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DC church mixes spoken word and social justice with ‘Prophetic Poetry Slam’

Tue, 07/16/2019 - 1:58pm

LaTonya Merritt performs at All Souls Episcopal Church’s Prophetic Poetry Slam in Washington, D.C., on July 13, 2019. Photo: Egan Millard/ENS

[Episcopal News Service ­­– Washington] The litany that could be heard at All Souls Episcopal Church on the evening of July 13 was an unfamiliar one.

“Homeless?” came the call.

“Not hopeless,” the people responded.


“Keep me focused.”

This wasn’t a liturgical service, and the woman on the stage in the church basement wasn’t a priest. Her name was LaTonya Merritt, and she was a performer at the church’s first-ever Prophetic Poetry Slam.

“Dirty clothes, smelling bad / sleeping on the streets, digging in the trash can for food / that’s all you see,” she recited from memory. “How ‘bout: I have a job, sleep in my vehicle. / That homeless person / is me.”

With commanding confidence, she interspersed the story of her journey out of homelessness with that same call-and-response she’d taught the audience at the beginning of the poem, echoing the theme of relying on God in desperate times.

This event, unlike most poetry slams, wasn’t a competition; no judges assigned scores to the 10 performers. It did, however, feature the passionate, socially conscious spoken-word poetry that slams are known for, with a special focus on spirituality.

All Souls Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. Photo: Egan Millard/ENS

All Souls is focusing on the intersection of faith, art and social justice as a way to reach out to the surrounding community. Tucked into the lush Woodley Park neighborhood – which borders both the Establishment influence of Kalorama and the diverse immigrant enclave of Adams Morgan – the church is something of an intersection itself.

“This is a part of the outreach that we are doing to the broader community,” said Brian Smith, the church’s Christian formation leader. “We’ve really made a concerted effort to reach out to our neighborhood in general and bring people into church for different reasons.”

Last year, Smith started a monthly poetry night “to explore the art of poetry as a devotional spiritual practice.”

“All Souls has a tradition of religion and the arts,” Smith said. “There have been other poetry groups that met here in the past. So we’re kind of carrying that on.”

Smith said that the intimate monthly gathering – which he organized through Meetup.com – succeeded in bringing in people “who would never have gone to church” otherwise.

“We took a summer hiatus to regroup and plan out the next program year,” Smith said, “but then we realized, we have to do something this summer. It was the rector’s idea to do a poetry slam … We wanted to infuse a little bit more energy into the experience of poetry for people who may or may not be familiar with the slam style.”

So where does the “prophetic” element come in?

“It’s a very prophetic moment we’re experiencing right now,” Smith explained. “People are speaking out; they’re very passionate.”

And though the topics – particularly the racist rhetoric embraced by President Donald Trump and his administration’s hostility to immigrants – may be new, the Christian response isn’t.

“Return to the law, return to love. … That’s what the prophetic tradition is about, in a way: new expressions of old truths.”

So the poetry slam, with its tradition of speaking truth to power, seemed like the perfect way to harness the passion of a community that increasingly feels the need to speak out against injustice. That hasn’t always been easy for All Souls, said the Rev. Jadon Hartsuff, who has served as rector since 2016.

“We are here in Washington, D.C., we are surrounded by political issues, and we are a parish that is full of people who work in government … so this has long been a church that has very intentionally stayed clear of hot-button political or social justice issues just because people have wanted church to be a respite,” Hartsuff said.

Ironically, that attitude came about in part because All Souls was an early pioneer in one particular hot-button issue: accepting queer parishioners.

A custom-made sign greets visitors at the door of All Souls Church in Washington, D.C. Photo: Egan Millard/ENS

“All Souls was the first church to have an openly gay rector in this region. So the primary issue that the church felt like it was engaging was the issue of welcome to the LGBT community. So with that being its flagship issue, it wanted to avoid all the other issues that might divide people who were otherwise being united around that issue, because it ended up being a place where gay men and women from very different political backgrounds came together.”

But by 2016, the situation had changed, with LGBTQ people gaining widespread acceptance in The Episcopal Church and Trump upending the political and moral landscape of America.

“In the last few years, there’s been an increasingly large minority of people here who have been interested in some kind of more active, more pronounced engagement of social justice,” Hartsuff said. This led to a monthly multi-parish social justice forum, and the July 13 Prophetic Poetry Slam was intended to forge a connection between that and the monthly poetry series.

“We’re trying to test the waters and see what happens,” Smith said before the event.

What happened was a mix of personal and political, painful and healing. With rhymes ringing off the walls, the first poet poured out her anguish over her sister’s death, wondering what God’s purpose could be.

Laurel Blaydes sang a cappella of the struggle to persevere in the face of disillusionment:

“I can see by the look in your eye / that you feel like your leaders mislead you / and you’re tired of delusions and lies / But I can also see / that you didn’t stop there / You have moved to take the vision of the future / way beyond despair,” she sang.

Laurel Blaydes gets ready to sing at All Souls Episcopal Church’s Prophetic Poetry Slam in Washington, D.C., on July 13, 2019. Photo: Egan Millard/ENS

LaTonya Merritt, in addition to sharing her story of homelessness, performed a piece that pointed out the ironic dichotomies in American society: poverty and conspicuous consumption, homelessness and gentrification, “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter.”

Other performers spoke of feeling judged in church and the guilt of judging others, struggles with learning disabilities and incarceration, and the gap between what Jesus left unsaid and what he did say. Inspired by the trending Twitter hashtag #thingsJesusneversaid, one poet wondered how anyone familiar with the Gospels could be confused about how Jesus would react to fossil fuel emissions polluting the air and jeopardizing the survival of humanity. Jesus, he said, never talked about oil, “never spoke of dinosaurs, giant lizards / sinking into the rocks, becoming a liquor for our society … He didn’t have to.”

vEnessa Acham reads Joy Harjo’s “Ah, Ah” at All Souls Episcopal Church’s Prophetic Poetry Slam in Washington, D.C., on July 13, 2019. Photo: Egan Millard/ENS

Not everyone performed their own work. vEnessa Acham read “Ah, Ah” by newly inaugurated U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, the first Native American to hold the post. And Calvin Zon read a series of revolutionary poems by Robert Burns, Pablo Neruda and Bertolt Brecht, ending with Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again.”

