The Rev. Susan Ohlidal is featured in today's Caledonian-Record. We have been given permission to share the article here, which can also be reached on the newspaper's website.
By Leah Carey
Staff Writer – The Caledonian-Record
There are jokes that involve a priest walking into a bar. This is not one of those jokes. But it starts the same way.
An Episcopalian priest walks into a bar and sits down for a drink. Perhaps it’s a beer, perhaps it’s a club soda – it depends on the night. She nurses her drink through the evening, making herself available to anyone who wants to talk. She’s probably wearing her clerical shirt and collar, but that’s not a common sight around the Northeast Kingdom so many people don’t know what it signifies.
The setting is the Kingdom Taproom in St. Johnsbury, and the priest is Susan Ohlidal.
“The first thing to know is that my ministry isn’t only in a bar,” Ohlidal said with a wry smile. “Although that, right now, is sort of the feature. The one thing that I do that does get a lot of people’s attention.”
Ohlidal was ordained 18 months ago and she knew from the outset that she wasn’t looking for a traditional ministry.
“Some priests have always done work out in the community – and you can’t really be a congregational priest without being involved somehow in the community – but your main focus of ministry was always with the people you were serving in the church,” she said. “My feeling that I was called to be a priest, not in that conventional congregation, rather out in the neighborhood, in the community somehow.”
“I had no idea what that would look like,” she continued. “I still wake up many mornings and don’t know what that looks like.”
On any given day it looks completely different.
One day recently it looked like standing at the checkout counter at a local grocery store with a cashier who was clearly in distress. “I said to her, Hey, how’s it going? She said, I’m having a bad day. I said, Wow, what’s going on? And she just told me – someone in her family had just been shot.”
Ohlidal said that she wasn’t wearing her collar, but that was beside the point. “This is probably not a churched person of any persuasion of faith. It didn’t matter,” she said. “It was just another human being who needed someone to stand there with her for a few minutes and listen to what was going on in her heart. I do that a lot.”
Other days, she carries out her ministry through her day job as the project director for a new community initiative coordinated by the Vermont Foodbank and Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital. As a “community” priest who is not settled with a particular congregation, Ohlidal does not receive any salary or stipend for her work.
To Ohlidal, social justice is key. She found that calling early in her life. When she was fresh out of college, she took a job in Pennsylvania teaching migrant farm workers basic life skills – how to open a bank account and where to go for medical help.
The migrant workers were living on the farms in bunk houses with no running water or indoor plumbing.
“It was a real startling, eye-opening experience after going to an elite, privileged college,” Ohlidal said. The most disturbing thing, she said, was that these substandard conditions were the norm “in an otherwise very wealthy, fertile, farm-rich community of practicing Christians and Mennonites and Amish … I was really shocked.”
She learned that a family friend was responsible for some of these bunk houses. “That was one of the really early times when I thought, Things don’t make sense. Things don’t match up always. And what can I do to make things match? … I’ve always been sort of a mischief maker and asking far too many questions,” Ohlidal said. “So grassroots community has always been my thing – connecting, collaborating with people.”
Even though she’s a priest, Ohlidal doesn’t spend her time proselytizing. “If the very first thing you need from me is food or shelter, or someone to talk to because your child just died, or whatever your need is – or just to hang out and have a beer together, or a club soda – I’m here for that,” she said. “It’s that connection and relationship that I can offer. Which is also deeply missing in a lot of people’s lives, really to a deep degree.”
Ohlidal can be found at the Kingdom Taproom on Wednesday evenings at 7 p.m. for “Pub Theology,” a weekly conversation that she co-facilitates with Rev. Howard Gaston of the Presbyterian Church of Barnet. They welcome people of all faith expressions – and no faith expression – to talk about important topics.
“[Ohlidal] had already invested a great deal of time building relationships at the Taproom. She’d laid a great foundation to do something like Pub Theology … It’s something I’d been wanting to do for a while, but I didn’t have the connections, so teaming with her allowed me to do this ministry I’d been wanting to do for a long time,” Gaston said. “Her big thing is building relationships.”
“We have a set of ground rules now that we remind people of at the beginning,” Ohlidal said. “It really is just about listening respectfully to each other. All ideas and interpretations are welcome. We’re not there to convince each other of the right way.”
We grieve as we think of all those affected by the mass shooting in Orlando, the worst in US history. We pray for an end to intolerance and violence against our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. We pray for an end to gun violence. We pray for strength and courage to put these prayers into action in the world. We pray for peace.
The following is from St. Paul's, White River Junction parishioner Diane Root:
It began with a group of parishioners distressed by increasing news reports of black men and women dying at the hands of white police officers, trials ending in acquittal, and political campaigns encouraging bigotry. As a first step, the group planned a non-traditional Advent service in recognition of racial injustice, and invited the larger community. They hoped that a few more than their own group would attend, and were stunned when more than 40 showed up. In response to this interest in learning more about racism and the issue of white privilege, the group decided to launch a book study. The book chosen was Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
It was important that the book study move the parish outward into the community, so it was held in the town library, not at the church. Religious and "faith talk" was not the focus, though participants were welcome to share those perspectives along the way if they were so moved. The study focused less on analysis of the book, and more on the reader’s response to it. Sessions were led by various members of the congregation, and leadership was shared. The book study was announced to other churches and the larger community in multiple ways. Participants included members of St. Paul’s and other faith communities, as well as the activist group Showing Up For Racial Justice. There were more than 40 people in attendance at each of the four sessions.
