In the Tabernacle and In the Slum: Finding Jesus in New Haven
By Jordan Trumble (Check out her website here: http://jordantrumble.come)
I’ve always had a hard time backing down from a challenge. I joined competitive swimming in high school because my older brother told me I would never survive. I wound up sporting a t-shirt for my least favorite college football team during the most recent national championship because I accepted and subsequently lost a silly bet. And I came to Saint Hilda’s because I was warned that it would be very, very difficult.
I arrived at Saint Hilda’s one year after graduating from college. I’d spent the intervening year working in an HIV clinic in Los Angeles, a heart-breaking experience that left me feeling as though my faith was utterly shattered. As I looked forward to what was next, I realized that I needed time and space to think, pray, and discern. I needed to surround myself with people who would challenge me and support me. I needed to be in a community that could help me sort out my faith.
When I arrived in New Haven in the fall of 2010, I didn’t really know what was ahead of me. I knew that I would be expected to attend Morning Prayer each day, work 30 hours each week, and participate in Friday formation activities with my housemates. I expected that living with strangers would be difficult, that I would sometimes not feel like getting up for chapel, and that my job would test me. All of these things turned out to be true. But although it was hard work, spiritually and emotionally, it was difficult in the best possible ways.
Although living with a group of twentysomethings wasn’t easy, and often led me to joke with friends that I was on the Episcopal version of The Real World, I also began to build deep relationships with those in my house and enjoyed the nights we cooked for one another and lingered around the table sharing stories from our days and telling jokes.
Waking up early for Morning Prayer each day was difficult for my sleep schedule, but the order and structure it brought to my days and weeks slowly began to deeply influence my spiritual life. The Psalms and canticles I prayed each morning became meditation pieces that accompanied me throughout my day and now, several years later, I still have them memorized and meditate on them often.
Working in social service amongst the poorest of the poor in New Haven was disheartening, but my work at a soup kitchen and in a food pantry helped me to realize my own privilege whilst also teaching me how I could help improve the lives of those around me.
Reading theological texts from throughout Christian history meant that I spent many evenings feeling like I was in school again as I parsed out arguments about Eucharistic theology or social justice, but also opened my mind to new ways of thinking about God and the world around me.
As difficult as all of these things were, however, somehow the combination of them never seemed to bog down my heart and mind. Instead they opened up new spaces for me to look and listen for how God was calling me.
In my early days at Saint Hilda’s House, the program director at the time, Robert Hendrickson, used to quote early 20th Century Bishop Frank Weston who once said, “You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.”
The idea of the Jesus I encountered in the Eucharist being deeply tied to the faces I served each day in the marginalized people of New Haven began to shape the way I viewed my work and ministry. I realized that, while my work before Saint Hilda’s House was serving God, I didn’t know how to articulate why it was important and how I saw it connected to my faith. Yet my time at Saint Hilda’s House helped me to better understand why what I did outside of the walls of the church building mattered. I realized that if God cared enough about us to send Jesus to us in the form of flesh and bone and to reveal God’s glory through the Incarnation, and then to come to us again and again in the Eucharist, then the very bodies of each of us, including the people I was serving, could also serve to reveal and testify to God’s glory. Yes, I found God in church on Sunday mornings. But I also found God in the faces of the people coming to my work sites for food and in the faces of the volunteers working tirelessly to ensure that no one would go hungry.
Now, nearly three years after finishing my time at Saint Hilda’s, I’m glad that I no longer live in a house filled with twentysomethings, and I don’t really miss weekly house meetings, chore charts, and communal grocery budgets. But the hard work of living in community and working amongst the marginalized in the city of New Haven left an indelible mark on my life. I am reminded of this lesson each time I take the Eucharist and each time I go back and volunteer at my former work sites: that every moment of my life must point to the glory of the God whose Incarnation feeds us, body and soul, both in the tabernacle and in the slums.