Stories of the Diocese
Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria has always had a cross on top of its Zabriskie Chapel, but now that roof has a second symbol of commitment to Christ’s teachings – solar panels. In April, the church had 191 solar panels installed to provide the chapel and parish hall with electricity, thereby reducing the church’s carbon emissions. The solar panels are a visible and public sign of commitment to creation care that the congregation hopes will inspire others.
How much does it cost for a church to go solar? The Immanuel Church project cost about $197,000. The project began two years ago when the vestry commissioned a successful feasibility study and solicited bids. Then the vestry launched a campaign to raise money for the solar installation. Immanuel parishioners generously donated the funds needed to purchase and install the solar system.
The church contracted with Sustainable Energy Solutions, who completed the installation on time and on budget.
The 191 solar panels are expected to generate at least 65,000 kWh annually, which represents 65% of the electricity used by the church’s Zabriskie Chapel and parish hall.
Going solar will also save the church an estimated $6,500 every year in electricity bills. That’s based on today’s rates. Given that the price of electricity purchased from Dominion Energy has risen by more than 20% in the last 15 years, going solar will also help shield the church from future electricity price hikes.
Finally, it is possible that Immanuel will get additional revenue through the new Virginia SREC initiative. Solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs) are a performance-based incentive that let a solar system’s owner earn additional income from solar electricity generation. Virginia’s SREC initiative is still being finalized, but the Immanuel will be able to participate when the program becomes available.
The church can also receive credit from Dominion for any excess electricity its panels generate and send to the grid.
On April 24th, the congregation celebrated the completed installation and the panels were blessed by Bishop Susan Goff and the Rev. Randy Alexander, the church’s rector.
Fr. Alexander said, “In many ways this project seems like a win/win/win proposition: 1) reducing our carbon footprint while caring for Creation, 2) saving money to use towards our other ministries, and 3) witnessing to our faith to the community, which may also be tangible evangelism.”
Now that the panels are installed, the City of Alexandria will perform an inspection. Following inspection, Dominion Energy will install the net meter. Once the net meter is up and running, hopefully by the end of May, the solar panels will begin generating electricity.
But already traffic driving along Seminary Road can see Immanuel’s solar panels and hopefully feel inspired by this visible sign of caring for God’s creation as the people of Immanuel shout it from the rooftop.
The people of Charlottesville could never have prepared themselves for the violence that descended upon their city with the gathering of the Unite the Right Rally in the summer of 2017. In the space of a few hours, one woman was killed, dozens of peaceful protesters were injured and the residents of the city were left emotionally devastated by the horror visited upon their hometown.
The Rev. Patricia Jones Turner, who was raised at Trinity Episcopal Church, Charlottesville, wanted to help the city heal. She decided to leverage her skills as a social worker to create a safe space for people to share their experiences and learn how to have courageous conversations. Rev. Jones Turner, who is an expert in trauma-informed care, applied for a grant through the Charlottesville Area Community Fund and received funding to launch the White Feather Historical and Educational Project. The name White Feather is borrowed from a Native American tradition, in which the feather is a symbol of trust, strength and freedom.
The Project, hosted by Trinity Church, aims to enhance the perspectives of people of color by openly discussing local history and its racist implications. It also seeks to enlighten those who are unaware of past historical oppressions that contribute to the city’s present reality. The Project offers training designed to help participants understand societal biases, recognize systemic oppression and overcome distrust and avoidance of hard topics.
To date, more than 250 people have participated in the discussion groups and workshops, and 60 people have participated in the anti-oppression trainings. People from the congregation and beyond say they have learned much about the history of racism and oppression in Charlottesville, from the segregated schools to the use of slave labor to construct UVA.
The Rev. Ayuko White is a Baptist minister, former Trinity parishioner and a current member of the White Feather Leadership Team. “What I appreciate most about the White Feather Project” says Rev. White, “is that it is led by a BIPOC, the Rev. Patricia Jones Turner…. She has established a culture of respect and deep listening in the White Feather sessions. This allows BIPOC to share more freely of their experiences of pain and suffering while also receiving, with compassion and grace, white participants who have the courage and commitment to sit with difficult truths.”
“Everyone who attends our sessions has a right to own their “truth,” says Rev. Jones Turner. “None of us has the right to attack or negate anyone’s truth….Harmful beliefs can be altered as individuals are exposed to rigorous honesty and truth through in-depth conversation, which include historical and educational facts.”
The White Feather Project also produces an impressive podcast series that brings history to life through storytelling by local residents who lived through racial and cultural oppression before and during the days of segregation in Charlottesville.
Helen Plaisance, another Trinity parishioner and member of Leadership Team of White Feather, says prior to participating in the Project, her knowledge of racism and oppression in the U.S. was virtually non-existent. “It wasn’t until I moved to Charlottesville 40 years ago that I became aware that people who lived here had experienced it, and it wasn’t until I participated in the White Feather sessions that I fully understood that it was still part of the daily experience of my brothers and sisters here. I’ve come to understand that desegregating the schools did nothing to affect equal treatment or opportunities in banking, in business, in health care, or in our government.”
“When you are born white,” Helen adds, “you have no more idea of the privilege that accrues to you …than you have of the suffering that white privilege infuses in… those who don’t have it. The White Feather History and Education Project has opened my eyes in a way that no prior experience has to the failings of the American democracy, and the importance of revisiting the pillars of those systems to create a society that truly offers liberty and justice to all.”
Bernadette Whitsett-Hammond, a member of Ebenezer Baptist Church and the White Feather Leadership Team, says, “Even though individuals do not have the same life experiences within a society fraught with systemic racial inequities, there is much to learn from one another if one is willing. In acquiring such knowledge, it is dependent upon each individual to do better whenever the opportunity presents itself.”
