On a beautiful and warm sunny September Sunday I greeted church goers on the patio of my parish. Granted I was only the newest seminarian to walk through the doors but I took to the parish quickly and with the eagerness of a seminarian’s naïveté. The parishioners welcomed me with warm, easy smiles understanding well the role they would play in my formation as a priest. I was less aware of their teaching ministry to me. I saw a church full of members to whom I would be a pastor for the first time.
At the front of the church there was a small courtyard surrounded by low brick walls. Every Sunday the members and clergy gathered in this semicircular space to visit after the service. I stood on the far side of the courtyard against the wall smiling happily to everyone who made the effort to greet rector, associate rector, and finally, to reach me—their newest seminarian. The brick underfoot felt solid, a firm foundation for me on my nervous but happy first day. I was not to know that the ground beneath my feet and the hard walls enclosing it would soon become a trap.
Amidst the cheerful faces I spotted one with a frown of dogged determination. A woman in her early sixties focused all of her attention on me and made a direct path to where I was standing. I’m still not sure how she made that walk so quickly through the crowd that filled the patio. Yet, there she was before me, not with an outstretched hand but a pointing finger.
It took a moment for me to realize that here was an authority figure bent on reprimanding me. Why? I had just arrived at the church. That, my first morning, my only job in the service was to be present and seen. I knew well enough that I could have done nothing to offend, but still I found myself before a highly displeased member.
For the next fifteen minutes, but to me an eternity, I was forced to listen to her prepared monologue. Women should not be priests, she declared. She proceeded to enumerate all the reasons why I was an apostate, an offense. I’m sure my feet didn’t move an inch but it felt as though she were backing me against the wall of the courtyard, her commanding stance absorbing every ray of light out of the sky. The world narrowed to the space that existed between the tip of my nose to the tip of hers. Mine pointed down as she was shorter than I and hers twisted upwards in the sneer that distorted her face.
I shuddered as if a sudden storm had brewed from her rage to consume all the September warmth. The sun faded. I was trapped in her shadow until her diatribe ceased.
After the first few minutes I stopped listening. These were not entirely new arguments for me. After all, I’m a Southern woman called to the man’s world of church leadership. What was new was the realization that the person before me would demand a response to all the usual arguments. She carried herself in such a way that the exclamatory, “What do you have to say for yourself, young lady?!” was implicit. What should I say to this person who would breathe into herself every dream and aspiration for ministry I had, so that she may consume and end it?
She had hoped that her speech would bring with it the clanging echo of a closing door; one that would cut off my ill-conceived future and the possibility that she and I would relate in any way as parishioner and priest. As she droned on I began to hear not a slamming door, but the sound of light, my sun. A crack had opened past the darkness of her imposing body so that the light streamed onto my face and, with it, the Spirit. I heard a voice pronounce the words that were to become an anchor for me in the storms waged by others. With clarity, God spoke these words to me: “I called you. She didn’t.”
That was enough.
She finally paused, a look of expectation and triumph on her face. I realized she had finished. I breathed in deeply the warm, sunny, September Sunday breeze. The eclipse had passed and, unmoved, I remained in the path of the sun and bathed in it once again.
With what can only be a gift from the Spirit, I smiled and then took her hand. I shook the hand that had been pointing its finger to my face only moments before and said, “Thank you for sharing with me. I look forward to seeing you every week.”
We hadn’t moved but my whole world had shifted, and I knew from that moment on that no one could stand between me and the sun, no matter how hard they tried.
She was dumbstruck by my response. Whatever she may have expected, that was not it. She said nothing and wandered off. She would not speak another word to me in the two years I served that parish. Together with her husband she would come through the greeting line after the service. He would shake my hand but she would only look at me, still dumbfounded.
My moment of victory came around Christmas of my second year. She liked to sit near the front where she could see our rector, the apple of her eye. She had told me on that September morning that he was the reason they attended that particular church. I was used to seeing her near the front of the church, eyes on him as he preached and a recorder in her hand so she may enjoy his words again later. That victorious December morning I was the preacher. As I looked up from my manuscript I caught her eye for the briefest of moments before she turned away. But I could not miss the recorder in her hand, lifted up from her elbow as it rested on her knee, high enough to catch every word I spoke.
A gift from a parishioner: a sketch of me combining my two passions.
The place where I, indeed, serve as a church and where the sun always shines.