My Faith Story: Steve Smith
"My name is Stephen Smith, and I’ve been coming to St. Columba’s since at least 2001. I’ve been a member of the choir throughout that time and have served at various points as treasurer, a vestry member, junior warden, and now as senior warden.
This is meant to be a faith story, and I guess things don’t get a lot more personal than that. So let me start with a confession. I enjoy public speaking. But, when Jason asked me to speak here — today — about my faith — it felt a little like getting picked for jury duty. I mean, I looked forward to being in this pulpit at some point. Maybe one of the readings at Lessons & Carols? But, climbing these steps to stand before you to profess my faith was something I’d been content to avoid.
For years, I’ve been happy to speak in church about the mechanics of church. Stewardship. The need to maintain our building, to sustain our ministries, to tend to our strategic priorities and our mission. But faith … that one’s tougher.
Like many here, I grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition. My mother saw to it that my father, brother, and I almost never missed Sunday Mass. We were there, in our favorite family pew, not just on Sundays but even on what Roman Catholics call “other holy days of obligation.” Growing up in small-town New York in the 1970s and 1980s, church was something almost everyone I knew did. My extended family consisted mainly of third or fourth generation immigrants from Ireland and Italy, with strong Roman Catholic traditions all around. Even though one of my best childhood friends was the son of the town’s Presbyterian minister, and even though our closest neighbors were pillars of their Baptist congregation, it never really occurred to me as a child to wonder about faith outside of the Catholic church I knew.
I did what was expected of me … Confession, Communion, Confirmation. I even went to CCD classes (which, in preparation for today I learned stands for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine). Or, I should say I went to CCD until I managed to convince the monsignor that having attended Catholic school through 4th grade was at least as meaningful to my Christian formation as middle school CCD, and he gave me back my Saturday mornings.
I finished high school and went to university in 1987, where I found the Catholic campus ministry and continued, more or less, on the religious path I’d been on throughout my life to that point. But as time passed, and as family traditions felt a bit farther away, I had a chance to reflect on the meaning of the routine. I developed a curiosity for other choices. I wanted to understand better why some of my classmates worshipped in other traditions while many of them worshipped not at all. The very concept of “holy days of obligation” — which had always seemed a bit odd to me — began to feel even more so. Whatever religion I was seeking, if any at all, needed to be more about “holy days of aspiration” or “holy days of opportunity” than about “obligation.”
At Cornell, as at many colleges, multiple campus ministries share the same building, which unlike attending a regular parish church, makes it pretty easy for those who exercise some faith to encounter other faiths. At the time, the University sponsored a weekly multi-denominational service at Sage Chapel in the center of campus, which presented a great opportunity for me to hear voices from many religious traditions. Though I had studied organ from a young age, and I had played the organ in church from time-to-time as a child, it was at Sage Chapel that the connection between spirituality and music became profound for me. I joined the Sage Chapel Choir, relished the sounds of the chapel’s massive Aeolian-Skinner organ, and gladly learned all I could about sacred music — at least as seen through the eyes of the university organist and choirmaster.
Some of the services were transcendent. In particular, I still remember a Good Friday service now almost 30 years ago and the ethereal effect of placing a few chanting voices in far off corners of the chapel. I appreciated the opportunity to practice religion in a multi-denominational university setting where challenging dogma wasn’t just tolerated but expected. But, I found — and this surprised me — that I missed some elements of my childhood church experience. The cadence of the liturgy, the shared experience of communion. Sage Chapel services could be beautiful, and they could be thoughtful, but at times they lacked — for me, at least — a certain grounding.
It was in that realization that I came to appreciate the Episcopal Church. A church that cherished the traditions of music I had come to understand and the liturgy I surprisingly missed, without being frozen in time. A church where scripture, tradition, and reason are our co-equal branches, the three legs of our stool.
After leaving college, aside from a year or so as an organist and choir director at a Methodist church — a story for another day — I began attending Episcopal services regularly. When I moved to DC after grad school, I visited what seemed at the time to be every Episcopal church in the DC Metro area, but it was eventually at St. Columba’s that I found a parish home and where I was received into the Episcopal Church.
Over the past 18 years, I’ve had some amazing experiences here. I have grown in love for God and for our community. And, I’ve been blessed …
Though in the scheme of things leaving the Roman Catholic tradition for the Episcopal Church is not the most radical decision I could have made, it did ruffle a few feathers with my extended family. But perhaps the moment I felt most at home here was about 15 years ago when my Italian Catholic grandmother, then in her 90s and just a few years before her death, agreed to come to services here with me. As far as I or any member of my family knew, it was the first time she’d even acknowledged there was a church that wasn’t Roman Catholic. The service itself was typical of St. Columba’s. And, on that day, Margaret Gunther presided — leaving no doubt that this was not the Catholic church my grandmother had attended for nearly a century. I wasn’t sure what grandma thought of it all until the service ended when she leaned over to me and said she was glad to have lived to see the day when a woman could celebrate the Mass.
I started my faith story with a confession, and I’d like to end with another. As the elements of faith move beyond the practice of religion, things get more complicated for me … I believe in God, and I find comfort in that belief … I believe, at least directionally, in scripture. But, faith is an area of life where I feel pretty inadequate … The mystical elements are especially challenging for me … I am naturally inclined toward evidence. Toward data. Toward what I can see, and touch, and prove. Faith doesn’t fit neatly into that box for me, nor I presume for many of us.
But, even though I can’t always understand, and even though my faith journey is far less profound than many we’ve heard from this pulpit, I feel that I’ve come to recognize holiness — in, but not just in, churches and mosques and temples, but in everyday interactions where we care for one another, and especially when we step beyond what feels comfortable to act where we are truly needed.
The opportunity to be here with you … to listen together … to question together … to struggle together … to learn together … to attempt together to make sense of, and to find meaning in, that which challenges us … to walk a sometimes winding road to Jesus together … that’s the essence of my faith.