The performers were evenly split between regular parishioners and people from outside the parish. That’s because All Souls invested in highly targeted Facebook ads to advertise the slam.

“We have an active, two-week-long Facebook ad for this event that is focused on young adults who have expressed on their Facebook profile that they have an interest in either poetry or social justice,” Hartsuff said.

Those ads are funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment administered through nearby Wesley Theological Seminary’s Innovation Hub. The program aims to connect activist millennials in Washington with local churches through engaging, collaborative projects. The Innovation Hub provides training, research and support, in addition to the grant funds.

For Hartsuff, the effort is as much about getting a new image of the church out there as it is about the event itself.

Myke Gregoree performs at All Souls Episcopal Church’s Prophetic Poetry Slam in Washington, D.C., on July 13, 2019. Photo: Egan Millard/ENS

“We have been trying to create and present different kinds of events that … twenty-somethings who don’t go to church might see and be surprised that a church was offering,” Hartsuff said. “And even if they didn’t come to it, it would begin to shift their understanding of what our church and maybe the church at large is doing,” Hartsuff said.

The investment in Facebook ads paid off. Myke Gregoree, who hadn’t been to All Souls before, said he came across the event on Facebook and “it seemed like it was up my alley. … It definitely was the name that spoke out to me and it made me feel welcome.”

Merritt, also a first-time visitor to All Souls, had the same experience while scrolling through Facebook.

“I was like, ‘OK, that looks like something interesting,’” she said.

Both Merritt and Gregoree expressed interest in coming back when the regular monthly poetry night returned. And most people lingered long after the slam ended, talking over wine and snacks about the power of catharsis. There were knowing nods, exchanges of email addresses, and a sense that All Souls was a little bigger than it was a few hours before.


Egan Millard is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at emillard@episcopalchurch.org.

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Children affected by opioid epidemic invited to supportive summer camp in Diocese of Maryland

Tue, 07/16/2019 - 9:31am

[Episcopal News Service] The opioid epidemic in the United States continues to affect millions of Americans, with tens of thousands every year dying from overdoses, and some of the most vulnerable to the epidemic’s effects are the users’ children and other young family members.

The Episcopal Church’s Province III, which includes many of the communities hit hardest by the rise in opioid addiction in recent years, is partnering with the Diocese of Maryland’s Claggett Center and the SpiritWorks Foundation to offer a free weeklong summer camp, Camp Spirit Song, in support of children struggling with a parent’s or loved one’s addiction.

“Some of the kids think it’s their fault, and if they behave better, mom or dad wouldn’t do that,” said the Rev. Jan Brown, an Episcopal deacon and founder of SpiritWorks, a Virginia-based addiction recovery support organization. One message of Camp Spirit Song will be that it’s not their fault, Brown told Episcopal News Service.

“The hope with this is they will feel safe, and … they’ll know that there are other people going through this too,” she said.

The camp is open to children in grades 4 to 8, and space still is available for new registrations. Held at the Claggett Center in Buckeystown, Maryland, it will follow a curriculum for children of addicted parents that was developed through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Anyone interested in info on registering a child for Camp Spirit Song should visit the center’s website or email ryoe@claggettcenter.org.

“Camp Spirit Song creates a setting in which children can participate in meaningful, compassionate group sessions which honor their experiences and inherent worth, while enjoying all the opportunities that summer camp provides for kids to be kids,” said Rita Yoe, the Claggett Center’s programs coordinator, in a news release.

The idea for the camp grew out of conversations between Claggett Center officials and members of the Province III Opioid Response Task Force. Province III encompasses 13 dioceses in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, and it has been active in developing educational and outreach programs in response to the opioid crisis, including a recent pilgrimage to Huntington, West Virginia, to witness that community’s progress.

Dina van Klavern, co-chair of the Province III task force, previously served as director of the Claggett Center’s summer camps through 2014, and she also had gotten to know Brown, who serves on the task force and is a deacon at Bruton Parish Episcopal Church in Williamsburg, Virginia.

“She has mentioned and described a need since we began this task force to bring back a camp for families torn apart by addiction,” van Klavern said.

SpiritWorks Foundation offered its own camp for children affected by addiction several years ago at Airfield Conference Center, near Wakefield, Virginia. Photo: SpiritWorks Foundation

SpiritWorks, which Brown started in 2005, offered such a camp years ago but was not able to keep it going. Then last year, van Klavern learned that the Claggett Center would have an open week in its summer camp schedule for 2019, and she and Brown began talking with center officials about offering a curriculum for children affected by addiction.

Their goal was to identify at least 15 and up to 40 campers to participate, with outside donations covering the cost of the camp for families. Registration so far has been slow, but van Klavern and Brown hope in the coming weeks to find additional children from across the province’s dioceses who would benefit from the program. It will include a strong spiritual component, though participants need not be Episcopalians.

“Anyone who’s really had their world turned upside down by heroin and opioid use,” van Klavern explained. What the camp offers is “a place of healing and safety, a place without any discrimination and stigma for the family and the child.”

The trauma associated with a family member’s opioid use can have a profound negative effect on children. Prenatal opioid exposure and the upheaval of foster care sometimes play roles, but parental opioid use itself is considered a traumatic event for children, according to a report by the National Academy of State Health Policy.

“Children affected by parental substance use are at higher risk of behavioral and psychosocial problems,” the report says. Such trauma also is “strongly associated with a wide range of negative consequences for health and well-being later in life, such as chronic health conditions, risky behaviors, lower academic achievement, and early death.”

The report, geared toward influencing state policies on the opioid epidemic, recommends developing a “whole family” approach. Such an approach is affirmed by the curriculum to be used by Camp Spirit Song.

