Yesterday I had a good long phone conversation with my 82-year-old dad. He seems to be doing pretty well now, five weeks post-surgery. He and my mom are walking around the block daily, sometimes twice. He has an appointment with his surgeon on July 16, and then physical therapy starting on the 20th. So far so good.
His main problem right now is that he has too much time to sit around thinking about how the world, and America in particular, is, as my grandfather used to say, going to hell in a handbasket. Yesterday, for example, he sent an email to me and my brother and a few friends with the subject line “Can we …” and the main text: “… survive another six months of Trump?”
Grace and St. Stephen’s Church is the oldest Episcopal parish in Colorado Springs. The other main parishes, Our Saviour – where my dad was the rector for 23 years – and St. Michael’s – where my folks went for a while in the early period of his mandated post-retirement exile – spun off from Grace however many decades ago and are in less central parts of the sprawling city. Grace is downtown, on North Tejon between Monument and Willamette. Grace was founded in 1873, St. Stephen’s 20 years later, then they merged, and the current Gothic Revival sanctuary was built in 1923. It’s stately and dignified. So dignified, in fact, that the partitions between the urinals in the men’s room are engraved with the coat of arms, or seal, or whatever, of the Episcopal Church.
In our call yesterday, Dad told me that churches in Colorado are allowed to hold services in person again, starting last Sunday, and that he got an email from Grace outlining options for how to take part in them. The wording on the parish’s website is:
So that each and every member can participate in our common life comfortably, our plan for in-person Sunday worship has three options (details below under Worship Notes):
Option 1: Seating on the south lawn in reserved household allotments.
Option 2: Tune-in to a live FM broadcast from the comfort of your own vehicle in reserved parking spots.
Option 3: On-line worship
For those who prefer to continue worshiping at home, we will continue to offer digital worship on Facebook and YouTube at 10:30am.
My dad is unimpressed with the radio-in-your-car option. “I can do that at home,” he said. He went on to reflect on the financial challenges facing churches these days. “People give to the Church only if they go to church,” he told me. “A lot of parishes have mortgages. Grace has a big mortgage, basically because of Don Armstrong.”
You would think that a long-established and affluent parish like Grace would have long since paid off its mortgage, and maybe it had. But Armstrong is the former rector of Grace who, in September 2010, submitted an Alford plea – similar to no-contest – to a 20-count indictment alleging that he had misappropriated $291,000 in parish funds to pay his children’s college expenses. That was the culmination of a long, tawdry saga that involved traumatized refugees fleeing Grace for my dad’s parish and, for a while, was getting regular coverage on the nightly TV news, not only in the Springs but in Denver too. After leaving Grace in disgrace, Armstrong brazenly moved down the street to St. George’s Anglican Church, i.e. the right-wing schismatics.
I noted to my dad that a lot of commercial businesses and nonprofits all over the USA are in a similar boat to the churches. “Basically it becomes all about real estate,” I suggested.
“That’s right,” he agreed.
“Maybe churches’ll go back to meeting in like catacombs.”
He laughed. “I’d be okay with that.”
Every kid assumes his or her own upbringing is normal, until you become an adult and eventually figure out that it was no such thing – in fact, that there is no such thing. What my parents taught me was normal, above all by the examples they set, was to live one’s personal life with modest and private dignity, spend most of one’s leisure time reading and learning, and pursue a career that contributes constructively to society. That’s what I used to think it meant to be middle class in America.
The pandemic and everything else going on now has my dad reflecting on the advantages of being retired. Imagine, for example, trying to lead a congregation, which in the best of times is like herding cats. “I’m glad I’m not in charge of one anymore,” he said yesterday.
“I bet Mom’s glad she’s not in charge of a school anymore,” I replied. My mom had a forty-year career in public education, including as founding principal (including overseeing construction) of Antelope Trails Elementary School on the far north side of Colorado Springs, off I-25 not far from the Air Force Academy. Her job was like herding cats too, and I often reflect how both my parents gave their working lives over to institutions that, during the period of their careers, were in the process of collapsing. She used to ask me, when I was in town, to speak about writing to kids at her school. One time, waiting for class to start, I found myself sitting on a little plastic chair chatting with a six-year-old, and I said something about my mom.
The kid said something like, “What about your mom?”
I said, “You know, my mom, Mrs. Casey.”
His eyes got big. “Mrs. Casey is your mom?!? You’re lucky!”
My dad is rather notably a not very social person, though his work was unavoidably social. My mom once shrewdly observed that he’s “an introvert who taught himself to be an extravert.” The effort of doing that took a toll and, for example, my memories of Sunday afternoons growing up are of him napping on the couch. He has a small number of real friends and doesn’t feel any need to have more.
But, these days, he is missing seeing his friends in person. He told me there are two things he’s doing that are “significant,” both socially and, he hopes, in contributing at least intangibly and in some small way to the common good. One is a weekly Bible study class that a small group from his parish prevailed on him to continue leading after he retired. They’ve been doing it on Zoom. “It’s not the same as sitting at a table together with cups of coffee, but it’s good, and it works,” he said.
The other is serving the small and aging congregation of St. Peter’s in Pueblo, an hour south of the Springs, where until the pandemic hit he was filling in a couple times a month, taking turns with another retired priest. A dozen or so members of St. Peter’s are meeting on Zoom every Sunday for Morning Prayer and a sermon, in lieu of Eucharist. “I take my turn doing the sermon,” he said. “They’re doing the right thing, and I appreciate them.”
“I’m sure they appreciate you too,” I assured him, remembering the time a man in Oshkosh B’gosh overalls at the little church in Cripple Creek had stood up, on behalf of all seventeen people in attendance, to thank him for making the trip over the mountains and even bringing his family along.
Yesterday we chatted a bit about all the weird stuff going on these days, like that viral photo of a Roman Catholic priest using a water pistol to baptize a baby. “I guess he must have consulted the rule book and figured it counts,” I joked.
“Oh, it counts,” he said. “But it is goofy.”
A third thing he’s doing is sending out the text of past sermons, following the Church calendar, to a pretty large circulation of family and friends. This coming weekend he’ll be sending out his Fourth of July sermon from 2005, pegged on a headline he had read phrased something like “Americans balance patriotism and reflection.”
“As if patriotism and reflection were somehow in opposition,” he scoffed.
Meanwhile here where I’m at, early Wednesday morning Seattle police moved into the CHAZ or CHOP “autonomous zone” to clear out remaining protesters; Governor Jay Inslee was heckled and forced to relocate his press conference in the city of Pasco, east of the Cascades, i.e. in the part of Washington State where people hate Inslee and refuse to wear masks; and Seattle City Council President M. Lorena González has denied Mayor Jenny Durkan’s request that socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant be investigated for “contemptuous behavior” for taking part in a Black Lives Matter march last Sunday to her home, thereby showing “reckless disregard of the safety of my family and children.”
“[Sawant] and organizers knew that my address was protected under the state confidentiality program because of threats against me due largely to my work as U.S. Attorney,” Durkan wrote in her complaint.
There is an ongoing pandemic, a worsening economic and job loss crisis, and a civil rights movement demanding we divest from racist, anti-Black systems and redirect those investments towards housing, education, and wealth-building opportunities for Black and Brown community members. These are the issues that demand our attention.
These critical and concurrent challenges are unprecedented and require us to set aside our personal and political grievances and work together. The public airing of issues amongst and between independently elected officials will not advance solutions on the deepening needs of our constituents.