Person of the Week
Rachel Thomas: A Minister Reflects
Though COVID-19 has curtailed many of the person-to-person connections that are a part of Rachel Thomas’s day-to-day work as a region missionary with the Episcopal Church, she’s living in the moment and encouraging her flock to do the same. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Thomas )
Rachel Thomas is working at home, attending computer meetings on group sites, connecting with people by telephone. If the times were different, Rachel, an Episcopal priest, a would be visiting and preaching at one or another of the 16 shoreline churches that comprise her area as a region missionary as Holy Week and Easter approach. The churches in her territory in stretch from Madison and Clinton through Essex to Stonington and Gales Ferry.
Still, though she can’t speak from the pulpit now, Rachel, who lives in Deep River, still has a message that she thinks is important for the present moment: “Learn to live with uncertainty and still have faith and trust and even seek to be loving in the midst of it. That does all circle back for me to the idea that God is with us even in the muck.”
A missionary, Rachel explains, is not the 19th century figure epitomized by adventurer and journalist Henry Morton Stanley trekking through Africa in search of David Livingstone, rumored to have been lost on an expedition to discover the source of the Nile. Stanley’s words upon discovering the Scot’s medical missionary and explorer have become legend: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”
According to Rachel, the 21st century version of missionary work emphasizes outreach and networking with other local non-profits like the Shoreline Soup Kitchen & Pantries and the Shoreline Basic Needs Task Force.
“It’s helping wholeness and collaboration with other non-profits who are doing gospel work, just not thinking of it in those terms,” she explains, adding, “and it not just about Christians.”
The inspiration for contemporary missionary work, according to Rachel, grew out of the Episcopal Church’s recognition that in some ways its conventional organizational structures no longer responded to community needs. She describes the missionary position as an outgrowth of the process of reimagining the wider church.
She points out that church attendance, particularly among young people, has fallen.
“It’s not a given anymore that people go to church,” she notes. “We can’t assume that people will walk through the doors.”
The effort now is to reach people through looking at wide range of critical problems. To illustrate her meaning, Rachel mentions the issue of climate change.
“We try to get people out of buildings, really into the care of the environment. We’ve been given a fragile earth to tend, not to dominate,” she says.
Rachel did not start her professional career in the church. She was born in a small town in Georgia, but by the time she got to high school, her father, who worked for the federal Department of Agriculture, had been transferred to Northern Virginia. She attended William and Mary College, majoring in French and spending her junior year in France.
Her choice of major, she admits was influenced in part because French came easily to her. Still, she knew she didn’t want to be either a language teacher or a translator, fields that might be considered natural choices, when she graduated. Instead she took a clerical position with the Civil Aeronautics Board, a government agency that has since been abolished.
Her growing interest in religion led her to Wheaton College in Illinois for a graduate degree in Christian ministries. Rachel, who loves the outdoors, chose Wheaton, because it had a program that involved both Christianity and camping.
Her degree led to a position that combined her interests: placing young people in national parks as summer employees who, in their off hours, would also do Christian worship services for visitors and park employee.
Still, after her graduation from Wheaton, Rachel, was neither an ordained minister nor at that point even an Episcopalian. She grew up in what she describes as a fundamentalist, Methodist tradition. After her master’s degree, while she was working in New York at the administrative headquarters of the national park program, a friend took her to an Episcopal service. She found herself deeply impressed by the preaching and work of the woman priest on the staff. It was the beginning of her move into the Episcopal Church.
As she rethought what she once considered fixed positions, she had to reassess some of the ideas with which she had grown up, among them the notion that women could not become ministers. She enrolled in the Yale Divinity School in 1989, graduating with a second master’s degree, this time in religion, in 1991.
She was ordained as an Episcopal deacon in June l991, and priest in December of that year. In 2007, she earned a doctorate of ministry from the Hartford Seminary.
Rachel has served parishes in Gales Ferry and East Haddam as well as a cluster minister in the Middlesex area, responsible for a number of churches too small for a minister of their own. She has been in her present position for some three years.
“I asked for this job. I thought it was a new thing to try,” she says.
And reaching for new experience is very much her style.
“I believe in lifelong learning,” she says.
Rachel suggest that this might be a time when people could create a sacred space, an altar for prayer in their own homes. It could be a quiet space to livestream a service without the temptation to use the computer during worship for just a second to check email or Facebook messages.
“Cultivate homes as a place where the Holy One dwells,” she advises.
She also suggests that people on their own might want to observe Easter by reading every day some of the biblical passages related to it, starting with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
Rachel can’t predict what the future will bring in these uncertain times.
“It’s hard to know; you can’t plan, you can’t predict,” she admits, “but I am ready to reach out now in the present.”