“The entire family can be strengthened, their stress levels reduced, their resilience enhanced, when services are provided to these children,” a forward to the curriculum says.

Brown brings personal experience to this work. She is 32 years into her own long-term recovery from addiction, including to prescription painkillers. In recent decades, she has lamented the rise nationwide in opioid and painkiller addiction and the toll it takes on families. Its effects are distinct from other types of addictions, such as alcoholism, she said.

“The intensity is one piece that’s changed, and just how dangerous,” she said. “People are leaving pills hanging around, and young people are finding them.” She noted some describe the epidemic as “a disease of despair, and these young people are growing up in households where there is no hope.”

She sees Camp Spirit Song, then, as a “wonderful opportunity” to show that faith communities can make a positive difference in these children’s lives.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.

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Peace forum concludes, ‘There must be no more war on the Korean Peninsula’

Mon, 07/15/2019 - 2:17pm

[World Council of Churches] An Ecumenical Forum for Peace, Reunification and Development Cooperation on the Korean Peninsula, held 10-12 July in Bangkok, Thailand, has issued a communique that reiterates calls for peace and outlines possible steps toward renewed dialogue.

The forum drew 46 participants from 11 countries, including delegations from the Korean Christian Federation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and from the National Council of Churches in the Republic of Korea.

Read the full article here.

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Anglican Church of Canada grapples with pain after same-sex marriage vote, with new developments possible

Mon, 07/15/2019 - 2:10pm

Lyds Keesmaat-Walsh, delegate from the Diocese of Toronto, weeps in the immediate aftermath of a July 12 vote on a motion to amend the Anglican Church of Canada’s marriage canon. The motion, which would have allowed for same-sex marriage in the church, failed to pass by a few percentage points in the Order of Bishops. Photo: Milos Tosic/Anglican Journal

[Anglican Journal – Vancouver, British Columbia] “Our children are crying.”

That was how Primate Fred Hiltz — paraphrasing the observation of delegate Michael Chartrand — described the pain in the room following the failure of the 42nd General Synod to pass a resolution amending the marriage canon, which would have allowed for the solemnization of same-sex marriage.

“Those words are going to haunt the Anglican Church for a long time,” says Sydney Brouillard-Coyle, a youth delegate from the Diocese of Huron who identifies as gender non-conforming, queer and asexual. Though members of General Synod had long been preparing for upheaval after the vote on July 12 no matter the outcome, when the results finally came, the anguish it caused for LGBTQ Anglican youth almost defies description.

Read the full article here.

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Anglicans in Canada elect Linda Nicholls as first woman primate

Mon, 07/15/2019 - 9:13am

“We have deep healing to work at. And I know that this church can do it,” Linda Nicholls, bishop of the diocese of Huron and primate-elect of the Anglican Church of Canada, told General Synod shortly after voting results were announced Saturday, July 13. Photo: Milos Posic

[Anglican Journal] Linda Nicholls, bishop of the diocese of Huron, was elected 14th primate of the Anglican Church of Canada on July 13, becoming the first woman in the history of the church to hold the position.

“You have bestowed on me an honor that I can hardly imagine, and it is terrifying. But it is also a gift, to be able to walk with the whole of the Anglican Church of Canada from coast to coast to coast,” Nicholls said in a brief impromptu speech on her arrival, after the vote at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, where the election was held.

Read the full article here.

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Marriage canon amendment fails to pass Canada’s General Synod

Mon, 07/15/2019 - 9:08am

Primate Fred Hiltz and officers of General Synod share a tense moment of silence before results are revealed. Photo: Matthew Townsend

[Anglican Journal] The Anglican Church of Canada will maintain its traditional definition of marriage after a vote to amend the marriage canon failed to pass at General Synod 2019.

The 42nd General Synod voted against Resolution A052-R2, which would have amended the marriage canon to allow for same-sex marriage, after the resolution failed to pass by a two-thirds majority in all three orders. While two-thirds of the Order of Laity (80.9 percent) and Order of Clergy (73.2 percent) voted in favor, less than the required two-thirds (62.2 percent) voted in favor of the resolution in the Order of Bishops.

Read the full article here.

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In Canada, indigenous self-determination measures pass in nearly unanimous vote

Mon, 07/15/2019 - 9:04am

National Indigenous Anglican Archbishop Mark MacDonald is blessed by Primate Fred Hiltz as he receives a metropolitical cross upon the formation of a self-determining Indigenous Anglican church. Photo: Milos Tosic

[Anglican Journal] In an historic vote, General Synod decided almost unanimously July 12 to approve changes to Canon XXII that enable a self-determining indigenous church within the Anglican Church of Canada, and to bestow the title of archbishop upon National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald, a position which now ranks among the metropolitans.

The vote was the culmination of a morning of presentations by the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples and the Vision Keepers, the council of Indigenous elders and youth established at General Synod in 2016 to monitor how the church would honor its commitment to adopt the framework of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Read the full article here.

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Canadian archbishop reflects on achievements and ‘serious questions’ about future at General Synod

Fri, 07/12/2019 - 4:12pm

Archbishop Fred Hiltz. Photo: Milos Tosic/Anglican Journal

[Anglican Journal – Vancouver, British Columbia] In a wide-ranging address to General Synod on Thursday, July 11, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, outgoing primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, spoke of what he saw as some of the church’s most important recent accomplishments and priorities, as well as the challenges likely to face his successor, who will be elected Saturday, July 13.

Hiltz, who has led the church as primate since 2007, opened General Synod’s first day of business with a speech dealing with the themes of discipleship; the Indigenous church and reconciliation with Indigenous people; human trafficking; climate change; ecumenism and interfaith relationships; same-sex marriage; and the need for his successor to keep the church together in the aftermath of a potentially divisive vote on the marriage canon while facing an “alarming” decline in church membership.

Read the full article here.