The deepest learning came from sharing in both small groups and plenary time. In Between the World and Me, Coates shines light on the effects of pervasive, unchallenged racism in our society, and holds a mirror up to white privilege and willful blindness. The book is densely written, evocative, and painful. Reflection on the realities exposed by Coates, and his lens for viewing them, led participants to share their own struggles to understand racism in themselves and others, and to open their experiences to one another. It was a challenging book and a simple format, and people expressed strong appreciation for the opportunity to speak honestly together. One community member said, “There was no religious talk, and that made it possible for me to be here.” Another spoke of how the experience helped him appreciate “not being white."
The event’s planners found a number of valuable take-aways: the strong need people feel to share their experiences around race and racism, the value of church offering a safe context for difficult conversation, the hospitality of gathering in a place familiar to the community, and the importance of networking with community groups working on the same issues.
From the Rev. Stephen A. Reynes:
Following my ordination as a deacon in the Episcopal Church this past December, I met with the Rt. Rev. Thomas Ely, bishop of Vermont, and expressed my desire to continue with a project aimed to help meet the needs of struggling or returning military veterans which I had begun as part of my diaconal formation. Still feeling a strong sense of calling to help with veterans, Bishop Ely assigned me to continue with this effort for at least a year.
As a result, the Episcopal Church in Vermont is launching a missional initiative in support of military Veterans in Vermont, which includes development of an evolving user-friendly directory of non-governmental resources for veterans and their families in Vermont. The directory, while non-sectarian, will include spiritual resources.
This evolving directory is not to duplicate what exists, but rather to expand opportunities for awareness of veterans in Vermont and connection among Vermonters who want to assist them in some way. Indeed, it is hoped that the existence and wider circulation of the evolving directory will lead to the expansion of non-governmental resources for veterans as more opportunities become known.
It is envisioned that in due course there will be participation in this project beyond the Episcopal Church. The plan is to have a short period of initial sharing and refining before broader circulation among other faith communities and non-governmental resources.
If you represent a faith community, I ask your assistance in filling out this survey by June 30, 2016.
On a personal note, if you wonder about the genesis of this project and how I came to this role, let me say by way of introduction, that my late father was a Navy pilot who flew in the Berlin Airlift. My mother’s brother was a Navy pilot who was killed in World War II. My late brother helped troubled service members as a career psychologist in the Air Force. I served a term in the Air Force as an administrative officer. Lastly, I invite you to read the veterans-related portion of a sermon I gave on Veterans Day in 2012.
On behalf of Vermont veterans and their families, thank you.
The Rev. Stephen A. Reynes
Please join members of the Sudanese community in Vermont and Bishop David Akau Kuol, Diocesan Bishop of Awerial Diocese, the Episcopal Church of South Sudan & Sudan. We will hear from the bishop about the current realities, struggles and hopes in South Sudan today. The forum will take place Wednesday, June 8 at 7:30 PM at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Burlington. This event is open to the community and there is no cost for admission. Free parking for this event will be available.
Help spread the word and download a flyer.
For more information, contact the Episcopal Church in Vermont office at (802) 863-3431.
Bishop David Akau Kuol was recently in Seattle during this, his first visit to the United States.
"“I’ve been a refugee, but God called me to the ministry,” says Kuol, who became a priest at 19 after an American he met at a refugee camp in Kenya helped him attend school. “Most of my family was killed … during the war. God opened the way for me.”" Read more from the Seattle Times.
In December, I spoke at an Interfaith Prayer Vigil in Burlington called, "A Moral Call: People of faith confronting the tragedy of gun violence." I asked the question, "how do we become our best self as a country in the midst of this current epidemic of gun violence?"
I believe the answer begins by setting in motion a "spiral of peace" in our hearts and in our homes, and it starts now as we actively pursue all efforts to be instruments of God's peace. It moves outward from there, circling family, neighbors, and our world community in compassion, education, awareness, and action, so that one day the vision offered by the prophet Isaiah when speaking about a restored Jerusalem might actually come to pass in our world; "Violence shall no more be heard in your land, wasting nor destruction within your borders; but you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise."
15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed in Chicago in 2013. Hadiya's friends honor her every year on her birthday (June 2) by wearing orange, the color hunters wear to keep themselves safe. Wear Orange was created to make it easier for people to show their support for common sense solutions that will save lives. If you believe there's more we can do to help end gun violence, I invite you to join me and my colleagues in Bishops United Against Gun Violence on June 2 and #WearOrange.
Members of the clergy are invited to consider joining the movement to wear an orange stole onSunday, June 5. For more ideas visit the Wear Orange website.
