By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
Not so long ago, Tony was on the other side of the serving line, managing a restaurant and watching meals go out to hungry patrons.
Monday morning, as the cold descended on downtown Tupelo, the 49-year-old was hunkered down within the warm confines of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, sipping coffee and explaining himself in the self-deprecating manner of a man who’s truly hit rock bottom. He blamed only himself for having recently lost his home and family, and for winding up sleeping in his car.
For the moment, however, Tony was happy, enjoying a breakfast of sausage and biscuits, as well as grits, fruit and juice. He smiled as volunteers happily served him.
All Saints’ started the daily breakfast called “Saints’ Brew” two years ago as part of an initiative to reach out to the local community, and to date they’ve served more than 25,000 meals.
“We’re serving a very real and tangible need in the community,” said the Rev. Paul Stephens, rector of All Saints.’
“Saints’ Brew” is one example of a concerted effort among the 90 Episcopal congregations throughout the state to make mission a top priority.
That priority is also being lived out at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Oxford, where parishioners are partnering with Lafayette County Schools, the Housing Authority and other area churches to tutor and feed at-risk children.
The church also has frequent pulpit swaps with a local Missionary Baptist church, and recently headed up a diocesan visit to Uganda, one of three African countries with whom the denomination is cultivating partnerships.
This universal emphasis on mission, being expressed throughout Northeast Mississippi, is a change of pace for a church not exactly known for its evangelistic outreach, but it will be the main theme as Episcopalians from all over the Magnolia State gather in Tupelo next weekend for their 183rd Annual Council.
“This is part and parcel of us moving beyond internal conflicts, and outward, into a mission defined by Jesus,” said the Rt. Rev. Duncan Gray III, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi.
“We know that we are called beyond ourselves.”
Fifty-eight percent of Mississippians belong to either a mainline, or an evangelical Protestant church, but only Roman Catholicism has a longer history in the Magnolia State than does the Episcopal Church.
Episcopalians, then still officially called Anglicans, settled in the state after the British obtained part of the territory from the French as part of the Treaty of Paris in 1763.
More than 240 years later, Episcopalians still constitute only about 1 percent of the state’s population, but their minority status hasn’t prevented them from making an impact.
That impact has most recently been felt in the church’s work after Hurricane Katrina.
Many of the denomination’s churches are located within the Coast Convocation, one of seven statewide, and in addition to rebuilding its own facilities, the diocese has partnered with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in an initiative, known as Camp Coast Care, to help anyone affected by the storm.
Katrina still looms large in the delegates’ collective imagination as they plan to gather in Tupelo for council. Katrina marked the second time that three of the diocese’s coastal churches had been destroyed by hurricane, and the diocese has paid a hefty sum to relocate them inland.
That’s one of the reasons why, as is the case with many other denominations, funds are scarce this year.
Parochial pledges are down between 5 and 8 percent, according to Gray, and the church’s investments, which accrue on a three-year, rolling average, have also taken a sizable hit due to the recession.
On the other hand, Gray said that good things can also come from tragedies.
“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” he said, noting that the rebuilding and belt-tightening has brought communicants closer.
Stephens of All Saints was headmaster at Coast Episcopal School when Katrina struck, and saw first hand how the church rallied to rebuild. That sense of outreach and solidarity, Stephens said, has carried throughout the past five years.
“The challenge of mission is really being lived out in a number of ways,” he said.
That sense of solidarity and community has also been important to Mississippi newcomer the Rev. Ann Benton Fraser, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Corinth.
A native of Louisiana, Fraser has attended councils in other states, but part of why she came to Mississippi six months ago was, as she put it, “to be in a diocese built on healthy relationships.”
Since the Rt. Rev. Eugene Robinson was ordained bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire in 2003, an internal debate about gay clergy has dominated headlines about the Episcopal Church.
Robinson was the first openly gay, non-celibate clergy to be ordained bishop of a major Christian denomination.
Though some Episcopal congregations nationwide have broken with the denomination, none in Mississippi have done so.
According to Fraser, issues like homosexual clergy are important, but they shouldn’t take away from all the other good things the church is doing.
“There’s a lot of sadness in the church about how disagreements have been handled,” said Fraser.
“But, we can be a model to the world in the way that we relate to one another. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re always of one mind, but in a world where we’re encouraged to pick a side and denounce the other, we can model listening, compassion and genuine dialogue, a different way of being.”
This will mark the first time the council has been held in Tupelo since 2001, and the folks at All Saints’ are excited to be hosting.
Wayne Averett, who works at the Renasant Center for Ideas, will be a first-time delegate. Each parish generally sends at least one clergy person, along with at least two lay delegates and two alternates.
Averett, 38, will be permitted to vote on some resolutions, most of them dealing with administrative matters within the church.
However, it’s the fellowship he’s most looking forward to.
“I’d like to talk with delegates about how they’ve dealt with certain things, and it will be a great opportunity, in light of challenging financial circumstances, to learn from one another,” said Averett.
The enthusiasm of All Saints’ parishioners is shared by city business owners, since more than 1,000 visitors are expected to descend upon Tupelo for the three-day event, which will be held at the BancorpSouth Arena.
The Hilton Garden Inn is nearly booked solid, as are a number of other hotels around town.
“We’ve known about this for nearly a year, and we’re very excited about the economic impact it will have,” said Linda Elliff, director of sales at the Tupelo Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.
Elliff and other staff recently returned from a conference in Birmingham, called “Rejuvenate,” that addressed marketing one’s city to faith-based organizations.
The council is a perfect example, said Elliff, of the type of business Tupelo is happy to welcome.
Wednesday, Bishop Gray was composing his opening remarks to be read at the Friday night opening session. His speech will recede the social on Friday and business sessions on Saturday.
Gray said he plans to highlight All Saints’ “Saints’ Brew,” giving it as an example of how the council, as it travels around the state to a different city each year, tries to pick up the unique character of the area and its people.
He also mentioned that they plan to move the concluding worship service, Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 9 a.m., so that Saints’ fan can make it back home in time for the big game.
Gray stressed that everyone is invited to worship with them, then, quoting a former Archbishop of Canterbury, added, “We’re an institution that exists for those beyond our membership.”
“Our best moments are when we come together for a family reunion,” said Gray. “We’ll have our disagreements, but we’ll all leave on good terms.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: 183rd Annual Council, Episcopal Dioese of Mississippi
When: Friday, Feb. 5 through Sunday Feb. 7.
Who: Appoximately 1,000 lay and clergy delegates, alternates and visitors from 90 congregations across the state.