Humans of Saint James’: Chris G

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You may have heard of “Humans of New York,” a photoblog by photographer Brandon Stanton which has let us glimpse into the stories of ordinary New Yorkers.

At Saint James’, we believe that community is one of the most important functions of the church, and that by this we help promote and “respect the dignity of every human being” in the words of our baptismal covenant.

And thus follows this second post in our new series: Humans of Saint James’.

While it may not match the scope or sophistication of Stanton’s work, it is no less important – as we hear the stories of fellow parishioners, we are allowed to glimpse another piece of the story of Christ in the world, in Warrenton, in Saint James’, and in each of us.

§ § §

Chris grew up near Buffalo, NY and went to college in Rochester on an ROTC scholarship. He spent his 20s as a Navy pilot and has been a commercial pilot since 1997.

His spiritual journey began at home in upstate New York. “I wouldn’t say we were [practicing] Roman Catholics, but we identified ourselves as Roman Catholics [culturally].”

He attended Catholic grammar school and went through some of the motions, but he never really engaged with the Church, and as a teenager he stopped going to services altogether.

“It was my first rebellious, independent act, when I announced that I was no longer … interested in going to CCD.”

Though he mostly stopped attending church for the next several years, he felt he had a lingering desire to find God. “I always kinda had this latent spirituality, but it was kinda a guilty spirituality, instilled by the nuns in the [schools] of my youth.”

While he was doing flight training in Mississippi, he met and married a woman who had grown up in the Southern Baptist Church. He started going to church with her and her family, and got more involved with that church when they had kids.

“That’s when God started talking to me again – or when I started listening, I should say – when I had kids.”

It was the beginning of a powerful spiritual journey for Chris.

§ § §

In 2000, after he left the Navy, Chris and his family moved to Warrenton. He heard about Saint James’ when looking for a preschool for his son. He and his wife decided to check out the church as well.

“I think initially what struck me was the actual building … I guess that’s kinda shallow. But we said, ‘well, we gotta go somewhere.’”

“My wife wasn’t opposed to stepping outside the Baptist tradition, and this was comfortable for me, from my youth with the rite, the liturgy and the Eucharist, and so we started coming here. We met Larry Murphy, the rector at the time, and you know I’m a Navy guy so I kinda had a connection with him.”

Chris and his wife both liked Saint James’. They came a lot at first, less often after a while. They never got too involved. About the same time, their marriage suffered, and they started attending church regularly again in an attempt to strengthen their relationship.

Chris’ son was in 8th grade at this time, and sang in his school’s choir. “And we were sitting [in church] … and the choir was up there and I was like ‘dude you should sing in the choir!’ And he’s like ‘no way, Dad – church music?’”

Chris mentioned to his son he would sing in the choir himself if he wasn’t so busy.  

“So we went to have coffee and we were sitting in the parish hall over there and guy who was in the choir at the time waltzes up to us … and said ‘can you sing?’

Chris asked if he had overheard them talking about the choir. 

“No, no, we just had two guys quit and we’re like hurting for men [to sing in the choir],” said the man.

Chris resisted. He was busy. He travels a lot. No matter, said the chorister. Show up when you can.  

He waited for the lighting bolt.

“‘This is weird!’”

He eventually relented. “I thought about it and I said, you know, why not?”

The choir has been a central part of his spiritual journey ever since.

§ § §

Chris’ marriage continued to struggle. Eventually he and his wife separated and divorced. It was an extremely hard time.

“Saint James’ was really important to me at that time … and I found solace in the community here.” Singing in the choir especially helped. “It gave me something to take my mind off what was going on. And so I kinda just pressed on.”

It was not an easy time, for him or his family. “I was a trainwreck for a couple years.”

“As I was coming out the back end of [my personal struggles] the outgoing senior warden asked me if I would consider being on vestry.”

“My first inclination was not only ‘no,’ but ‘heck no!’ ‘Do you know what a basket case I am right now?’

He went home and prayed.

“This to me was a Holy Spirit moment, where God was reaching out to me and saying it’s time, it’s time for you to move. and step out of your comfort zone and grow.”

Again, he eventually gave in. “And I think it was a couple weeks later they said ‘hey, do you wanna be the junior warden?’ And my initial response was not only ‘no,’ but ‘heck no! – like what do I know about [being jr warden]?’”

“So it was kinda the same process and so I went home and prayed about it and I felt like there was a pattern here.”

He agreed to become junior warden.

“And this is a recurring thing to me [over the last decade] – this idea of … personal and spiritual growth and stepping out of your comfort zone, kinda like the choir thing.”

§ § §

Over the next three years, Chris became more deeply involved with the parish.

“My experience with Saint James has been defining for me. There were early parts of my life – we talked about being a naval officer and that was kind of a defining thing for my character in my youth.”

Not any more.

“It’s interesting – Scott Christian gave me this book a couple years ago, talking about the two halves of your life – wherein the first half you’re building the vessel, figuring out who you are and what you are. And the second half is where you are filling that vessel.”

“I believe I’m in the second part now. There’s not a whole lot else to do [outwardly] – I’m not gonna change jobs, I’m not gonna change my outward appearance or my outward projection, so it’s really about what’s going on inside now.”

“[Saint James’ has been] an anchor and also a goad, to some degree … I feel – especially the relationships at Saint James’ have been … a prod for me to move.”

It’s important to Chris that he isn’t ever complacent. He feels the Holy Spirit has moved him especially in times where he had no inclination to act on his own. Now is no different, and he thinks Saint James’ will play a role.

“The other parts of my life away from Saint James’ have calmed down and have grown, and I’m entering a phase of my life spiritually and I’m being asked, I think, by God to take another step, to step out of my comfort zone.”

Humans of Saint James’ | John Knouse

John at his home in Front Royal. The quilt behind him was given to him and his wife Amanda as a wedding present, and was signed by the guests at their wedding.

You may have heard of “Humans of New York,” a photoblog by photographer Brandon Stanton which has let us glimpse into the stories of ordinary New Yorkers.

At Saint James’, we believe that community is one of the most important functions of the church, and that by this we help promote and “respect the dignity of every human being” in the words of our baptismal covenant.

And thus follows this first post in our new series: Humans of Saint James’.

While it may not match the scope or sophistication of Stanton’s work, it is no less important – as we hear the stories of fellow parishioners, we are allowed to glimpse another piece of the story of Christ in the world, in Warrenton, in Saint James’, and in each of us.

———————-

Our first subject is John Knouse, the new director of Family Ministries at Saint James’. He comes to us from Trinity, Upperville, where he served for three years as families ministries director.

I sat down with John at his home in Front Royal, where he lives with his wife, Amanda, and their two children, Ruth and Caleb. (Amanda has served as rector of Emmanuel, Delaplane since 2012.)

John was born and raised in a Lutheran family in a small town in central Pennsylvania. His story in the Episcopal Church starts with the things he is still so passionate about today: family ministries, summer camp, ecumenicism, and, of course, his wife Amanda.

“I found the Episcopal Church my fourth summer on staff at a Lutheran summer church camp – I met this beautiful woman that was sent as part of an ecumenical program – the Lutheran camp was doing a partnership with the Episcopal Church. We had not-enough kids and a big camp and they had a lot of kids and no camp so we combined the two. I was the program director on the Lutheran side she was the program director on their side, and that’s when I became an Episcopalian.” (John was officially received into the Episcopal Church three years ago by Bishop Ted Gulick)

John is strongly grounded in the belief that the church’s ministry to families is the foundation of much of our mission. I asked him whether he missed the Lutheran Church of his youth, and his answer dealt less with any theological or historical differences between the two traditions than with how the church, no matter the denomination, needs to create a strong moral foundation for families and community.

“I love the similarities [between the Lutheran and Episcopal churches] … but maybe I just miss some of the people from my congregation growing up, the values and the different things … I think values have changed .. maybe i miss the old school values a l ittle bit – the very morally centered kind of religion we used to teach people at home – your morals affect other people and kind of centering your beliefs around that.”

“If we stopped labeling people and start loving people,” he said later, that would remove many of the obstacles in the church’s ministry.

And that’s the story he wants to continue to tell at Saint James.’ He sees his new role at Saint James’ as a continuation of his life’s work: “Just loving on kids, spreading the fact that each person – no matter if you’re eighty years old or eight years old – that you have a value to God … that nobody can tell you that you’re not anything. I hope that I never crush my child’s hopes at some point in [Ruth’s] life – and I’m sure I will, and I’m sure I will with Caleb – but I want to let them … know that you really can be anything that you want to be. And it does start at a young age, but really – if you believe in yourself , if you believe in God, and [so does] the community and especially the church that surrounds you – you really can be anything.”

John is confident in the Episcopal Church’s ability to fulfill this mission. “[The Episcopal Church is] start a great mix because we are a destination church – because we have gathered Roman Catholics, because we have gathered people from the Evangelical church and people from the Lutheran church. because it’s such a great destination church it’s kind of gotten some of the most interesting, well-educated, very emotional and exciting people … that’s a great gift we’ve been given in the Episcopal Church, and moving forward that is something that we can really utilize to grow and to reach out to a very diverse group.”

I asked him what he’s experienced in his short time at Saint James.’ “It’s been great!” he said, “…we have a really interesting, diverse group of people … We’ve have people who’ve had maybe really high-end corporate jobs and we have folks like … Chris Giglio … who’s a huge airline pilot who flies all over the world … and then you have people like … Norma Thatcher who has dedicated 25 years to teaching sunday school at Saint James’, who is absolutely in love with godly play … who tragically lost a child … they have so much to offer our church community through their stories. the fact that we have such an eclectic group of people plays into the whole diversity of the Episcopal Church.”

“I know the school’s hoping to expand and potentially build an addition and grow a little bit which will hopefully – along with expanding the school and growing the school, which will be incredible – will also give [the church] the space back to increase their Sunday school programs and utilize the space that was used by the church [in previous years] …If [in] the next five years, the school was able to expand, the church would be able to expand as well”

“[My time here has been] refreshing to me – I spent three years in a church and I loved my time there, but this has been – in a short period of time I’ve been here – very exciting. There’s a lot going on and I’m just really excited to be a part of it …. Now people are walking up to me and introducing themselves to me on Sunday morning saying ‘I’ve never volunteered’ or ‘I used to volunteer and i want todo it again’ … it’s been really good and I’ve been excited about it”

John can be reached at john@saintjameswarrenton.org.