Beginnings and Endings – The Rev. Dcn. Sue Bonsteel
January 10, 2021
A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, January 10, 2021. Click here for the readings. Click the play button above to listen along.
There is always a first day when it comes to any ministry…always a beginning when a decision is made to walk through a doorway that leads to something new and unexpected…that first day presents opportunities that are born out of the desire to respond to a need or perhaps the desire to right an injustice. The impetus often comes from a place deep within…a place of compassion and love. And ministries are often created when one or more gather for a particular purpose. So we often identify them as a collegial action…And we are in awe of the spirit of generosity…the willingness of individuals to put aside their own self-interests in order to help others without an expectation of anything in return.
But the creation of new programs, new organizations, new social movements – especially in the church – is not by any means easy. For anyone who has been involved in the first days of a fledgling ministry knows, there are always birth pains. For well-intentioned people have different goals, different expectations, different ways of communicating, different skill sets, and certainly different personalities…which means that reaching a successful outcome can be a bit of a struggle at times. And not everyone agrees on the position of the church on all social concerns and so there’s often a debate on how deeply a parish should involve itself. So when a new ministry is born, we can appreciate the difficult groundwork that has been laid in the beginning.
As I near my retirement this April, I have been doing a great deal of reminiscing about the ministries I have been part of that have risen from barren places where there was great need…places where God’s creation had been neglected and where darkness and feelings of hopelessness were prevalent.
As a child of God and a follower of Jesus, challenging times weigh heavily upon me as they do on so many of you, I know…for we have been taught that we came into the world with loving and merciful hearts. And to witness the suffering of our brothers and sisters at any time…for any reason…we feel that urge to act…to do something…as an individual and as a member of a loving community. I like to believe it’s part of our Episcopal DNA.
Perhaps this is why past and current ministries such as Angel Food East, Carpenter’s Kids, the Little Library, the Jail Literacy program, and the After-School Tutoring program came into being. Compassionate and loving people chose not to sit on the side-lines any longer and became involved. And due to their commitment, our attention was drawn to new and worthy programs that addressed complex issues…racism, poverty, prejudice, hunger, civil rights, and immigration abuses to name just a few.
I’ve learned from my experiences at the three parishes I’ve served during the past 22 years, that the history of any ministry is vitally important to a parish. People want their hard work celebrated, not as a testament to themselves, but as a testament to the glory of God. The diaconal ministries they had a part in creating – whether hands-on or financially or with prayer – became living, breathing examples of their baptismal promise to strive for justice for every human being.
Yet it is inevitable that as time passes, congregations change, new interests emerge, and we lose sight of some of the ministries that have a great impact on so many. So it is helpful to remember that the creation of any ministry…and I’ll use Angel Food as an example… really describes the heart of a faith community…for it reflects the vision and hard work and perseverance of not only the founding congregation but also honors the holy connection to all who are served.
So bear with me as I share a few of my memories of the early and dark days during another fearful pandemic. A moment when God took hold of the hearts of good people and a new ministry was created that cast light upon the suffering of many of God’s own beloved children.
In the beginning, over coffee, three people met and brainstormed about ways they might respond to the AIDS crisis. Kingston had been hit hard along with surrounding communities. Some of you may remember what an anxious time it was for so little was known about the spread of the disease…the early indication was that it seemed to predominantly afflict homosexual men. And there was a great deal of ignorance and fear and misinformation. AIDS became widely and mistakenly known as the “gay plague” which perpetuated the stigma with which gay men were already living. There were few local services available to support anyone diagnosed with AIDS…especially in Ulster County…so to find people outside of the medical community who would be willing to sit with or care for someone with AIDS was extremely difficult.
With the initial framework of a plan, the three contacted our rector at the time and discussed the possibility of creating a feeding ministry for people with AIDS. Their hope was that the program would be on-site…a free, hot meal delivery program that would operate out of our very old, very small kitchen 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year. It was an exciting but risky idea for there was no other program in the county like it….and they knew there would be some resistance in the community…which there was. But with the rector’s advocacy and strong vestry approval – as well as some financial support from the church – Angel Food East was created in 1992. And what continues to be so moving about those beginning days was that AFE was truly a grassroots effort which arose from a place of hope and compassion and love.
We were a quite small crew of volunteers those days. There was no need for a kitchen manager for we only had 5 or 6 people to serve each day. But it was a collaborative effort. For years I was a Wednesday cook, working alongside a wonderful group of friends…Ronnie the nurse planned appropriately nutritious menus…Bertha the self-proclaimed chef was our taste-tester…and Carl the retired teacher pleasingly arranged the food, always insisting that a sprinkling of fresh parsley was necessary before the containers were sealed and sent out for delivery. A large can was placed on the stove to collect donations so that food and supplies could be purchased. And each week the can was miraculously filled with checks and cash that would sustain the program for another period of time.
Small beginnings like this one offer unique blessings. We came to know well the men and women we served because, very often, we became both cook and delivery person on the same day…we knew that David preferred the crusts cut off his sandwiches…Melanie couldn’t have tomatoes…Gordon needed soft foods that didn’t require much chewing…Freddy was allergic to bananas…we were welcomed at the door with smiles and hugs…and along the way we educated ourselves about the disease and discovered ways we could offer support beyond food and friendship…with the help of some discretionary funds, we were able to purchase a mattress or two…cover the cost of an occasional birthday present…and pay for bus tickets for visits from friends or family.
Yet the most poignant moments occurred at the memorial services in which I was asked to participate…where the only people present were perhaps a partner, a few friends, occasionally a caregiver…these were funerals for people who had been cast out by their families and shunned by their own faith communities and who, even in death, were feared…and yet someone in attendance always insisted on pressing a few crumbled dollar bills into my hand “for the church” despite my protests. Their gratitude for this small ministry of love and acceptance gave us the strength to continue, despite the hateful phone calls or occasional visits by a local clergyperson who found ministry to our gay and lesbian siblings offensive to his beliefs.
And while the mission of Angel Food has evolved over the years to serve our neighbors with all forms of chronic illnesses, we will always be grateful for the good hearts that sustained and built up this feeding ministry that began so long ago…and for the good people who continue its mission today.
So what is next for us? What ministries await? If we mean what we say as we recommit ourselves to our baptismal vows today, then it perhaps it’s time to plant the seeds for a new ministry…another new beginning that may bring much needed love and justice and mercy to the deep hurts around us. There are monumental social and justice issues that need our attention. So let’s talk in the next few weeks and find those places where we can be of service even in this difficult time of separation due to coronavirus and political chaos. And in the meantime… let us continue to pray for God to accompany us on this journey…and ask that Jesus show us the way… and entreat the Holy Spirit to guide us in all our good works.