Local school administrators estimate that more than half of the children in Shenandoah County Schools are being parented by grandparents. Sheila Helsley is one of them. In the early 2000s, while working full time, she suddenly found herself caring full time for her 2-year-old granddaughter. She later took on the care of her 11-month-old grandson. Their mother, Sheila’s daughter, suffered from drug addiction and was not able to provide safe care for the children, so Sheila was ultimately granted custody. Knowing that there were so many grandparents facing similar challenges, Sheila longed to create a support network to help other grandparents facing the multifaceted challenges – financial, legal, educational, emotional, and more -- of raising grandchildren in their golden years.
In 2018, Shelia founded Grandparents as Parents (GAP) at Emmanuel, Woodstock, where she is a parishioner. The incredible need in the community and the eager response among grandparents has made quickly GAP one of the Church’s largest ministries.
The support group meets monthly at the Church and includes dinner and childcare. The group typically has between 25 and 50 attendees each month. Group members include grandparents who have one, two, or even as many as five grandchildren they’re raising. Each family has their own story of how they came to be parenting once again, whether due to issues related to drug abuse, neglect, abandonment or because a family member died, leaving behind children who needed a home.
After dinner, the children branch off to play and the adults settle in to hear the month’s speaker. There’s also time for informal conversation in which the participants share tips, resources and other useful information. It’s a warm, welcoming, safe environment for people to bond with others who are walking the same road, sharing similar challenges.
The congregation of Beckford Parish (Emmanuel, Woodstock and St. Andrew’s Mount Jackson) has embraced this ministry. Sheila can make a request for a specific need and she says parishioners are always quick and eager to help. Parishioners donate money, food, diapers, gifts cards for clothing, school supplies, household furnishings and more. They look forward each year to providing special treats for Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
GAP is a great example of what a church can do when they seek first to understand the real needs of the community in which they live and then respond to the call to fill that “gap.”
By the Rev. Anne West
Some stories don’t really have a beginning or a plan, they are simply God inspired. Two faithful women from Grace Church in Standardsville, Jean Byerly and Betty Moreland, made an offer to some of the neighborhood children to take them bike riding on Thursdays after school. Eventually they added Monday so that they could keep each riding group to 4 kids and 2 adults. The group became known as FAB (Ford Avenue Bikers.) They rode through town, at the school playground, and down the lane to Harbor, where they could pick and eat delicious berries right off the vine.
When the weather was too chilly to ride, they took hikes on dirt roads including a mountain ridgetop, always taking time to observe and appreciate the beauty of the area and to look at any interesting plants and wildlife. The kids’ favorite place to hike was in Dogwood Valley where they could play along the South River, skip stones in the water, and enjoy racing sticks under the bridge.
They met new people on some of their hikes. On one excursion, a girl from 4H showed them the horses she cares for. The kids got to groom the horses and watch one of them perform tricks. Another day, they were invited into a beautiful chalet and got to see spectacular views. The owner is a nurse who volunteers at the free clinic in Greene. She enjoyed meeting the kids and showing them her lovely home.
It was very fulfilling to see the kids improve in fitness and stamina. They learned to deal with fear of unknown places, how to take turns riding in front and in back, how to care for their bikes, and how to be safe while biking.
Grace Church has become a second home for these kids. They know they are loved and supported by Grace. And out of a simple gesture from two wonderful parishioners, we now have a weekly Sunday school with eight to 10 children and we get the opportunity to inspire these children in the ways of Jesus and the way of LOVE.
St. Andrew’s Garden of Hope (Arlington) has been awarded the 2021 Golden Radish Award by the Friends of Urban Agriculture. The annual award celebrates those who work to support urban agriculture and social-safety-net efforts in the community. The Garden of Hope is a Plot Against Hunger garden that was established 13 years ago by St. Andrew’s parishioner Priscilla Carey, who was chief of staff at USDA and started the agency’s Plot garden on the Mall.
Every year, talented volunteers at St. Andrew’s cultivate and donate at least a thousand pounds of produce, sometimes more than 2,000 pounds. The garden expanded a few years ago to include an orchard of fruit trees. In 2021, the garden and orchard, and its volunteers grew more 3,694 pounds of fruits and vegetables, all for area food pantries. This abundant harvest equates to a monetary value of $6,280.
Today, their corps of volunteers extends beyond parishioners to include several people from the community. The Garden of Hope has partnerships with Marymount University’s Food for Thought student group, several other churches, and Arlington Junior League. In addition, they are thankful for the advice and assistance the garden has received over the years from Puwen Lee, Becky Halbe, and Kirsten Conrad.
“Their gardening expertise, as well as their leadership, enabled volunteers of all experience levels and ages to participate in this important ministry,” said the Rev. Dorota Wright-Pruski, rector of St. Andrew’s. “We are also grateful to Dr. Susan Agolini for coordinating Marymount University student volunteers and to Becky Halbe for helping to distribute the produce through Rock Spring Congregational United Church of Christ.”
By Joseph Reynolds
This year, the people of St. Francis, Great Falls, raised funds to repair a well that is now pumping water to serve a community in the Diocese of Ezo, South Sudan. Over the 23 years of the congregation’s covenantal relationship with the Diocese of Ezo, St. Francis has also provided support for the schools, purchased seeds for planting, and supplied money for medical supplies.
The need is enormous. At last report, there are 18,000 Christians in the Diocese of Ezo and many refugees from other regions in need of help.
Forged in 1998, the covenant between St. Francis and the Diocese of Ezo embodies mutual promises that bind the two very different Christian communities. One promise states, “St. Francis covenants to pray for, learn about, and assist the work of the Church in the Ezo Diocese to carry out God’s will, reconcile differences, educate its people, improve their health, and lift them out of poverty.
While the strength of the commitments has ebbed and flowed over the years, the relationship has held steady in the face of devastating hardships endured by the people of Ezo. The Diocese is located in one of the poorest areas of South Sudan in the southwest corner of the country and has suffered civil wars, terrorist raids, famine, fires, and tribal warfare.
The parishioners of St. Francis have followed the trials of Ezo, offering support through prayer, communications, and fundraising. During the brief, relatively peaceful times, St. Francis was able to send parishioners to visit South Sudan, with trips in 2008 and 2013. In 2018, the Ezo bishop visited Virginia as a guest of St. Francis.
Now under the leadership of a new bishop, the Rt. Rev. Isaac Ephraim Bangisa, the Diocese has developed an ambitious strategic plan to rebuild services and provide for the physical and spiritual needs of the people. The plan includes a host of projects, such as construction, strengthening and expanding education programs, extensive training, peace building, and reconciliation.
St. Francis would gladly welcome and join forces with any outreach program in the Diocese of Virginia that sees room to take a small piece of the challenge. Let us know, and we will help facilitate the desired focus.
The heart of Christianity is love of Christ and a deep sense of community. Community can be both near and far, and St. Francis and Ezo are bound together by the belief in their covenantal promises and their faith in God’s boundless grace and mercy.
Joseph Reynolds is a parishioner of St. Francis, Great Falls and a member of the Ezo Committee that works to help St. Francis live out its covenantal promises.
It was a curious sight to joggers and dog-walkers to see a priest walking along Roosevelt Island’s wooded trails, strumming a guitar, with dozens of followers strolling behind him. The walking congregation paused periodically to recite poems and sing fitting hymns like “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “Down to the River to Pray.” (watch) The occasional jet noise from nearby Reagan National Airport didn’t dampen spirits but rather the contrast seemed to make the Sunday morning worship more poignant.
Wilderness Church is a joint initiative of Grace Church, Alexandria and St. Mary’s, Arlington. The twice-monthly service offers parishioners a change of pace – literally. The service seeks to complement the churches' traditional worship and to lower the threshold of entry for those intimidated by traditional church. A unique piece is the play of children, who romp and climb on old logs: their playfulness and curiosity about the natural world around them is an integral part of the worship.
By the Rev. Catherine Hicks
St. Peter’s, Port Royal, has been described as “a little church on the river with a big heart.” And because of its big heart, all 350 students at the Victoria Elementary School in Jamaica, will start the school year with a bookbag full with school supplies. The backpacks were presented by a mission team of seven people from St. Peter’s who made the journey in August to meet the students in person.
Back in 2019, church member Andrea Pogue, who is from Jamaica and who attended the Victoria School herself, came to the Vestry and explained that, in Jamaica, the custom is that those who can do so will return to their homeland to give back to the people and the institutions who have shaped who they have become. This way of giving thanks offers others a hope of success in their own lives.
Andrea’s dream was to give back to her elementary school. The Vestry agreed wholeheartedly to take on a project to help the school.
As the Covid rates went down this past spring, we made the decision to move forward with the project, which we had put on hold during 2020. In short order, the church members raised $3,000 and purchased enough school supplies and book bags for the 350 students. Andrea and Ken Pogue, Cookie Davis and Johnny Davis, Laura Carey, Jan Saylor, and Rector Catherine Hicks decided to make the journey to bring greetings from St. Peter’s in person, and to hand out the bookbags to the students.
At the end of June, church members packed all the school supplies and shipped them to Jamaica in advance of their arrival. We arrived in Jamaica on August 19. The next, day we made the trip out to the school, perched on the side of a mountain in the parish of St. Catherine. The yellow school buildings sit along a narrow street in a small village. In a sweltering classroom, we unpacked the crates, then filled the bookbags with the supplies.
The next morning, under an overcast sky and in the stifling humidity that indicated coming rain, parents and young children, all in masks, gathered in droves, lining up along the covered walkway that sheltered the open-walled classrooms for grades 1-3, adjacent to the classroom building for grades 4-6.
Andrea Pogue spoke to the assembled children and their parents and told them about growing up nearby, about walking to school every day from the mountain near the village, about the importance of education, about how God has been with her on her journey, and about how God is with us all. Knowing that God is with us helps us through the difficult times in our lives.
The families could relate to what Andrea was saying to them, for many of them live with the ongoing challenges of poverty. Andrea’s words brought encouragement and inspiration to them. She also encouraged everyone to find and to be a part of a faith community.
The Rev. Catherine Hicks brought greetings on behalf of everyone at St. Peter’s and the promise of our ongoing prayers for the students, their families and school’s 14 dedicated staff members.
And then for the next two hours, we handed out the book bags and school supplies. As Cookie Davis told the congregation on our return, “The happy faces of the students matched ours as we helped them to choose their bookbags.”
All of the bookbags were distributed and, with the money we had left over, the principal plans to buy a new projector for the school. The assistant principal told us that, although our partially filled book bags seemed like only small gifts to us, in the face of all the needs these students have, the bags provide tremendous hope and encouragement.
For the past year, St. Peter’s congregation has also joined Andrea’s family and others in donating money for and purchasing dinners put on by Andrea’s family to raise money to restore the family house on the mountaintop near the school where two of Andrea’s brothers still live. Part of our mission was to visit this house, not quite finished, but well on the way to being completed. St. Peter’s people, members of Andrea’s family, gathered on the mountaintop at the family home site to celebrate the progress. As Jan said on our return, “In many ways, St. Peter’s has become a part of the family as well, as we’ve taken part in building the house.”
Our trip to Jamaica occurred just ahead of the latest Covid surge. We could not have guessed as we were planning the trip that the day after the distribution, the people of Jamaica would go into a three-day lockdown declared throughout the country to slow the spread of Covid. We were thankful that Covid did not sabotage our plans to go to Jamaica, to bring the good news of God’s love, to celebrate and to make connections that we hope will endure and lead to more work with and on behalf of the Jamaican people.
This mission has also been good news for St. Peter’s. As Cookie Davis reminded the congregation, “Any of us can be a missionary!” and everyone at St. Peter’s got to be a missionary in some form or fashion in making this mission a reality. We were reminded, as Cookie quoted, that “We are the ones God chooses and sends into places of need, to do God’s work of healing, liberating, and restoring—and our weakness (or in our case our small size) is no excuse! God says to us what God says to Moses, ‘I will be with you!’ We need not be afraid. It is always God’s work, not ours.”
Watching the news of Afghan families desperately seeking escape from the Taliban has been heartbreaking for the worldwide church. Feeling called to act, the Episcopal Church Women of Varina Church went in search of ways to help families with resettlement. Their prayers were answered when one member saw a local newspaper article detailing opportunities to help Afghan refugees coming to Virginia. The ECW emailed the congregation asking for help with donations of food, toiletries, toys, and travel kits. Parishioners responded quickly and enthusiastically, dropping off items at church and at the collection site in town. The Rev. Becky McDaniel blessed the collected donations at a Sunday service. The congregation plans to continue collections and look for additional ways to help. If you have suggestions for other types of support, let us know! And if you’re looking for ways to join the effort, you can sign up with Episcopal Migration Ministries to assist with airport pick-up, meal assistance, apartment set-up, transportation, sponsorship, tutoring in English as a Second Language, and, of course, through monetary support. Follow the efforts and get latest updates using #neighborswelcome.
Seven years ago, the people of St. Paul’s on-the-Hill, Winchester began exploring ways to use the church’s 5-acre property to serve the community. After much study and prayer, the congregation ultimately decided to offer its land for construction of an affordable senior housing development – something sorely lacking in the region. It would provide homes for low-income seniors who had few other living options.
This month, that vision came into closer view. To make space for the 63-unit development, the church building was razed on July 20. A few days later, Assisting Bishop Porter Taylor joined the congregation to deconsecrate the church and celebrate the groundbreaking for the senior housing development.
Rector Susan MacDonald acknowledged that it was a bittersweet moment to watch the razing of the church that had been the congregation’s home since 1967. So many memories for so many people: weddings, baptisms, worship services, annual parish picnics. But, she added, the congregation was comforted by the knowledge that they had “sacrificed their building so others might live.”
With guidance from Virginia Diocesan Homes, St. Paul’s chose to engage Wesley Housing Corporation, a non-profit affordable housing developer. St. Paul’s has leased their land to Wesley for 99 years at a rate of approximately $10,000 per year. Wesley is financing the $16 million construction of Senseny Place through tax credits and partnerships with lenders and government agencies.
Wesley anticipates that Senseny Place’s 63 rental units will be ready for occupancy by December 2022. These apartments will provide safe, comfortable homes for low-income seniors to live in community.
And where will the people of St. Paul’s go? The congregation remains a thriving community of faith, worshipping in rented hotel space for the time being. They’re not actively looking for a new home until the COVID situation stabilizes. “We are waiting to see where God calls us next,” said Susan.
At the groundbreaking, Bishop Taylor remarked that the church is not a building but a Jesus Movement. “The Jesus Movement is to recognize the dignity of all human beings,” he said. “And that recognition of dignity means that everyone deserves a safe, clean place to live. Everyone.”
‘An Amazing Gift for Hospitality’
Why start small when you can dream big? The people of Emmanuel Greenwood debuted their first Books and Brunch in the Blue Ridge with a big opening act. With his newest book “Come In, Come In!” hot off the press, bestselling author and Episcopal formation leader Roger Hutchison headlined the event with a live reading and book signing. The gathering welcomed 100 people from the community to enjoy a book sale, a non-traditional brunch and outdoor fun for kids. The book sale was hosted by Bluebird Bookstop, a mobile bookstore housed in a charming vintage camper. The event also featured books by several homegrown authors and illustrators of Emmanuel Church including Helen Williamson, Catriona Erler, Kat Connell and Linda Marchman.
There was just one snafu. Before brunch could be served, the main food truck’s exhaust fan hit a low branch and they couldn't cook. Suddenly "brunch" consisted of cake and coffee. Thankfully, Emmanuel parishioners jumped into action making a quick grocery store run, grilling a bunch of hot dogs, and serving it up with chips and fixins. It was a morning-of hot dog miracle!
Their hard work was worth the while to see so many children and families from the community smiling and playing on the church lawn. As Roger Hutchison observed to Rector John Thomas, “You all have an amazing gift for hospitality.”
Since the Lazarus Food Pantry at Christ Church, Alexandria, first opened, it has evolved in many ways to meet the changing needs of the church’s neighbors. In early March of 2020, it became clear that their usual pantry, where guests came inside and self-selected the items they needed, was no longer viable. Because of safety concerns for guests and volunteers, they made the difficult decision to close their doors and refer guests instead to other food pantries in the community, not knowing when they would reopen.
