What Could Be

by Jen Owens

Even before I moved to Berkeley last August, I had been looking for a parish to join in the Bay Area. Given the changes that I could see coming, I sought a place to lay down spiritual roots. So I went online and did some research, emailing music ministers to find out more about their ministries. I received several kind replies, but there was one particular gentleman who went out of his way to set up a phone conversation with me. He let me know about his priorities as a minister, described the sense of community among those involved, and answered all my questions. He even connected me with the woman who has since become my spiritual director, one of the first women in the GTU to earn a Master of Divinity and go on to work in lay ecclesial ministry. After listening online to a homily that the pastor had given the previous week, I knew I would visit St. Augustine once I was settled.

The week before classes started, I arrived five minutes into daily Mass. I was surprised that there were just a handful of laypeople there, with maybe eight chairs gathered in a semicircle around a small altar. Nervous about the impact my tardiness would have on the group, I walked quietly to the edge of the semicircle and found a seat. Although I had not yet met any of the parishioners yet, several of them smiled at me as I sat down. The presider seemed just as nervous as I had been as he gave what I learned was one of the first homilies he had given in the parish. I couldn’t tell you the details of what he said, but I remember the spirit of welcome that he and the other parishioners shared with me that day. People genuinely offered me a sign of peace, introducing themselves and hugging me and shaking my hand. When Mass ended, one of the gentlemen from the semicircle walked me to the rectory and introduced me to the parish’s pastoral associate. She offered me the same kind of hospitality that the rest of the parishioners had, introducing me to the folks in the rectory and bringing me a cup of tea when we sat down to get to know one another better.

I attended Sunday Mass at St. Augustine intermittently throughout the fall semester. I met a lovely couple who were in the process of adopting a son, was welcomed at a welcome barbecue, and even sang with the choir one week. Some Sundays I tried out other parishes, other Sundays I lit candles and prayed alone in my room, and others I engaged in the same spiritual practice I did any other day of the week with my studies, offering my learning as a gift to God. During the weeks of the winter break, I prayed at my home parish in Southern California about the kind of community that could nourish me in the way my home parish has for so long.

When I returned to Berkeley, I went to Sunday Mass at St. Augustine again. The spirit of welcome and hospitality that I received then was no different from my previous experiences. The couple I had met remembered my name, a new parishioners luncheon took place after Mass, and the music and the preaching were spirit-filled as they had been before. My spiritual director introduced me to other young adults in the parish after Mass, and I got to hear why other people keep coming back at the new parishioners luncheon.

At times, I feel disappointed in the decisions that the institutional church makes, decisions that lead to a kind of exclusivity that can erode what brings us together. However, in places like this, I am reminded of the deeper desire of the church that Angela Batie wrote about just a couple weeks ago. I am reminded of what could be.

Jen Owens is a co-editor of From the Pews in the Back and a doctoral student at the Graduate Theological Union. She is also one of the newest parishioners at St. Augustine in Oakland, CA.

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One Response

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