The people who ducked into Grace-St. Luke's for the closing Eucharist on a late afternoon in June came from government agencies, nonprofits and churches. The common denominator was the Episcopal Service Corps and the interns who served our city with their muscle and ideas.
Memphis barbecue followed in the parish hall, the same way countless other milestones of faith and family are celebrated in this community.
This one, although technically the end of the two-year City of Soul partnership with Holy Communion and Grace- St. Luke’s, had the feel of seedtime. Besides barbecue and fixings, each table was full of people who likely were strangers when it began. They aren’t anymore. The connections they’ve made to each other are one of the lasting rewards of the work the two congregations did through ESC.
“It solidified relationships we already had in the community,” said the Reverend Broderick Greer. “For instance, so many parishioners have supported St. Columba for years. But having Kayla (Deep) there as an intern last year really brought its work home to us. What she was doing, the progress she was making really helped St. Columba transform its understanding of sustainability.”
In the two years, the two parishes supported a total of six corps members who lived communally in a nondescript rental house east of the fairgrounds and worked for some of the city’s best-known nonprofits, including MIFA, Bridges USA, Just City, even the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office.
They each received a monthly $800 stipend, free rent and the expectation that they make a dent in Memphis.
In some cases, the placements defined their career steps. Chelsea Kapes knew she wanted to go to law school before she came to Memphis last summer as a new college graduate from Massachusetts. A year in the public defender’s office and the connections she made there made it both easier to get into Duke Law School, where she will be this fall, and see herself as a public defender.
“I do want to go into public-interest law. I’m not sure about being a public defender, but there’s a stronger possibility of that now than when I arrived,” she said.
Adam Nelson, who interned last year at Emmanuel Center on St. Paul, jumped from exposure to poverty in South Memphis to being program director at Constance Abbey, the “new monastic community” that serves the neighbors at St. Mary’s Cathedral with family-style dinners, washers and dryers, worship and advocacy, particularly for the homeless.
“When I applied for Episcopal Service Corps, I had a part-time job without much future, skills I had developed in college but never used, and a blossoming faith,” Nelson says.
“ESC supplied a challenging work environment in which I was expected to try new things, spiritual formation and study to develop my awareness of Christ's presence, and a family of other corps members to provide mutual support and insight.”
Will Chaney worked days at Bridges, and through his own personality and interest, was instrumental in birthing the new young college group at Holy Communion.
“While that was beyond his job description, it was one of the things that happens when you have committed people,” said the Reverend Hester Mathes, who helped coordinate the partnership.
“This whole experience showed the importance of deepening relationships with a few historic partners,” Hester said. “It also strengthened the young-adult groups at both churches and really helped us think about ways in which we could support each other.”
For Chaney, the year of purposeful reflection on his work with a diverse group of teenagers in Memphis and the spiritual discipline that comes with being a corps member reinforced his wish to serve the church as a vocation.
“I want to work for the Episcopal Church and to do it for as long as I can,” he said. He has not ruled out the priesthood.
He leaves Memphis now to work in campus ministry at the University of Kansas, in a job funded by the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas.
Besides the interns’ contributions -- Kapes organized the Bus Riders Day this spring to help a dozen lawyers see exactly how difficult it is for clients in the Mental Health Specialty Court get to court-mandated appointments -- the partnership leaves a network of contacts and relationships already bearing fruit.
The offering from the Interfaith Thanksgiving Service last fall at Holy Communion went to Just City. And with the seeds Nelson planted at Emmanuel, it was a natural when Holy Communion was looking for a site for congregation-led weekend of work to launch its first-ever “Urban Pilgrimage” at its campus on the fringe of the last housing project in the inner city.
“We had Adam as a liaison between Emmanuel and Holy Communion,” Hester said. “Because of that excitement and momentum, we now have over a dozen tutors who go weekly to Emmanuel for Team Read. And that is ongoing.”
ESC, she says, was a chance to work with ministry partners in a deeper, everyday way. For the congregations, that engagement means a better understanding of the partners’ work and needs but also access to their brainpower.
The interns were placed in the worksites that were either longtime ministries of the churches or connections from their pews. Stephen Bush, for instance, is the chief public defender in Shelby County and a member of Grace-St. Luke’s.
“I’m not exactly sure how the cooperation will continue,” Broderick said. “And I don’t know what shape it will take, but I would not be surprised if Stephen thinks of a way. Either way, it’s an easy phone call.”
The benefits run both ways. This summer, for instance, Holy Communion had more students involved in Bridge Builders simply because Hester was at the table when Bridges was discussing its needs.
“I recruited. I would ever have known that as a priest I could nominate students for the program without that connection,” she said.
Assistant public defender Kelly Pretzer was Kapes’ supervisor. With Kapes’ feedback, she learned how to better structure intern assignments and how to be a more effective mentor. She’s grateful.
“I think I may be looking for another Chelsea, which may be difficult. She really showed our office what you could do to deal with the broader issues our clients face,” Pretzer said.
The Reverend Sandy Webb visited Bridges in action this summer. He called the church staff from his car to say how excited he was to be thinking of next steps
Bridges staff members will be guest speakers one Sunday this fall in Rector’s Forum, the built-in pulpit rectors have for promoting programs they see bearing fruit. So will Stephen Bush and staff from MIFA.
Episcopal Service Corps began more than 30 years ago as a part of a discerning process for young people interested in working for the church. It has grown to a network of dozens of congregations in 30 communities that annually offer more than 200 internships to college graduates who commit to for one year to live simply, develop spiritual awareness and serve with eyes for justice.
From the beginning, the partnership here was limited to two years.
“We could not find a model that was sustainable for the two congregations financially,” Broderick said. “The board was wise in that decision. We were trying something and appreciating it for what it was. We impacted numerous lives through these two years. Not everything is meant to be forever. The unwise thing would have been to say, ‘We are going to power though this and put extreme strain on both our systems and do this until we burn out.”
Linda Marks, head of inter-faith and community outreach at MIFA, stood quietly in the Nave at Grace-St. Luke’s after the Closing Eucharist ended, reflecting quietly on the sweetness of the service.
“We’re sending these wonderful young people off to whatever they can do,” she said. “Sweet may not be the right word. But there will be more bad news, maybe even by the time we get home tonight. This is hopeful and peaceful,” she said as the last of the worshipers filed down the hall for dinner.
“And I am grateful to be part of it.”