My confirmation bible is not a particularly handsome book, but it does look made to be kept for a lifetime and passed down for at least a single generation. National churches print up enough of these that they have a special name for them: gift bibles. The front endpaper is printed with blanks for commemorating the gift’s sacramental or ceremonial occasion and a big flyleaf for a personal handwritten inscription. “You are a gifted person. Enjoy and use your gifts in service to humanity and in service to the church,” reads the inscription in mine. Although I didn’t compare notes with my fellow teenage confirmands, I assume that they all said the same thing. After all, that’s pretty much as pithy an expression of the Protestant ethic you could find.
I like to think that Pastor James M. Fish had held enough confirmation classes in his day that my leaving church within two years of receiving that bible didn’t come as much of a surprise. But he might have been surprised to learn that, after college, I would go on to spend years on a dissertation about how lapsed Protestants like Jane Addams and W.E.B. DuBois nurtured a secular concept of vocation. That I would spend a decade of my life struggling to make sense of that generic inscription—“use your gifts in service”— in trying to explain to myself and others how our work, especially our jobs, might serve democratic life.
That confirmation inscription was the sacramental form of a daily lesson that helped organize my childhood family life. And so it was something of a revelation when, on a clear afternoon in 2016—18 years after leaving the church—I responded to that lesson with disbelief. As my mom often did in those months after she retired, she teed up our conversation in the Colorado pines for her favorite new observation—”I’m glad to be leaving the workforce instead of entering it, I’ll tell you that much. And I’m grateful to have had a career that I loved, and that felt like a useful service.” Then she added an old admonition: “I don’t see how you could get up in the morning and do it otherwise.” My pulse quickened as, in a voice a little louder and angrier than I intended, I admitted that, actually, I hated my job.
At that point I was two years into a journey from starry-eyed would-be scholar to member of mid-level academic administration and academic support, the desk-job underclass that is sometimes euphemistically called “alt-ac.” As disillusioned as I might have been with academia, even then, I still held fast to the faith that work could give life—my life and others’—meaning. In my struggle to make peace with my new job, I remained eager to make whatever I was doing into a proper calling. With as much certainty as if a flight attendant suddenly announced a loss in cabin pressure, I knew what to do. As surely as I’d grab that oxygen mask, I resolved, upon my return to Syracuse, to find a vocation in meaningful service to the public. And it wasn’t hard to figure out how to serve. Everywhere I looked in the summer of 2016, the competing political symbols of election season did little more than remind me of the country’s civic unraveling. Could there be a better purpose? And so, in August, I wandered into the basement of a Syracuse synagogue for a meeting of an interfaith community organizing project.
The group was active in several different areas, but the one that most appealed to me was work on criminal justice reform. There was a statewide effort to raise the age of adulthood in the eyes of the court; moreover, there were rumors of a lawsuit against the county for using solitary confinement to punish the juvenile population housed in adult jail. It took me a few meetings to understand that faith was as much the content as the context of their activism. When the names of influential local political figures came up in meetings, the best organizers asked, “Where do they go to church? Do we know anyone there? Does anyone know the pastor?” Yes, the question was strategic, but it wasn’t only strategic. Theirs was a kind of activism that operated on the conviction that one authentic relationship could do more than petitions, marches, and rallies. People, even powerful people, went to church because they believed in something. Maybe, within that system of beliefs, they could be persuaded to act.
I left church at age 17. Not long after my confirmation, I realized that even attending three times a week wasn’t enough to cast out all of my petty demons, or anyone else’s. I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the shadow of Oral Roberts’s City of Faith, the Prayer Tower, and those bronze Praying Hands. Although intense feeling was a normal part of religious experience among my friends and neighbors, it hadn’t been for me. My own church was staid and Lutheran, led by a pastor who had previously been a professor of homiletics at an Iowa seminary. Weekly sermons were bits of popular theology, mixing references to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Marty while still making everything go down smooth. When he wanted to really emphasize the depth of a point, he would allude to one or the other Niebuhr brothers. There was always plenty to think about, but not much to believe in.
But sitting in those meetings back in Syracuse, I realized that if I wanted to have anything to contribute, I would need to find a church. I was already meeting in church basements, parlors, and parish halls—so why not just come back on Sunday mornings? That’s basically how I made up my mind. The criminal justice reform committee of the interfaith coalition was meeting at a member church, Grace Episcopal. The church also turned out a large delegation of members to a rally and accountability meeting that the organization sponsored. And so, one Sunday morning just before Christmas, my family and I went to services at Grace for the first time.
Grace was led by Johanna Marcure, an Episcopal priest who was an apostle of the 20th-century theologian William Stringfellow. Stringfellow’s key idea was that the kingdom of God couldn’t wait, but should be made here and now, through a great cosmic struggle on Earth between “the powers and principalities of death” and the forces of eternal life. For Stringfellow, all the institutions and structures of social and economic life—all human attempts to create a durable, permanent world—lay in the realm of death. Eternal life required ignoring them, and living only in relationship to God. My task, insofar as I was committed to my newfound spiritual life, was to rethink my commitments to meaningful work, seeing my job—any job, really—as mere toil in the principalities of death. It it was another minor revelation. The references in my childhood church to social justice theologians had always been offered as a solution to some private, inner tumult not as a charge to renew a world badly bruised. Moreover, I had always associated the refusal of the world with the Pentecostal churches I had grown up around—never with radical social engagement.
But as I found myself engaged in political activism, I came to understand the power of Stringfellow’s thinking. I never found more truth in Stringfellow than in the days following the 2016 election; the world we had built, I thought over and over, had so plainly been put to the service of death. Moreover, the church’s ministries and work in the community reinforced this radical theology. The Grace Project, a small jail outreach program that had been running for about four years, had supplied witnesses to a lawsuit demanding the county end solitary confinement of youth. In the process, Marcure’s husband, a rabbi, lost his job as the county jail chaplain. This type of church, and this type of ministry, was exactly what I was looking for, and exactly what I had hoped would lead the way toward a vocation.
The Onandaga County Justice Center was built in 1995, and looks for all the world like any urban commercial property, a tallish brick and concrete structure with large and generous windows. It sits, incongruously, next to the I.M. Pei-designed squat cube that houses Syracuse’s Everson Museum of Art. The Justice Center was designed to operate by what carceral professionals call “direct supervision.” What that means is there aren’t bars or cages, but instead, large open-plan cell blocks called “pods.” The idea behind direct supervision is to create regular but unpredictable interaction between custody deputies and the people in jail.
The Justice Center’s waiting area feels a bit like a bus station. The uncomfortable metal chairs keep people clustered in small groups until the time comes for the bureaucracy to form them into a single large line. It also shares the bus station’s feeling of last-resort desperation; if there were another way to get wherever you were trying to go, you’d probably take it. Inside the pod, the shabby residential furnishings reflect the county’s dwindling population and corollary tax base. There are small TVs, institutional wooden furniture, a handful of tables and crummy plastic chairs. A bank of phones between a tiny weight room and an exercise court with a basketball hoop take up one wall. Cells line the other walls, but they have no bars, just doors with safety-glass windows, and house just one prisoner apiece. Each pod houses 50 or so people, broken up into two floors.
The first night I went into the jail with this ministry, in February 2017, we played a wholesome round of “Would you Rather” with the dozen or so young men who had landed in the Justice Center and been trotted out to meet with us. There was the priest, the rabbi, a legal aid attorney, my partner, and me. We all sat in a circle and the priest gave a brief and not particularly churchy spiel about how our only rule was not talking when other people talk. When the teens balked at being asked to share their names, it suddenly became clear tome that I had no idea what I was meant to contribute to the group, what exactly the ministry was doing, and why I was even there.
I was surprised when the priest announced that we would start with an icebreaker, but as I watched the group interact, I saw just how hard it was for some of those kids to be themselves. For some it seemed like the generic teenage too-cool-for-school sneering. Others seemed afraid to speak and incur the derision of the extroverts, those who had been in for a long time, those who projected a strange, silent charisma. After our allotted hour was up, we said an extremely brief prayer—”God is good all the time; all the time God is good”—and went out into the night, back to the church parking lot, and from there back to our separate lives. As my partner and I drove off, I felt confused about what the purpose of any of the service was, beyond providing limited and informal access to the attorney in our group—an attorney whose practice area wasn’t even criminal defense.
But I kept going back, nearly every week. When I would tell friends and acquaintances about the jail visits, I would feel just as tongue-tied as I did inside the Justice Center. I found it easiest to fall back on religious language. With the aggressively secular, I described our work as the “hand of God,” winking the whole time. It usually made them uncomfortable enough not to ask any more questions. With those connected to a faith community, I typically called it a “ministry.” They didn’t ask follow-up questions either, their own understanding of that word doing the explanatory work that I couldn’t.
Public access to the lives of prisoners today has grown alongside a serious and intelligent public interest in mass incarceration and policing. Related concepts like “the school-to-prison pipeline” and “the prison-industrial complex”have brought ideas that once could only be encountered in leftist bookstores and hip-hop lyrics into the establishment’s summer reading programs. Yet at the same time that the public laments mass incarceration, it remains in love with stories like Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying—which remains a bestseller 25 years after it was first published. Tales of self-invention and redemption in and through—or, perhaps, despite—prison. These stories are usually Gatsby in reverse, persistent self-fashioning in order to finally accept the great, penniless grind that awaits whether inside or out.
It’s a pleasing story, but it’s not one I can tell. Most of the kids I met were pre-trial and still focused on beating their cases. Mostly what we would do is talk about how to plan for life outside, and what meaningful work might look like, short- and long-term. They sponge up buzzwords and spit them right back at us. (I remember one kid who insisted he wanted to be a “wellness entrepreneur” when he got out.) Others knew what they thought we wanted to hear, but didn’t have the gift of gab, or just couldn’t hide their contempt for our attempts to connect. When these kids would tell me about how they were going to change their lives, I could sometimes note a mocking lilt. They knew the song, it said, but they wouldn’t do the dance.
At least a few, probably more, were still being drawn forward by despair. One kid would always tease me about coming down to his block. I watched him cycle through two stints at the Justice Center. In a long conversation one night, he told me he’d never wind up in jail again, even if it meant “going out like Rambo.”
We weren’t there to convert anyone, though we did tell them where our church is, and how to get there. Our presence there was an act of faith. We never knew how long they were going to be there, or whether they would be returning to the city or heading “up north”to state prison. All we could do is be with them in that hour once a week and trust that there was some value in spending time with each other. To create a space that wouldn’t exist without each one of us being present.
If I was seldom clear on what we had been doing in the jail, then I wasn’t not much clearer on what I was doing in church. In October of 2017, Marcure announced that she would be leaving Grace for another church. Her departure left the future of the church—and the Grace Project—uncertain. A few of us decided to continue the ministry, at least until we saw the hard-fought raise-the-age legislation come into effect. As of October 1, 2018, when we decided to end the 5-year ministry, the pod only housed 17-year olds; the 16-year olds had been transferred to a “juvenile justice” facility on the far side of the city. By next year, minors won’t be housed in the Justice Center at all.
Her departure also meant that, now, for me, Grace Church is just church. The gray stone building nestled between the university, a state psychiatric hospital, high-end student apartments, a biotech accelerator, boutique hotels, and low-income senior housing is less an activist meeting space than a house of worship. But even without the ministry, I find in the pews a verification of Stringfellow’s message. It remains hard to believe that anything other than a direct, unmediated relationship to God could unite this small, dedicated band of middle-class African Americans, white professionals, ex-cons, convicted sex offenders, psychiatric outpatients, and assorted others, barely bobbing above the water line. It hardly seems a worldly institution at all, less a church than the kingdom of God I’d always imagined.
I still don’t find my job particularly meaningful. But I don’t really care about that anymore. I’m still going to church, where I’ve come to feel myself as part of the community who gather in that place every Sunday. There’s meaning for me in the small kindnesses that make up its weekly rituals. Sometimes it’s just listening to the stories our older members tell about coming to Grace after being rejected by other churches. Other times, it’s getting coffee for a disabled parishioner, or sharing food with people who probably don’t get enough to eat. In those moments, I feel like I’m taking care of the past and holding space for the future. I feel animated by a commitment to keeping the vitality of a church that integrated in the 1950s—a decision for which it endured bomb threats in the 1960s. Later, in the 1970s, Grace saw its priest exiled when he permitted a woman to occupy the pulpit. Here, the ecclesiastical concept of stewardship feels less like a polite way of asking for money and more like a daily activity. At Grace, love is a practice as much as a feeling.
Even in a small city like Syracuse, I don’t typically see my fellow parishioners outside of church. I don’t think of any of them as friends, exactly. But I don’t think of them as strangers, either. We share something in common, but it isn’t an occupation or ideology. It’s not necessarily even a shared theology. I know that on Sundays I sit next to at least one atheist, many who hear the still, small voice of the holy spirit, and some whose faith is more literal yet. But what we do share is a desire to be with one another in the intimate act of making meaning out of symbols, rituals, and spaces. All of us are hoping to connect our common life to deeper traditions and motivations. We’re all willing to be reminded that the world was here before us and will outlast us, that we’ve been bigger and better before, and that we aren’t figuring this all out for the first time.
Somehow in my efforts to find meaning, first in work and then in civic life, I’ve improbably found it in a small church. And I’ve come to realize that what I thought was activism in the justice center was just another form of church, a way to bring a small part of our worship into the most obvious principality of death. When I first read my confirmation inscription, I thought I was supposed to serve the world. Now, I find myself serving the church, a group of a few dozen people who are unlike me in all but the essentials of human experience: the capacity to be struck dumb by mystery and, in the face of it, the humility to admit our need to seek out the company of others.
Popula is 100% ad-free, reader-supported journalism accountable only to you. Every dollar of your subscription goes straight to our work. Thank you for supporting Popula.