By The Rev. Marisa Sifontes
It is well known that both moving and starting a new job are two of the most stressful transitions that one can experience. Of course, those two things often happen together. In my case, the last three months have seen me complete a thesis, graduate, become ordained to the transitional diaconate, move to Roanoke, and begin a new ministry, in that order.
Clearly, I am in a time of transition.
But I’m not the only one.
The fact is that we’ve all been in an altered state for the last year and a half. Disrupted rhythms. Scattered community. Lost events. Inability to gather with those we hold dear. Every one of us has been in a heightened state of unknowing that has manifested itself on our souls and bodies in different ways.
And now, as we return to more normal rhythms, maybe it still feels tentative sometimes, like sneaking a cookie from the cookie jar while hoping we don’t get caught. Or, for me, just not wanting to unpack yet another box, but still wondering where exactly my kitchen knives are hiding.
Here at St John’s, regathering looks like watching people reconnect. Many who have welcomed me to the parish are also breathing a sigh of relief, because it’s the first time they’ve returned to the building since 2020. Thankfully, while we’re finding our way back on Sundays, we’re also returning to normal rhythms. The bookstore is open. We’re planning for an August picnic and a September pig roast (where you can sit outside, if that’s where you’re more comfortable).
But as I sat with a group of parishioners recently, one asked a question that fit so well both with our societal transitions and with my entrance into this community.
Who is St. John’s?
It’s a simple question, right? We’re the congregation that sits on the corner of Jefferson and Elm.
We’re a people who are open and affirming to all of God’s people.
We take pride in walking with others and sharing what we have, whether through hosting Head Start or the Boy Scouts.
We’re the congregation that has given rise to organizations that make a difference to the lives of people not only in the Roanoke Valley, but across the world.
Of course. We are all of those things. But I can’t help but wonder if some of those things say more about what we DO than who we ARE.
As my conversation with this group continued, someone expressed the sentiment that while they feel connected to this place, sometimes they don’t feel as connected to the people. As is often the case in a larger congregation, one may not know the name of the person sitting in front of them, let alone the person three rows back on the other side. On top of that, eighteen months is a long time to be community in a different way, perhaps long enough that it is helpful to be deliberate not just with me, because I’m new, but also with each other.
As anyone can attest, across our society, this time has brought about a decline in civility, in our willingness to engage with others who seem different than us. Some of us are still only occasionally peek out from the pods we’ve grown comfortable with, and the voices we choose to let it. Maybe we’re out of practice with community.
Maybe we’re out of practice with each other. Maybe we don’t quite know who we are any more on the other side of such an experience.
Yet, there is much that remains a constant. The rhythms of Sunday. The familiar faces, even if we don’t remember all the names. The words that have been indelibly written on our hearts.
In Reverberations of Faith, the theologian Walter Bruggemann explains that, “The trick of community is to hold together real differences of interest in the midst of treasuring a passionate commitment to belong faithfully to one another.”
I have felt the passion. I can sense the faith. And while there are differences, I believe the things that hold us together are far stronger than any differences that exist. Because, above all, St. John’s is a community of those who choose to be together, in spite of the rest.
I am so thankful to be here with you — to be part of this community. From my first conversation with Eric, I knew St. John’s was a special place and in the past several weeks, you have borne this out in helping Max, Cole and me acclimate to our new home.
And as we continue to learn more about Roanoke and our neighbors, I hope you, too, are able to venture out of what is familiar and learn more about those to whom you find yourself in proximity and hopefully, community, whether through church or any of the other avenues of life.
I don’t yet have a full answer to the question of who St. John’s is, but I’m looking forward to finding out.
Maybe we can do that together