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Canada’s General Synod practices respectful dialogue ahead of same-sex marriage vote

Fri, 07/12/2019 - 3:53pm

[Anglican Journal] In an exercise intended to produce more compassionate discussions than those that sometimes prevailed during marriage canon discussion in 2016, members of the 2019 General Synod spent almost the entire afternoon of the gathering’s first official day of business hearing about and practicing ways of speaking and listening respectfully to one another.

From 1:30 p.m. until close to 5 p.m. on July 11, with one break, Lynne McNaughton, bishop of the Diocese of Kootenay, and priest and psychologist Canon Martin Brokenleg led a session on “being a synod,” discussing the importance of living out Christian love during debates about potentially contentious issues, and having synod members practice respectful listening and talking skills in table groups.

Read the full article here.

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Canada’s General Synod hears ‘lessons learned’ from Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement

Fri, 07/12/2019 - 3:50pm

[Anglican Journal] The signing of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2003 was a tumultuous experience for the Anglican Church of Canada—one that transformed the church’s relationship with Indigenous peoples and left a lasting legacy, the effects of which are still being felt to this day. The precise meaning of that experience, however, depends on whose voices are heard.

On July 11, the 42nd General Synod passed a resolution acknowledging receipt of a “Lessons Learned” report, along with its executive summary. The resolution encourages all levels of the church to read the documents and to “take action on their recommendations for ongoing reconciliation work both within the Anglican Church and more broadly.”

Read the full article here.

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Uganda’s first female cathedral provost takes up her post

Fri, 07/12/2019 - 2:30pm

The Very Rev. Rebecca Margaret Nyegenye was installed as provost of All Saints Cathedral in Kampala on July 10. Photo: Church of Uganda via Facebook

[Anglican Communion News Service] The Church of Uganda’s first female provost was installed on July 10 at All Saints’ Cathedral in Kampala. Dr. Rebecca Margaret Nyegenye was ordained in 1997 in Bukedi Diocese and was assistant vicar at St. John’s Church in Busia before moving to Uganda Christian University as a chaplain’s assistant in 2002. In 2012, she became the university’s chaplain.

Read the full article here.

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Covenant for ‘historical cousins,’ Methodist Church and Church of England, moves forward

Fri, 07/12/2019 - 1:22pm

[Anglican Communion News Service] Despite an amendment to slow down the process, the Church of England’s General Synod has agreed a series of motions to take forward its Covenant with the Methodist Church in Britain to allow interchangeability of ministries and intercommunion between the two Churches.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby told the General Synod: “I for one am profoundly committed to moving forward in this matter, for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of the Church and for the sake of the world we are sent to serve.”

Read the full article here.

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New Zealand churches challenged to give up plastic for July

Fri, 07/12/2019 - 1:02pm

[Anglican Communion News Service] July has been designated a “plastic free month” by the Anglican Social Justice Network in New Zealand. The network is encouraging churches to join in the challenge. The plastic-free July challenge originated in 2011 as a pilot plan rolled out by five groups in Western Australia, and it has now snowballed into a millions-strong worldwide movement that continues to grow.

During the ‘Plastic-free July’ challenge, community groups and social organizations cut out single-use plastic within their community activities for the month of July each year.

Read the full article here.

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Canadian archbishop apologizes for spiritual harm inflicted on Indigenous peoples

Fri, 07/12/2019 - 11:15am

Canon Norm Wesley hears Primate Fred Hiltz’s apology to Indigenous peoples on behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada. Photo: Milos Tosic/Anglican Journal

[Anglican Journal – Vancouver, British Columbia] In a speech that stirred emotional reactions and caused members of General Synod to rise to their feet, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, apologized on behalf of the national church for spiritual harm done to Indigenous peoples.

Delivering his apology to the gathering of General Synod July 11, Hiltz laid out a confession of the ways the Anglican church demonized, dismissed and actively discouraged traditional Indigenous spiritual practices.

“For such shameful behaviors, I am very sorry. We were so full of our own self-importance. To quote the Book of Common Prayer, we followed ‘too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.’ We were ignorant. We were insensitive. We offended you. And I believe we offended God.”

Read the full article here.

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A church invests in mental health in response to parishioners’ suffering

Thu, 07/11/2019 - 4:06pm

Dr. Jon Kocmond looks at photos of his family in his home office in Charlotte, North Carolina. Kocmond lost his 16-year-old son, Nathan, to suicide in the fall of 2017. He has since been active in the suicide support group at Christ Episcopal Church. Photo: Wendy Yang/Faith & Leadership

[Faith & Leadership] When their teenage son Nathan took his own life, Jon and Sarah Kocmond’s pain was too heavy to bear alone. So they turned to the place where they knew they would be comforted and heard: Christ Episcopal Church in Charlotte, North Carolina — and, eventually, its Survivors of Suicide (SOS) group.

“If we need love to overcome sorrow, what greater source than God?” Jon Kocmond said. “The thing that has sustained me is my faith. I’ve become closer to God and the Holy Spirit. The act of sharing stories with others, sharing grief with others, is therapeutic.”

The support group was formed after the congregation was rocked by a half-dozen suicides within five years — a series of traumas that affected nearly everyone at the church, the largest Episcopal congregation in North Carolina.

The experience helped spur the congregation to make mental health a top priority, inspired by Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John to a man who had been ill for 38 years: “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6 NRSV).

In addition to the SOS group, the church has invested in mental health support and awareness in a number of ways.

It has helped one member establish a nonprofit residential mental health center and another launch a one-woman crusade to educate people about bipolar disorder. It has hosted two appearances by bestselling author Brené Brown to share her message that asking for help is a sign of strength.

And most significantly, the church has begun a search for a wellness director, a new full-time position that will focus on mental health as part of a holistic understanding of what it means to be well.

While the trend is too new to be reflected in hard numbers, mental health advocates and faith leaders say that a growing number of houses of worship across the nation are ministering to those with mental health challenges. Few have discerned the church’s call to nurture body, soul and mind as dramatically as Christ Church.

