New generation explores intersection of faith, service, community

By Sharon Sheridan
Posted Jan 9, 2012
St. Hilda's participates in Occupy movement

Saint Hilda’s House interns have been serving as chaplains for Occupy in New Haven, Connecticut. They have held services, especially compline, regularly and helped organize others to offer different types of spiritual support such as meditation.

[Episcopal News Service] Jordan Trumble fell in love with learning about religion at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. But after awhile, she realized studying the topic wasn’t enough.

“So much of what I was learning in the classroom didn’t mean very much unless it had some practical application in my everyday life,” she said. “I was learning so much about what it means to be in community with others and to serve the poor and to serve in solidarity with the poor. It’s not that easy to do that when you’re going to a private, liberal arts university in a wealthy suburb. There was more to the world than what I had experienced.”

Her desire to put those lessons into action led Trumble to spend a year as an HIV counselor with homeless youth through the Episcopal Urban Intern Program in Los Angeles. She then became an urban intern at Saint Hilda’s House in New Haven, Connecticut, spending a year doing parish administration at Christ Church and now dividing her time between a community soup kitchen and a food pantry and clothing closet.

“I am currently in the process of discerning how I feel God is calling me to minister in the world around me – specifically, do I feel called to ordained ministry – and this is a really good community, both in the parish and in New Haven in general … to be considering that,” she said.

Trumble is among more than 150 young adults interning through 21 Episcopal Service Corps programs, including the ones Trumble joined in Los Angeles and New Haven. Growing in number, these programs – many in urban settings – seek to develop leaders, offering participants a blend of service and faith formation while living in community.

While some programs have existed as long as 20 years, most are in their first or second year of placing interns, said ESC Director Amity Carrubba, who is based in Chicago. The decision to network and form ESC is fairly new, with a board formed and the first director hired in 2009. Through the organization, member programs receive support for their work and ministries, share resources and offer a common application process, now open for the next round of internships.

“The ultimate goal with our work with young adults is to create leaders for the church and for the world,” Carrubba said. “Each program is unique and has its own personality, its own charism, but we do have common shared values.”

Young adult interns live in intentional Christian community, work at ministry sites in the larger community and participate in faith formation and vocational discernment.

“It’s more than service,” Carrubba said. “We really do focus on that faith piece … Some of our programs are focused on discernment to ordained ministry, but most of our programs are not. We are interested in forming leaders both lay and ordained.”

The “millennial” generation, she added, is “a generation that has grown up with service and volunteering being part of their school requirements in high school and in college. It’s a generation very oriented towards service. I think the Episcopal Service Corps and other programs like us really make sense to 20-somethings today. … It is that real engagement between faith and service, and really living out one’s faith.”

The chance for that engagement attracted Deede Dixon, a Saint Hilda’s intern whose ministry this year includes organizing extracurricular activities and tutoring students at a K-8 public school.

After graduating college in 2010, she worked at a nature center in New Hampshire. She enjoyed working with children in the mountain setting and the “deep bonding” that developed within the camp community but found she wanted to spend more time with students within their typical environment and missed having a church connection, she said. “It seemed like this program [in New Haven] could be a combination of that intentional community plus being in the city plus connecting with kids more regularly plus having a strong church presence again in my life.”

Dixon is one of 17 Saint Hilda’s interns ages 22 to 31 doing urban ministry, vocational discernment and theological reflection in New Haven. Eight live in the former rectory at Christ Church, the other nine in two apartments in the “Hill district” beside Ascension Church, a church that had closed. Interns now worship daily in Ascension, and Christ Church hopes to create a program there similar to Saint Hilda’s for young clergy, said the Rev. Robert Hendrickson, Christ Church curate and program director of Saint Hilda’s and Ascension House.

“I like the concept of, there’s an abandoned church across the street, and we’re bringing it to life again,” Dixon said.

Dixon is part of the second group of Saint Hilda’s interns, who sign on for 10 months. All participate in daily morning prayer and in parish life and pursue a “pretty vigorous theological formation curriculum,” reading about a book a week, Hendrickson said. All occurs within the context of intentional community.

“There’s this peer review and peer support that I think is crucial to doing difficult ministry,” Hendrickson said. “Each of those pieces builds on the other into the fullness of Christian living.”

Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street, provided funding to launch the program, which is working toward becoming self-supporting, Hendrickson said. The interns’ worksites now drive most of the budget, he said. “Wherever one of the interns serves, they pay the program a fee, and then out of that fee we pay for their health care, their food, utilities, that kind of stuff. … We try to keep it as economical as possible, for anybody to join the program. They don’t have to bring money with them.”

Trinity significantly helped both cultivating the ESC network and creating new internship programs, Carrubba said.

This followed the Trinity board’s 2008 vote to make raising up “a next generation of leaders for the church” a top grants priority, said Erin Weber-Johnson, grants officer in the Anglican Relations Department at the Manhattan church.

Board members saw large numbers “very gifted young adults” giving up a year to serve in the Peace Corps or other programs, she said. They wanted to find how to pair that interest “with Christian formation, and how to create some sort of discernment component as well.”

Trinity brought together representatives of five Episcopal programs as well as other similar faith service programs to determine what factors would lead to sustainability long-term, Weber-Johnson said. “If we were to start funding young adult service programs, Trinity wanted to ensure that they were catalyzing a movement … one that had a long-lasting impact. What they found out was that these folks had some very common threads, although the programs themselves are diverse.”

