After several days of silence, Paul Stephens turned a corner in his mind. He was on an eight-day retreat in Louisiana, immersing himself in prayer, and one evening he walked a trail to a lake deep in the woods.
“It was what I call a ‘thin place,’” said Stephens, who assumed duties as rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in January. He was referring to a term used by some writers of spiritual literature to describe the moments when the temporal and the divine seem intimately close together. In the summer of 1992 some things were “bubbling up,” in Stephens’ spiritual life and, at the end of the trail, he had a moment of clarity.
“It was one of those moments when I knew, without a doubt, that I was a child of God and that I was being called to serve,” he said.
At the time Stephens was a successful attorney and father of two, but in the silence of his prayer the expectations, the demands for success he’d placed on himself, began falling away. It was there, beside the lake, where he said God really opened him up to becoming a priest.
The Rev. Paul Stephens, 53, looks like he might have come from Anglican central casting. Most, days, rather than the innocuous civilian attire popular among today’s clergy, Stephens wears his clerical collar. His manner of speaking, rendered in a smooth Southern drawl, evokes the measured – almost surgical – precision of a seasoned barrister.
He describes moving to Tupelo as a kind of homecoming. Stephens was born in Starkville and his family moved throughout the South before landing in Gulfport.
As a boy Stephens enjoyed sailing the coastal waters, but it was his involvement in the local United Methodist Church that he says most shaped the landscape of his youth.
“I remember, at a very young age, going to the Choctaw Indian reservation and doing mission work,” said Stephens. “That kind of work, community outreach, was just part of the fabric of everyday life for us.”
He started college at Millsaps in Jackson but came home early to nurse his mother who suffered from debilitating arthritis. He eventually earned an accounting degree from Mississippi State and took a job with an oil company in Texas, but he wasn’t satisfied.
“I couldn’t see myself with an adding machine in my hand for the rest of my life,” he said. After marriage he turned his sights back to Mississippi, this time to law school at Ole Miss.
Since he and his wife, Martha, had started dating in high school, Stephens had gradually fallen in love with the Episcopal Church, particularly its emphasis on social justice. He officially became an Episcopalian in 1980 and after graduating law school, took a job with a firm in Jackson.
Stephens and his wife immersed themselves in parish life at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Jackson and in the summer of 1992 they chaperoned a group of 14 kids doing mission work on the island of Roatan.
“I’d never seen conditions of such poverty, and it moved me tremendously,” said Stephens. The days were long but Stephens said the beauty of his tropical surroundings worked on his psyche.
For years he’d felt he was being called to something different, and the mission work intensified that feeling. Even his colleagues at the law firm sensed he was on a kind of journey. Rebecca Wiggs, who occupied the office next to him, remembers being impressed by Stephens’ courage.
“Stepping outside the carousel of what we do can be a dangerous thing for a lawyer,” said Wiggs. “Paul was clearly serious about this potential life-changing move and I could see him turning things over in his mind.” The insight he’d had by the lake in Louisiana was germinating, and after a couple of years began to bloom. In 1996 Stephens began the formal discernment process for becoming a priest.
“My wife told me, ‘Oh, just go out and buy the Corvette,’” said Stephens, laughing. In the summer of 1999 he left his law practice and having been approved as a candidate for the priesthood, picked up his wife and two children and hit the road. Along the way the family spent a month primitive camping in state parks. “Those were just wonderful days,” said Stephens. “Some of the best we’ve had together.” They eventually arrived in Sewanee, Tenn., and Stephens started seminary.
In 2002 a newly ordained Stephens went to work as chaplain at Trinity Episcopal Day School in Natchez. The Rev. Chip Davis, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, served as his mentor. Davis said Stephens’ experience in the working world stood him well in ministry.
“As a lawyer he represented the federal government in the savings and loan scandal, and he’d seen a great deal of life and its hardships, so he knew how to minister to people,” said Davis who is also a lawyer.
“Yeah, I’ve met payroll,” Stephens admitted. “Doing church these days is a real world experience. You can’t just open the doors and expect people to flood in like you used to.”
Davis also said that Stephens’ zeal for social justice was apparent.
“He raised awareness among students and families of broad issues in the community,” said Davis. “He instituted a day of racism awareness and reconciliation in 2003.”
In August of 2005 Stephens was headmaster at Coast Episcopal School in Long Beach when Hurricane Katrina struck.
Eighty-five percent of the school’s families, including the Stephens, lost their homes, but the campus had a couple of advantages, namely its own well and sewage treatment plant.
Stephens, along with his staff and an army of volunteers, many of them from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in addition to Episcopalians, converted the school into a temporary relief center. They provided medical care, food, shelter and other assistance to tens of thousands of evacuees.
“For me, it was based on the Old Testament concept of hospitality,” said Stephens. “It’s so easy for a school, or a community to turn inward and take care of its own, but God’s love challenges us to reach out to the stranger.”
The school reopened 30 days after the storm but the gym, which had become known as “The Coast Episcopal Hotel” continued to serve as a relief base. The joint effort of the Episcopalians and Lutherans continues today as Camp Coast Care.
By 2007, Stephens admits he was tired. He left the work to able hands and moved on to serve two short stints as interim rector in Laurel and Collierville, Tenn.
Tupelo veterinarian Stephen King was part of the search committee that helped bring Stephens to Tupelo. A church-wide survey revealed several criteria that All Saints’ parishioners wanted in their new rector, and Stephens met them all.
“He just projected this sense of calm,” said King. “He made us all very comfortable.” In particular, Stephens’ business acumen was a plus. Wiggs from Stephens’ former law firm had picked up on this as well.
“It’s just part of his innate nature,” she said. “The same things that made him a good lawyer make him a good priest. He thinks through all the implications and possible ways forward.”
Going forward from here, Stephens said, will mean bolstering All Saints’ work with community outreach, like its “Saints’ Brew” program that provides hot breakfast for area hungry. He’d also like to see the ministerial alliance rejuvenated.
Today he’s living in west Tupelo with his son, Nason, and after school they’ll be joined by Martha, their daughter Lucy and granddaughter Lilly.
Stephens said All Saints’ is a good fit, and after several turns in the road, he’s confident it’s where he’s supposed to be.
“All Saints’ is at place where it’s reaching out and doing good things,” he said. “You know, it wants to find those thin places.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal