Tuesday, December 01, 2009

More cause for rejoicing

ClayOla Gitane had to leave the diocese
in order to pursue her call to ordination

The rejoicing continues in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth as preparations are made for the ordination of Deacon ClayOla Gitane to the priesthood at 10 AM Saturday Dec. 5 at Trinity Episcopal Church, 3401 Bellaire Drive South, Fort Worth, 76109. She will be the second woman ordained to the priesthood in this diocese.

She is one of more than fifteen women who over the years have had to leave the diocese in order to be ordained priests because all the bishops of Fort Worth prior to 2009 opposed the ordination of women. With God’s help, she will be the last.

She will become priest in charge of two congregations that have been temporarily displaced from their buildings – Christ the King, now worshipping at St. Giles Presbyterian Church (Fellowship Hall), 8700 Chapin Road, Fort Worth; and the Episcopal Church in Parker County which includes members from St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church (Willow Park), All Saints' Episcopal Church (Weatherford) and the Church of the Holy Apostles (Fort Worth). They worship at McCall Elementary School, 400 Scenic Trail in Willow Park.

This also is a significant event for Trinity Episcopal Church, because the Rev. Gitane was a member at Trinity in 2001 when she resumed her exploration of her powerful call to the priesthood. She eventually had to leave the diocese, first to go to Dallas and then to go to the Diocese of Olympia [Washington] to pursue her call to ordination.

She will be ordained by the Rt. Rev. Bavi Edna "Nedi" Rivera, who was elected in May 2004 as bishop suffragan of Olympia. Bishop Rivera is the first Hispanic woman bishop and the 12th woman bishop in the Episcopal Church. In May 2009, she became the Provisional Bishop of Eastern Oregon. The Rt. Rev. C. Wallis Ohl, provisional bishop of Fort Worth, also will participate in the ordination.

What has this years-long process and exile meant to Deacon Gitane?

“It meant learning to stand with others who are outcasts. It meant seeing the Gospel as intrinsically inclusive and standing on that knowledge. It meant learning how to live as a Christian witness and learning that I am willing to seem `different’ as I live out my faith. It meant learning just what I would give up for my vocation. It meant feeling the worst I could feel, but also having some of the best fun of my life. And it meant rejoicing in the grace and miracles worked by God,” she said.

ClayOla Gitane
ClayOla Gitane grew up in the Episcopal Church and was confirmed in 1969 at the Church of St. Mary in Lompoc, California. Some of her earliest memories are of that church.

“I remember kneeling in the pew, caught up in the reassurance and complexity of the liturgy, watching dust float down from the windows, smelling the incense, looking at the light fall through the stained glass. I loved the freeing and fulfilling structure, the round of seasons and ceremony that offer a joy that will weather any heartbreak or confusion. I learned that our Anglican faith can form the infrastructure of a lifelong intimacy with God,” she said

The General Convention of the Episcopal Church approved the ordination of women to the priesthood in 1976 and the first women were ordained in 1977. [The eleven brave women ordained in Philadelphia and the four in Washington prior to the 1976 vote were soon “regularized” by the church.]

Deacon Gitane began to perceive a call to priestly ordination in the early 1980s. She was out of college and living in Arlington. She went to see her priest at the Arlington Episcopal church where she was a member.

“I told him of wanting to serve God, to pass His blessing and grace to others; of loving all that is Anglican. I told him of dedicating my life to Christ, and wanting to serve Him in the Church. I told him I thought I was meant to be a priest. I felt I was telling him that I had fallen in love. I felt that giddy, bubbly feeling of delight, when it is so wonderful that you feel shy talking about it. Words don’t quite express it,” she said.

The priest said, “No, dear. No. You are mistaken. There are many ways to serve God and His church, but not that way. Not for you. Perhaps a family…”

It was devastating. She clung to her faith, but eventually married a Roman Catholic and converted. They had children, but the marriage eventually ended in divorce. It was another blow, and again, she leaned on her faith.

“I cried out to God. I had given my life to Him. He had called me to be married to this man . . . Had I heard wrongly?” she said.

Upon reflection, she realized “that I had no ears to hear any longer. It wasn’t for lack of asking for help at that time, but because of long practice at not hearing when help was offered. Not for lack of fervency, but for lack of habit.

“And how not? At the center, where the truest distillation of my soul lay, I had put away God. The priest had said no. I could not base an entire life on not being who I was meant to be—but that is what I was trying to do, having accepted that “no” completely, unquestioningly. I began to listen to God and learned about repentance. As soon as I began to turn to Him again, I found Him waiting. I learned about grace.”

