Worship, Barbecue and “Soft Handshakes”

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General Convention isn’t all committee meetings, open hearings and legislative sessions. Occasionally, fun is had, friends are made and hearts are moved in activities not dictated by the Committees on the Dispatch of Business.

“I believe it was at the Anaheim Convention [in 2009] that I encountered people from every significant congregation in my journey—where I was baptized, confirmed, discerned my vocation, sponsored for ordination, married, and served as lay and ordained leader,” said the Rev. John Kitagawa, a deputy from the Diocese of Arizona. “So, I look forward to rekindling relationships with colleagues and friends.”

Worship is another high point at convention. At this gathering, most of the daily worship services will take place in the evening, a change from previous conventions. And the worship schedule has been augmented by a revival, featuring preaching by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry on Saturday evening, July 7, and a prayer service on Sunday, July 8 at noon outside the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Temple, Texas, where women seeking asylum are incarcerated.

“This will be my first time going to General Convention,” said the Rev. Elizabeth Yale, a deputy from the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania. “I am looking forward to seeing all the Episcopalians from all over the church,” “I am looking forward to worshiping together, especially at the [D. T. Hutto] Detention Center [on Sunday, July 8], as I think that will be very powerful.”

General Convention is also an opportunity for deputies to strengthen the relationships within their deputations.

“I’m most looking forward to building Christian community with my deputation and with friends and colleagues from throughout the larger Church,” said the Rev. Elizabeth Easton of the Diocese of Nebraska. “We have a lot of work to accomplish at General Convention, but I think that the most important thing that we can do is ground our time together in our best understanding of what it means to be disciples engaged in the ‘Councils of the Church.’

“For me, that means taking care to be as present as I can possibly be, showing kindness, understanding, and patience to the folks with whom I work. It also means making worship and personal prayer a priority, remembering to keep Jesus as my main focus (especially when hard decisions must be made). I feel like at any large gathering it’s a personal spiritual discipline to guard against snark and instead let sincerity rule the day.”

The word “barbecue” comes up frequently among deputies discussing what they’re most looking forward to in Austin. For example:

“As a fifth-generation native of the Great State of Texas, I’m squeezing in a little time to see family,” said Christopher Hayes, a deputy from the Diocese of California. “And I’m looking forward to some old-fashioned Texas barbecue!”

The Rev. Lester V. Mackenzie, who will serve as chaplain to the House of Deputies says he is most looking forward “to conversations that involve healing,” including the Joint Session on Racial Reconciliation on Friday, July 6 at 10:30 CDT.

“In our Diocese of Los Angeles, I think we are in the deep process of moving towards healing,” he said. “I have been exploring the General Convention of 1865 when two bishops from Confederate dioceses were warmly welcomed back after the Civil War, as I research racial reconciliation examples of the past.

“Personally I am reflecting on how the center of the church is neither Rome nor Canterbury, but the heart of Jesus and what that means for me. I look forward to this 79th General Convention Episcopal ‘homecoming.’”

The Rev. Betsy Gonzalez of the Diocese of Washington has been doing some reflecting as well. She, Easton and two of their former classmates at Church Divinity School of the Pacific produce a podcast called Popping Collars that explores the intersection of religion and pop culture. On a recent episode, they were discussing GLOW, a Netflix series on the creation of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling television show of the mid-1980s.

“Over the course of the show, one of my colleagues, who is a wrestling geek, mentioned that back in the day, male wrestlers used to greet one another with a very soft handshake, meaning, in the theater of the ring, in the story they as performers were going to give, ‘I will take care of you and you will take care of me.’ I immediately thought of General Convention and the covenant that my committee had sent out regarding expectations around our work,” she said.

“We come to General Convention to wrestle with the issues of the day and with each other. Disagreement and conflict are not bad things, but what doesn’t work is being so single-minded that we stomp down any idea that doesn’t match our own.

“Can we do this work in the spirit of holding one another and in the knowledge that we will screw up sometimes, but we are wrestling with the Spirit and our own broken humanity? When we step to these super complex and emotional topics like liturgy, racial reconciliation, the Holy Land, accountability in the age of #metoo, what if we did it with a soft handshake?

“What if we leave ourselves open to transformation like the famous biblical wrestler, Jacob? Of course, I don’t want to see a bunch of limping people at the Austin Airport on July 14, but I am looking forward to being changed yet again by this 79th General Convention.”

Jim Naughton is editor of Deputy News.