Charles Sydnor – Adult Forum on Social Policy, Oct. 4, 2009


Thank you for such a gracious introduction and thank you for the honor of speaking about the social issues we addressed during my years as Rector. I have about 30 minutes before we have a question and answer time, so that amounts to about one minute for each of my 30 years, so I’ll have to be very brief! This is history: Maureen always says that I am very good at it because what I don’t know, I make up. But seriously, I will be glad to stand corrected if my recall is incorrect or omits things that need to be said

Before I review the issues and programs of those years of being here, I’d like to speak about our biblical mandate for social justice. The Old Testament prophets abound in their calls for the people of God to assist the poor, the hungry, the widowed, and the orphan. They reveal that our God is clearly in the business of lifting up the oppressed and putting down the oppressors. Micah puts it so simply and clearly, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”  Our Lord Jesus not only mandates us to love our neighbors as ourselves, but in Matthew 25 reminds us in that doing it unto the least of these we have done it unto him.  For Christians love is always a verb. Our Episcopal Church refocused us on our social mission as our prayer book revision of 1976 gave us the new wording of our baptismal covenant  that is before us four times a year for renewal. In that covenant with God’s help we promise to:

  1. Persevere in resisting evil and whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.
  2. Proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ.
  3. Seek and serve Christ in all persons.
  4. Strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.

My commitment to social justice is grounded in our baptismal covenant.

I am most grateful for the ministry of my predecessor, Tom Faulkner. He and his wife Mary publicly and privately lived the gospel of social justice. You have already heard of his leadership in the area of racial equality. To name just a few other areas: they were also responsible for creating the Interfaith Community Council which continues to do school dressing days for over 1,000 kids; they started Big Brothers/Big Sisters for Fredericksburg which was housed in McGuire Hall when I came; they sponsored the Ann Hamrick House, a preschool program for deprived children which met here. Tom and Mary also raised numerous foster children in addition to their own two kids.

So the soil for social justice ministries was already well plowed by word and deed when I began as Rector, and I was pleased to continue to support many of those programs. I served with Dr. George Van Sant and others on the Fredericksburg Area Community Relations Council (FACRO)as we continued to seek racial justice. We did things like writing area banks asking why there were no minority persons in management and then publishing an article on their replies in the FLS. Some bankers didn’t like us very much, but minorities began to have management positions. We challenged the School Board and Superintendent on why more minorities were not in teaching positions; when they responded they did not have many minority persons applying, we suggested they go recruit at black colleges and thing began to change.

The first issue of social justice Maureen and I addressed was simply accidental. When we moved here in November of 1973, we lived five blocks away and Maureen always walked to the 8 A. M. service. After her first service someone said thank you for breaking the dress code for women here by wearing slacks. Maureen said I did not know there was a dress code; I was just cold, and needed to wear slacks to keep warm.

My first major new endeavor was to establish the first Hospice for this area. Like all clergy I was painfully aware of the very special needs of a person and their family facing a terminal illness. I had read of the beginnings of Hospice in England in 1967 and the writings of Elizabeth Kubler/Ross on the stages of grief and shared some of these ideas in sermons. In 1979 most people had not heard the word Hospice and did not know what it meant. But Anne Nere of this congregation called me late one August evening in 1979 and said I know you have been talking about Hospice and the Sub Area Health Advisory Council has a meeting tonight on Hospice, would you go with me?  There we learned of the considerable need and that no funds were available. I mentioned that the Venture in Mission Capital Campaign of our Diocese might be a source for help, and several persons expressed interest. While Anne and I shared the same vision for starting a free standing hospice here, I was blessed that she had the organizational skills to set it in motion. I became the mouth, speaking about the hospice concept at Kiwanis Meetings, Lion’s Club’s meetings, or anywhere I could get invited.

We advertised a public meeting here for all interested in forming hospice and one person came. We tried again showing the film Hospice and later having Dr. Josephina Magno, founder of the Northern VA Hospice, speak and enough persons came to  form a Board of Directors. Dr. Magno had said that all you needed to start Hospice was coffee and prayer; we had both but still no money. I was in Richmond and Tom Rohr, Chair of the Venture in Mission Campaign said, “Charlie, don’t you have something good you want to do with some of this money in Fredericksburg?”  That was ironic because our vestry had objected to our participation in VIM since we were doing a capital campaign for renovations, but over their objections I promoted VIM here and $22,000 was pledged while we still met our capital campaign goal. When I said to Tom Rohr that we had been thinking about starting hospice, he said write me a proposal, we are meeting to decide distribution in 15 minutes. I threw a few words on literally a scrap of paper and we were granted $18,000 seed money. So in July of 1981 we were able to hire our first Director, Bill Schaeffer, and open our office in free space donated by the John A. Nere Co., Anne’s husband’s business. We were something different, a volunteer hospice committed to no fees for patients and families. I was a volunteer trainer and Chaplain on our first Hospice Team which consisted of a nurse, a social worker, a lay volunteer, and staffed by our volunteer Medical Director, oncologist Dr. Lee Essig. We were soon able to make a difference in the quality of life for many terminally ill persons and their families, enabling them live until they die; realizing that without medical hope of recovery, we are not hopeless.

My commitment was to launch the ship, chart the course, so that the program could run on its own. Then I slowly stepped out of my leadership role  to see what other opportunities God had in mind. Later as the need for a standing Hospice facility emerged, a second Hospice Program started from the hospital and we worked in complimentary roles.

In 1985 the plight of the homeless was not well known to many of us. So on a cold February morning when our little Brotherhood of St. Andrew Chapter met at 7 A. M.,  we found a homeless man trying to play the piano in Faulkner Hall but still a little drunk. He had spent the night in the entrance foyer which was there before remodeling.  We listened to Roger’s story of being a Vietnam Vet who had lost his way and stories about others on the street.

Later the Virginia Episcopalian did a story about Roger our drunken angel who brought us the message of the plight of the homeless. We also invited a local resident who took homeless persons into her private home as her ministry to share with us and learned much more.

Our group said someone should do something about this and I said why not the five of us? So using the few bucks we had from our weekly coffee can donations, we took out an ad inviting anyone concerned about homelessness in our area to a meeting here and about 70 people came. Fritz Leedy, a realtor, member of St. George’s and the Brotherhood, took leadership and divided us into three teams to research the scope of the problem, how other communities were responding, and sources for funding.  After hearing from the research, we formed a Board, incorporated as Rappahannock Refuge, and gained 501 C3, non-profit status.  We decided we needed to acquire a facility, but numerous proposals for sites were rejected by City Council when neighboring property owners said it’s a good idea but I don’t want those kinds of people in my back yard. We had to address this prejudice in articles and speeches, and when Fritz found a desirable building on Lafayette Blvd., we went door to door to all the neighbors assuring them that we would be good neighbors and their property values would not decline, and that had not happened in other places where homes for the homeless had been established. After five meetings with City Council usually late into the night, and many objections and letters to the editor, the council approved the zoning. I then proposed to our vestry that we buy the building and sponsor a home for local homeless people providing them up to a 60 day stay, counseling services to address the issues that rendered them homeless, and full time paid supervision. I proposed we buy the property with money we had from the sale of the former rectory. To my surprise and delight they agreed to the $86,000 price though no one had seen anything but a picture of the house. I think the Spirit was much with us that night.

Volunteers from our parish refurbished the building and many local builders donated their services. We got funding from each of the judicatories of Planning District 16, and also United Way. Fritz persuaded the Board of Realtors to put a new home up for raffle and raised $50,000. We opened to a full house of 14 residents on Jan. 5, 1987,  which was just about two years from when we first met Roger. We adopted the name Hope House for we felt we were giving homeless persons in despair renewed hope.

Hope House stayed full and as we turned away persons we realized not only our need to expand, but the need for alternatives, as homeless single persons were not always a good mix with the families and children of Hope House. 