Besides offering people opportunities to share their life challenges, Christ Church seeks to equip them with information and resources. Photo: Wendy Yang/Faith & Leadership

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults has some form of mental illness in a given year, including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and phobias.

The poor are hardest hit: according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the rate of adults with serious mental illness is highest among those with family income below the federal poverty line.

That factor generally does not affect Christ Church, whose membership is largely well-to-do. But regardless of one’s affluence or status, no one is immune.

And the church has a responsibility to offer help for those who are suffering, said Warren Kinghorn, a psychiatrist and theologian at Duke University Medical Center and Duke Divinity School, who speaks often to congregations about the church’s responsibility in addressing mental illness.

“God cares about human suffering and calls us to attend to those who suffer,” he said.

‘The silent things’

The roots of Christ Church’s mental health ministry trace back to the 2008 recession. Realizing that many in the congregation were having their lives turned upside down, the church organized a Sunday morning forum called “The Wisdom of Contentment” and invited members to come and share their struggles out loud.

Church leaders were stunned by the outpouring. Parishioners rose to tell their stories, not just about financial woes, but about their spiritual and emotional well-being — or lack of it.

“It made our pain so public, and so widely shared,” said the Rev. Chip Edens, the rector of the 6,400-member church. “It defrosted us. It opened us up more deeply to the struggles of our members.”

The Rev. Lisa Saunders, an associate rector, was struck by how eager people were — and are — to express out loud the most difficult issues in their lives. “It made us realize the impact of sharing our stories,” she said. “It made this big place seem warmer and more caring.”

The focus expanded from that first gathering, as the congregation and clergy began to see the role of the church as a safe place for parishioners to share what Saunders calls “the silent things.”

The Rev. Lisa Saunders offers communion during a Sunday service. Photo: Wendy Yang/Faith & Leadership

As the congregation’s awareness of mental health needs grew, Saunders said, so did their support of programs, preaching and teaching on wellness.

Besides offering people opportunities to share their life challenges, Christ Church seeks to equip them with information and resources, to direct them toward help, and to encourage them not to suffer in silence.

While the initiatives are focused on the congregation, the community is welcome to attend the classes and programs. No one is turned away.

The question posed in the Gospel of John — “Do you want to be made well?” — is applied broadly in this setting. Edens said the ministry isn’t based on the belief that Jesus alone can heal what ails us. God, he notes, works through many means, including health care, exercise, meditation and more.

“Jesus wants to renew our minds,” Saunders said.

‘What greater source than God?’

Despite its growing support of mental health, the congregation was shocked by the rash of suicides. Among the dead was a 20-year-old college student, a 51-year-old businessman and father of two who was active in the church, and the Kocmonds’ son Nathan.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. suicide rate was 14 per 100,000 — 47,000 deaths — in 2017, the year Nathan Kocmond died.

Christ Church was moved to act. In 2019, the church created the SOS group, which meets twice a month for an hour and a half, longer if necessary. Saunders helps guide the conversation. The half-dozen families involved politely declined a reporter’s request to sit in, asking for privacy.

But over coffee one Saturday afternoon, Jon Kocmond, a pediatrician, talked about SOS, and about his son.

Nathan Kocmond, 16, died by suicide Oct. 9, 2017. He left home on a Monday and did not return. His body was discovered the following Friday, about a 90-minute drive from Charlotte. He left no note, nor did he share any warnings on social media.

A junior at Providence Day School, he was an excellent student, a football player and a Boy Scout. His father said that Nathan, the middle of their three children, made friends easily.

The Kocmond family smiles in their last family portrait before Nathan’s death. Photo: Courtesy of Jon Kocmond via Faith & Leadership

But as Jon Kocmond characterizes it, multiple factors seem to have played a part in the tragedy. Eight months before his death, Nathan started showing signs of distress. He ran away briefly, and was having thoughts — though not suicidal — that disturbed his sleep.

Six weeks before his death, he suffered a football-related concussion, which caused daily headaches. He had to step away from football, and he missed three weeks of school, further fraying his social network.

Jon and Sarah Kocmond try not to blame any one person or factor. “We were all a part of his world,” Jon Kocmond said. “And his world failed him.”

In SOS, Jon Kocmond talks about Nathan. He listens intently to others who have lost a child, spouse or other loved one. His wife, Sarah, attends, but not as often as he does.

The group discusses the importance of recovering at your own pace, he said, and of not blaming yourself or feeling shame. And the importance of heeding the advice that Edens and his wife gave Kocmond: “You can’t do this without community and love.”

Dr. Jon Kocmond and his wife, Sarah, lost their 16-year-old son, Nathan, to suicide in the fall of 2017. They have since been active in the church’s suicide support group. Photo: Wendy Yang/Faith & Leadership

‘We belong to each other’

Kinghorn, of Duke, can cite any number of passages from the Old and New Testaments about God hearing those who cry out in the night.

“Jesus knew what it was to have people say, ‘You’re crazy,’” he said.

From the beginning, the church has raised the question of how we relate to each other, Kinghorn said. In the 1700s and early 1800s, Quakers opened rural “retreats” for the mentally ill — forerunners of psychiatric hospitals.

Psalm 13:2 asks, “How long must I bear pain in my soul?” — a challenge that individual congregations have an obligation to answer, Kinghorn said.

When he speaks at churches, Kinghorn offers suggestions to put this principle into practice: Preach about mental health from the pulpit. Organize support groups. Offer classes to help people learn the warning signs. Offer information on where to find help — through pamphlets in book racks, for example, or a page on the church website. Host forums for people to tell their stories aloud. Call people with mental illness into positions of leadership and service. Sponsor direct treatment.

But he also notes that there’s a difference between being included and truly belonging. He urges congregations to ask themselves whether they truly welcome the mentally ill into the life of the church and let them know they have a place in God’s home.

Kinghorn said he is moved by Christ Church taking the step, unusual among congregations, of creating a suicide support group.

While Scripture, he said, does not affirm suicide — our lives are God’s and not ours to take — neither does it condemn those who take their own lives. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, he said; there is grace and hope for those who die from suicide.