Eventually the Lazarus Emergency Financial Ministry, which remained open throughout the pandemic, noticed more and more clients experiencing food insecurity. Many guests had large families to feed and what they were able to get from other pantries simply was not enough to last them the week. Other guests could not make it to food pantries or drive-up food giveaways at all, because either they had no transportation or their family circumstances did not allow them to retrieve groceries.
The Lazarus Food Pantry set out to evolve once more to fill this gap. They began making contact-free deliveries of groceries and gift cards on May 1, 2020. Since that time, volunteers have made more than 733 deliveries, serving 2,377 individuals. They have spent over $25,000 on grocery gift cards, food, and household essentials like dish soap and toilet paper.
The guests being served by the Lazarus Food Pantry today are, for the most part, not the same people they saw each week before the pandemic. Many are new to Lazarus and have never needed assistance before. While fresh produce, meat and dairy products remain sought-after requests, household items and cleaning supplies are in high demand as well, and parents are requesting snacks and easy lunches for their kids who are doing school from home. The Lazarus Food Pantry continues to adjust their offerings to better serve their changing population and its varying needs.
By Shawn Weneta
May 14, 2021
"This La Mancha – what is it like?" asks the Duke in Man of La Mancha. An empty place, a desert, a wasteland, replies the prisoner and Cervantes. Such men "must come to terms with life as it is," the Duke suggests.
“I have seen life as it is,” Cervantes replies. “Who knows where madness lies? …maddest of all [is] to see life as it is and not as it should be."
As a Christian who recently reaffirmed my baptismal vows, I, likewise, reject the suggestion to come to terms with life as it is. You see, for over 16 years, I witnessed life as it is in my own La Mancha, as inmate #1028210 in five of Virginia's more than thirty prisons.
The chaos of prison is an extraordinary challenge of endurance. Often times it is a place of pain, misery, hunger, and cruelty beyond belief – much like La Mancha. Instantly it becomes very easy to see life as it is, and languish despairing as you mark time.
As a child growing up in the Diocese, I never looked at "life as it is." Baptized at The Falls Church, and a member of Holy Comforter, Vienna, since the age of four, I had the tremendous privilege to see much of life as it should be. Summers were highlighted by twelve days at Shrine Mont as a St. George's Camper. At St. G's, we celebrated Christmas in July, read stories about the selfless Barrington Bunny, and shouted our prayers as one full voice from the cliffs of North Mountain. More importantly, we learned about the value of community and of the many members of the one Body of Christ that Paul spoke of in 1 Corinthians 12.
More opportunities to live out this scripture and my promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons came in mission trips to Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, and Rally on the Mount. The rest of the year it was PYM, EYC, St. G's Christmas Reunions and acolytes. Life as it should be!
Regrettably, due to my own failings and weaknesses I was unable to appreciate the tremendous blessings I had experienced. Adulthood soon presented challenges that I was wholly unprepared for. I believed I had countless shortcomings that I was so ashamed of and too embarrassed to admit to myself much less others. I sought to fill those voids with a myriad of ugly and destructive habits and addictions that were not only selfish and illegal, but often came at the expense of others, and ultimately earned me a thirty-year prison sentence for embezzlement. In the process, I betrayed the trust of family, friends, employers, and the people who sought to help me. I had abandoned my faith and all that I wished I stood for. My life and relationship with Christ had become a tangled spool of thread that needed to be untangled.
As I began serving my prison time, I prayed for forgiveness. I yearned for reconciliation. But most of all, I hoped for a restoration of how I had seen "life as it should be" as a kid learning foundational lessons of life and faith at Holy Comforter, Shrine Mont, and Pine Ridge.
But where would I find that in prison? How could I bring myself to a place where I can ask for those things? How would I confront my own arrogance, manipulation, and the profound sense of sorrow and regret I was living with? How do I confess and atone for what I have done? Where should I start?
For me, I discovered answers to these questions in restorative justice and a rediscovery of faith. Both provide a framework for confession (acceptance of responsibility), repentance (accountability and rehabilitation), atonement (restitution), and forgiveness (reconciliation).
While criminal law holds that it is enough that an “offender” serves their sentence to completion, restorative justice insists that the wrongdoer take responsibility for their actions and be accountable by doing what they can to make things right with the victim of their crimes as well as with the community. This may be by direct action, symbolic action, or both
In light of this, I and Dustin Turner, another person behind bars with me, believed that we could help others in prison learn similar lessons by creating a restorative justice program tailored to the prison environment. We reached out to authors and practitioners and, after years of research and study, we published 'Mending Fences,' a six-month victim-oriented rehabilitation program for people in prison. It is now reaching people behind bars in multiple states.
Witnessing people who are incarcerated learn these same lessons of responsibility, accountability, restitution, forgiveness, and reconciliation has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. More importantly, though, I have been blessed to see the light of hope reignited in the eyes of many whom before were seemingly hopeless. Life as it should be!
As I worked to live into my Baptism, I began to see another need amongst the prison population. With two others, we explored a First Aid/CPR certification program through the American Red Cross. We reached out to Virginians for Judicial Reform for assistance in putting the program together. Seven men at the prison are now Red Cross Instructors. They offer training and certification to the general population as well as to reentry program participants who are nearing release.
One of the guides on my own journey of restoration and rediscovery of faith was The Rev. Canon Fletcher Lowe. I came to know him through his monthly prison visits with me and a fellow Episcopalian and Shrine Mont Camps alumnus who is serving an extended prison sentence. I still learn from Fr. Fletcher every time we speak.
Perhaps the most valuable lessons I have learned from him are the significance of my baptismal vows to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving my neighbor as myself, striving for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being; as well as the Dismissal at the end of the Eucharistic liturgy. The common theme in these dismissals is the word "Go." The Celebrant is dispatching us on a mission to fulfill our baptismal vows, just as Jesus dispatched his disciples into the world to deliver a message of hope and God's love.
