Editor's Note: This story also appears in Spanish here:http://www.episcopalchurch.org/3577_63527_ENG_HTM.htm
Conference helps each participant answer 'Am I Called?'
Los Angeles -- Deon Johnson remembers feeling skepticism, fear and trembling as he approached the first "Am I Called?" (AIC) conference in 1999. This year, he sent his own parishioner to Los Angeles for the biennial gathering, held June 24-26.
"The AIC conference was the first time I ever had an opportunity to sit down and have a one-on-one conversation with a bishop," said Johnson, 27, associate rector at Christ Church in Shaker Heights, Ohio.
Then, he was a Case Western Reserve University junior majoring in English and history. He attended the conference, designed to help young people of color explore vocation, at the urging of his parish priest.
"My plan was to get a 'real job' a regular job like everybody else for five years or so and then maybe think about ordination," he said.
All that changed, however, after he met youthful clergy and other young people of color who were also wrestling with a call to ordination.
"A big part of it was my age," said Johnson, originally from Barbados. "The youngest priest I'd ever seen was in his 40s. Most of the priests I'd talked to were second-career priests. That was the pattern I'd seen."
Bishops in the Dioceses of Massachusetts, Ohio and Los Angeles recognized that pattern and started AIC, said the Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris, retired Suffragan Bishop of Massachusetts. She joined in organizing the first three conferences and also attended the most recent Los Angeles gathering.
"There was not enough recruitment of young people of color in the church," Harris said. "We wanted to draw together young people to have them consider whether or not they might have a vocation or call to ministry."
"The workshops cover everything from discerning a call to how to finance a seminary education and what the ordination process is like," said the Rt. Rev. Chet Talton, Bishop Suffragan of Los Angeles.
The Rev. Dr. Michael Battle, a chaplain for the House of Bishops and a Virginia Theological Seminary vice president, and the Hon. Byron Rushing, a lay person and Massachusetts state legislator, were among leaders who addressed the L.A. gathering.
"It is important for young people considering a call to hear what it's like to be ordained, to be a rector, to hear what the joys and challenges of that kind of work are, even including what racism in the church is like, and to live into the reality of that," Talton said. "These are all some of the limitations that people of color still face, as well as the opportunities."
Such workshops also help strengthen the church by cultivating leadership which reflects its growing diversity, Talton said.
"As we become increasingly multicultural, clergy leadership that reflects communities making up those various cultures will make for a stronger, more effective, more vibrant church."
Typically, 30 young people of color aged 18-28 are accepted for AIC, which is free. Travel expenses are often absorbed by sponsoring dioceses. The first conference was at St. Augustine's College in North Carolina, a predominantly black Episcopal institution, so participants could witness people of color serving in leadership roles, Talton said.
Bishop Harris said clergy must actively engage recruitment efforts.
"I know we ordain for the whole church and that people can serve just about any place but it seems to me that congregations of color need clergy leadership to whom they can culturally relate," Harris said.
"We invite clergy to send or to recommend young people and to recommend the conference itself to young people of color in their congregations. We invite all bishops of the church to identify and assist young people to attend. We invite college chaplains to recommend young people and to bring the conference to their attention," Harris said.
'A Great Way to Spend Your Life'
The three-day AIC weekend gave Gricelda Aguilar of Agoura Hills, California, a new way of evaluating her gifts for ministry.
"When my priest asked me to consider whether I had a call to ministry, my first response was, 'Oh no, I don't think so.' I love going to church and serving the chalice, but I didn't think I was capable of or worthy of being a priest," said the 19-year-old Ventura Community College nursing student.
AIC changed that. So did a visit to Holy Faith Church in Inglewood, California, and a meeting with the rector, the Rev. Altagracia Perez.
"It made me feel very good to know there was a woman in charge of a congregation like Holy Faith, that's so active in the community," Aguilar said. "I've never been in a church where there was a woman priest. Sure, I know there are a lot of women priests now, but I don't get to see them."
