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.”
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