Called to Get the Church Unstuck: Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows’ Commencement Address

Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows ’97 gave this address at the 125th Commencement of Church Divinity School of the Pacific on May 24, 2019. Her text was Acts 16: 9-15.

Thank you, Mark. I am grateful and delighted to be here on this historic day for CDSP and Trinity Church Wall Street. To the faculty, administrators, staff, alums, board, soon to be graduates and friends, It’s a great honor to be with you to celebrate the first graduates of this new chapter in CDSP’s long service to the church.

It’s been twenty-two years since I sat here as a graduating senior. And on that day, like the apostles in Acts, I was about to visit some unexpected places. As I approached graduation I had plans. I had hoped to accept an opportunity for ministry in Seattle. This New Yorker had found that life in the west was more to my liking than the thought of returning east. You’ve been out here.  Perhaps you can see how easy it might be to fall in love with the idea of going to the Pacific Northwest — home to water, mountains, progressive politics, and so much good, fresh food.

But my bishop and the Holy Spirit had other plans. You know how bishops are. Like Paul and his companions, I was turned away from the place I’d planned to go.

Now, I’d like to tell you that I had a vision like Paul. I’d like to say that I accepted my new call with equanimity, with serene assurance that what God had in mind for me was ministry that would shape my vocation and nurture my soul.

Not so much.

By the grace of God and Bishop Joslin, I was bound for a small town in the Diocese of Central New York, to what I thought was the middle of nowhere. There were about four black people in the congregation I was to serve — four out of 150 on Sunday, and the road ended a mile up from my apartment. The rector of the church was not onboard with marriage equality, and when the bishop sent a pastoral letter in the wake of the 1998 Lambeth Conference, he didn’t want to read it at worship as I thought he should. Meanwhile, the closeted people in the congregation were quietly coming to me for pastoral support. This was a classic Morning Prayer parish — which meant Morning Prayer at the primary service on Easter if that’s how the calendar fell. And I was an Anglo-Catholic — raised up in the faith at Trinity Wall Street with incense and all the smells and bells. Let’s just say,  I hold the distinction for chanting the gospel at Christmas the first and only time at that parish.

I served there for two years. It was some of the most difficult and life-changing ministry I’ve ever done. I’d grown up in housing projects in New York City, earned degrees at a couple of elite academic institutions, and then made my way to Holy Hill. I had seen and experienced a lot, but I hadn’t done rural and small-town white America. Until then, I hadn’t seen up close the devastation of industrial pollution on the lives of workers. I hadn’t seen what happens to a company town when the company starts to pull out. 

At that time in my life, this place to which I felt I had no call, for which I thought I had no preparation, turned out to be the easiest and best place for me to encounter difference in ways I hadn’t known. It was there that I learned how to listen deeply to people who appeared to be entirely unlike me. There I learned how to be opened up by the Holy Spirit. There I learned how to accept the kind of radical hospitality that changes forever both the one who extends it and the one who accepts it.

In that first call out of seminary, I found my people, and it was fabulous in the end. In that small town in Central New York, I hung out down by the river and met modern-day Lydias, and I accepted their invitations. It wasn’t always comfortable, and it wasn’t always easy. But their conversion converted me. I learned to practice the kind of deep listening that puts us in relationship to God and one another. I learned to trust that the guidance of the Holy Spirit would prompt hospitality that was necessary for the work of the people of God in that place to thrive. And I began to learn what I would one day need to know as I entered former sundown towns in Indiana—places where black people once had to get out before the sun went down or face lynching—as the bishop of the diocese.

This story from Acts, this story of the Holy Spirit directing us where we don’t want to go, this story of hospitality prevailing — this is a necessary story for this moment in which we find ourselves. This is a story for those of us who are called to lead the church in this time when, beloveds, let’s face it:  we are stuck.

Sometimes being stuck manifests itself geographically. Like the apostles, we want to go where we want to go, and sometimes even visions don’t make us move in a different direction. We don’t want to go where we might encounter something new and different and foreign. We don’t want to go where there aren’t enough people like us. We only want to go where we will feel comfortable.

But sometimes the Holy Spirit needs us to go elsewhere, to be opened up to other possibilities. It’s no accident that this story tells about the apostles being sent to Macedonia against their will. Macedonia was in Europe, and this is the story of the first conversion of Europeans. It’s a story with deep resonance to those of us called today to the reconversion of white European Christianity, to the transformation of the Christianity of empire and oppression.

To do that work, we have to speak to the women gathered by the river. We have to sit down and listen, really listen, to them. And we have to stop moving and stay with them. We have to accept invitations that don’t accord with our preferences or our politics, invitations that don’t answer our prayers.

We can also get stuck when we’re looking for easy fixes to hard problems. We want our churches to be bigger, to be different, to be the way they were when our parents or grandparents were in charge. We want to return to the days of “traditional” liturgy—which we define as, of course, whatever we like best—and full Sunday School classrooms, and the good old days, conveniently forgetting that the good old days weren’t so good for so very many of us.

We want all of the outward markers of institutional church success, but we don’t want to do anything different to get them. We look at congregations across town or across the country that are bringing forth a new future in their communities and we say, “Why can’t we be like them?” But when we learn that they are practicing the kind of hospitality that changes things forever — Lydia-style hospitality — we shy away. We want our circumstances to be different, but we want to remain the same.

But those of us who are called to get the church unstuck — that’s you, and that’s me —don’t get to remain the same. We are called to extend and to accept — especially to accept— Lydia’s kind of disruptive, life-changing hospitality. It’s going to cause us to lose some things we hold dear, and it’s going to cause us to change.

You’re graduating from CDSP today with some serious experience in this kind of change. Your education here has included the first stages of the partnership between our seminary and Trinity Church Wall Street, the church on the other side of the country where I was baptized in 1989 and where I huddled in a staircase expecting to die on September 11, 2001. I know both of these institutions intimately, and I know that by coming together, you are being led by the Holy Spirit into some disruptive, life-changing times. Your work here and around the world has the potential to transform the church. But it is not easy. It will not be easy. You will not remain the same.

Beloveds, today you are being sent out to a church that is in urgent need of this kind of disruption. You are being summoned to places you did not intend to go, to meet people you did not intend to pastor. You are being called to extend and to receive the kind of lavish, radical hospitality that unleashes the Holy Spirit and changes the world. You will find your ministry outside the city gate, with the women at the river, in the most improbable ways. And it will be hard, and it will be good and God will be with you.

Go forth in the power of the Spirit. Amen.