Hope is perched on an eternal branch
The Episcopal presiding bishop reveals her roots and some of her heartfelt ideals
Sitting across a small table from me, this woman of high regard waits quietly for the few seconds it takes me to open my notebook. She leans on one chair arm and looks at me through dark, deep-set eyes - her black-clad body seemingly relaxed, but attentive to what lies ahead.
Characteristic of her connection with those who hold no title, she speaks in a straightforward, down-to-earth manner.
While it's true that the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori is the presiding bishop of the Episcopal church of the United States, which is part of the larger global church of 2.4 million members in 16 countries, this 50-something woman could be anyone's mother, grandmother, sister or friend.
She leans forward to punctuate her answer to my question on the roots of her spiritual growth.
'I was sent to a Roman Catholic convent school when I started school,' she says, a response that surprises me.
Among the recollections of her life through the fifth grade at the Forest Ridge school in Seattle are feast days, when the French order of nuns joined the young girls in play.
'There always was a great sense of freedom and playfulness,' she says. 'On feast days we put on our gym suits and played all day. I have wonderful memories of the nuns gathering up their voluminous black skirts to run down the ballfield with us.'
Among the traits the nuns fostered in a child who had no idea where her life would lead were order and structure as well as freedom and the ability to think creatively.
Those traits shine with brilliance in the bishop who sits with me at the DoubleTree Inn in Portland, the site of a recent meeting of the church's executive council.
How fortunate that the site of the meeting is in Oregon, the ancestral home of her mother's family.
'(My ancestors) came across the Oregon Trail to Albany,' she explains. 'And I have lived more than 25 years in Oregon, so I definitely have roots here.'
But her call to ordained ministry did not unfold as easily as her heritage.
In a relatively quiet voice, God spoke to her through her fellow parishioners.
'Three people in my congregation asked me if I'd ever thought about being a priest, all within the space of two weeks,' she says, leaning forward on her folded arms to be sure that I understand. 'That was a shocking experience.'
But she didn't respond positively at that time.
When another rector asks her to preach on a Sunday morning five years later, she finally realizes that her friends could visualize her as a priest, a role she wasn't ready to accept.
Needless to say, the transition to ministry wasn't easy.
'(Preaching) was excruciatingly difficult,' she says with a subdued throaty laugh.
But the congregation thought it was inspirational.
Even though Jefferts Schori's parishioners kept encouraging her, she didn't immediately accept the role.
But she eventually went through the process of ordination, and emerged as a priest in 1994.
'(My parishioners) could see something in me,' she says, 'that, at the very least, I wasn't ready to see.'
During part of a sabbatical in 1999-2000, (while she was assistant rector at Church of the Good Samaritan in Corvallis) she stayed for a time in Sparks, Nev.
And that's where God spoke to her again.
'When I left,' she speaks more quickly now, 'the rector said to me, 'You know what you've done here is a great deal like what a bishop does when a bishop visits; can I put your name in?' And I said: 'That makes no sense at all.''
By the time she had returned to Corvallis, she knew that she should be answering 'yes' to the call.
A few years into her position as bishop in Nevada, Jefferts Schori finds herself amid colleagues encouraging her to be open to election as presiding bishop.
Obviously, the church was ready for a woman skilled at consensus with an inclusive attitude.
But Jefferts Schori doesn't see herself on the fringe of accepted truth. She preaches and lives a life that simply fosters love for God and neighbor.
'We need to live in this world,' she says with a squint in her eyes, 'in a way that helps to create something that looks more like the reign of God.'
Heaven on earth.
But the reality of life on earth is that some people are liberal and some are conservative.
Placing her hands alongside one another on the table for emphasis, she talks about her end of the spectrum.
'(One side criticizing the other) is a normal part of existence. It's to be expected,' she says. 'If we agreed with everybody, we'd never change or grow.
'That's what it means to be an Anglican. If we all thought alike, this world would be an incredibly boring place.'
As I suggest that we all need to learn to coexist with those who have differing views, her attitude turns and she becomes a bit defensive.
'Hmmm,' she says, obviously thinking of how she can diplomatically counter my view. 'Well, as long as we haven't reached the reign of God in its fullness, I think we should hold the intention and just keep moving.
'I live with an understanding that says no one of us has the fullness of truth, and it's only in that struggle with others that we begin to discover it.'
Her words begin to create an image in my mind, an image that grows with every face I see, every view I hear, every challenge I encounter.
Jefferts Schori's message, obviously for me, is that the fullness of truth (literally the limitless image of God) is comprised of each person's image, attitudes and ideals.
Looking into her crystal ball, the presiding bishop describes her hopes for the success of the millennium development goals and for the church's mission to achieve justice and peace.
'Increasingly, we're seeing congregations that have a sense of solidarity with people across the globe,' she says, raising her eyebrows as she stares into my eyes. 'They're learning that the Body of Christ includes more than just their congregation.'
But I press on, asking how one congregation, one family, one person can do anything to counter the world's seemingly limitless disease, poverty and oppression.
The key is in having concrete goals, according to Jefferts Schori.
'We're talking about something that's achievable in a relatively short amount of time,' she says with conviction, 'if we can motivate governments to participate.'
It's an opportunity to learn, she says, to pray for people around the world, to give money, to build partnerships with congregations across the globe and to advocate legislators to relieve poverty and gain inroads toward world peace.
And then I remind the presiding bishop that there are some governments not so inclined.
'That's the fallen human condition,' she says with a belly laugh. 'Sin continues.'
But Jefferts Schori is ultimately a positive thinker. And the next day at the end of her sermon at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, she speaks of hope; the hope that she says the poet Emily Dickinson reveals when she writes: ' … hope is that thing with feathers that perches in the soul ...'
And then the presiding bishop replies slowly: 'It's the hope that is already in us that will lead us home.'
Hope is eternal.