with none anywhere near me. My wife is Roman Catholic. I have a good relationship with her parish pastor but the church is rather large. With the exception of a few choir members I don’t know many people. They treat me wonderfully but there is a distance. I am a priest in a communion that is not in communion with Rome, and Rome is cracking down on relationships and activities that would have be okay a few years back.
I looked forward to moving here in 2003. My church had a local mission parish and there were others within a reasonable drive. I knew many of clergy. I thought I was home. I hoped that I could contribute and make a difference in the church. Unfortunately the local mission priest was difficult. His parish had not grown in 8 years and at best had 15 people in attendance. I tried to help but was ignored and grew increasingly frustrated. I confronted him about practices that were in direct violation of his bishop’s policies and he was unapologetic. I reported this to the bishop. Instead of listening the bishop banned me from all contact with priests in the diocese. At that point I went to ground. Since I was on the road a lot I figured that I could handle isolation.
Coming back from Iraq was the most difficult adjustment that I have had to make in my life. Not only did I have PTSD, chronic pain, anxiety, depression and insomnia but my sense of community was destroyed. My church had suffered another major split while I was in Iraq. Despite my estrangement from the church there was nothing left of it in my area. The former bishop and most of the clergy had left. Judy’s church is nice but it is large and I am hyper-sensitive to noise, lights and crowds of strangers, so it is difficult to attend. If you have ever felt absolutely alone and abandoned you probably can understand.
In September I transferred to the Naval hospital. I went to work with a staff that valued what I brought to the table, and took time to care for me. My therapist always asked “how are you doing with the big guy?” as I was really struggling spiritually. Remarkably my work in the ICUs was healing, the support of fellow chaplains was more than I could have asked for, things began to get better but I still did not have that local faith community.
I found that community over the past couple of months. While working in the ICU I met the pastor of a local Episcopal parish in Portsmouth. He had two of his parishioners in the ICU one of whom eventually passed away. But during this time we became friends. He is Nigerian and pastors Saint James, which is the historically African-American parish and invited me to visit. The parish is a wonderful, it is not large; but the people among the most welcoming of any parish that I have ever visited. Their worship is something that I not only am familiar, but draws me to God. The hymns were those that I would have picked myself. There is a quiet dignity to these folks. Many are former military. They feed the homeless, they are involved in the community and they love each other. They understand God’s grace. I feel at home for the first time in years.
I find it hard to believe, that for the first time in years I am experiencing the joy of being in community on a number of levels. I think that God herself might even be happy for me.