This included a financial model where interns received a small stipend from their worksites, which paid for 65 to 85 percent of overall program expenses; the use of one-on-one spiritual direction that came from someone other than program directors; discernment that looked beyond just ordained ministry; and Episcopal sponsorship, such as by a parish or a diocese.

Trinity began making grants to start new programs, with funding over several years geared to help the programs reach sustainability. So far, Trinity has funded 12 programs with 10 launched and two expected to launch this fall, Weber-Johnson said.

“People are excited and are really seeing this as a new movement and a new hope for the Episcopal Church,” she said. A survey of alumni of 13 programs, she said, showed more than 50 percent of participants went on to serve the church after their internships, “but not necessarily in ordained capacities.”

Victoria Shao sees a direct connection between the service work she’s doing through Newark ACTS, a Diocese of Newark-sponsored program in its second year of accepting interns, and the work she hopes to pursue in the future.

Shao works at the Holley Center, a residential facility for 65 emotionally disturbed children in Hackensack, New Jersey. She helps the children with schoolwork as well as plays with them. “In the near future,” she said, “my supervisor would like me to put on a simple skit or play with some of the kids and teach them basic acting skills. I look forward to that challenge.”

“I have only been there for less than two months, and the kids that I work with regularly have really taken to me,” she said. “Likewise, I have connected with them. In the future, I plan to enter this line of work with foster children, so getting some real experience and such positive feedback is invaluable. … With my work here I feel like God is clarifying my call to work with this population.”

Shao is among 10 Newark ACTS interns living in two houses in Newark and Union City. Launched with the help of Trinity and various diocesan funds, Newark ACTS costs about $280,000 to run and hopes to be “in the black” by the end of this program year, said Deacon Erik Soldwedel, program director.

Soldwedel looks for interns with a diversity of gifts, talents and backgrounds, he said. “More than anything else, I look for your thirst. Are you thirsty to live into your covenant with God, to act into your faith?”

He said he was particularly proud of the group’s diversity, with interns of different races and genders coming from different parts of the country and various Christian denominations. Shao has cerebral palsy, and she switched from an initial placement at a Jersey City church to the Holley Center after the church proved not accessible enough. One of the adjustments to living in community, she said, was having to “adapt to all of my housemates helping me a lot and being OK with that, because I’m really independent.”

“To my knowledge, Victoria is ESC’s first volunteer with accessibility needs,” Carrubba said. “We’re asking all of our programs to access their ability to make their houses more accessible and partner with local organizations or the internship site as well. … That’s definitely a growing edge for ESC.”

In New Haven, at least one intern traveled from overseas to enter the program. Oxford University graduate Alan Rimmer, who intends to become a priest in the Church of England, came to Saint Hilda’s hoping to broaden his opportunities to interact with different demographics as well as learn more about the Episcopal Church. “I didn’t, for example, have much experience with children, and becoming a minister I realized that I needed to explore that.”

He’s working at a Catholic girls school that enrolls mostly disadvantaged backgrounds. His role includes organizing weekly gatherings, preaching, working with prefects, coordinating volunteers. “My classroom is the quiet space. If any of the students are having problems during the day … we send them up here and I talk through what’s going on with them.”

“I got off the plane and almost immediately was thrown into work,” he recounted. “It was a baptism of fire – very tiring, but very rewarding as well.”

He lives in the rectory in downtown New Haven. “I think one of the most striking things about the city is the extreme examples of wealth and poverty. … Some of the stories we hear from the chief of police are quite shocking. My mum’s quite worried about me, but it’s good. I feel like I’m needed.”

While most interns serve for one year before moving on – sometimes to another service program – a few opt for a second year in a program. Richard Hogue came to Newark ACTS after serving in the Young Adult Service Corps in South Africa. He returned for a second year to discern if he was called to ordination.

Besides the opportunity for discernment, Hogue said, he loves living in community, where he and other interns are partners in mission.

“I love community,” he said. “That’s one of the big things I realized in South Africa when I was living alone. I loved the work I was doing but dreaded going home and living by myself.”

Hogue worked at a Hoboken homeless shelter and now is doing administrative work at a tiny Union City congregation. “I get to see a lot of stuff a normal priest would deal with,” he said. “At the very least, I’m gaining a vast amount of experience and seeing the work of God from a different perspective.”

For the Rev. Winnie Varghese, member of the ESC board member and the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council, participating in the Episcopal Urban Intern Program at Holy Faith Church in Inglewood, California, ultimately led to the priesthood.

She worked for a mental health association, walking daily around Long Beach talking to homeless people to try to identify who needed services. The idea was “to kind of walk alongside them, become a trusted person, so that if they did want to receive services or access disability benefits or medicines or therapy of any kind, we could be an advocate for them,” she said. “It was difficult in every way imaginable.”

She participated in weekly reflection groups, dinners and mentoring meetings; daily prayer as part of a rule of life; and monthly spiritual direction-counseling sessions. She found the support of the program and living in community invaluable, offering a chance to reflect on the grueling nature of the work, she said.

“I had a very different sense of what my life would be like before the program, and I hear that from a lot of people,” said Varghese, priest-in-charge at St. Mark’s in the Bowery in New York and former chaplain at Columbia University. “My chaplain at college told me to think about it. I probably wouldn’t have lived my life in the church if he had not recommended I look at something like this.”

“I really think this is the way forward in developing diverse and engaged leadership for the Episcopal Church that isn’t focused only on ordained leadership,” she said.

Last year, 261 young adults applied for internships, she said. ESC is a “great sign of hope and also one of the best things happening in the church. It’s exciting and it’s growing, and people want to be a part of it.”

—Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent.