At The Episcopal Academy we make every intention to inspire our students to care across differences. As an Episcopal priest and school chaplain, I feel it is my purpose to share the gospel in a manner that invites people to listen and to discern if the gospel message aligns with their own core values. Our school philosophy focuses on allowing school age children, pre-k through 12th grade, to understand why they believe what they believe. We are not in the business of changing their faith traditions. Preaching the gospel in this context presents a challenge. At times it is a tough needle to thread. Nevertheless, we can build a community which aspires to respect the individual dignity of every human being.
With our school’s context in mind, the ministry of Saint Aidan resonates with me because of his approach to spreading the gospel to the Northumbrians in England. A monk named Croman who preceded Aidan complained that the Northumbrians were a savage group of people who were also unteachable. Therefore, they weren’t receptive to the gospel. Aidan responded, “Perhaps you were too harsh with them, and they might have responded better to a gentler approach.” After offering this view of evangelism, Aidan found himself leading a second expedition to Northumbria to plant the gospel. His success grew and Christianity flourished in Northumbria and throughout England.
In addition to his gentle manner in spreading the gospel, Aidan practiced spiritual detachment of all material things. There was nothing in the world he loved. However, he found joy and delight in distributing to the poor whatever was given to him by the affluent. As he traveled through England, he invited both rich and poor to embrace the mystery of Christianity. A simple invitation without coercion revealed the love Aidan had for both God and neighbor. If he came upon those who already believed in the gospel, he worked with them to strengthen their faith and inspired them by his words and deed to perform acts of charity. Ultimately, Aidan’s approach to evangelizing reminds us that there is no strength like gentleness and no gentleness like strength.
Aidan, in his subtle way, set an example for others to respect the individual dignity of every human being. His gentle invitation to embrace the mystery of our faith and to serve the needs of others offers us today an example to follow in a world void of civility, respect for human life, and adoration of God. We, like Aidan, live in a world that needs the gospel and the promise of eternal life more than ever. However, we cannot lose hope like Croman the monk. We must continue Jesus’ mission to go out into the world in peace to love God and our neighbor with gladness and singleness of heart.
With the mission to love God and love our neighbor, we can be armed with the strength of gentleness and create communities of belonging. Every other day at school, we gather together as a community of belonging to hear God’s word, to listen to a speaker’s insights, to sing hymns, and to pray. This gathering includes students and teachers of different faith traditions, different political ideologies, and different perspectives. However, we align ourselves to our primary purpose of living into our core values and caring across our differences. If we attempted to accomplish this through coercion, then we could fall apart. We simply offer people an invitation to gospel precepts and encourage them to care across differences, to knock down the barriers that divide people, and to think of the needs of others. We know that we cannot be harsh to those who belong to different faith traditions. They are one with us because they live in our community.
As the school chaplain, I have found that the gentle approach to sharing the gospel helps create a community of belonging. For example, when we have our Christmas Eve service, 900 members of our community attend. Many of whom are not Christian. They want to be present with us during this most solemn feast because they know they will feel welcomed and feel they belong with us. They feel their presence provides a source of support for their Christian friends. In the end, just like Aidan, we all come to realize there is no strength like gentleness.
[Image Credit: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P’ via Flickr]