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After a six-year stint as musical director for the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., The Reverend Benjamin Straley followed his calling to the priesthood. He has served as assistant rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Essex since last summer. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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Benjamin Straley’s mother was sure he wouldn’t. But he did, even though he was a painfully shy 11-year-old boy. She told him if he could summon up the courage to ask the church organist for lessons, she would agree to let him have them.
“Mom didn’t think I would do it, but the next Sunday I marched up and asked,” he recalls. “The organist asked if my mother knew. He thought I must really mean it if I had spoken to her.”
Indeed, he meant it, though at 11, Benjamin’s feet could hardly reach the organ pedals. From that start, Benjamin, now 33, became one of the most visible organists in the United States as organist and associate director of music of the National Cathedral in Washington. Still, after some six years in the position, he has responded to another calling.
Since August 2018 he has been the assistant rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Essex and shortly after assuming that position, he was ordained as a priest.
At the moment, Benjamin says he is doing a lot of shadowing of the church’s rector, the Reverend Jonathan Folts, as he adapts to the many responsibilities that go with being an active clergyman. Now he preaches with ease, though there was a time when he was a graduate school that he was sure that his shyness would prevent it.
“Looking back, I was terrified; my heart was pounding, then a voice said to me, ‘Feed my lambs,’ and all of a sudden I said to myself, ‘I’ve got this,’” he recalls.
Benjamin did not grow up in the Episcopal Church. His family was Methodist. At Indiana University, from which he graduated as an organ major, Benjamin’s organ teacher and mentor was director of Episcopal activities on campus; she suggested he join the choir she led and he found himself singing at Episcopal church services.
At one college service, he had what he describes a conversion moment during a particular prayer, the prayer of humble access.
“That prayer was a light bulb for me,” he says.
The result: in 2005, he was received (the technical church term) into the Episcopal Church.
After graduation from Indiana, Benjamin continued his education at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, where in addition to his musical studies, he was also drawn to courses in the Divinity School curriculum. Looking back, he thinks it was because the idea of becoming a priest, though he was not conscious of it, had formed in his mind.
“I told myself I was taking the courses to be well-rounded, but I suspect that it was because I wanted to be a priest,” he says,
He graduated with master’s degrees in music and divinity as well as a certificate in Anglican studies from the Berkeley Divinity School, an entity within the larger Yale Divinity School. In addition, he had already begun the ecclesiastical process that would ultimately lead to his ordination as a priest.
When he went for his job interview as organist at the National Cathedral, he was forthright about his ultimate desire to join the priesthood.
“I was afraid that would kill interest and they would say, ‘Nice meeting you,’ but instead they said they were really interested and how could they help,” Benjamin recalls.
There were more immediate problems at his interview; the cathedral tower had been hit by lighting and the organ’s electrical system was, in Benjamin’s words, “fried.” Instead, he was asked to conduct a choir at evensong.
“I said ‘Yes’; I kept saying ‘Yes’; I was afraid if I said ‘No,’ it was all over,” he remembers.
The next day he played the organ and got the job.
In addition to his regular musical duties, Benjamin played at notable occasions in the National Cathedral like the second inaugural prayer service for President Barack Obama and the funeral of U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye.
“It was surreal seeing all these major Democratic leaders right there in the front row: the Obamas, the Bidens, the Clintons, the Kerrys, just surreal. I suppose I got used to it as time went on, and even happened to bump into former President Bill Clinton after one funeral and shook his hand,” Benjamin notes.
Beyond his playing, Benjamin had a particular distinction at the cathedral: his socks—red plaid at Christmas, firecracker socks for the Fourth of July, socks with stripes from black and white to blue, yellow, and green. At his last Fourth of July Concert, in fact, Benjamin made three or four sock changes.
On YouTube videos of National Cathedral services featuring Benjamin on the organ, regular camera shots of his feet on the pedals give ample view of his socks.
On a recent morning visit, Benjamin did not disappoint. He wore socks decorated with vibrant blobs of yellow, purple, and green. And he is not going to run out of footwear. When he came to St. John’s, on his first Sunday the congregation presented him with a basket with 50 pairs of colorful socks.
Beyond the gift of socks, Benjamin is enthusiastic about his welcome at St. John’s.
“I have been so embraced, sometimes I think I am the luckiest man in the world,” he says.
Benjamin, who is gay, says the congregation is both aware and comfortable with his status.
“They know who I am; they love me and I love being here,” he says.
On his own time, Benjamin is a cook, with a particular fondness for the recipes of chef and cookbook author Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa. What he likes about her approach to cooking is her emphasis on the commonality of different recipe techniques and ingredients.
“She says if you know one recipe, you know five, and if you know 10, you know 100,” he says.
What is certain is that Benjamin will know more about Ina Garten after he attends an upcoming appearance of hers at the Bushnell in Hartford.
Though he loves baking cookies, Benjamin is trying not to make deserts these days. He says he put on weight when he stopped running but continued eating the same amount. Instead these days he has embarked on a new challenge, though not one that necessarily involves fewer calories: baking bread. He admits he was anxious about it at first, but reports that every week he is getting better results.
Benjamin says these days he has very limited time to practice the organ, maybe a half an hour a week. But he has other music in his life. He is music director of a choral group, The Anglican Singers in New London, which practices once a week and performs monthly evensong as well as seasonal concerts.
For him, life is faith-centered and life without the support of faith is difficult to conceive of.
“How to explain to people, not only of my faith but of any faith, that they are missing something?” he asks. “I can’t imagine life apart from the church.”
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