It is a spring day on the beach and I’m listening to the waves from the Gulf of Mexico as they arrive gently on the shore. I stand next to a makeshift table… a camp chair loaded down with a bottle of wine, some pizza crust baked at a local pizzeria the night before especially for this occasion, a bottle of water, a hotel towel, and a Book of Common Prayer. In front of me stand 22 high school boys in their lacrosse uniforms along with many of their parents, all holding palm branches. Two boys come forward and lead us in the singing of Amazing Grace. It is Palm Sunday and the St. Andrew’s boys’ lacrosse team has gathered for worship before the start of their tournament game.
As I shared with my players and parents on the beach that morning, I’m not sure those disciples whom Jesus asked to go fetch a donkey for him on the way into Jerusalem had thought that was the mission Jesus would have for them that day. I could envision the disciples hoping for a more “respectable” assignment. But here they were retrieving a donkey. And here I was experiencing Palm Sunday in a way beyond what I could have imagined…singing, praying, and breaking bread together with my team on a beach on the Mississippi coast. So goes the life of a school chaplain.
Despite advice from many throughout my discernment process for the priesthood to perhaps “tone down” my interest in school ministry and consider parish ministry instead, and having endured strange looks from seminary classmates (and some professors!) when sharing with them my desire to become a school chaplain, it is in fact school chaplaincy to which I have been called. Some may see it as the minor league as compared to the major league of parish ministry, but I cannot think of a more exciting and challenging environment full of opportunities to practice ministry and to represent the Episcopal Church.
Having spent two wonderful years at the Episcopal School of Knoxville, I am now fortunate to be at another institution—St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Jackson, Mississippi—that embraces the “Episcopal” in the school’s name. The importance of our Episcopal identity is featured prominently in the most recent Strategic Plan and is evident in the St. Andrew’s Mission Statement: “To nurture a diverse community in the Episcopal tradition, fostering spiritual growth, moral responsibility, academic excellence, and artistic and athletic pursuits, while preparing for a life of service to our community and the world.” However, Episcopal identity is not an aspect of school life that is simply placed on promotional materials and referenced in materials for perspective families or donors, but is instead at the core of our life together.
Our Episcopal tradition is most prominently expressed through our chapel services, religion curriculum, and service program. Weekly chapel services are held for all Lower, Middle, and Upper School students and faculty, and many parents also attend. All Upper and Middle School students and 4th grade students in the Lower School are given the opportunity to serve as acolytes and participate in other ways, such as sharing their musical talents. St. Andrew’s commitment to being an Episcopal School is also evident in the curriculum. Religion classes are taught at the Pre-K3 through 4th grades based on Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, and for the first time this year at the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade level as well, focusing on Biblical Studies, World Religions, and Ethics respectively. In addition, Upper School electives, such as a Service Learning course entitled, Faith, Service, & Social Justice, will be offered beginning next school year. The school’s emphasis on service can be found through classroom service projects and grade-level service days, as well as a mandatory service requirement for Upper School students.
Yet despite these important, but somewhat obvious ways in which a school may live out its Episcopal identity, there are countless other opportunities that I find exciting as a school chaplain. From faculty meetings devoted to Episcopal Church history, theology, and liturgical practices, to parent luncheon presentations on what makes an Episcopal School different from other schools, to praying before a sporting event or school trip…these are all significant opportunities to represent what the Episcopal Church stands for to an audience consisting of a minority of Episcopalians.
But by far, the main reason school ministry is so exciting is the reason we exist in the first place, the students — students from a variety of backgrounds and faith traditions who are curious and inquisitive, and who are seriously considering their faith and its role in their lives. They are students who are willing to get their hands dirty serving others and who are willing to ask a wide range of questions, from why a loving God would send people to hell, to whether or not the collar I wear hurts. And while we who work in Episcopal Schools are not in the business of converting young people to the Episcopal Church, our mission to represent our faith tradition and share the love of Christ is significant nonetheless.
It is my hope that maybe in college or even later in life, former students who are searching for a religious community will remember a chapel service, a conversation with the chaplain, or a service project and decide to visit an Episcopal Church. It is my hope that former students will remember their Episcopal school as a place where they were loved and encouraged to discover and share their gifts, a place where they could be the people God intended them to be, a place where they were reminded of how special they are. Who knows, perhaps they might even remember a Eucharist on the beach.
The Rev. Kirk LaFon holds a Master of Theological Studies degree from Virginia Theological Seminary and a Master of Divinity degree from Sewanee. He is the Chaplain of St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Jackson, Mississippi.