So, too, are we deployed, in every Eucharist, to fulfil the mission of our Baptismal Covenant. The Gospel tells us that Jesus sought out and delivered God's eternal gift of hope to all, without condition. He broke bread with sinners, prostitutes, and yes, criminals, too. In fact, Jesus’s final act in this life was to bestow the gift of hope upon a condemned criminal who hung on a cross beside him.
As you reflect and plan for your post-pandemic mission of faith, let me encourage you to consider stepping out of what may be your comfort zone by going to one of the La Manchas' scattered throughout Virginia. Carry the light of hope in the message of Jesus Christ to the empty places, the deserts, and the wastelands that grow men and women of illusion.
As you "Go," you may be asking some of the same questions I asked at the start of my journey. Do I have the courage to step into a jail or prison? How do I do it? What am I able to contribute to someone in prison? Where do I begin?
- GraceInside provides chaplain services to the 40,000+ people in Virginia’s state prisons. These chaplains are dedicated servants who rely on community volunteers to meet the increasingly diverse faith needs of the prison population. Volunteers are welcome and always needed.
- The Good News Jail Ministry works similarly to GraceInside serving the local, county, and regional jails in Virginia.
- Kairos Ministries has been delivering the gift of the Gospel (and homemade cookies) to people incarcerated in Virginia and across the country for decades.
- Prison Fellowship International works in prisons and communities around the world to bring restorative justice initiatives and programming to all who are impacted by crime and wrongdoing.
- Consider an organization like The Virginia Center for Restorative Justice that trains volunteers to facilitate in-prison restorative justice programs.
- The Humanization Project tells the stories of people behind bars in order to advocate for criminal justice and prison reform legislation in the Virginia General Assembly.
- Virginians for Judicial Reform not only aids offenders in reentry and civic reintegration efforts, but Director Lisa Spees works tirelessly on several wrongful conviction cases in Virginia and nationwide.
Men and women in prison are in need of all sorts of basic life skills and knowledge. Most don't know how credit works or how to build it. Many more don't know how to open a bank account, perform in a job interview, build a résumé, write a business plan, or what an IRA, 401k, or FSA is. Even simple mentorship, guidance, and friendship is invaluable as they transition back into the neighborhoods of the Commonwealth, and seek to contribute in their role as a member of the Body of Christ. Your engagement and acknowledgement of their humanity is the priceless gift of hope. Life as it should be!
In these days of intolerance, global pandemic, and the 24-hour news cycle, it may seem easy to come to terms with life as it is. After all, we only need to turn on the television or scroll through our Twitter feeds to witness the ever-present vitriol, partisanship, violence and unbridled hatred. Even from inside prison walls the outside world oftentimes appears to have become a similarly treacherous and empty place; a wasteland much like La Mancha.
My life in prison wasn’t always an extraordinary challenge of endurance. The message of hope and the redemptive power of God's love delivered by Fr. Fletcher and the friends and loved ones that sustained me on my journey, alchemized my trauma and pain, and empowered me to once again see life as it should be, both inside prison walls and out, just as I did when I was a Shrine Mont camper, an acolyte, and a missionary.
I encourage you to consider delivering the same blessing of restoration, empowerment, redemption, and hope in Christ's love that I am so blessed to have received, to the 40,000+ men and women in Virginia's prisons. Seek treasure where there is seemingly only trash and restore one's dignity, hope, and faith in humanity through Jesus Christ. Life as it should be!
Shawn Weneta received a Pardon from Governor Northam on April 23, 2020 for his work to aid others behind bars as well as the communities of The Commonwealth. He is the Legislative Liaison for The Humanization Project where he has helped to advance significant justice reform legislation in the Virginia General Assembly, recently authoring and passing a bipartisan bill to allow for safe reporting of opioid overdoses. He is the owner of Frontline Training Associates, providing Red Cross health and safety training and certification to businesses and individuals. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
May 14, 2021
Too often this past year, we’ve heard, “It’s not a good time to try this.” And yet, the people of St. James the Less in Ashland found the timing was just right to raise funds to install an organ they have needed for decades.
Their original pipe organ, installed in the 1960s, needed significant work. The bid for installing a new organ came in the week the churches shut down with the pandemic. At first, the vestry thought the capital campaign planned for the organ and other projects must be put on hold.
But after finding the new normal of streaming services online, two things happened. People found they thoroughly enjoyed watching the old organ being played. Most people had heard, but never seen the organ played before. Many did not realize what a specialized skill set this was. “They have heard it for decades, but the streamed video brought it to light,” said Rector Rock Higgins. “In our prerecorded services, we actually have a camera on the organist. People loved that.”
Just as the bid for the new organ was about to expire (and likely to increase substantially), the Vestry stepped out on faith. The Senior Warden and Rector made a video that premiered on their usual steaming platforms, and a letter was sent to the congregation. Within five weeks, they had raised or had pledges for all the needed funds, and actually raised 140% of the remainder of the costs. Combined with funds the church had been gathering for decades from memorial gifts, they were able to purchase the new organ. The original pipes were preserved and the new console added digital capabilities.
The congregation is excited to soon be able to see and hear it in person when services resume inside. Thankfully, it has been loud enough to hear with the doors open for their outdoor services until then.
The new organ is part of a larger capital campaign that includes repaving the parking lots and a pavilion for outdoor worship, their Bluegrass & Brunswick Stew Festival, and various outdoor events. Progress continues on these projects.
In a dark time, God shined light on a thing of beauty and people of St. James the Less responded in word and deed with a resounding, “Thanks be to God.”
Church Schools Celebrate 100 Years +
April 16, 2021
The year was 1920 and the country was reeling from the aftershock of World War I. Americans felt an urgent need to restore humanity and renew their commitment to social causes. For the Diocese of Virginia, much of that energy was channeled into building religious schools that would provide a good education in a Christian environment where young people could grow into servant leaders for their communities.
“Back then, there weren’t a lot of schools of any kind,” says David Charlton, President of the Church Schools. Urban schools were overcrowded and rural areas had only a few schools spanning vast distances.
The Church Schools in the Diocese of Virginia was incorporated on June 8, 1920 with three goals in mind: to purchase existing schools that needed financial support, to build new schools to serve more students, and to provide scholarships for the growing number of orphaned children.
In its founding year, Church Schools purchased three underfunded schools – St. Anne’s School in Charlottesville and the renamed St. Catherine’s School and St. Christopher’s School in Richmond. In the same year, the group turned its attention to the underserved Tidewater region, where they established St. Margaret’s School for girls in Tappahannock and Christchurch School for boys in Middlesex County near the Town of Urbanna. Both schools began operations in September of 1921.
St. Margaret’s opened in 1921 in a room above a Tappahannock pharmacy. There were 3 boys and 13 girls in grades K-11.
The following year, the students moved to the “Wright property,” a house purchased by the Church Schools. The tuition for the 1922 session was $500. By 1931, St. Margaret’s was home to 70 boarders and 20 days students. Since 1940, the school has purchased adjacent properties and built new buildings to foster steady growth. Today, St. Margaret’s is home to 110 students in who hail from across the US and 8 other countries. The school serves girls in grades 8-12, with about 70% boarding and 30% day students.
St. Margaret’s 12th Head of School, Cathy Sgroi, began at the school as a math teacher and has worked at St. Margaret’s for 45 years. “The one thing that has not changed
about St. Margaret's School is its mission,” says Sgroi. “St. Margaret's School provides a learning environment where girls know they belong, are challenged and supported to believe in themselves, and prepared to become their best. We inspire girls to reach their full potential and make a better world. I believe our mission is more relevant than ever because young women face more challenges than ever.”
Thirty miles down the road from St. Margaret’s, Christchurch School opened in a hastily converted farmhouse on the 108-acre Eastman Farm near Urbanna. Ten students, all boys, came primarily from cities and towns
across Virginia. Within the first six months, the farmhouse was enlarged, remodeled and fitted with modern improvements. Today, Christchurch serves families from 15 different states and 14 different countries.
"The enduring spirit of Christchurch is that when you arrive you are welcomed, you belong, and you are loved,” says the current Head of School Jeb Byers who has served the school for over thirty years. “There are no rites of passage. We are one. From day one. We meet you where you are and we go as far as we can imagine. Together. Relationships make meaning: this is our core belief."
By 1944, population growth in Northern Virginia had brought so many students to Alexandria’s St. Agnes’ School, founded in 1924, that the facilities were bursting at the seams. In desperate need of space – and a supporter who could fund it – the headmistress and chairwoman of St. Agnes’ asked to join the Church Schools.
At the same time that the Church Schools brought St. Agnes into the fold, the leaders were also working on plans to establish a boys’ school in Alexandria. This would allow St. Agnes’ to transfer its older male students to the new school and further alleviate the crowded quarters. St. Stephen’s opened in 1944 with roughly 100 boys in grades 3-8.
St. Stephen’s became the first of the Church Schools to desegregate its student body, admitting its first African American student in 1961. Over the next decade, the each of the other schools in the Church Schools system admitted their first African Americans students, while most Virginia public schools continued to fight racial integration in the courts. The total Church Schools enrollment in academic year 2019-20 was 3,690 students of which almost 24% were persons of color, with a range of 14% to 43%, depending on the individual school.
As schools were being bought or built by the Church Schools, one school departed the group. In 1970, St. Anne’s merged with the Belfield School, a Charlottesville coeducational elementary and middle feeder school, and negotiated to become an
“associate” member of Church Schools with its own separate corporation status. In 1987, St. Anne’s-Belfield School became completely independent of Church Schools.
Changes were on the horizon in Alexandria schools as well. St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes had long coordinated their educational programs, providing opportunities for coeducation. In the mid 1980’s, St. Stephen’s proposed that it become a coeducational institution. After years of negotiation and litigation, the two nearby schools merged in 1991, becoming one coed school named St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School. During the same years, St. Catherine’s and St. Christopher’s seriously considered a similar merger, but decided in 1991 to retain their own separate identities while expanding their cooperative educational programs.
Stuart Hall, Staunton, is the newest addition of the Church Schools system. Originally founded in 1844 as the Virginia Female Institute, Stuart Hall had a long history as an Episcopal school tied to all three Virginia dioceses. Desiring the benefits of belonging to the system of Church Schools, it was admitted to that system in 2003. Stuart Hall had expanded into coeducation in the 1990s, and in 2007 expanded into elementary education through a merger with Hunter McGuire Elementary School, Verona.
Today, the Church Schools owns six schools that are an integral part of the diocesan family. Between the Church Schools, 179 churches, six diocesan retirement communities, and the retreat centers of Shrine Mont and Roslyn, the Diocese cares for God’s children in every season of life. The formation of faithful servants of Christ is a diocesan ministry that spans the generations.
Dr. Charlton says that while just about every aspect of education has changed since the founding of the Church Schools 100 years ago, one thing will always remain unchanged. “The founders believed that religious education was important to make the Commonwealth and the world a better place by building good human beings.” Looking to the future, he says, “We’ll adapt however we need to keep doing that.”