And yet, as St. Thomas Aquinas taught, suicide leaves lasting scars in communities. “We belong to each other,” Kinghorn said.

Life matters

Coping with suicide hasn’t been the only struggle for parishioners. Personal experience with mental illness has prompted two church members to action.

Parishioner Beth Purdy spoke publicly for the first time at a Sunday morning forum in 2008 about her decades-long struggle with bipolar disorder, panic attacks, depression and misdiagnoses.

Purdy and Saunders had feared that few would come to the gathering, called “Life Matters.” But a capacity crowd of 200 turned out.

The experience emboldened Purdy to share her story at churches, mental health seminars — wherever she could. She launched her ministry as a speaker and advocate for mental health at Christ Church.

Purdy believes that by speaking out about her experience, she emboldens others to come out of the shadows.

Thinking back to that turning-point Sunday at Christ Church, she recalls that people seemed relieved to share their stories. “It was like a huge pressure valve was released and people could breathe when talking about mental illness,” she said.

‘It’s courage’

Faced with a family mental health emergency and finding nowhere to turn, Bill Blue retired early from Wells Fargo. With his wife, Betsy, he established HopeWay, a nonprofit residential mental health facility that they opened in 2016. It was unveiled at a Sunday morning forum at Christ Church, the Blues’ parish for 34 years.

Today, the church refers families to HopeWay, and the facility’s medical staff has spoken at the church. The congregation has supported HopeWay financially, Blue said — including a grant to bring in Theo, a therapy dog.

Extending its reach beyond its campus, HopeWay has hosted communitywide programs in uptown Charlotte featuring nationally known speakers — among them, ABC News anchor Dan Harris, who has written and spoken about mindfulness and meditation since suffering a panic attack on live TV.

Bill Blue praises his church’s commitment to shatter stereotypes around mental illness. “It’s courage,” he said.

The Rev. Chip Edens says God works through many means for our healing, including health care, exercise, meditation and more. Photo: Wendy Yang/Faith & Leadership

‘What does it mean to live together?’

Perhaps the biggest step that Christ Church has taken is to create the new staff position of wellness director. The vestry, the lay leadership body, agreed to fund the full-time position in January 2019.

The ad for the position ends with these words from Romans 12:2 (NIV): “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

The first wellness director, when he or she is hired, will serve as an advocate, educator and navigator for the congregation.

The position calls for training and credentials in psychology, social work, counseling or psychiatric nursing, but rather than providing treatment, the director will triage parishioners to the right places for help. In addition to being on the church campus at least two Sundays a month, he or she will be available to respond to crises at any time.

Church leaders describe the new position as a ministry of presence, charged with addressing the array of issues that contribute to a person’s health — mental and otherwise.

It’s one answer to the question that Kinghorn asks congregations everywhere he goes: “What does it mean to live together as a community of people, committed to the glory of God?”

This was first published in Faith & Leadership.


Resources on mental health

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Diocese of Olympia chaplains rally behind homeless campers facing eviction from riverfront

Thu, 07/11/2019 - 3:41pm

About 100 people live in a homeless encampment on the Chehalis River in Aberdeen, Washington. Photo: Sarah Monroe

[Episcopal News Service] A group of Episcopal chaplains who for several years have ministered to homeless individuals in the coastal communities of Grays Harbor County, Washington, are standing in support of about a hundred people who face eviction from a riverbank encampment in Aberdeen.

The legal battle over the fate of the encampment, which the city has long sought to clear, could enter a new phase next week. The city announced it would conduct “a comprehensive clean-up of the property” starting July 15.

The Rev. Sarah Monroe, founder and priest-in-charge of Chaplains on the Harbor, a mission station of the Diocese of Olympia, is a plaintiff in the residents’ lawsuit seeking to stop the city from clearing the encampment on the Chehalis River. She regularly visits the encampment and counts the residents there as her parishioners.

“The request was not so much to stay. The request was the city be obligated to provide somewhere for people to go,” Monroe told Episcopal News Service in a phone interview last month. She acknowledged that sleeping in tents by a river isn’t an ideal long-term solution to homelessness in Aberdeen. “What we’re arguing is people deserve someplace that’s safe.”

Such homelessness ministries have the strong backing of the diocese and are being followed closely by churchwide leaders. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry spent time with the chaplains during a pastoral visit to the diocese in June 2018, and his staff members have kept in touch with Chaplains on the Harbor as it puts pressure on city officials to respond more compassionately to homeless individuals.

“The theological underpinning of our faith expressed the Bible contains numerous directives to provide help for the poor, the sojourners, the strangers and the homeless. Jesus himself was described as homeless,” the Rev. Melanie Mullen, The Episcopal Church’s director of reconciliation, justice and creation care, said in a written statement for this story. “Relationship with those experiencing homelessness is central to who we are as Christians.”

Aberdeen, with about 17,000 residents, is the largest city in Grays Harbor County. These communities about 100 miles southwest of Seattle have struggled with economic slump for decades – Aberdeen native Kurt Cobain was homeless briefly in the 1980s before fronting the band Nirvana – amid sawmill closings and the decline of the timber industry. And though Grays Harbor County’s business community has encouraged growth through tourism and courting wealthy transplants, the county’s incomes and employment rates remain considerably lower than state and national averages, according to a report released in May by Greater Grays Harbor, the regional chamber of commerce and economic development council. An affordable housing shortage has further complicated the picture.

A Grays Harbor County Public Health and Social Services report estimates as many as 3,000 of its 70,000 residents lacked stable housing, and 500 to 700 were considered fully homeless. Chaplains on the Harbor has been ministering to about 500 people, including some facing Aberdeen’s deadline to leave the contested city-owned property on the river.

“We’re talking about fellow human beings, and they need a place to live,” said the Rev. Bonnie Campbell, an Episcopal priest who is on the 11-member staff at Chaplains on the Harbor.

