By Galen Holley
ABERDEEN – A couple of years ago, 25-year-old CJ Meaders was anything but quiet, playing his guitar in coffee houses and bars in Mississippi college towns. These days, he and his two house mates pass hours in quiet contemplation.
Meaders lives in an “intentional community” of three. Together with his house mates – Bailey Ward, 24, of West Point, and Watson Lamb, 22, of Greenwood – they comprise the Bishop's Mission Corps, a project of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi designed to help twenty-somethings become leaders in the church.
Men in black
In its present incarnation, the Corps – a nine-month commitment, this time with only three males – grew out of a 40-day co-ed retreat, the first of which was two years ago at Camp Bratton-Green in Canton. It was conceived by Bishop Duncan Gray III, with the help of the Rev. Tim Jones, formerly of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Corinth, as a way for young people to step back from contemporary culture. Although the Corps operates under the auspices of the Episcopal Church, it is open to all people of faith.
“We wanted to invite young people to explore a life of simplicity and to experience parts of the Christian tradition that they'd never encountered,” said Gray.
Taking that step back, according to Ward, was what initially drew him in. “I wanted to slow down from college life and evaluate things,” said Ward. He will be a senior at Ole Miss once he returns.
The young men have been living by the Rule of St. Benedict, a sixth-century monk who established several monastic communities. As Gray put it, the Rule offers “a balanced life.” It is based on the principles of “ora et labora” (“prayer and work”) and, since the Middle Ages, it has been the most widely used template for monastic life.
It's no surprise, therefore, that the outward appearance that living the Rule presents – simplicity, poverty, service, black smocks as daily dress – has led some Aberdeen citizens to think that the young men are monks. Meaders says he understands. He holds a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Ole Miss and is tuned into people's curiosity. With an air of bemusement he said, “We're not taking vows. This lifestyle is just different from most people's experience.”
Gray said that's part of the point. “The church, throughout history, has been at its best when it has been counter-cultural and when it has offered a different perspective on life,” he said.
The rhythm of life
That Benedictine lifestyle is set to the rhythm of communal prayer – four times per day. Meaders said that, though it took some getting used to, he's now embraced that rhythm. “I was eager to have more structure in my life – more than what people were holding me accountable to,” he said.
The first prayer is at 7:30. After that the men have a simple breakfast, then they set to work.
Over the past seven months that work has included helping throughout Monroe County. Gray said that part of the Corps' purpose is to plug into small town life in Mississippi and to understand the inner workings of community and civic life. The Rev. Jeff Reich, pastor of St. John's Episcopal Church in Aberdeen – home base for this Corps – has helped develop a plan for the three.
Reich introduced them to city officials and leaders and got them started helping at the Gilmore Early Learning Initiative (GELI program) in Aberdeen, which helps children, up to five years of age, prepare for school. The young men have done all manner of jobs for GELI, from moving tables to teaching lessons and providing entertainment. GELI assistant director, Drussel Bailey, in a video testimonial, said, “I can't thank the boys in the Mission Corps enough for what they've done. They have brought such grace and talent to the table.”
They've also helped out at the Monroe County Home, a group facility for mentally challenged adults in Aberdeen. Meaders' guitar playing is a big hit there.
In October they assisted at Camp Coast Care, a joint venture of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi and the Evangelical Lutheran Church. The camp is based in Long Beach and helps organize volunteers rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.
The Corps men spent a week laying sheet rock, mudding and hanging insulation. Michael Magargel, Director of Volunteer Recruitment, said of their work: “Through putting into practice their faith they exemplify what many Christians strive for.” He added: “It's inspiring to see such dedication and devotion in such young men.”
Their day also includes breaking a mental sweat. Each week one of them presents a spiritual reflection paper to his house mates. It might be based on a social justice topic or reflections on a theological text they've all been reading.
After a day of service and study the young men wind down with – what else – prayer. Lamb, chosen as “house master” because of his talent with money management – he has a degree in economics from Mississippi State University – and his skill in the kitchen, frequently prepares supper. “Our meals, in keeping with the Rule, are generally simple,” said Lamb.
Prayer and silence descend upon the house before bed time.
The men's plans after finishing in May are as diverse as their personalities. Lamb is getting married. He and his bride-to-be, Katie, will tie the knot May 3. Ward, a self-described “avid sports fan” plans to finish school, then join family and pursue one of his dual interests: either politics in Washington, D.C., or sports training and therapy in the college hub of Baton Rouge. Meaders, the free-spirit of the group – he also holds a bachelor's degree in art – hasn't decided. He might become a priest.
Whatever they choose, they're all certain that they'll assume some kind of leadership role in the Episcopal Church. As Gray put it, “The purpose of the Corps is to prepare young people for ministry, in whatever form it might take.”
In a sense, the Corps members have already started: they're helping to recruit the next Corps and are working toward getting a couple of universities to accept time spent in the Corps as credit hours.
They hope that the Corps that follows them will be larger – maybe with a few women. “That would change the dynamic,” said Lamb, through his guileless smile. “Men and women have a great deal to teach one another, especially in an experience like this.”
Gray said that, essentially, the Corps is “a new undertaking,” adding, “There is no precedent. We're inventing it as we go along.”
As Meaders put it, although they're still the same three guys who began together in May, somehow, they have changed. Lamb summed up their sentiments, saying “We've grown as people of faith and as servants. We're better men for having gone through this.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.