You could say the Rev. David Cole makes cold calls for Christ.
“I’m like a door-to-door salesman,” he says. He makes his pitch and, if the individual isn’t interested, he continues on. “I’m a big fan of free will. I don’t think that I can do anything but invite the horse to water, and if it’s time for the horse to drink and if the horse is thirsty enough, then the Holy Spirit takes care of the rest.” His job, he says, is to prepare the best invitation to entice the biggest audience possible, so some will say: “Okay, I’m ready for this.”
Now a priest in the Diocese of Long Island, the former comedy writer sampled a few spiritual watering holes himself before finding his vocation. He worked for CNN in Asia, wrote for Saturday Night Live and Comedy Central and tackled his first serious volunteer work -- first as an AIDS buddy, then a hospice volunteer -- after his brother died of AIDS.
Growing up in rural Saskatchewan and attending the United Church of Canada, Code, 39, remembers hearing about the Trinity but feeling no connection to the Holy Spirit. He spent much of his teens and 20s searching for the “holy grail” of the Holy Spirit.
“You know, I’ve been on a spiritual journey all of my life,” he says. “My quest for the Holy Spirit took me all over the place.”
An inter-faith journey
While studying at Yale University, he worshipped with Quakers, with Roman Catholics and as one of a handful of whites at The Black Church, a gospel congregation. He later lived three years in Japan, where he experienced Shinto and Zen Buddhism. Code examined Hinduism in India and Daoism in China. One of his most powerful experiences was making a three-month pilgrimage following the path of Gandhi’s life in India, “just me and Gandhi’s ghost.”
Ultimately, the journey returned him to Christianity.
“I think we can learn a lot about ourselves ... by looking elsewhere,” he says. “At some point one has to choose ... For me, Jesus is my man. This is my path, and I’m sure of that. I don’t begrudge anyone else their path.”
While searching for the Spirit in Asia, Code began building a career in journalism and entertainment. He worked for CNN Tokyo on a program teaching high school and college students English and about American culture.
“It was very challenging writing,” says Code. “It had to be simple English, but it had to be hip, funny, entertaining English for young Japanese kids.”
Another project involved portraying a character called “the helping guy” on television, helping foreigners overcome cultural difficulties in Japan. He also worked in Moscow as a stringer for a Japanese news series.
Back in the United States, he pursued freelance writing in New York. In fall 1994, Code experienced a work “famine.” “I can remember crying myself to sleep one night,” Code says. He prayed, “God give me a break.”
Comedy skit writer
The next day, he received a call from a Saturday Night Live agent seeking someone to do a voiceover in Japanese. He soon found himself on the set with the cast -- Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Janeane Garofalo, Alec Baldwin -- preparing for a skit role as announcer on a Japanese game show. Then Myers suggested switching to an all-Japanese skit. Code translated the skit, taught the actors their Japanese lines and even made set suggestions to improve authenticity.
Code also did work for Comedy Central and investigated getting onto David Letterman’s staff.
A family tragedy, however, ultimately moved him toward the priesthood when his older brother, Stewart, died of AIDS in 1994. Code was present when Stewart died, an experience that helped him overcome his fear of death.
“We also had a tremendous moment of reconciliation before he slipped into dementia,” Code says. Code was trying to thank his brother for participating in some “key moments” in his life when he began crying uncontrollably. “I just spoke through my sobs,” he recalls.
Stewart moved his wheelchair until their legs touched. Code leaned down. “For the first time in my life, I said, ‘I love you Stewart,’ and I hugged him gently. He said, ‘I love you, too, David.’ That was the first time in either of our lives that we said that to each other. ... That was a very powerful experience for me.”
Stewart’s death inspired Code to work as an AIDS buddy with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York.
“That was my first hardcore volunteer work, and little by little it changed me,” he says. When new drug treatments made AIDS more of a chronic than terminal illness, Code decided he wanted to continue work with dying people and volunteered at Cabrini Hospice.
“I slowly became more open to being with people in incredibly difficult circumstances and to being present with the essence of life,” he says. “From there, the step to the ministry wasn’t a very big step.”
Directs lay pastors
Ordained a priest in 2003, he serves as assistant at Caroline Church of Brookhaven, in Setauket, N.Y. There, his pastoral experience comes into play as he coordinates the Episcopal parish’s lay pastors and makes pastoral visits.
“He brings a youthful exuberance,” says parishioner Ginny Apmann. “He’s a quick wit. The people that we visit in the nursing homes love him. They enjoy him because he has a smile on his face and a happiness in his heart.”
Code also works with the church’s youth, says the Rev. Richard Visconti, rector. Some of his sermons, on topics such as dealing with unfair people and clarifying your priorities, can be heard on his website.
The site addresses what Code considers the heart of his ministry, and a topic of a future book: Practical Tools for Life’s Journey. It’s hands-on advice for daily living.
“I am taking the timeless wisdom of the mystical teachings of Jesus and bringing them into a practical, understandable context, where the rubber hits the road in our daily lives,” he says. That makes his job “part translator ... part entertainer.”
“The gospels are the ultimate self-help book,” he says. “The teachings of Jesus are often opaque and mystical and impenetrable for a lot of people.” He’s trying to make them “user-friendly.”
Code concludes, “I want something that people can take away and apply to their lives and make a difference in their lives right away.”
For more about David Code, visit http://www.davidcode.net/.