“Seeing Things in Ways We Have Never Seen Before”

Elizabeth Coffey

The following speech was delivered by Elizabeth Coffey ’16, an MDiv student at EDS and candidate for ordination in the United Church of Christ, during the school’s annual St. John’s Society and Heritage Society Dinner, which honors individuals who have supported The Fund for EDS with an annual gift of $500 or more, or have included EDS in their estate planning.

Members of the St. John’s Society, faculty, administration, staff, students, and friends of Episcopal Divinity School, I am humbled to stand here before you as the student speaker this evening.

First off, I wish to thank all the donors to EDS who have made my education here possible. Your support for this school, its mission, and degree programs and scholarships are integral to the training of forward-thinking religious and spiritual leaders in our communities, countries and the world. Without your deep commitment to social justice and stewardship of God’s creation, the world would be a darker place.

I am a Distributive Learning student from Maine. My part of Maine is not the lobster, lighthouse, LL Bean part of Maine. From where I hail, people are fleeing. Mill closures, meth labs, moose, and crushing poverty are some of the daily fare people are raised on. And this is where God is calling me to serve.

When I came to EDS in June of 2013 after the seminary where I had been attending closed, I came with the goal of simply finishing up my credit hours, getting my MDiv and moving on out of here as soon as possible. God (and the EDS grid worksheet) however had other plans.

Third World Feminist Theology, World Religions and Just-Peacemaking, Evangelism and Theology, and Ministry of Small Churches, are just a few of the many courses that I have taken; they have shaped me and formed me for ministry in a way that would not have occurred had I not come here.

And because of work done in these classes, and the tenacious commitment to VISIONS guidelines that was upheld in these courses and at this school, I was given the tools and opportunity to explore my own privilege and brokenness here and in my home community; to understand and see the systemic oppression of Native people in my state; to go beyond my comfort zone of ministry of being in the church building and—after a challenge in an EDS class—to become a street pastor, scootering through Bangor’s downtown on Friday nights as part of an ecumenical ministry of presence and companionship.

So to let you hear a little about what I do when I am not here on campus, about a month ago I had the privilege to go out on a Friday night as street pastor, as part of the Greater Bangor Street Pastor Initiative. Street pastors come from more than 13 churches in the Bangor area—Pentecostals and Southern Baptists rub shoulders with Methodists, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, members of the Salvation Army, and the Mansion Church, a faith community for recently released prisoners.

On the night I was out my group came upon a very drunk gentleman holding up a wall on Main Street. It was the end of our shift, around 1:00 a.m. and we were all looking forward to our warm beds. We said good evening to the man and continued on up the street. But he said something, I don’t remember what now, and we turned back to see what was up. During the course of a circuitous conversation we had with him he told us his had been hit in the face with a 2 x 4 and was in excruciating pain. As the group talked with him about trying to get him to a shelter he honed in on me—I was a bit separate from the group, doing the designated job of “cover,” watching him, the street pastors conversing with him as well as the surrounding area to make sure everything was safe. I was not talking but simply looking and listening.

And then he came over to me and started crying, asking if he could tell me something he did not want the others to hear. Initially apprehensive, the rest of the group slowly backed up as he approached me on my scooter, saying, “I thought you were a little person but then I realized you are in a wheelchair. You know what I am talking about. I can talk to you. And he got down on his knees and sobbed.

And I did not know what to do or say. I was rendered mute and could not move.

And then his words came rushing out. He told me he felt he was cursed. He had made a bad choice once in his life and he felt God was punishing him for it. He told me he was planning to end his life that night. And then, in that moment, I knew what to do: I loved him with all the strength and ferociousness I had inside me. I wiped the tears from his bashed-in face, and kissed the top of his dirty and matted head as I held it in my arms. I told him I do not believe in curses and God does not punish us for our sins with physical pain.

And I told him he was forgiven. And then he sighed a ragged and deep sigh. A sigh so deep and heavy with meaning beyond my understanding. I felt the Holy breath of God that night, the breath of God that breathed out the stars and the heavens so long ago, leaving God’s sparkling fingerprints on a dirty, booze-smelling man. Shimmering light that I might never felt had he not breathed that holy sigh right upon me, making us both new again.

God is doing a new thing, but we must be willing to open ourselves, individually and as a church to the possibility of all that comes with the totally new—worry, the fear of the unknown and change, anxiety of not knowing what to do, and let ourselves be vulnerable. Because when we do this, the Holy Spirit can all the better blow us where it will and we will see things—see God—in ways that we have never seen before. All thanks and glory be to God for blowing me to EDS, the lamp to my feet and all students past, present, and future. May it continue to shine as a beacon of change and direction for generations to come.