When Archdeacon Grace Swinski gave the keynote address at the 15th annual Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty statehouse vigil earlier this month, she was doing the work she had been given to do since childhood. (Read about the vigil in the Boston Globe and watch a video on Facebook.)
Swinski is a lifelong Rhode Islander and a lifelong Episcopalian, born while her father, the late Reverend Frederick K. Jellison, served St. James, Woonsocket. The youngest child of the family, Swinski says her mother, Ruth Cummings Jellison, was actively involved in parish life and ministry. “She was the first deacon I ever knew, treating everyone with respect,” she said, remembering her mother’s habit of feeding and talking with people who came to the rectory door hungry.
Swinski took her parents’ example to heart: when she was a young adult, she spent time as a volunteer in Recife, in what was then Rhode Island’s companion diocese in Brazil, doing childcare and teaching English. When she returned to the United States, she began raising funds to support the childcare center where she had served. Today she works with families living in poverty as the coordinator of a Title I family center, a job she has held for twenty years.
A deacon for six years and archdeacon of the diocese since November, Swinski serves on the steering committee of the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty as part of her diaconal ministry. The Coalition, a group that includes Muslims, Jews, and Christians, has held annual vigils at the statehouse for fifteen years. When she first learned about the group, she says, “I had an image of the steeple of the cathedral ‘keeping an eye’ on the dome of the capitol and the needs of all the people of the state,” she said. “Today we pray, tomorrow we advocate.”
When asked to offer the keynote at this year’s vigil, Swinski didn’t hesitate for long. “This is a good place for the archdeacon to speak: this is what the diaconate is all about,” she said. In her address, she noted that last year’s legislative session produced “some wonderful legislation,” including the “Cover All Kids” act that provides health care access to all children regardless of immigration status. She also cited a measure that uses $250 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to address housing issues in Rhode Island, including homelessness.
“In 2023, we will continue to work for legislation that promotes safe and affordable housing for all,” she said, urging fellow advocates to consider how people in need can best be served with the state’s $610 million budget surplus.
The Coalition’s 2023 advocacy goals include housing; the full use of federal aid in addressing poverty and inequality; immigrant rights; increasing benefit rates through Rhode Island Works; a “more just” tax structure; environmental justice; and food sustainability.
As archdeacon, Swinski hopes to encourage more participation from both deacons and laypeople in local and statewide advocacy. She describes the diaconal dismissal from worship—“Go now, and do what you know you’re supposed to do,” she paraphrases—as an invitation to all members of the diocese.
“Everyone has a calling,” she said. “I hope in my ministry to be partnered with the bishop to work together to grow and support the diaconate so people can see what deacons can do.