On July 10, the City Council approved Mayor Erik Larson’s $30,000 proposal to set aside the City Hall Parking lot as a temporary encampment while Larson pursue negotiations for a long-term site.

Aaron Scott, another leader with Chaplains on the Harbor, said the uncertainty has been difficult for people living on the riverfront. He and the rest of the team remained focused on providing pastoral support.

“We’re still kind of in the mindset of trying to prepare as best we can and support people in preparing for this displacement,” Scott said in an interview with ENS.

Though legal advocacy has taken the spotlight recently, Monroe and the other chaplains, several of whom were once homeless themselves, started their ministry about six years ago by simply meeting homeless individuals on their own turf.

The Rev. Sarah Monroe, far right, began her ministry with homeless people in Aberdeen, Washington, by getting to know the folks who hang out under a bridge that connects two parts of the coastal town southwest of Seattle. Photo: Glenn Stone

In addition to developing trusting relationships, in the early years Chaplains on the Harbor launched programs common to homeless ministries around the country, from free meals and clothing drives to street worship services. In 2014, Monroe’s nascent work was bolstered by a one-year Justice and Advocacy Fellowship from The Episcopal Church.

Monroe, in an ENS story at the time of her fellowship, lamented the push in Aberdeen “to make the town prettier by getting rid of the people on the street.” Today, the people on the street “consider me their pastor,” Monroe said, and she visits with them as other pastors would the housed members of their congregations.

She once counted herself as one of them. While finishing seminary, she spent about a year homeless, sleeping on acquaintances’ couches. Those days are behind her, but Monroe said the experience informs her work as a priest. She was ordained in 2014, not long after starting Chaplains on the Harbor.

Olympia Bishop Greg Rickel participates in foot washing for the Maundy Thursday service at Chaplains on the Harbor in 2017. Photo: Chaplains on the Harbor, via Facebook

The ministry has enduring financial support from the Diocese of Olympia, and Bishop Greg Rickel is a prominent booster, participating each year in the Maundy Thursday service held at Chaplains on the Harbor’s church property in Westport.

“For the past six years, Chaplains on the Harbor has worked to build ministry and leadership in Grays Harbor County, one of the poorest counties in our diocese,” Jim Campbell, the diocese’s treasurer for chaplains, said in a written statement. “We have built a strong presence in the diocese, and we have raised up powerful leaders to both direct the organization and speak truth on a local and national level.”

Most of the people Monroe serves are young, ranging from about 18 to 35, she said. Those who aren’t “couch surfing” are forced to survive on the streets. For years, the group on the riverfront has been targeted by the city for periodic sweeps, though each time the encampment residents returned.

In 2018, the city purchased the property with plans to clear it for good, and initially visitors were barred from accessing the site without a permit. When Monroe was denied access, she sued the city and argued successfully that she should be allowed to continue her pastoral work with the people living on the riverfront.

When she signed on to a second lawsuit seeking to block the city’s actions against the encampment, it was in the spirit of empowering the other plaintiffs to be heard, drawing on a core principle of Chaplains on the Harbor’s work.

“For me the key to addressing that is to raise up and listen to and provide platform for leaders in poor communities to develop,” Monroe said. Putting her name on a lawsuit “gives weight to their struggle, but it’s their struggle.”

They cheered in May when the judge in the case put a temporary hold on the city’s eviction plan, but that hold has since expired. Aberdeen officials pledged to give people at the encampment three days’ notice before clearing the property. After that, though their struggles may continue, so will support from Chaplains on the Harbor.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.

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Canada: Church leaders seek discipleship and renewal as 42nd General Synod opens

Thu, 07/11/2019 - 3:14pm

[Anglican Journal] In a changing world, Anglicans must rise to the challenge and once more become a “community of disciples,” National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald said as the 42nd General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada got underway.

That call for discipleship and renewal suffused MacDonald’s homily at the opening worship service of the weeklong meeting. The evening celebration of the Eucharist took place on Wednesday, July 10, at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, blocks away from the Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre where the majority of synod would take place in the coming days.

Read the full article here.

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Episcopal pilgrims bring Spain’s Camino de Santiago to the Appalachian Trail

Tue, 07/09/2019 - 12:07pm

Pilgrims walk through a field on June 26, 2019, on Day 4 of the Appalachian Camino, a weeklong pilgrimage organized by the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania on parts of the Appalachian Trail passing through the diocese. Photo: Emily McFarlan Miller/Religion News Service

[Religion News Service — On the Appalachian Trail, Pennsylvania] The pilgrims had come to a fork in the road.

They had just finished a hard uphill climb on the Appalachian Trail, and they weren’t sure they wanted to head 200 yards in the opposite direction to stop at the Darlington Shelter — even if it was named after the Episcopal bishop who contributed to the development of the trail.

But when they arrived, they found a bit of the “trail magic” that the Appalachian Trail is known for awaiting them.

Several of the support team members following their pilgrimage along the legendary 2,190-mile footpath had parked their van nearby and hiked a short way to the shelter carrying cold water and Gatorade.

“They were, like, magical. They just appeared,” said Debbie Pflager, 67, recounting the high point of the day’s hike during a time of reflection that evening.

The group was part of last month’s weeklong “Appalachian Camino,” inspired by the 500-mile pilgrimage across northern Spain. Organized by the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania, it took the pilgrims along parts of the Appalachian Trail that pass through the diocese.

About 20 pilgrims, most from parishes within the diocese, hiked the full week, staying overnight in churches and parish halls along the way. Another 24 joined as day hikers throughout the week.

“We live in such a beautiful place here in Pennsylvania, and the Appalachian Trail is such a gorgeous walk,” Central Pennsylvania Bishop Audrey Scanlan said. “So this is an opportunity to come together in community, in nature and appreciate God’s creation.”

The idea for the Appalachian Camino came from the Rev. Dan Morrow, the diocese’s canon for congregational life and mission.

Morrow is no stranger to pilgrimages.

He has traveled to Ireland and to the home of St. Francis of Assisi in Italy, he said.