She joined Trinity and trained as a Stephen Minister, lector and chalice bearer, but the old longing returned. She enrolled in the Anglican School of Theology at the University of Dallas and, encouraged by her parish priest, the Rev. Fred Barber, and Deacon Janet Nocher, took a Time of Discovery course offered by the diocese to discern a call to ordination to the priesthood.

“I felt so much confusion at that time. I longed for God, for this service, to follow this call. I’d explored the idea of a call to the priesthood for months, with Father Fred and Deacon Janet, but I was afraid to move forward,” she wrote.

But by now, the burden of not following this call seemed greater than anything she might have to go through to become a priest.

“I remember once during a discussion in my Intro to Theology class at Perkins during the first semester I was there. A woman (Methodist) protested the time we were spending on women’s issues. ‘Haven’t we worked all this out by now? I mean, look at the number of female clergy we have!’ she said. I immediately raised my hand and was called on. I told her, ‘I got up at 4:30 AM to take the train over here this morning because someone still believes that women shouldn’t be ordained. We have not ‘worked this all out!’ The moment we stop discussing these issues, we will begin to lose women who are rightly called by God. Once that happens, we start losing the Gospel itself.’

“By being ‘cast out’ I learned to stand with others who were outcasts, to articulate always the social justice side of the Gospel. As my wise Word and Worship teacher, Mark Stamm, used to say, `Sometimes we should look around and ask ourselves, ‘who is not here?’ This is true in worship and it is true in the whole life of the church,” she said.

During those train rides, she would say Morning Prayer with her Book of Common Prayer open on her lap. Over time, many of the other commuters began asking her for prayers.

She said, “They wanted prayer for family, jobs, worries; I learned that a simple habit of life, seen by others, could be a witness.”

While at Perkins School of Theology at SMU, she was the 2007 winner of the Jerry R. Hobbs Award in Liturgics, awarded to the senior student “who has the greatest impact on the worship life of the Perkins community.” She served as assistant chaplain at Perkins Chapel for the 2006-7 academic year. She also co-founded a neo-monastic order for students based on Rutba House, allowing students to grow spiritually and to learn about living in a neo-monastic community. Rutba House is a Christian intentional community in Durham committed to the “new monasticism” movement.

She graduated cum laude with a Master of Divinity from Perkins in 2008.

The fact that she had to leave home in order to pursue ordination is not so odd, as that happens in other places as well. What set her apart was that she was not going to be able to come back to Fort Worth to work as a priest.

“I knew I would never be able to work at home. A person who follows a vocation into the priesthood expects to have to leave their home parish, and we hear over and over that we are ordained `for the greater church and not for one parish.’ But for me, it meant leaving my hometown, my neighborhood, my career, friends, family, as well as my church. It also meant being something of an outsider because, unlike other ordinands, I could never return. Many don’t, in actual fact; but they could. Leaving helped me learn to tolerate seeming odd or different for my faith,” she said.

She left in stages. At first, having to go elsewhere meant commuting to Dallas every day for school.

“I had a daughter in high school, a home and family here, and I was not in a position to just relocate, but I was able to work towards ordination through the Diocese of Dallas. Later, when I transferred to the Diocese of Olympia, Bishop Rivera said she wanted me to go away to live at seminary for a year.

“So I packed up my house, cashed out my retirement, sent my dog and cat to be fostered, and drove alone across the country to California. That was the hardest of all. I will always remember the morning I left for Berkeley--watching my oldest grandson’s back as he skipped into his house after we said goodbye for the last time. It was the emptiest I had ever felt in the whole process. I thought I would not be returning, but going on to the Diocese of Olympia to live and work after school. I think I cried all the way through New Mexico! But I learned how far I would go to follow my call,” she said.

In California she studied with renowned scholar Louis Weil and others at Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

In November 2008, Bishop Jack Iker left the Episcopal Church and the diocese reorganized under the Rt. Rev. Edwin F. [Ted] Gulick. Almost immediately women priests began functioning here. On November 15, Deacon Susan Slaughter became the first woman ordained a priest in the diocese by a bishop of the diocese.

Now, Deacon Gitane has come home.

“Here I am back at home again, where I never thought I would be. The long and short of it was that there were no jobs in Olympia; but God’s grace in doing “a new thing” in the Diocese of Fort Worth meant I was able to return to home and family. One of the most gratifying things of all is to know that others will be able to do the same—leave as appropriate to form in the ways they need to be formed, and then return to work and minister here. We will always have to reach out to bring everyone into the community of faith; but it is glorious that some who were outsiders are now welcome,” she said.

1 comment:

EHC said...

The Perkins community will be with you in spirit, I'm sure, ClayOla. Saturday will truly be a day of celebration.