My Associate, The Rev. Judy Fleming, led the effort to get area churches taking turns setting up cots in church basements and providing supper and breakfast. Ed Jones was one of many volunteers to provide all night supervision and I remember conversations we had recognizing that the majority of homeless people were not, to out surprise, addicts or mentally ill, but working people who just couldn’t make ends meet. Our devoted parishioner Thurman Brisben’s passion for justice for the poor was the fuel that fired the whole effort. Her dedication was inspiring and contagious. She was fond of saying that as long as we had enough to eat and someone else did not, something was wrong and we needed to fix it.  A Homeless Shelter Board was formed and for awhile vacant Maury School became the shelter. This was a thoroughly ecumenical effort and we were blessed when Barbara Gear of the Fredericksburg United Methodist Church joined with her zeal and energy.  The search for a permanent year round site began and many more choruses of “not in my back yard,” were heard before Hunter Greenlaw, a developer, agreed to a short term lease of his property on Essex Street until he was ready to redevelop the area. Forty churches provided volunteers and in December of 1992 the house that love built, as Barbara Gear called it,  was opened and was named in memory of Thurman as the Thurman Brisben Homeless Shelter.

Meanwhile also in 1992, the Moss Free Clinic opened. I had been invited in late 1991 to serve on a Steering Committee to explore the formation of a free clinic. Since the emergency room was often overwhelmed by persons with no insurance and no personal doctor seeking help. Dr. Jeppe Moss of St. George’s was spearheading the effort as he approached age 80. I was happy to assist Jeppe whose inexhaustible compassion for the sick was well known. In 1992 we were able to start the Moss Free Clinic in the former Health Dept. Building with doctors like Jeppe and nurses volunteering their time to provide free care. One of our parishioners, Janice Hales, became the first coordinator of the clinic.

Now for you to understand my leading this parish to become an intentionally inclusive community especially for gay and lesbian persons, I need to share a little personal history. In the 1980’s, a parishioner asked if I could help his friend who had moved here from D. C. after a painful separation from his partner of eleven years. When I counseled with him, I realized that his issues were the same as anyone going through a divorce, so I could be helpful in what I had learned about divorce counseling for heterosexual persons. As he recovered he shared his struggle early in his life to reject his gay identity with psychiatric help, and counseling, but he could not deny who he was. When I suggested that God made him the way he was and loved him the way he was, it was like the breath of the Spirit blew in and he asked if he could be baptized. I had concluded from my research and reading that our sexual identity is a function of nature, not nurture, and consequently we must say theologically that God made him gay. I came to believe gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons should have equal access to all the sacraments of the church even as heterosexual persons do.

When a parishioner who was dying of AIDS asked me to acknowledge gay relationships at his funeral and let his friends in the gay community speak, quotes from my sermon and the service made the press. I got hate mail, but I also became known as a gay friendly pastor of a gay friendly parish. So much so that when the editor of the VA Episcopalian published an unfortunate editorial entitled “Gay is Not OK”, a parishioner came to me and said does this mean I have to leave, and I said emphatically, No! The editor lost his job after the editorial.

I had become acquainted with Susan Vaughan of HIV/AIDS Support Services when I had ministered to our parishioner. So when they proposed participating in the World AIDS Day Candlelight March, I invited them to assemble here in our nave,  go march, and return for closing prayer and reception. At the closing I invited all present to join us in worship on Sunday. At the reception several persons thanked me and said it was the first time they as a gay person had been invited to church. There was good press coverage of the march and my participation. Later that week when I got to Williamsburg for the LARC Conference and called home to see how things were, Maureen said, “We are fine but the police are here; someone threw a well- aimed brick through the upstairs window where I was ironing and another though the kitchen door where Christina was doing homework.”  I had no proof, but always suspected it was a homophobic response to my hosting the AIDS march.

