Oh, What Joy!
In mid-May Karen and I traveled back to New Jersey to celebrate a friend’s graduation from Princeton Seminary. Then we helped her pack a U-Haul and drove with her from Princeton to Yuma, Colorado, where she has begun her first call as an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA).
Many recent seminary graduates travel to a first call with help from family and friends. But Jamie Fiorino accomplished something extraordinary, with the support of a community who believed in her.
I first met Jamie in 2007. She had come to serve as Director of Youth Ministries for First Presbyterian Church of Clarkston, Washington, where I was the pastor. During her interview I watched her engage the search committee and the teenagers in the coffee shop where we had gathered. She had the goods.
The fact that she had the goods should not have been a surprise. Jamie was not a typical early-twenties, fresh-from-college youth director. She had worked in the role in other places for nearly ten years and was then in her mid-thirties. She had led conferences for hundreds of teenagers at a time. Her experience and creativity became obvious when in her first sermon in Clarkston she ran a bread machine so that we would smell baking bread while she described Christ’s claim to be the bread of life.
But one other fact also set Jamie apart from the usual youth director: she had never finished college. In her sophomore year at Whitworth, her father became permanently disabled. The loss of family income meant the difference between affording school and not.
Even more, Jamie had funded her first two years at Whitworth with the help of student loans. Though she found work in her home church as a youth director, neither her pay nor her family’s income was enough to retire the debt. And until she paid off those loans, the university would not release the credits she had already earned so that she might transfer them to a less expensive public school. She was stuck.
That was the Jamie we met eleven years ago—a talented, thirtysomething woman with obvious gifts for the pastorate, but with no apparent means to get there. After she had spent a year in a substandard rental unit, we invited her to live rent-free in the in-law apartment in our back yard. She gradually became not just an employee, but a friend. But her options were still limited.
Three years later, however, a breakthrough occurred. Her church and friends realized that they could do something. Over the next year, they raised enough money to supplement her side income as a seamstress so that she could pay off Whitworth. She was free to return to school.
And she did. In 2011, Jamie left Clarkston. The Presbytery of the Inland Northwest commissioned her as a Ruling Elder to a church in Bovill, Idaho, a small town about forty minutes from the University of Idaho in Moscow. For the next four years, Jamie led the Bovill congregation while finishing her bachelor’s degree. Within months, she had packed up and moved to Princeton Seminary. And three years later, I saw her graduate—and even more, saw her move in to her new call.
It is worthwhile to call for structural change that relieves people of impoverishing debt, or prevents them from falling into it in the first place. It is good for a society to make higher education available to all. I do not speak against social change. Bonhoeffer’s reminder that compassion calls us to public action often presses on my conscience.
But in both the beginning and the end, people are not a category. “The poor” or “the needy” are, in fact, only aggregates of thousands of individual stories like Jamie’s.
Yes, Christ declared his anointing to serve “the poor…the captives…the blind…[and]…the oppressed…” (Luke 4:18). But his actions showed him living out his anointing in direct and personal ways— not with categories, but with people who were poor, trapped, blind, or oppressed. And usually he did it one person at a time.
By the Spirit, Christ’s followers have untapped power to make a concrete, tactile difference. The work is often slow and awkward. But the difficulty may be what separates feel-good charity projects from real service.
And oh, what joy from that service! At first I didn’t want to yield my remaining vacation to thirty-six hours in a U-Haul and a Nissan compact. I had hoped to feast on the excitement of New York City or the calm of the Delaware Water Gap instead. But I will never regret the choice. For I witnessed the end of a long but consistently hopeful road—and the beginning of a new one.
Somewhere along the Way—
Please send your congratulations to Jamie.