Follow where you believe God is calling your heart

The Rev. Jo-Ann Drake, the first woman ordained to the priesthood from the Diocese of Rhode Island, wasn’t able to make the luncheon the diocesan chapter of the Episcopal Church Women hosted recently to celebrate the 49th anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood. But she sent a note. It read, in part:

“On Sunday I had the joy of celebrating the 45th Anniversary of my Ordination to the Priesthood. When Bishop [Fredrick H.] Belden ordained me, he congratulated me on being the first woman priest in the Diocese. I thanked him then told him that all that really mattered was that I wouldn’t be the last.

Your gathering this day demonstrates how resoundingly God answered our prayers and affirmed our call. My thoughts and prayers are with you all and may you have a joyful and Spirit filled day.”

Drake found her way into the Episcopal Church through campus ministry programs at Rhode Island College and Brown University. Belden, a staunch advocate for women’s ordination at a time when the diocese was divided on the issue, ordained her to the priesthood on October 1, 1978, at St. Peter’s Church in Glenside, Pennsylvania, where she had been serving as a transitional deacon.

She would serve other churches in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire before returning to Rhode Island in 1993 as rector of Church of the Redeemer in Providence. Looking back on her journey, which began in a time of great uncertainty, she said recently that she “wouldn’t change a minute of it.”

Drake’s path to the priesthood began as the Episcopal Church’s sometimes fractious discernment of whether women should be ordained to the priesthood was reaching its climax. Such ordinations were not permitted when she entered Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) in the fall of 1974, yet weeks earlier in Philadelphia, three bishops had ordained 11 women in defiance of the church’s prohibition.

By the time she graduated from EDS, not only had the church’s General Convention authorized women’s ordination to the priesthood, but two of the Philadelphia 11—the Revs. Carter Hayward, Ph.D and Suzanne Hiatt—were members of the seminary’s faculty.

As the church’s discernment progressed, Drake’s did, too. She had originally felt called to teach, but her interest in ordained ministry intensified, and Belden encouraged her. “I cannot say one bad word about him,” Drake said. “He was so kind and gracious and wanted to ordain a woman in Rhode Island.”

Her path “didn’t really cross,” with Hayward and Hiatt’s, Drake said, but she appreciated their example. “I admire their courage and believe they honestly were following God’s call,” she said. “What they did was grace-filled and holy; a spiritual outpouring of God’s will and God’s love.”

While a number of her classmates were involved in women’s groups and other activities, Drake said that wasn’t for her. “I’m a bookworm and a geek,” she said. “I loved having my nose stuck in a book.”

“A lot” has changed over the course of her ministry, Drake said, particularly in the acceptance of female clergy. While Drake attended chapel regularly at EDS, several of her fellow students and the faculty chose not to attend if Heyward or Hyatt were celebrating. Some bishops would not allow their seminarians to attend.

There have also been significant changes in seminary curriculum, especially around liberation theology, which was just beginning to be studied during her years, she said.

Drake is now retired and associated with St Paul’s, Pawtucket where “I do as much for them as I can,” running the website, contributing to workshops, programs, and quiet days online, and celebrating the Eucharist on occasion. She does interim and supply work, telling the congregations she visits: “I’m here to share the love of God with you. Let’s go.” and “When someone hungry in front of you, give them a sandwich, someone lonely in front of you, spend a few minutes.”

Guests at the ECW luncheon included the Rt. Rev. Geralyn Wolf, the diocese’s former bishop, who was a classmate of Drake’s at EDS, and the Rev. Elizabeth Habecker, a member of the Rhode Island Standing Committee, who was the first woman ordained to the priesthood in the Diocese of Maine. Wolf, the first woman to be elected bishop of the diocese, presided at the Eucharist preceding the luncheon, and Habecker was among those who offered reflections on their ministry.

Asked what she would say to women considering seminary and ordination today, Drake responded that she would say the same thing to a woman as to a man: “follow where you believe God is calling your heart. If it’s right, God will open the doors. … Happiness in life is in finding what you discern and believe. Follow what you discern is the best for us – what God wants for us. Pray for that – trust that God is going to bring you there.” She concluded by noting, “It’s all about the journey. It’s nice to celebrate the goals, but it’s the whole journey.”


What else can I do to give back?

At 68 years of age, Rhode Islander Peter Bak found himself wondering what would come next. Retired after a successful career in business, he had spent three years making visits to nursing homes, hospitals, hospices, scout troops and more with Lucy, the first therapy-certified pit bull in the state. Still, Bak found himself looking for more.

“What else can I do to give back? So many people have given so much to me: what else can I do?” he remembers asking himself.

When he expressed his quandary to the bishop’s staff, Bak was introduced to the Episcopal Volunteers in Mission program, part of the Mission Personnel Office of The Episcopal Church. He visited the church’s headquarters in New York while Elizabeth Boe, the Episcopal Church’s staff officer for global mission engagement, was in Tanzania, where the Rev. John Madinda, the principal of St. Philip’s Theological College expressed a need for someone to help people training for the priesthood learn more about how to maintain their churches. He also, he said, needed help maintaining the college’s building in Kongwa.

Bak didn’t need to be asked twice.

He began his ministry in Tanzania in 2018, making regular trips of two to three months each. Today his work still includes training future priests and work on the college’s building. But, he said with a laugh, he has learned that the most important skill is the ability to “always stay flexible,” since every day can include last minute surprises.

Bak’s work has expanded to connecting priests-in-training to the Bethesda Disability Program and teaching the school’s students how to use tools. Last year, he made a dozen cornhole games in Rhode Island and took them to Tanzania for the students in the Disability Program to paint.

His work in Tanzania is characterized by respect and love for the people he serves. “We mzungus (a term for white people in the Swahili language) are in their homeland and should be doing what they want,” Bak said. “I learned that the men especially liked my complimenting their work by calling it ‘supa.’ It caught on: ‘Supa work!’ Now, you can see groups of fifteen or twenty Tanzanian young men chanting ‘supa, supa, supa’ with a Boston accent.”

“Peter throws himself wholeheartedly into every experience,” Boe said. “He has built a great team at the theological college using his gifts of listening and responding to the situation at hand. He embodies what being a missionary in the 21st century is all about – building relationships, listening, learning, offering God-given skills.”

Bak is grateful to the Diocese of Rhode Island for support that has provided a new computer for the College’s top student and a new pump for the drip irrigation project. “Increasing the pump size has allowed us to grow more food.”

He encourages other Episcopalians to consider Episcopal Volunteers in Mission, a program for adults who are interested in living and serving in communities around the Anglican Communion.

“Don’t be afraid to do something new,” he said. “You may not have ever done it before, but that doesn’t matter – just be willing to learn. Before going to Tanzania, I hadn’t been out of the country except for trips to Canada. Going to Tanzania and learning to keep an open mind is a biggie. Just ask God for help to understand and work with the people there.”

Bak returned to Tanzania on October 3 and invites members of the diocese to follow his ministry on his blog. To learn more about Episcopal Volunteers in Mission, email Elizabeth Boe or fill out an online application. 

Aspiring Preacher Formation

Aspiring preachers from across the United States and Canada gathered earlier this summer for a week of focused formation on preparing sermons. Established in 1998, the Preaching Excellence Program is a central ministry of the Episcopal Preaching Foundation, which aims to enhance and inspire great preaching.

Drake Douglas, a Postulant in the Diocese of Rhode Island attended this year’s program. “To spend such meaningful time both relishing and grappling with the holy task of faithfully sharing God’s Good Word, and to do so in community with other new preachers is pure gift,” Drake shares. “It’s a sincere privilege to learn from these talented and caring souls, and I’m grateful to have a growing network of support for what I hope will be a life-long practice of preaching.”

Seminaries from across the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada nominate students to participate in the all-expenses paid week. Noted theologians and preachers from across the church led workshops and small-group discussions. A central part of the program is preaching to feedback, so participants gave and received comments and critiques on their sermons. Workshops this year included Instant Preaching, Trauma-Informed Preaching, Instant Preaching, and A New Priest’s Journey.

Since its founding, the Preaching Excellence Program has offered formation in sermon creation and delivery to more than 2,000 seminarians, including two who later became presiding bishops. Other programs sponsored by the Preaching Foundation include a Lay Preaching Training Initiative, local partnerships with dioceses and seminaries, the Preaching Congregation, and conferences for deacons.

To learn more about the Preaching Foundation, visit

Books Through Bars Finds a Home at St. Barnabas, Warwick

Books Through Bars Finds a Home at St. Barnabas Warwick

Late in 2021, Providence Books Through Bars, an all-volunteer organization that sends books to people in prison all over the country, knew they needed a different space from which to work. For almost a decade, the group had been working out of a volunteer’s garage. But lack of heat or access to facilities made the work of sending over 1,000 packages of books to inmates across the US difficult. 

Volunteer Therese Zink was worshipping at St. Mark’s, Warwick at the time, and asked the Rev. Susan Wrathall whether space might be available in an Episcopal church building. Wrathall suggested St. Barnabas in Warwick where the Rev. Scott Lee, the church’s rector, was happy to make room for the program. 

Hosting Providence Books Through Bars “extends the congregation’s ministry to care for those in prison. It allows us to live into the call to love others as Christ loves us; to care for others in the ways that Jesus makes clear in Matthew 25,” Lee says. “It allows us to acknowledge that this is part of our call as Christians and a simple way to tell people ‘you are not forgotten.’” 

At St. Barnabas, Books Through Bars moved into a space four times larger than their previous garage home early in 2022. The new “upgraded” space, as Zink calls it, includes ample room for book storage and tables for packaging and labeling. The location, on the first level of the building, allows volunteers to move in and out without carrying bins of packages up or down stairs on their way to the post office.  

Dr. Zink, a professor of family medicine at Brown University, says the parish is a great host. “Several vestry members worked with us to find the right space. Having access to internet and cell phone service is critical to our work,” she says. “I’ve … moved my membership to St. Barnabas because I was so touched by the engagement the vestry and Father Scott exhibited in the possibility of hosting Books Through Bars.”   

In its new digs, Books Through Bars has dedicated one room to fiction, and another to non-fiction and its mailing operation. The organization maintains a database of inmates’ previous choices along with the regulations and restrictions at specific prisons. The group has between 5,000 and 8,000 titles on hand at any one time, and mails approximately 500 books a month in packages of two to four paperbacks each. 

Books Through Bars is open to volunteers on Sunday afternoons following worship and coffee hour at St. Barnabas. The congregation has welcomed volunteers to attend coffee hour, and the group has reciprocated by hosting coffee hour for the congregation.  

Teens in the congregation find the program a good fit for their community service hours, and two high school volunteers from another part of the city have begun attending the 10:00 service.  

Books Through Bars accepts donations of paperback books, but not hard covers. Inmates – on average 150 or so each month – write to request books within a certain genre or area of interest rather than by specific title. One prisoner, with an interest in reading “the classics,” has requested and read about 1,000 books. 

Financial donations help cover mailing costs and the purchase of books not already on the organization’s shelves. Manga and anime are both popular genres that frequently require purchase.  

Providence Books Through Bars was founded in 2003 by Dirt Palace, a Providence feminist artists’ collective, and is a 501 c3 non-profit. It is associated with the national Books Through Bars organization.  

How Aging Congregations Thrive

photo of people at a cookoutThe last time Bishop Nicholas Knisely visited St. Andrew’s, Little Compton, a member of the congregation asked what the parish had to do to attract families with children. The Rev. Virginia Army, the parish’s rector, remembers his response well.

“He spoke with warmth, but candor,” she recalls, explaining that rising housing prices and the attractiveness of communities such as Little Compton to retirees meant that fewer young families were moving into the diocese, and that some aging congregations did not have the capacity to support children’s programs.

“He told them, ‘You do not have to have children and youth to be a parish that is worthy and vibrant and serving and glorifying God,’” Army recalls. “I think a lot of the parish kind of took a deep breath and said, ‘We are who we are.’”

In numerous communities around the diocese, congregations are having to recognize that decades of declining church attendance coupled with the state’s shifting demographic profile means they are ministering increasingly, and sometimes almost entirely, to people of retirement age or older. The average age of St. Andrew’s congregation is 82. “We have children and grandchildren at holidays,” Army says. “But that’s all.”

But an older congregation can still be a vital one, says Army, a cancer survivor who works a 25-hour week. “You have to be good at and committed to what you can do and in recognizing what your neighborhood needs.”

St. Andrew’s is especially concerned with food insecurity in the three-town area that includes Little Compton, Tiverton and Westport, Massachusetts. Parishioners support two food banks and are planning a charity concert in July by the parish’s choir director and pianist, Gayane Darakyan, a classically trained concert pianist, to benefit the food banks.

The parish also supports the Little Compton Circle of Friends, a social group for teens and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, holds blood drives and recently co-sponsored a “shred day” with the Little Compton United Church of Christ on which a truck bearing a paper shredder arrived from a local vendor and community members brought documents that needed secure disposal.

St. Andrew’s has what Army describes as a “generous mission budget,” but the parish also likes to “roll up our sleeves and work together, too” she says.

There are particular challenges an aging congregation faces, and parishes must develop the capacity to face them, Army says. Three times this year, parishioners have collapsed during worship. Members of the congregation are now practiced in what to do on these occasions. Seven members of the parish are trained to use an automated external defibrillator or attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and on any given Sunday, Army says, at least three or four are present. On each occasion, after the ambulance arrived, members of the parish accompanied the afflicted person’s spouse to the hospital, and the community rallied around them, arranging meals and transportation when necessary.

“It has been a complete joy for me to serve with them. And I admire their commitment to taking care of each other and their neighbors, whether they know them or not,” Army says.

One misconception about older congregations is that they do not receive new members, Army says. “New people will come but they will just likely be older,” she says. “There are still people out there, like recent retirees who have moved to the area, who are looking for a warm, welcoming and faithful community who do their best to serve and glorify God. That’s where the sustainability can really come from, and there is nobody on the vestry who doesn’t understand that this is the challenge of our time.”

St. Columba’s, Middletown serves a broader demographic than St. Andrew’s, but in recent years it has also paid attention to the particular needs of older members of the congregation. In 2017, three years after her husband Art died as the result of a bicycle accident, parishioner Sara Chadwick put together a three-part series that began with a highly personal exploration on aging, death and dying and included one session with a registered nutritionist and another with a staff member of the American Association of Retired People, who spoke about driving, specifically about convincing older relatives not to, and home safety issues such as getting rid of loose scatter rugs and putting grab bars in showers.

At the first session, Chadwick told those gathered that her husband’s death had left her without passwords or other essential information for taking care of his unfinished business. “I talked about what people did for me when Art died, flowers, food and endless support,” she says. “And I talked about getting rid of his clothing. And then how I started coping with money matters. Like who is our oil company. Things I’d never paid attention to because he was so good at those things.”

Her co-presenter, Lois Rogers, another longtime parishioner at St. Columba’s, spoke of the long, slow death of her husband, Ray: how he prepared for his death and how she and her children carried on afterwards.

That first session was raw, Chadwick says, but the congregation was supportive, and attendance at the sessions grew. In 2018, she organized a four-part series that began with a similar presentation by her and Rogers, followed by a return visit by a local nutritionist, and sessions with a home organizer who gave tips on downsizing and a police officer who spoke about avoiding scammers who target the elderly.

The series was interrupted by the pandemic, but Chadwick says she hopes to relaunch it.

St. Columba’s has seen “an influx of younger couples” under the Rev. Anne Bolles-Beaven, who became priest-in-charge in 2020 and rector in 2022, Chadwick says. But the parish still relies on the experience and energy of older parishioners in mounting event such as its annual English garden party, held this year on June 10.

“Nobody seems to give a hoot about how old anybody is,” Chadwick says. “Nobody says, ‘You’ve done this five times, why don’t you let somebody else handle it?’ They say ‘You’ve done a good job, why don’t you do it again?’”


– Jim Naughton, Canticle Communications

Diversity is the way to Unity

This past weekend we celebrated Trinity Sunday. It’s the only Sunday festival of the Church that celebrates a doctrine rather than a historical event, and that tells me that the Episcopal Church considers something about the Trinity to be especially important.

