“My job is to be out front … to throw light on the path for others to follow.”
I wrote an essay on diakonia (adapted into the article in this Connections issue on page 4-5) in December 2011, as part of my examination for ordination to the diaconate. I was ordained as a deacon on June 2, 2012. That essay was an academic exercise that accurately reflected what I was taught about the diaconate in the diocese’s School for the Diaconate, where I received excellent preparation for becoming a deacon. This reflection is about my journey as a deacon, from my perspective seven years later.
What is my role as a deacon? I perform the duties of a deacon in the church service. I am a catalyst, a connector, a representative of the church in the world. I am a bridge between parishioners and the world. My job is to be out front, to be a beacon, to throw light on the path for others to follow.
So how do I do that? I was privileged to serve as a deacon for six years at St. John’s, Columbus, in the low-income neighborhood of Franklinton. I loved the parishioners at “traditional” church, Street Church, and His Place (three separate congregations). My spirit was continually renewed by being with oppressed people. I found them to be the most spiritual people that I had ever known; full of love and gratitude despite their challenging circumstances. I connected with good people in our partner churches and groups. I learned so much from St. John’s former vicar, the Rev. Lee Anne Reat, and my deacon buddy, the Rev. Craig Foster. It was an honor to serve with them at St. John’s altar and in ministry. Serving at St. John’s was an intimate, authentic experience that changed me forever.
When I started at St. John’s, we had a “deacons’ closet,” full of donated clothing, toiletries, hats, gloves, etc. to give to whomever needed them. Giving these items away often became the focus of our time with parishioners. Then we read the book Toxic Charity and decided to stop giving stuff away and instead spend our time and energy on building relationships. We learned about Asset Based Community Development and tried to apply it in our neighborhood. We found we had more time to listen to and pray with our friends. Life is all about relationships!
One of my most memorable relationships from St. John’s was with a woman whom I met at Street Church. She was addicted to heroin and was a victim of human sex trafficking. I accompanied her on her journey through recovery from addiction, jail, court, rehab facilities and into restored life off the streets. There are so many other precious friends that I could tell you about. I learned deep in my soul that we are all children of God, loved equally and fiercely by God. I often thought, “there but for the grace of God go I.” And sometimes I was envious of their connection to and reliance on God, their clear and present belief in God’s unconditional love.
I became very involved in the neighborhood of Franklinton. I helped Franklinton Farms develop its first board and apply for its 501c3 tax exemption and raised funds for it. We partnered with Mount Carmel Healthy Living Center and Gladden Community House, among other community organizations. I connected with many young fellow justice warriors from the neighborhood who became lasting friends. I was part of a food justice movement in a neighborhood that had no grocery store until last year. I became keenly aware of the fundamental connection of our food system to climate change.
I have been involved with Ohio Interfaith Power & Light since 2007. In 2016, I took a lead role in developing its board, applying for its 501c3 tax exemption and charting a new direction. This statewide interfaith effort now seeks to unite the voices of people of diverse beliefs throughout Ohio in a spiritually-inspired and active response to climate change. We are concerned about the interdependent systems of discrimination and the disproportionate impacts of climate disruption on frontline communities. We act to facilitate deeper connections, reduce carbon impacts, advocate for strong policy, and empower leadership to work together for a more just and sustainable world.
I advocate for climate change mitigation and justice on other social issues by contacting my legislators and meeting with them on trips to the Ohio Statehouse and Washington, D.C. I have participated in countless marches and rallies. I invite parishioners and fellow clergy to advocacy by alerting them to issues and opportunities for action.
My work on climate change and at St. John’s led me to a deeper understanding of the need for racial justice. I believe that racial justice is at the heart of social justice in America, and I clearly see the intersection of eco-justice and racial equity. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is right on when he calls us to Racial Reconciliation, Evangelism and Creation Care. They are inextricably related, and they are the work before us now. My personal transformation came partly from feeling demeaned and marginalized as a woman during the election of 2016. I am embarrassed to admit that it took me feeling like a second-class citizen to begin to understand the pain and suffering from oppression that black people and other people of color have felt for centuries in this country.
That led me to my current work with our diocesan Becoming Beloved Community initiative. Deacons are called to remind us of our baptismal vows and help us find ways to live into them. The framework of Becoming Beloved Community is built on four pillars that align with our baptismal vows. My service as a deacon over the past seven years has led me to this challenging, messy, fulfilling work of racial healing, reconciliation and justice. I am aware more than ever that growing in Christ’s love is a cycle of personal transformation and practice in community. Once again, I am blessed with making and nurturing treasured relationships every day.
You may wonder why I spend my energy on the difficult issues of racism and climate change. This is where God is calling me to do his will, as a servant leader in his church. I am sometimes a nag, a thorn in the side of the church. I encourage people to be their best selves, to do their best job. I am relentless about standing up for the oppressed, and that often makes people uncomfortable. I never give up. And I have made a lot of terrific friends along the way.
My diaconal ministry is one of connection and joy. I am grateful every day to be a deacon in God’s church. My husband, Bruce, is my ministry partner and he supports me in every way. Thanks be to God!
Submitted by the Rev. Meribah Mansfield, co-convener of the diocese’s Becoming Beloved Community Task Force and co-convener of Ohio Interfaith Power & Light’s board of directors. Connect with her at email@example.com.