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A congregation of many seekers

St. Barnabas welcomes those with questions, doubts about faith.

At St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, diversity is a hallmark of the parish, and evidence can be found in the parking lot as well as the pews.

Visitors to the Gothic-styled, red brick church are likely to see cars with bumper stickers supporting presidential candidate John Kerry as well as incumbent George Bush.

Sitting side-by-side during services are elderly couples in their Sunday best, along with younger folks in their bicycle clothes, families with small children, gay couples, seekers and doubters and a Buddhist or two, all of whom are welcome and quite at home here, the priest and parishioners say.

“One thing St. Barnabas strives for, is to ‘seek Christ in all persons,’ and that’s referring not only to our neighbors, but to everyone we see,” said the newly appointed priest-in-charge, the Rev. Curt Zimmerman.

“It’s very inclusive, with a broad spectrum of people,” he said. “As Episcopalians, we’re able to live in that tension in general, because it comes from respect.”

Parishioner Lyle Kahle came to the church 11 years ago, newly divorced with two small children in tow.

“I was looking for a spiritual path for myself and my children – that’s what got me in the door,” Kahle said. “In that sense I think I was like a lot of people, a family looking for a spiritual foundation.”

She found it a welcoming place to raise her children, who are now ages 15 and 17 and sing with her in the choir. From the moment she walked in the door, fellow church members have taken a sincere and personal interest in the lives of her kids, which “is important to all parents, but particularly the single parent,” she said.

In addition to caring for one another, the parish has a history of activism in the community, taking the lead in the creation of the island’s Japanese American Internment Memorial, and supporting Helpline House and the Interfaith Council.

St. Barnabas is a religious community in transition. The church’s longtime rector, the Rev. Joseph Hickey-Tiernan, resigned in May after 16 years and has entered a period of discernment to determine what the next phase of his ministry will be.

Zimmerman arrived in July with a mandate to guide the parish through the change. He has served churches in Hawaii, Connecticut, Illinois and Nevada, and previously served as rector of churches in Tacoma and Puyallup.

“It’s an exciting time,” . Zimmerman said. “As we move along, we are spending a lot of time reflecting on who we were, who we are now, and who God is calling us to be. There is a lot of energy here.”

On a recent Sunday morning, worshippers were asked to consider a story from the Gospel of Luke, about a rich man who refused to give even his table scraps to a sickly homeless man, Lazarus, who begged outside his door every day.

After death, Lazarus was seated in heaven, next to Abraham. But when the rich man died, he burned in purgatory, and for his cruelty, was denied even a drop of water from Lazarus’ finger.

In his homily, Zimmerman urged his congregation to ponder the story in light of their own lives and ask, “for what do you hunger?

“We are being challenged to look at ourselves through the lives of others,” he said. “Often, instead of seeing the abundance in our lives, we see scarcity. We need to go to our weakest points, where we really hunger, to find God. Go deep into yourselves, where everything is not neat and in a tidy package.

“Chances are, (the answer) is not complex. Chances are, it’s simple.”

Located at 1187 Wyatt Way, the church is busy with activities nearly every day of the week. In addition to two Sunday services, there are weekly “mindfulness meditations,” and healing services. Classes are offered on Paul, the first Christian; worship and the visual arts; and the Gospel of Mark.

Bible study and Sunday School classes are offered weekly, and formation director John Sweeney offers spiritual tutoring. One Sunday night a month, there is a candlelight Taize worship service with meditation and a simple form of Christian chant.

Parishioners bake cookies for a prison ministry program known as Kairos. There is a prayer shawl knitting group and a highly regarded music program. Fifty preschoolers attend St. Barnabas Day School, which welcomes youth from throughout the community.

Zimmerman said the Episcopal Church attracts “seekers,” usually of two types.

Some have no religious background, but they consider themselves spiritual and are interested in social justice.

Others “come from other faith traditions that they see as too confining,” and are looking for a place where their questions and doubts are welcome.

“Because we are a community of seekers, our view is that we are always on a journey, and the Christian life is a journey that is never ending,” Zimmerman said. “Therefore, we are usually willing to live in the midst of ambiguity and paradox.”

Into the fold

Parishioner Barb Ellis ventured through the doors of St. Barnabas in 1991, when she was in her mid-30s.

She had not attended church since her “rebellious teens,” when she rejected church life altogether. As a humanistically minded adult with a college education in anthropology, she wasn’t expecting to like church as a grown-up, either.