The following is a report from Trinity, Rutland parishioner Winifred Grace:
The annual retreat for Daughters of the King, Province I, took place on April 29 and 30, 2016 at the Genesis Retreat Center in Westfield, MA. There were 17 women from throughout New England who attended and as always, it was so very good to see the faces of those we see but once a year, and this year meet a few new faces as well. Those attending from Trinity, Rutland's Alpha Chapter were myself and Linda Barcomb.
The theme of this year’s retreat was honoring thresholds as sacred spaces in our lives. The book, recommended to be read prior to our attending, and written by Esther de Waal is entitled To Pause at the Threshold: Reflections on Living on the Border. If you would like to create a mini-retreat for yourself, I would highly encourage you to read this gem of a book, especially in thinking about today’s issues of borders and what they might mean. I promise you will be refreshed!
I have to tell you a little aside story about this retreat. When I told our rector (the Rev. Liam Muller) at our Thursday morning Bible study that we would be going to this retreat the next morning, he quipped to me, “Have you packed your tiara yet?” I just smiled a kind of smirky smile back at him and went on my way, but low and behold one of the first little gifts we were to receive following the initial meditation was the image pictured at left. I have to tell you, I just burst out laughing! Whoever said that the Holy Spirit doesn’t have the best sense of humor ever!
Trinity Church, Rutland
A Daughter of the King
Two hikers. Three weeks. 273 Miles. A quest to raise $10,000 for a scholarship fund for a at-risk youth pursuing post-secondary education. Tim Heath-Swanson and the Rev. Rick Swanson will hike Vermont’s Long Trail in September. They plan to lace up their hiking books and raise $10,000 to create a scholarship fund for Laraway Youth & Family Services’ clients who are pursuing continuing education in the trades and technical fields.
“Laraway students have untapped skills and gifts for life,” says Swanson, who serves as rector at St. John's in the Mountains, Stowe. “The Trailblazer Fund will provide a path forward into their future." Laraway Youth & Family Services provides therapeutic foster care, operates an alternative school, offers clinical services and directs a public school based behavioral intervention program. Laraway is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Donations to the fund are tax-deductible.
Trail Angel: 10 cents per mile = $27.20
Day Hiker: 15 cents per mile = $40.80
Section Leader: 20 cents per mile = $54.40
Thru Hiker: 50 cents per mile = $136.00
The third Annual Rock Point Intentional Community Retreat will be offered from 5 pm Friday, June 10, 2016 through 4 pm Saturday, June 11, 2016. This year we’ll be exploring some of the ways to create holistic “gardens” in our lives, using the beauty and spirituality of Rock Point to experience body, mind and spirit spiritual practices through which we can express RPIC’s rule of life. These will include Qigong as grace before meals, Tai Chi in the outdoor chapel, Anglican prayer beads, contemplative prayer and two pilgrimage walks around Rock Point. As always with our retreats, you may stay overnight or commute. Costs, including all meals, are overnight $120 double occupancy and $150 single occupancy; commuter $85. Late registration, after June 1st, will incur an additional $15 charge.
Rev. Thora Chadwick will preside at the 6 pm Eucharist on Friday, since this is RPIC’s regularly scheduled summer second Friday service. Dinner will follow the Eucharist. The sessions on Friday evening and Saturday will be led by RPIC Members, framed by Morning Prayer, breakfast, lunch and Afternoon Prayer. Sessions will be arranged with mobility challenged folks in mind!
You can complete a registration form here: https://form.jotform.com/61323840234952
I am a member of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Burlington and a member of the vestry with leadership responsibility for formation. I am now also the formation representative for the Episcopal Church in Vermont for Province 1. This involves being part of a network to share ideas, solve problems and to grow and support formation in all of our congregations. It is an exciting group that has met via web conference twice this spring under the leadership of the executive director, Julie Lytle, PhD.
Last week, our brilliant Communications Minister, Kathleen Moore, sent out a social media blitz announcing the 15th anniversary of my ordination and consecration as Bishop of Vermont. The response was amazing, overwhelming and humbling. I would need 15 more years just to express gratitude to each of you who sent greetings and to the many more who offered prayers on April 28th. My email inbox was flooded. The post on Facebook reached 3,000 people. And, my twitter feed was all abuzz. From the depths of my heart and soul, please accept this “social media” expression of my gratitude. These past fifteen years have been among the most challenging and rewarding of my ordained ministry. It has been, and continues to be my great joy and privilege to serve among such fabulous and faithful people. Thank you for you trust, confidence and partnership. Onward!
Vermont's eight facilitators for Honoring Our Relationships, Building a Safe Church Community, met at St. John's Church in Randolph last month. Members of this group facilitate trainings throughout the diocese and meet annually with Canon Lynn Bates to review their work and renew their ministries. Fellowship, education, and planning for the future are the basis of these gatherings. The day included reflection on personal ministries, Bible study, celebrations and discussion of how this work impacts our ministry as individuals and as the Episcopal Church in Vermont. Anti-Racism Training in Vermont and future plans for that ministry were presented by the Rev. Peggy Mathauer.
Safe Church Facilitators are: Stan Baker, Anne Brown, Janet Brown, Janet Cramer, Paul Gratz, Peggy Mathauer, Jean Townsend, and Kathryn Wright.
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