Perez said young people like Aguilar need such exposure.
"Too often, they have a stereotypic idea of the role of the priest, based on congregations or churches they're familiar with," she said. "If they meet people of color in ministry in a different context and under different models, they'll see it's an exciting option for them to choose professionally. It can help them really discern if they're called," Perez said.
She described for participants Holy Faith's challenge to bring together people of diverse cultures, backgrounds and theologies and to live into the Gospel.
Roughly one-third of the congregation's 250 parishioners are Nigerian. A service in the Nigerian Igbo language is offered the fourth Sunday of every month at the Inglewood parish, in addition to regular Spanish- and English-language services.
"We have immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and a few from Asia," in addition to Anglo and African American members, Perez said. "We speak five different languages and have people who are theologically conservative, liberal and moderate. They are economically diverse -- some are working poor, some are indigent, others are doctors and nurses. It means there are a lot of worlds constantly engaging each other, trying to sort out priorities for ministry and working together to achieve them."
Perez noted that Holy Faith's efforts to fight poverty, violence and to foster community economic development deepen the challenge.
"Not every church is involved in that work," she said. "It's something people may not think of when they think of parish ministry. The ability to equip people and to challenge people to take on those ministries is very satisfying, very gratifying. It's learning, being pushed. It's a great way to spend your life."
A Moment that Says 'Go For It'
While wrestling with a seven-year call to ministry, Jeff Tang of Fairfield, Connecticut, attended a variety of churches, earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy and religious studies and discovered he was virtually unemployable except for construction work. Now after AIC he hopes to make it a ministry.
"I decided to try working for awhile," said the 25-year-old carpenter recently, while loading a jackhammer into his truck, en route to a construction site. "I tried not to think about ordination, to see if the call pursued me or not, to see if I could stand working outside the church environment."
This year's AIC conference didn't answer all of his questions, but it did inspire Tang to begin a formal discernment process at his parish, St. Paul's Church in Fairfield. If ordained, he hopes to create a need-based carpentry ministry.
"One of my priests told me: 'You're a Gen-Xer. You need to invent your own niche for ministry and define the kind of ministry you're going to be doing?' "
The Rev. Deon Johnson agrees.
"A lot of the people at the AIC I attended were told to go get a job and come back in a couple of years when they talked to their priests about ordination," he recalled. "The church has to get young people out of seeing that as a mode of operation, and into exploring the call."
This year, he recruited and sent 19-year-old parishioner Ashley Malone to AIC. "I encouraged her, offering myself as an example. It's lonely when you're under 30 and that pesky Holy Spirit is working on you."
With an average Sunday attendance of 175 and six distinct cultures and ethnicities at his Shaker Heights parish, Johnson's nearly two years of ordained ministry have been "much more challenging, much more fun" than he ever dreamed.
"I'm amazed that I've come so far. The AIC was an eye-opening moment, not quite the scales falling from your eyes, but a moment that said, 'Go for it.'"
He offers that advice to other young people: "If you feel a call, even though you may be unsure, chances are that's the time to pursue it," he said. "Everybody has doubts. Go to AIC. It's a wonderful experience to be around people your age you can bounce things off of, and to meet and see younger priests that can give you encouragement you may or may not be receiving in your own parish."
Meanwhile, Aguilar says that her priest and parish, All Saints Church in Oxnard, California, have been extremely supportive but she still needed AIC to convince her to follow through.
"I was so glad to be able to meet others struggling with this and to talk about our fears, our faith and God," she said. "I don't get to do that with my friends or the people around me, they don't really want to hear it. It was amazing to be with people who actually wanted to hear it and were interested.
"Now, I'm pretty sure the priesthood is what I'm called to do. I can't see myself anywhere else. I just love serving God and being with people."
More information about "Am I Called" may be obtained by contacting the Diocese of Massachusetts (http://www.diomass.org, or telephone 617.482.4826).