I’m not gonna lie: I lost more than a few hours sleep prior to our St. Thomas 2014 pilgrimage. My prayers were for safety, formative experiences, and solid community among our pilgrims.
And from the very first minute, God’s grace poured abundantly on us. As prayer was answered, our time in California became more than we could ask for or imagine.
Our adventure began with a few challenges that our young pilgrims turned into opportunity: a five-hour wait for a rental van became play time, a lost phone was miraculously returned from across town, and the chance to meet new and different people became a realization that we’re pretty much all the same on the inside.
We arrived at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific mid-wedding reception. But not just any wedding reception.
I’d received a call some weeks before our departure with the news of the party, and on consulting with my boss, decided that I’d explain the happy situation to our pilgrims en route from the airport, letting Spirit move how Spirit would move. And explain I did: first to responses of “Awesome!” then to quizzical looks, then to a sort of stunned silence.
You see, “Alixx & Kevin’s Big Gay Wedding” (their language) had happened that morning. The newlyweds were members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a San Francisco social justice group with an emphasis on gay and youth rights and health advocacy. The Sisters’ shtick is draq nun attire. (See photo above, top center.)
We were welcomed to dinner, dancing, conversation, and fellowship warmly and wonderfully. Hearts were opened, minds blown. And this was just day one.
Work with Bayview Mission and St. James’s Food Pantry in Oakland was formative and rewarding, visits to Episcopal churches opened our eyes to new ways of being and doing church, and our time at St. Dorothy’s Rest in Sonoma was beautiful and, yes, restorative.
During adult forum time at St. Gregory’s, our pilgrims established leadership by asking the questions the adults gathered seemed hesitant to ask—hard questions. And at St. Dorothy’s, our young people in teams planned, shopped for, and cooked fabulous meals. Simple as they sound, these are adult practices they seldom get to practice when home.
Visits in Berkeley and San Francisco opened our eyes to new and different cultural sensibilities, and every day, all along our way, we met helpful friends like the “sketchy van guys,” Sara Miles, Mike the Motorcycle Priest, and Alejandra the St. James’s youth volunteer. Our own friendships deepened through prayer, laughter, great food, learning together, and lots of time in that van.
Place does work on the pilgrim, and CDSP, St. Gregory of Nyssa, the redwoods near the Russian River, and even the car rental parking lot at the Oakland Airport are all working on us still. But the Jesus we met in each other and in new friends is becoming a larger part of our DNA, continuing to seep into hearts and spirits.
My prayers now are prayers of gratitude, with a bit of “can we do it again?” mixed in.
Mary Beth Emerson is Assistant for Family Ministry at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in McLean, VA.