And what about it is so important? It’s certainly not the specifics of how One God manages to be three persons in unity of being. Because pretty much the best we can do in laying that out is to say what it is not rather than what it is. It’s striking that in the end, we say it’s a Holy Mystery and back away from trying to explain it all.

So, what is it then? To me, it’s not the details of the doctrine but the implications that matter. I think there are three of those: Unity in Diversity, Interdependence and Cooperation, and Complexity and Order. Because God is the Creator of the reality we know, we ought to expect to see these implications everywhere we look. And when people insist on ideas that contradict them, we should be wary.

As citizens of a great democracy, I think we fundamentally understand how Unity in Diversity works. You can find that sentiment on our nation’s Great Seal: E Pluribus Unum – out of many, one. The motto doesn’t mean that we lose our distinctiveness by being part of one nation; it means that our individual gifts contribute to making the whole more robust than it would otherwise be.

One of the great gifts of being part of the worldwide Anglican Communion is that we have been taught the meaning of Ubuntu by our siblings from the nations of southern Africa. Human beings are fundamentally social beings who exist in relation to others. The philosophy of Ubuntu encourages people to be inclusive and value each individual’s diversity and uniqueness. Like E Pluribus Unum, Ubuntu is a reflection of the love that is the essential quality of our Trinitarian God.

One of the most striking qualities of chaotic materials and situations is that, over time, a sort of mostly stable order emerges spontaneously out of the chaos. It’s like the flight of a large flock of birds when the individual behaviors suddenly seem to be coordinated and arresting patterns emerge – what scientists call “murmuration.”

None of these things could exist if we were just one thing or all held to a singular set of beliefs. It is the diversity and, frankly, the sometimes frustrating division that makes us who we are. Our duty as believers in this Trinity is to recognize the power of our diversity and do what is needed to protect it when it is threatened. It’s why we celebrate Pride or Black History, Women’s History or Asian American History, or the History of our Native forebears. The wonderful diversity of our communities should be reflected in our congregations and our life as a church. Just as our churches and communities, at the very very best, reflect the Trinitarian God we worship and adore.


Partnering with RIPTA

For the third summer, the Diocese of Rhode Island is partnering with the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority and the Discover Newport tourism board to fund free electric bus service to the city’s beaches and tourist destinations.

Speaking at a celebratory press conference on May 27, Bishop Nicholas Knisely said that the diocese’s support of the initiative represents “a vision for a different way of being a community.”

Citing the diocese’s commitment to both environmental sustainability and equity, he said that the summer trolleys provide residents of Newport’s North End, especially children, “with a way to get to the beach you can see but not safely get to—the beach where your friends spend the summer.

Newport Mayor Xaykham (Xay) Khamsyvoravong agreed. “I grew up riding RIPTA down to Newport and have remained an avid rider ever since,” he said. “To improve traffic, mobility and equity in Newport, we need to build public transit partnerships like the ones we are proud to continue with these routes.”

The chief executive officer of RIPTA, Scott Avedisian, is a longtime diocesan leader and lifelong member of Trinity, Pawtuxet.

“I am proud of Discover Newport and the Episcopal Diocese for providing funding to help make transit more accessible to both tourists and residents alike,” he said.

The Rev. Della Wager Wells, rector of Emmanuel, Newport, and the Rev. Kevin Beesley, rector of St. John’s, Newport, also attended the event.

Adapting Creatively at Emmanuel Cumberland

Emmanuel Church in Cumberland is a youthful congregation by Episcopal standards with an average age of 44, almost 15 years below the churchwide average. Its members’ lives “are so full of upheaval with so few sacred cows, it can be easier to shift directions,” says the Rev. Joan Testin, the church’s rector of 10 years.

This stood the parish in good stead when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing congregations around the world into a lengthy period of adapting services, ministries and formation opportunities for consumption online. And it was equally helpful when the cloud of COVID began to lift and some people returned to services while others did not.

Having a rector who taught music and drama for 23 years, and who picked up a few ideas about improvisation, and “telling stories through theater” didn’t hurt either. The process of adapting during the pandemic wasn’t always smooth, and Testin acknowledges that some of the “quirky” things that worked at Emmanuel might not work elsewhere. But the congregation’s experience illuminates the particular challenges that have faced congregations everywhere in the last several years.

