I’ve been told once or twice that it takes at least a year before newly assigned pastors can get the lay of the land regarding their new congregations, new homes in many cases, and new lives. Sometimes they arrive at a church that has undergone tremendous change, and adding a new pastor into the mix is not always easy.
The Rev. Stephen Harding, a New Yorker ordained in 1999, arrived at Grace Church to begin his tenure there on Nov. 1, 2018, which means he’s still new and still discerning what the needs are in the community and within his new congregation. I sat down with him for a chat last week in his office at the parish house. We talked about his past experience (very interesting) and what’s in store for Grace Church.
When I looked through Pastor Harding’s résumé, I noticed immediately that he has an abundance of experience with ministering to those dealing with grief. His speech is soft and comforting, and served as a clue to his experience.
The very fact that he is an Episcopal priest at all came through his work with AIDS patients. He was studying to be a licensed massage therapist in the late 1980s in New York City at the Swedish Institute of Massage Therapy, he said, and one of the program’s options was to work with AIDS patients, so he signed up. “I liked working with them, and I thought, This is great, but if I’m going to work with the dying, I need to know more about belief systems,” he said.
A cradle Episcopalian, he said he reasoned the best place to learn about belief systems was Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan; he applied and was accepted. “So I went to the seminary, and then, after about a semester I thought, You’re in seminary — maybe you should go to church, then it was, You’re going to church, so maybe you should look at ordination. I did this backwards,” he laughed. Harding said his was a gradual journey unfolding in front of him: “Once I got to massage school I knew I was on the right path, I just wasn’t sure where it was taking me.”
His work with AIDS patients was a sort of segue into a series of chaplaincies, first as a chaplain intern and then chaplain resident at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, followed by chaplaincy at Jacob Perlow Hospice at Beth Israel Medical Center, where he supervised interns, provided spiritual care to families, patients, and staff; he also presented seminars on issues surrounding death and dying.
I asked him what it was that he was drawn to in that particular ministry.
“You can’t fix it, but you can manage the [dying] process sometimes, and you can be with people as they die, which is really profound and intimate,” he told me. “When you’re the last person they see on earth, it makes you think a little, and it makes you appreciate life and how short it is.”
He went from hospice ministry to director of pastoral care at NYU, where he was responsible for a 900-bed major hospital as well as staff and students.
“Someplace in there, 2001 happened,” he said regarding 9/11.
“I responded to the American Red Cross’s plea for help on Sept. 12, and went to be at the family assistance center, where they brought the names of those people working in the Towers on the 11th to be registered. Then I ended up at Ground Zero once a week for the next nine months, at the family assistance center, the respite center for workers, and then at the temporary morgue at Ground Zero.”
At that point, he was a board-certified chaplain with a lot of experience with death. He said he had all the skills they were looking for in an area that not everyone is cut out for. “Plus, I just wanted to be there,” he said.
While he was working at Ground Zero, he discovered he enjoyed working with the uniformed services (he’s currently chaplain for the Tisbury Fire Department): “Over time, when I was there, the medical examiner and I would stand next to each other, and they’d open the bag and ID the remains as human. The Police Department would photograph the remains because it was a crime scene, and then they’d step back, and I’d step forward and say a prayer.”
After the 9/11 site closed, Harding volunteered as a chaplain with EMS, and then was appointed as a New York City fire chaplain.
“I served with great pride for 15 years,” he said, “and learned a lot about management and leadership.”
He’s had all these experiences, along with working in a priestly capacity with congregations at churches all over Manhattan. He’s edited books, presented at workshops, and has written articles on everything from “Something Happens When We Pray” to “The Influence of Religion on Death Anxiety and Death Acceptance.” Pastor Harding graduated from Colby College with a bachelor of arts degree, then received certification in massage therapy before his master’s of divinity at the Union Theological Seminary, and a master’s of sacred theology in spiritual direction from General Theological Seminary.
So, you might ask, what brings this man, along with his wife the Rev. Storm Swain, an Anglican priest from New Zealand, and their 12-year-old son Theo, to Martha’s Vineyard? He answered that question in an interesting way, telling me about a Kara Swisher column published in the New York Times a few days ago. It contained a quote from a speech Steve Jobs made at Stanford University in 2005: “For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been no for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”
Besides, he’s no stranger to Martha’s Vineyard. Harding’s great-grandfather bought a house on North William Street in 1911, so he’s been coming here since the early 1960s. “I’m familiar as a kid coming for summer all those years can be,” he said.
I asked him what someone might find within the Episcopal church, and his first answer was “Sanity.” I asked him how to describe his new spiritual home, Grace Church.
“You would find a strong community at Grace Church,” he said. “You would find a parish that is welcoming and that is growing. We are a participatory church. We invite people to think, and to participate in the liturgy and the ongoing life of the church. We have 500 years of tradition, more or less, in the Episcopal church in general. And we’re anchored here in our core values … striving for justice and peace among all people, loving our neighbor as ourselves, and seeking to serve Christ in all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being. It’s our baptismal covenant.”
Grace Church lost its last priest-in-residence when Father Brian Murdoch died in October of 2016; he’d only been there a couple of years, but made a strong impression while he was there.
“I want to build on everything they’ve done, and they’ve done quite a lot of work the past two years. They’ve not only survived but grown,” Harding said. “One of the things that is exciting to me is that we can dream who we want to be into being. Yes, we’re an Episcopal church and we’re very proud of our tradition, but we have a freedom to explore and grow and find our place in the ministry, in the world around us. Part of what i’ve been doing is to try to identify where gaps and needs are on the Island, with a view toward seeing how we can fill some of the gaps through programs and through our involvement.”
In May, he said, Grace Church will come together and start outlining a plan to carry out over the next three years.
“I like the people here, and I like having traded my NYC Metrocard for the Steamship lifeline card,” Harding said. “I like what I’m doing, and I like being here. I think with my family connection here, that this is more home than anywhere else. I feel like I’ve come home.”
If you’d like to hear the Rev. Stephen Harding preach (I know I’d like to), Sunday services at Grace Church are at 8 and 10 am. Check out the church’s website, and take a look at his reading list at graceepiscopalmv.org
Make a note that the Federated Church’s talk with the executive director of Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard, Tom Hallahan, was canceled last Sunday due to the weather. Stay tuned for when it’s rescheduled.
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