Ministry Minute – What St. Paul Means to Me
When Mary asked me to speak about what St. Paul’s means to me, a long list of issues flooded my old brain. But, since Mary had asked me to keep this “short and sweet”, I will focus on two that are at the top of the list.
First, St. Paul’s is a SAFE PLACE for me. I have no doubt that the words “SAFE PLACE” mean something very different for everyone here today. In order to tell you what it means to me, I need to share a little Alan Serio history.
When I was young teen…about 14 or 15, I decided to tell the world that I was gay. Although I knew this to be true long before, I had not discussed it with anyone; this was a topic not often brought up at dinner time in the early 1960s or any time, for that matter. I proceeded, very matter-of-factly, to tell my parents, my siblings, my teachers, fellow students and just about anyone who would listen. For a time, it was how I introduced myself. Even if I did not actually say the words, my cool suede fringed vest and my very cool bell bottom jeans, always covered in buttons and patches like neon signs, said it for me.
I expected a broad range of responses and I got them. Surprisingly, however, many of the people I thought would support me, rejected me, including my brother who was in seminary studying to become a RC priest. Conversely, many of the people who I thought would turn their backs on me, did not.
After a few deep breaths, like Don Quixote on a quest, I immediately began to seek out people who would not just tolerate me but embrace me and it became a necessity for me to quickly find places that were safe places for a young gay teenager. I was no longer welcome in my own home and I was no longer welcome or safe in other places that were once familiar and comfortable including my parish church and parochial schools. Regretfully, the search is ongoing to this day even right here in Chatham in 2019.
Fast forward 50+ years…on the very first day I came through the doors of St. Paul’s, I sensed that this place was OKAY. I was greeted with big toothy grins, warm handshakes and words of welcome. And, although, I didn’t know any parishioners, everyone here seemed sincere in their welcome and it felt just fine simply being me.
For anyone who has been marginalized, discriminated against or bullied and much worse, feeling safe and being able to simply be, not having to censor what you say or who you are is critical…for me; it is essential for my happiness and well-being. And, I am happy to say that as a member of the LGBTQ community, St. Paul’s church continues to be a safe place for me and this one of the many reasons, St. Paul’s is important to me.
The second reason I am drawn to this church and to this community is because it is a place of learning. I never fail to learn something new each time I visit. Listening to the homilies, especially, always make me STOP and think or question or wonder. It is also through the services and the music/prayers we sing/say together and the music we listen to as well as Jim’s weekly musical history lessons. Even casual conversations are a learning experience. When I leave St. Paul’s each time, not only do I often feel a bit more enlightened, but I feel lighter and brighter. And, there have been times when I have been blessed having experienced something close to a miracle.
In August, I volunteered to help at the “It’s My Turn” day camp. On the first day, my knees were knocking. I was concerned that I would not be able to GIVE the children what they expected, wanted and needed but within an hour or two, I discovered that it was the children who were doing the giving. Whether we were playing, singing, dancing, crafting or I was getting bombarded with water balloons or stray frisbees, the energy and the spirit and the sheer joy that was hovering all around us felt sacred somehow. Just being with Mary & Ellen and the other volunteers, I learned so much from simply observing; listening to their words and to the silence of their active listening was so instructive. The experience was sometimes overwhelming but always in a good way; the activities and the occasional chaos were always incredibly human and divine at the same time. One day while watching the children chomping on their goldfish crackers at snack time, I was standing in the doorway looking into the room and I saw halos appearing above each little head and I knew that I was in the presence of Saints in my life. I learned so much about myself that week; so much about the importance of sharing my experience, my resources, my time…myself. And, although I have participated in other similar activities in the past, there was something very special about the day camp experience that only a place like St. Paul’s could make possible for the children and for me. I still cannot tell you who was taking care of whom during that week. It was such a unique communal spiritual time.
And that is why St. Paul’s is so important to me. It is a safe and welcoming place for all and a place where learning is a constant and it is a community that does so much good for those in need and for those with special needs like me. I hope that by working together and being generous with our time, energy, ideas, creativity and our pocketbooks that St. Paul’s will remain such a vibrant place. It was a privilege to be asked to speak (thank you, Mary) and a privilege to be heard. Thanks to all for listening so attentively.