This past year marked the 187th commencement at the Virginia Theological Seminary as a new batch of Episcopal ministers set sail to “preach the Gospel.” The Rev. Brian McLaren, pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Baltimore, gave the address on the importance of forming lasting friendships so that the whims of others have less sway.
My late father took that same path back in 1959 shortly before I was born and in the pictures of him marching toward the chapel for commencement he looks overjoyed and hopeful about the possibilities. Apparently, even then I caught onto the sharp turn our family path was taking and four months later I was born on an early Sunday morning.
Dad was already in his first parish and had to work that day. He set up my three older sisters, Diana, Linda, and Cary in the front pew where he could keep an eye on them. My younger brother, Dabney, or as my sisters and I referred to him, the heir, would come along a year and a half later when we were all ensconced in Little Washington, Virginia among the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
In 1970 when I was just 10 years old my father joined the faculty and we all moved on to the sprawling grounds. Immediately an entire crowd of people enveloped us as family.
However, even more important to me was the network of faculty children that in those days was plentiful. The Blood’s, the Woolverton’s, the Allisons, The Goodwin’s and others all had a few children to throw into the mix. In those days there were so many of us it became necessary to add a sign right behind the magnificent enormous entrance that said, ‘slow, children at play’.
The other preacher’s kids quickly let us in on a little known secret about the staid place. The students were also grown men from diverse backgrounds, sometimes other careers and had a lot of talents plus a sense of service to the community. In other words, the new students were a gold mine and ripe for the picking.
Once a week the entire Seminary had dinner together at the refectory. After the children had said a polite hello to all of the adults and answered a few benign questions about school and sports the kids would huddle together in knots. We were exchanging dirt on which divinity students had hobbies worth exploiting for the three years we held them captive at VTS.
For the first few years I lived on the grounds I regularly participated in square dancing in front of Aspinwall, learned judo from a former Marine and a few good magic tricks from a former hippie who wouldn’t wear shoes and left first floor classes via the tall windows.
It was as if I had fallen into a magical land of possibilities.
It was also always immensely easy to put together a random softball game on the circle of ground that in those days had no trees to block the bases. The students’ selfless acts of service to the otherwise invisible third population of the Seminary (behind the faculty and students) left me with a permanent sense that on balance the world is a friendly place full of lots of weird and fun things to do. Stay open to all of it.
I recently moved to Chicago and live in a large apartment building where I already know most of my neighbors, and then some. Others have noted my amazing ability to not only say hello to anyone but ask their name, their profession and just how they’re doing today. I learned a lot of that as a PK and through a childhood growing up with an ever-changing roster of unofficial uncles and in the late ‘70s, finally, aunts when women were at last admitted as students.
The wisdom they inadvertently passed on was that every- one you meet has something interesting to share if I just remain willing to ask and don’t mind looking a little silly once in awhile while I figure it out. Welcome to the new crop of students. May you leave a life-long impression of fun and goodwill on a new generation of PK’s.