But after that Advent service she was unexpectedly and deeply touched by the welcome she received from the visiting priest, a woman who held her hands, looked her in the eyes, and asked her to come back.

“I tried to shuffle it off, but for the first time I felt a connection I had not been aware of,” said Ellis, who now serves on the vestry as senior warden.

“I could identify with her. She was about my age, and there was so much equal between us.”

The value that Episcopalians place on human reason appealed to Ellis.

In the Episcopal denomination – also known as the Anglican Church – reason is viewed as the mind of God at work among humans, religious scholars say.

The Protestant denomination was formed in the 16th century, declaring its independence from Catholic Christianity and papal authority in Rome under the rule of Henry VIII.

Its Catholic roots remain evident in the liturgy, which resembles the Mass.

The faith emphasizes the importance of a common liturgical life, centered around the Book of Common Prayer, but allows freedom of theological interpretation.

At St. Barnabas, Ellis found “a character of valuing people who are exploring. They don’t have all the answers. It’s not all locked up tight.

Some people come and they are certain about their beliefs. Others come and they are not sure why they are there.”

Unlike some Protestant denominations that hold strictly to doctrine, the American Episcopal church has long prided itself on fluidity regarding its stand on theology and social issues.

“Which is why we often get more press (than other denominations), because our linen is hung out for everyone to see,” Zimmerman said.

Internal issues

The long-brewing internal debate over the role of homosexuals in the church serves as a prime example.

At its annual meeting last year, the 2.3-million member U.S. Episcopal Church, which tends toward the liberal end of the political spectrum, rallied in favor of the ratification of a gay bishop from New Hampshire, Eugene Robinson, and it favored a “yes” vote on allowing the blessings of gay unions.

Conservatives in the 77-million member global Anglican Communion, of which the U.S. Episcopal Church is a part, opposed the liberalizing reforms and threatened to split the venerable denomination in two.

The head of the global church, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, continues to mediate between the two sides.

There have been messy local battles, too, although not about the role of gays in the church.

Over a decade ago, parishioners who were unhappy with the leadership at St. Barnabas tried to oust Hickey-Tiernan through a formal legal process in the church known as Canon 25.

When leaders in the Diocese of Olympia ruled in favor of the priest’s retention, some parishioners defected and formed Grace Episcopal Church.

Parishioners at both churches say the bad feelings have subsided and that each congregation, which has a distinctive style, is thriving.

In keeping with its age and architecture, worship at 60-year-old St. Barnabas tends toward the traditional, with a pipe organ and a choir. Grace offers a more contemporary worship experience in a modern sanctuary built last year.

Even with two Sunday morning services at St. Barnabas, the first using Elizabethan English (Rite 1) and the second using modern English vernacular – it can be crowded.

The church claims between 400-500 members.

“It’s a very good thing that Grace is there,” Ellis said, “because there really are too many Episcopalians here for just one little church.”

* * * * *

Cathedral-like

A group of eight island women in the 1920s is credited with forming what was to become St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, when they occasionally held services in their homes with visiting clergy.

In 1944, the women and their husbands decided they would like a “real” church, and an organized mission of the Diocese of Olympia was formed on the island as St. Barnabas Church. The congregation took its name from the companion of St. Paul who introduced the Christian convert to the apostles.

Among the early “movers and shakers” in the parish during its formative years were Bainbridge Review editor Walter Woodward and his wife Mildred; and the plywood entrepreneur James Hodges and his wife Frances, whose fortune provided some of the funding for the red-brick labor of love on Wyatt Way.

The small Gothic churches of England and Northern France were models for the church, and no expense was spared making it the finest sanctuary it could be, according to a historical account written by Hodges in the 1970s.

“A house dedicated to Almighty God should be the offering of the best that man has to offer,” he wrote. “Our walls...are solid brick, 13 inches thick.” The fixtures and medieval stained-glass windows came from companies that supplied some of the most magnificent churches in the United States, including St. John the Divine in New York. Although Hodges had the money to finance the entire church, he did not. Each family committed $300, and provided additional funding as the project moved forward. As a community they agreed to continue construction as long as they had cash.

“What the people didn’t know, and what I very carefully never told them, was that it was my intention to carry the construction of this church through to the point where it would be useable, and that whatever money the continuing building fund failed to raise, I would put up personally,” Hodges wrote. “In other words, the project was to start and be carried through to completion without interruption...”

The first services were held on Nov. 17, 1946. Ever since then, the red brick church on the hill has served as a directional reference point for islanders.

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