Compared to many churches, Emmanuel seemed well-positioned to confront pandemic challenges. The parish began a virtual Sunday School in 2018 with a video each week featuring cartoons, a story, and other activities. The video was linked each week in the e-newsletter and themes and images presented virtually were then brought up during Children’s Chapel for younger children, reinforcing the lesson.

Testin created an avatar, or cartoon, of herself as “Vicar Joan” who engaged with children attending virtual Sunday School each week. “It was a lot of fun and we were poised, then, when 2020 hit to continue doing that kind of Christian formation for the kids.”

The congregation had also done the difficult work of reshaping its service schedule to meet the changing needs of its members. Recognizing in 2016 that getting to church on Sunday morning was a struggle for some people, it switched its 11 a.m. service to 5 p.m., a move Testin describes now as “an abject failure.” But moving the service to 5 p.m. on Saturday and setting a contemplative tone with reflective opening music had proven successful.

The pandemic, however, disrupted both dynamic and static parishes alike, and some of Emmanuel’s adaptations and innovations were lost, at least temporarily, only to be replaced by new ones. The parish worshipped either online—a 9:30 a. m. service each Sunday—or outdoors for most of the first two years of the pandemic before returning to in-person worship.

The virtual Sunday School did not survive the transition, and the parish has shifted its efforts to drawing children more deeply into Sunday worship. The Children’s Chapel is once again available during the 9:30 service, while older children serve as lectors and acolytes and confirmed youth serve as lay eucharistic ministers. Children who are not serving on the altar (where coloring books and crayons are readily available) are invited to sit near the front to see something other than the backs of other heads.

The 9:30 Sunday service—which is still live-streamed—had the parish’s highest pre-pandemic attendance. While that is still the case, Testin notes, the service has also had the highest level of attrition in in-person attendance. Some congregants to watch the livestream, as do newcomers who discovered the parish online, and the numbers of in-person and online attendees are about equal, Testin says. The 5:30 Saturday service is also back on the parish calendar.

The parish has come back to life in other ways, too. Bishop Knisely visited recently to confirm those who had completed the parish’s two-year preparation program. After baptizing nine babies this year, Testin and the parish held a reception for the infants and their families. Helping young parents get to know each other, asking what the parish can do to support them, and building a strong foundation of connection supports the parish’s goal of engaging children and teens in the worship and communal life of the congregation.

Emmanuel also offers opportunities for older members, whom Testin says “may have more time and energy for formation and fellowship.” Online, hybrid, and in-person, book studies, DVD courses, and a monthly lunch and learn program with the United Methodist congregation down the street meet many of those needs, while accommodating people’s varying degrees of ability to gather in-person. Some participants in a recent “theology of Harry Potter” series came for the study and stayed to become members of the parish.

Testin’s own attitude about the post-pandemic challenges ahead were best captured in a sermon she preached early in 2023 and her rector’s report to the Annual Meeting, which focused on the need to discern what comes next. “The church we were in 2020 will never come back. It is hard to let go—and it is gone.”

She believes that during the pandemic, Sunday morning became family time. Just as with the tension between worship and Sunday-morning sports practices, she wonders how the parish can continue to offer opportunities to participate in worship. “These families with young babies, I want to ask them if Wednesday evening works better for them. We are wrestling with two goods here: how can we figure a way for both things to happen?”

The best response to the challenges facing the church will arise from individual congregations discerning in their own contexts, she says.

“We need to be true to being Emmanuel, just as other parishes need to be true to being themselves … We see article after article after article telling us that the church is dying. I think the church is pregnant. And yes, it’s hard, and yes, it’s exhausting, and yes, it’s painful, but in the end, we have new life. That’s where we’re going, but it’s going to be a while to get there. You have to find what is going to work in your own context and what’s going to be authentic for who you are and go from there.”

-Jim Naughton, Canticle Communications

The Ordination of Andrea Hutnak

On Saturday, June 3, the Rt. Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely will be pleased to ordain Andrea Hutnak to the sacred order of Deacons at All Saints’ Memorial Church at 2 pm. All are welcome. If you wish to watch the service online, it will be streamed to All Saints’ Facebook page.

The service bulletin will be found here.