I was pleased and honored to receive, along with Bishop Richard Malone of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, the first Excellence in Ecumenism award from the New York State Council of Churches. I continue to be surprised and delighted by the impact that Bishop Malone and I are able to have in raising the issues of equality, economic justice and inclusion. Neither of us anticipated the impact that our joint pastoral letters would have in our own region, let alone the State of New York.
The award was presented in Albany, which gave me an excuse to do something that I really enjoy, sightsee. My family will tell you that I am an incurable tourist. I like to visit places, especially churches, and see and learn and ask questions and explore.
I took Canon Cathy Dempesy-Sims and the Rev. Vicki Zust with me to Albany and in the morning before the awards luncheon we did the tourist thing in Albany. We went to the First Church of Albany. This is a Dutch Reformed Church that was, the first church in Albany. We also went to Old St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, the New York Statehouse and the Cathedral of All Saints’, the Episcopal cathedral in Albany.
One of the things that struck me on this trip was the overwhelming hospitality we experienced. We had not made prior arrangements to visit most of these places and yet everywhere we went we were welcomed and people went out of their way to make us feel as if we belonged.
The experience at First Church was particularly striking. We literally rang the church’s doorbell at 8:45 in the morning. The person who came to the door didn’t know us and when we introduced ourselves and said that we wanted to see the church, didn’t tell us to make an appointment. Didn’t ask us to wait while he found someone to show us around. Didn’t even ask any questions to make sure we were who we said we were. He just let us in, turned on the lights in the sanctuary, showed us where the bathrooms were, put a note on my car so we wouldn’t get a ticket or have to pay for parking and let us explore. What would happen in your congregation if three complete unknowns from out of town rang the doorbell at 8:45 on a Thursday morning?
First Church is a great example of how an historic church can balance honoring and maintaining its history while doing modern, inclusive and active ministry. Next to the framed letter from Theodore Roosevelt renting a pew in the church is a basket of “pocket prayer shawls”, small knitted squares that people can put in their pocket or purse to remind them that they are being prayed for wherever they go. The church has a drive in worship service in the summer along with traditional worship in their very traditional sanctuary (the pews still have doors and numbers and plaques marking who used to own them). Honoring the past while serving the world of the present is the balance that we are all striving to seek.
The experience of welcome and hospitality at First Church was repeated on all of our visits. We were allowed to walk into the State Assembly Chamber and through the gallery outside of the State Senate. We walked into St. Peter’s Church and saw the Queen Anne silver and the historic windows (and signed the guest book right under Bishop Malone, who had visited the church about an hour before us).
I encourage everyone to explore the treasures hidden in plain sight in all of the places that you travel this summer. Explore, see, ask and learn.