In 1997 I attended the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Philadelphia as an advocate for ecumenical resolutions on behalf of The Episcopal Diocesan Ecumenical Officers Association of which I was a member. On Sunday morning before the convention began, I walked to the nearest Episcopal Church to worship. When I turned to exchange the peace, I met two guys with very colorful spiked hair who looked most uncomfortable. When they did not go forward to communion, I whispered to them  that in the Episcopal Church all baptized persons were welcome to receive. After the service we fell  into conversation and they invited me to lunch where I learned that this had been their first time in church in years since they grew up in a church that condemned homosexuality as a sin and they had felt they could not be Christian and gay. I took them to the convention booth for Integrity, the organization that supports gay rights in the Episcopal Church, and they met a gay priest and seemed to rejoice they had found a church they might be part of.

When I came back I told our vestry that story and proposed that we should become intentional and overt about welcoming persons regardless of sexual orientation and shared a draft statement similar to what you still have in your bulletin. I invited the vestry to candid and honest dialogue and after struggles they endorsed the statement. After that I would have sometimes have newcomers after church squeeze my hand and say thank you for welcoming me.

At General Convention I had experienced the protesting group of Westover Baptist Church, a mid west church obsessed with hating gays. They carried placards saying God hates Fags and Gays go to Hell.  So when the same group soon afterwards announced they were coming to Fredericksburg to protest a speaker and program at what was then Mary Washington College, I was concerned. Then they also announced they would protest at three churches and St. George’s made the list. After a meeting with the Police Chief in which he cautioned us not to make any verbal response to them because of their past history of suing anyone who did attempt to violate their freedom of speech, I wrote to our parishioners asking their cooperation and requesting they especially come to church that day to show the triumph of love over hate.  Since the protesters had promised to be here ahead of our 8 A. M. service and then go elsewhere, I was thrilled and proud of this congregation when on that day our 8 A. M. attendance looked like Easter Sunday. Love triumphed over the fear of hate.

When word of our statement welcoming all regardless of sexual orientation got around, I was invited by the FAMA to share my exegetical work on the eleven passages of scripture that mention sexuality.
 I presented biblical scholarship supporting that the biblical passages do not address same sex relationships as we now know them. While some disagreed, I at least wasn’t kicked out of the group and later became the president.

Later I supported the formation of PFLAG, parents and friends of gays and lesbians and was invited to do the same scripture analysis with them. I saw relieved faces as they realized that the bible does not require us to condemn homosexual persons.

When Integrity of Northern VA asked if we would host a monthly Integrity Eucharist here I said yes, and it seemed to be a non- threatening entry point for some gay and lesbian persons who had been turned off by their own church to re-enter the Christian community.

I have shared my own personal journey on this issue in hopes I will help you understand what went into the formation of my commitment to have a truly inclusive church.

Since Fredericksburg is on the I 95 corridor, not only did we have many local persons seeking help with rent or food or bills overdue, but also many transient persons from I 95. While listening and responding to their needs as best we could is our business as Christians, it is not our only business, and we were often overwhelmed and not giving the needy the attention and respect they deserved. When I heard of churches cooperating in a one stop Community Assistance Program in Charlottesville, I invited members of our Outreach Commission to go with me to check it out. We came back and proposed to our area churches that we agree to refer all persons in need to one central location adequately staffed, with even some much desired evening hours. Each client would have a respectful but thorough intake interview. We would all commit to help fund this as well as let the program know of any special funds we had which might be used to assist clients who could then be referred back to us. This was a justice issue. Many persons with their electricity about to be cut off were using up gas they could ill afford to go from church to church collecting $25 here and there until they might get enough to pay their bill.  This was demoralizing and degrading. In 1998 the Salvation Army, of which I was a Board member, agreed to enact the Community Assessment and Assistance Program (CAAP) which gave respecting the dignity of  those in need new meaning and was also a far more effective and efficient way of helping.

There are other dimensions of our social justice mission I could mention, if time permitted. Jan Saylor, our former Director of Youth Ministry, initiated many wonderful mission trips to South Dakota to renovate housing for the Lakota natives, and also created Fred Camp, a program for the youth of our community to renovate sub-standard housing in this area in the summer. These were very much part of our social mission which I whole-heartedly supported, but did not occur at my initiative, so I will leave them for another day.

I am grateful for this opportunity to discuss these issues of social justice, and now I would like to conclude in order for us to have the time for questions and conversations.