Recalling her own experience working in the Church Schools, Bishop Susan Goff says, “I join in celebrating 100 years of commitment to education through our Church Schools. Having served as chaplain of St. Margaret’s and later of St. Catherine’s, I have experienced first hand the good work of our schools and the challenges they face as they begin their second hundred years. God bless the six schools that are part of Church Schools in the Diocese of Virginia with a commitment to justice, integrity and faith.”
A Peaceful Night, A Perfect End
March 12, 2021
Every Wednesday evening, parishioners at St. Andrew’s, Arlington gather online for Compline, the short, simple service that helps us reflect and center ourselves before bedtime. Rector Dorota Wright-Pruski initiated the online Compline service at the beginning of the pandemic as a way for people to connect mid-week for prayer and fellowship.
A small number of parishioners decided to “try out” this quiet evening service, which was new to all of them. However, it quickly became a much-anticipated midweek event.
For the first several months, the service was planned and led by staff. But in September, Rev. Dorota proposed an idea: what if the compline service was led by lay people, not clergy? Parishioner Lloyd Starns admits, “We were a little hesitant but agreed to take a ‘leap of faith’ and try it. With Rev. Dorota’s encouragement and support from our seminarian Annie Jung, we embarked on this journey and quickly discovered how meaningful the service could still be for us.”
Now, nearly one year since the beginning of the pandemic, St. Andrew’s parishioners continue to meet every Wednesday night at 8:30 for Compline. It is typically a small, intimate gathering of about 7 or 8 worshippers, although more folks have joined during Lent.
“We are grateful that this ancient service has become a part of our worship fabric at St. Andrew’s and,” Starns adds, “we celebrate the willingness of lay members to step out of their comfort zones and try a different format for communal worship.”
Five Ways to Bring Lent Home
Feb. 11, 2021
As we await the time when we can gather in person, Lent 2021 will be an opportunity to create new traditions and to be more intentional as we take on a observances at home. How do we mark the beginning of the Lenten season in tangible ways that bring deeper meaning to it? From the imposition of ashes to creative activities to engage kids, here are 5 ways to bring Lent home.
Many of us will miss the tradition of a Shrove Tuesday Dinner at church, but you can begin a new tradition at home with a guided conversation over your own pancake supper or other meal. Invite everyone at the table to take turns answering questions: Are you planning to give up something for Lent? And: How does Lent help you focus on God? Then read a scripture or prayer and invite reflections from each person. This sheet from Milestone Moments can help you shape your dinner conversation.
Ash Wednesday Bonfire
What better way to engage little ones in the meaning of Ash Wednesday than by roasting s’mores over a bonfire? Leave it to Jerusalem Greer, Evangelism Officer for the Presiding Bishop, to create a beautiful metaphor with a burnt marshmallow. All kidding aside, Greer’s bonfire gathering offers children of all ages a unique way to encounter God’s forgiveness, as prayers are said, stories are shared and as each person cast their regrets into the fire.
Ashes at Home
Many folks plan to attend their church’s online Ash Wednesday service. This means that you or someone in your household will do the part of imposing the ashes. “Can I do that?!” you ask. The short answer is yes, any baptized member of the church can impose ashes on others. You can even ash yourself. While the imposition of ashes is sacred, it’s not a sacrament, and that’s why you don’t have to be ordained to do it.
Where do I get the ashes? Lots of churches in the Diocese will be providing kits of Ashes to go, but you can also make ashes at home. You can use ashes from your fire pit or burn some leaves. If you have palms from previous years, these are especially appropriate. After burning, place the ashes in a small bowl or dish and bring to your online or home service.
What’s my line again? When you get to the point in the service where you will impose the ashes, you simply dip your thumb in the bowl of ashes, then trace the sign of the cross on the person’s forehead, while saying the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” After all members of the household have received ashes, including yourself, the service continues.
Conducting Your Own Intergenerational Service
If you won’t be attending a church service online, you can use this liturgy from the Rev. Shivaun Wilkinson. It's especially appropriate for households with younger and older kids. It includes “burying the Alleluia,” (literally digging a whole in the yard and burying written notes), “blowing away the sins” (with bubbles, of course), and the imposition of ashes.
Now that you’ve intentionally marked the beginning of the season, don’t lose the Lenten momentum. You can create a daily prayer calendar. In each space on the calendar, write a word or the name of a person to pray for. Then draw, doodle or color around it, all the while praying for that person or meditating on that word. Think of it as a visual prayer. Need a little inspiration? Praying in Color offers some eye-catching printable calendar templates that can help you get started.
The diocesan Office of Christian Formation offers a well-curated library of Lenten resources, including books, meditations, daily devotions and more. Looking for something specific? Contact diocesan Minister for Christian Formation Paris Ball.
Feb. 11, 2021
VTS Immanuel Chapel Opens Doors to Vaccine Clinic for Underserved Community
Desks by Dads at St. Peter's, Arlington
January 27, 2021
Virtual learning amid the pandemic has put some students at a disadvantage, as not every family can afford the supplies to do school from home. When two dads from St. Peter’s, Arlington, saw a news story about Desks by Dads, they said, “Think we can make 100 desks?” “Let’s get started.”
In 10 days, beginning the weekend after Thanksgiving, dozens of St. Peter’s members decided on a design, acquired the lumber (with help from a local company) and built over 100 desks, all while remaining socially distanced, outside of St. Peter’s (thank goodness for good weather). In the meantime, another group of volunteers from St. Peter’s worked with the local county schools on a distribution system, and organized members of the parish to deliver desks to students in need.
Working together, apart: