I had preached on grace that morning, as usual. Really, it's hard to avoid preaching on grace, because God's grace is so much bigger than our preoccupations with failure and sin and "being good." At the door a well-dressed woman whom I didn't know said hello.
"Do you meet with people?" she asked. There were tears in her eyes. I told her "yes" and asked her to call the office. She didn't, but she turned up the next Sunday. I preached on grace again, perhaps not using that term but (I hope) always getting the same point across: God loves you. At the door, she fell into my arms, sobbing.
The next week, she did come to see me. Addiction had brought her low and nearly destroyed her family. She had come to the turning point of admitting her powerlessness, but chaos was still swirling around her. Over the years, I have learned this is a very tender time of enormous opportunity and enormous danger. I did what I could to support her and her family, and the congregation extended its usual warm welcome.
Some time later, after much work on this woman's part (faithful 12-Step attendance, therapy, and more), our Bishop's visitation took place. The woman asked to talk with the Bishop about what she had been through and where she was now. She told him her story in outline form because time was limited, but she emphasized the role of the church in aiding her recovery.
The Bishop prayed with her and gave her a special blessing. As she left my office, he turned to me and said, "I love it when the church IS the church."
The red doors many Episcopalians enter each Sunday (and in between Sundays too) can be, and in my view must be, doors of refuge for people dealing with addiction. I'm thrilled that a 12-Step group has met in our parish hall for many years, but my dream is to have the same kind of dedicated spiritual fellowship among the worshippers in the pews. I don't know if that's possible, honestly, because we're so good at keeping our guard up in church. But it remains my dream that the authentic spiritual fellowship of the 12-Step movement be fully embodied in our little branch of Christian community.
Because, like the Bishop, I too love it when the Church IS the Church.
The Rev. Connie Clark is Vicar of Buck Mountain Episcopal Church, Earlysville, Virginia.