And he has always wanted to walk the Camino de Santiago, which ends at what many Catholics believe to be the resting place of St. James. The walk has exploded in popularity with American pilgrims in the past decade.

Morrow said he has never had the time to make the trek, but on a recent day hike on the Appalachian Trail with his wife, it occurred to him that the diocese could bring the Camino to Pennsylvania.

“We should do a pilgrimage here along the trail, visiting our sacred spaces with our own group of pilgrims,” he said.

It wouldn’t end at the final resting place of an apostle, he said, but “having done other pilgrimages … I just know that the journey is just every bit as important, as transformative, as the destination.”

When Morrow approached the bishop with the idea for an Appalachian Camino, she immediately said yes.

It fit perfectly with the “Bishop Out of the Box” program Scanlan started last fall. The program is meant to model “how we could engage ministry in different ways and kind of invite people to think creatively, obviously out of the box, to do things differently,” she said.

So far, that has taken the bishop to a county fair wearing a button reading “Need prayer?” and to a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration with a color-by-number picture of King on canvas, among other things.

“This is our own opportunity to embody our faith, to say that we’re on a journey and literally, not just figuratively or metaphorically, but literally to journey with others on the way,” she said.

Building on the “way of love” espoused by the Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, they referred to the pilgrimage as “walking the way of love in central Pennsylvania,” Scanlan said.

By June 25, the fourth day of the Appalachian Camino, some of the pilgrims and their support crew had earned “trail names” like “Go Go Gadget,” “Major Tom” and “Mama Bear.” The bishop was “Trinity on the Trail” and Morrow, “Venom Sucker,” which came with a story recounted with much laughter about how — since the hike had been his idea — he was responsible for rescuing anybody bitten by a snake along the way.

They gathered early in the morning for a brief liturgy, including a prayer of blessing for the pilgrims. Scanlan knelt at the feet of those joining them for the first time that day, making the sign of the cross over their boots, and they split into two groups — the faster hikers charging ahead first with the bishop.

Morrow set his timer for 10 minutes of contemplative silence as his group began the hike. Everybody was looking forward to the first five miles — relatively flat, according to their maps, after three days of hills and rocks.

In the silence, Lisa Work said, she noticed the temperature changes as they crossed an open meadow into the shade of the forest.

As the day went on and temperatures soared in the stretches through soybean fields or along the roadside with no protection from the blazing summer sun, Work took turns with fellow hikers pouring cool water from their water bottles onto each other’s heads in a kind of trail baptism.

The 52-year-old, who attends St. John Episcopal Church in York, Pennsylvania, also wants to walk the Camino de Santiago someday. For her, hiking is a form of worship, a necessary rhythm, she said.

“Some of it I don’t have words for, but the experience has been so real,” Work said. “In the Scripture, it talks about the Holy Spirit understanding the groaning of your gut, and I think that’s what this is. It’ll fall short to anybody I try to describe it to.”

It’s different hiking with a group when she’s used to silence and solitude on the trail, she said. But, as she begins a new job heading a school, it has been a reminder how much she needs other people and a chance to unplug and slow down for a week.

After climbing a ridge, pilgrims stop to rest and enjoy the view on June 26, 2019, Day 4 of the Appalachian Camino. Photo: Emily McFarlan Miller/Religion News Service

Work was surprised to have forged a “sisterhood” with several of the women on the trail, including Amanda Kniepkamp, who joined the Appalachian Camino from Philadelphia, where she attends Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral.

For Kniepkamp, weekly church services weren’t cutting it anymore. The 40-year-old, who works in academic support at the University of Pennsylvania, said she wanted a deeper experience of her faith.

If there was any place she would find that, Kniepkamp thought, it would be in the outdoors. Having grown up in a small town, she gets “city rage” the way others get road rage, she said.

Remembering church camps she attended growing up, she prayed, “Please let it not be hokey.”

But that hasn’t been her experience on the Appalachian Camino.

She has been moved by the worship in the mornings and evenings. And the intensity of the shared experience of hiking the Appalachian Trail, the joys and the adventure, quickly brought the group together, she said.

“We’ve been together for three days, and we’re sharing everything about our journey,” Kniepkamp said.

That was a theme sounded by several on the Appalachian Camino.

Kay Cramer, 66, walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain several years ago when she retired from her career as a hospice nurse. When she heard about the diocese’s pilgrimage inspired by the Camino, she knew immediately she needed to join.

“Where I was trying to find myself on the Camino, on this one, I’m finding that it’s more about relationships with other people,” Cramer said. “I’m finding love instead of finding myself.”

Others had what could be considered less spiritual reasons for making the pilgrimage — for weight loss or for the challenge of it. Some were hiking along with their children.

But then, Morrow said, “I also think not everything has to have a deeper meaning. Hiking is a good in and of itself, just like other things are. You can make connections, and drawing connections is really good, but just doing it is a good in and of itself.”

At the end of the 12-mile hike on June 25, the pilgrims let out a “Thanks be to God!” as two white support vans came into view.

They piled into the vehicles for the half-hour drive to the Church of the Nativity in Newport, Pennsylvania, a picturesque little church along a river, where they plunged aching and blistered feet into the rushing water.

A trailer arrived carrying their backpacks and other supplies, and some of the pilgrims rolled out sleeping bags in the church’s parish hall. Others set up tents around the stone labyrinth in its neatly manicured lawn.

Then they gathered in the church basement for a homemade dinner prepared for them by parishioners. Cramer, who belongs to the Church of the Nativity, made a Santiago cake, an almond cake on pilgrims’ menus along the Spanish trail.

During a time of reflection afterward led by the bishop in the sanctuary, the pilgrims took turns sharing the highs and lows of the day’s hike.

There were discouraging moments on some of the tougher switchbacks and a fall that cut short the day’s hike for one pilgrim.

There was encouragement from fellow pilgrims and that trail magic at the Darlington Shelter.

And, all in all, Scanlan said, “It’s been a good day — a holy day.”

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