The Revolutionary

January 2, 2018
Stephanie Spellers
Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, MTS '96

Stephanie Spellers, MTS ’96, jumped enthusiastically into the culture wars raging on Wake Forest’s campus in the early 1990s. An African American woman at a southern school that had only recently begun to admit significant numbers of minority students, Spellers frequently found herself at odds with her classmates. When she and Wake’s small group of college Democrats gathered on the campus quad to celebrate Bill Clinton’s victory in the 1992 presidential election, they soon found themselves surrounded by an angry mob.

“Go home welfare mother!” a man shouted at her as they locked eyes.

Spellers doesn’t say how she answered the man. She tells the story today, not with resentment or rage, but with curiosity, compassion, and, perhaps most of all, a plea for people on all sides of the political divide to stop shouting at each other and to start listening.

“If he felt all of that in 1992, what did he feel when Barack Obama became president?” she asked in her 2016 TEDx talk, “The Revolutionary Art of Listening.” “The very moment that I feel like I finally gained my country, did he lose his? And will I ever know? Probably not, because . . . a long time ago we stopped listening. I think it’s time for us to start.”

As one of three canons to the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church (think executive vice president), the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers works to transform the Episcopal Church from an institution to a movement through the power of listening and love. She guides the church’s work around racial justice and healing, as well as evangelism, church planting, ethnic ministries, domestic poverty, and creation care. It’s a big portfolio, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I love it,” she says. “I suppose there aren’t a lot of people who could inhabit all these worlds comfortably, but I’m just grateful to God that I had this hodgepodge of experiences that make all these ministries feel like home.”

‘HDS blew my mind and heart open’

Spellers grew up with a passion for social justice, but not for ministry and Christianity. In fact, as the child of a single-parent, working-class family in the American South, Spellers grew up resenting Christianity as divisive, even harmful. She studied Buddhism as an undergraduate at Wake Forest, a Southern Baptist school where she felt like she “never made sense.”

Encouraged by one of her professors, and by a desire to explore “big questions” she enrolled at HDS in 1993.

"I just knew I loved having conversations about religion,” she says. “I wanted to think about the role of religion in public life and in movements for social change. I never want to stop being a part of that conversation.”

At HDS, Spellers studied with theologians like Harvey Cox and Sarah Coakley, whose ideas enabled her to discover an “expansive Christianity.” The conversations she had with her classmates not only expanded her understanding of religion, but also enabled her to think about how to merge theory with practice to work for a better world.

“I remember being in the kitchen in Rockefeller Hall after going to a panel discussion that included Meg Guider, who was a nun in El Salvador when one of the great purges of Jesuit priests occurred,” she says. “There was Jennifer Hughes, a scholar who had been deeply involved in the Catholic worker movement. There was Reza Aslan. There were so many of us. We talked about how to make theology a way of life—to go from ‘God talk’ to ‘God walk.’ We were working it out in real time. That just doesn’t happen in every seminary.”

Spellers also encountered Christians at HDS who shared her commitment to social justice, as well as an LGBTQ community that refused to be kicked out of the tradition—even as they were being kicked out of their churches and kicked off the ordination path.

“The people of HDS blew my mind and my heart open,” she says. “They thought that Christianity should be subversive, it should be transgressive. I hadn’t seen very many Christians actually living that out, and I saw them everywhere at HDS. A lot of my resistance just crumbled in the presence of a faith that was so generous.”

Crumbling resistance did not equal a call to ministry—at least not yet. After Spellers graduated, she put her MTS degree to work for the Knoxville (TN) News Sentinel as the paper’s first dedicated religion editor and reporter. She missed the Christian community she’d discovered in Boston, however, so she moved back after a year and returned to HDS, this time as a member of the School’s admissions staff. She attended a Lutheran church, where she was baptized, and she began some faith-based community organizing in Boston’s inner city.

She took a trip to New York City one weekend and ended up at the Limelight, a nightclub housed in a converted Episcopal church. On the dance floor there, “spinning like a whirling dervish,” Spellers says she had a vision of “liberation, transformation, and celebration,” and of a spiritual community where “young folks, queer folks, people who think church has nothing to do with them” could feel at home.

“Later on that morning, I wrote 25 pages in my journal about becoming a priest,” she says. “I came back home and I started knocking on the doors of Episcopal churches in Cambridge. I said ‘This is gonna sound crazy, but I think I’m supposed to be an Episcopal priest.’ The priest at St. Peter’s in Central Square said, ‘Come on in.’ They were the ones who sponsored me for ordination. ”

A Different Way of Doing Church

After three years and an MDiv at Episcopal Divinity School, Spellers made her vision a reality with The Crossing, an initiative of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston. As founding priest, she reached out to people who felt marginalized not only by the church, but also by society. In so doing, she developed a passion for reconciliation and learned the value of listening.

“We listened to homeless people, to poor people, to people who can’t just read from a book in order to worship, to queer folk, to brown and black folk, to Asian folk, and especially to young people,” she says. “We welcomed them all, and for three years I did not preach once in that church. I was the priest and we worshiped every week, but they did the preaching. It was a different way of doing church.”

The experience yielded Radical Welcome, the first of several books Spellers authored, and in 2012 she left Boston to serve the Episcopal Church in New York City. As canon for mission vitality in the Diocese of Long Island, Spellers worked to weave the church into relationship with one of the most diverse areas in the country (the diocese includes all of Brooklyn and Queens). She also began teaching at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in Manhattan, where she taught and directed programs in mission and reconciliation.

Along the way, Spellers also served as chaplain to the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops and co-chair of the Standing Commission on Mission and Evangelism. In December of 2015, the newly minted Presiding Bishop Michael Curry hired her as his canon for evangelism and reconciliation.

“Bishop Curry convinced me to come onto the church-wide international staff and help to spearhead work around what we call the Jesus movement: following Jesus into loving, liberating, life-giving relationships with God, with each other, and with creation,” she explains. “My job is to work with extraordinary, visionary teams to reform the whole Episcopal Church into a movement and not just an institution. And it’s happening.”

While Spellers is an optimist and an evangelist, she is also aware of the generations-long decline in religious affiliation that has trimmed the ranks of mainline Protestant churches. She says that the issue is more fundamental than a crisis of relevance—it’s about the failure of Christian denominations to adapt to the cultural shifts of the last 50 years and, most of all, to be in an authentic, vital relationship with God. The solution, she says, is not better music or a church Facebook page or even social justice work. It’s love.

“The only reason people are going to be a part of a church or any faith community is if we are smoldering, if we are blazing with the love of a God who is alive,” she says. “If we’re not, don’t be surprised that they just keep walking, because everything else church gives them, they can get somewhere else. They aren’t rejecting religion; they’re rejecting churches that promise a divine encounter we’re not fully in touch with ourselves.”

Spellers’ mission is to help the Episcopal Church to fall more deeply in love with the God who shakes people to their foundations and transforms their lives. She quotes the writer Annie Dillard to emphasize her point:

“It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

“We ask too little of God and expect too little of the encounter with a living God,” she continues. “Does anything matter to you enough to give your life for it? Does God matter enough that we get swept into radical, sacrificial, life-altering love and solidarity? Every now and then there have been Christians who could stand up and say ‘Yes,’ and embody that. We’re in a moment right now where we need those revolutionaries—not just Christians, but people of faith, period.”

—Paul Massari