A Protest Chaplain’s Story

It was muggy and warm and not really comfortable in Atlanta that day. A minister friend and I put on our clergy collars, parked at the local church, and walked to the George Floyd protest. The national guard had blocked pedestrian walkways, forcing us to walk an additional mile just to join the others that had gathered. Armed soldiers were everywhere. Police were in full riot gear. It seemed as if the city “too busy to hate” was a warzone.

Protesters in Atlanta, GA gather in support of the Movement for Black Lives.

I did not fully know what I was getting into, but I was somewhat prepared. My friend and I had discussed what we were bringing, what we felt comfortable doing, and how we were going to do it. We stayed in contact with each other throughout and made sure we each knew what the other would and would not do.

But I had never been at a potentially violent protest before. I had participated in the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., sure. I had been threatened with dismissal as a student (a couple of times, actually). I had even worked to get a local Confederate monument removed. I have never been one to shy away from challenging authority. But this was new.

My friend and I had been in a group of hot sweaty people who were yelling at police for only a few minutes when someone shouted “Allies to the front!” My fellow protest chaplain and I looked at each other, shrugged, and moved to the front of the line. A primary role for a protest chaplain is de-escalation. When allies are called to the front, the goal is to shield our siblings of color with our bodies. And a small white clergywoman in a collared shirt standing in front of a police line in full riot gear is a visceral image. We stood there at the front while our Black brothers and sisters chanted and talked and stood vigilant. Organizers handed out cold water and hand sanitizer and checked-in with people.

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A Prayer for Veterans Day

In the United States, we are approaching Veterans Day – a day set aside to remember and honor those who have served in the military. But more than simply saying “thank you,” it also offers the opportunity to turn our attention to the stories and lives of our veterans. Hold them in prayer and listen to their stories, truly seeing the child of God in your midst. They are your neighbors and are sitting in your pews. Maybe ask them to share their story with you, for it is in sharing the story that community exists, God is present, and healing may be possible.



The author (center), in her capacity as Chaplain.

God of all that was and is and is to come,


You, who bear witness to our creation and usher us home at our final moments,

we ask that you turn our ears to the cries of those we often do not hear,

to open our eyes to the stories in our midst,

to hear the stories of those called,

to hear the stories of those who answer the call.


Open our ears to the story of the seventeen-year-old

who yearns to serve in a world with honor,

who seeks an escape from the drug-riddled streets he calls home…

only to be sent to a place where the streets are riddled

with a different kind of violence, replacing one form of hate with another.


Give us the eyes to see the single mother,

yearning for a better life for her son,

who is called into harm’s way,

her son sent away to his grandparents yet once again,

in hopes that she is able to provide a better life for him,

who has more of a relationship with her son over phone video

than she does in real life,

only to hear cries of judgment for being a “bad mother.”


Give us the hearts to receive the young officer,

who, a few months after graduating from college, barely old enough to drink,

       found himself at war, commanding troops,

                  ordering young people into harm’s way.

Give us the heart to grieve with this leader

who now is writing a letter home to the parents of one of his Soldiers,

bearing the burden for the flag-draped box

that is the resting place for their son’s long trip home.


Lord, open our hands to the countless veterans

wearing their respective hats —

or simply wearing the cloak of service on their faces.

Open our hands to the Vietnam war veterans who never received that open hand,

and still live in the torment of war,

even though they have been told they have been “home” for decades.

They never really came home.


Lord, help us to hear their stories;

give us the wisdom to close our mouths and truly listen to the struggle,

for though they may be called into war-torn places,

they come home with war-torn hearts, lost and unsure.


Help us to be a safe haven, offering more than the mere words:

“Thank you for your service.”

Let us sit in the uncomfortable spaces of their lives for even a minute,

to dwell in the war-torn realities they never left.


We remember each year our veterans;

we remember the sacrifices they make…

but, Lord, call to our attention these warriors in our midst

as we seek to live and love in community each and every day.

May we see the scars in our midst,

may we listen to their stories,

and may we love and continue to welcome them home,

until our swords are turned to plowshares

and your reign of peace begins.


empty chocolate candy wrappers on a wooden surface

The Permeable Collar

empty chocolate candy wrappers on a wooden surface

“as I sat in her office eating chocolate and crying about the inevitable tragedies of life…”

I recently had a particularly rough pastoral day. One of those days that would leave even the most faithful priest questioning God’s divine providence. As I was driving home from the last encounter, I spontaneously turned toward one of the office buildings on the campus where I am chaplain. I was looking for one of my close friends to whom I might express my feelings of impotent sadness. I did not find her, but I did encounter another individual, someone who inhabits the spaces between friend, neighbor, campus colleague, and–yes–also parishioner.

As I sat in her office eating chocolate and crying about the inevitable tragedies of life, I could not help but think that there might be those who would find our interaction inappropriate. Was I breaking some priestly boundary by emotionally unloading on a member of my parish?

When I first set out to write for this column, the proposed topic was a reflection on how the clerical collar never really comes off, particularly in small-town rural ministry. But as I reflect more deeply, I wonder if it is more appropriate to say that the collar is permeable, not just ever present.

To say that I live and work in small town ministry is an understatement. I am chaplain at a small liberal arts college (with a student body well under 2,000) and the priest at what is essentially the village church. Our immediate community has fewer than 1,000 single-family residences. I live on the same street as both my junior and senior warden.

The reality of work in this job is simply the work of living in this community. My work is to be present at important campus events and to be a public witness for religious identity on a predominantly secular campus. My work is going to the grocery store, knowing the name of the barista who makes my Americano in the (one) coffee shop we have, singing in the campus community choir, and being engaged with important local issues.

When your work is quite simply the work of living your life in and among your community, how are you ever “off the clock?” Sometimes that means receiving the life burdens of the woman who works at the deli counter in the local market when I am quickly trying to grab a sandwich for lunch. Sometimes it means prayerfully guarding my language in matters of local conflicts—even while engaging as a “private citizen”—because people on both sides of the issue worship in my congregation. Sometimes it means refusing to leave my house on a day off because it is the only way I can truly be “off the clock.” Read more

kids with hands raised

Ask a Priest Day

kids with hands raisedHow do you know God is real?
Why is Jesus special?
Are there any Bible stories you don’t like or don’t believe in?
Why do we have to believe that Jesus is alive and the stories about him are true?

No, those weren’t questions posed by the Commission on Ministry during my ordination process. They weren’t topics raised by a search committee. They were asked by students in grades kindergarten through five at my parish’s day school. It was Ask a Priest Day in school chapel, and the kids pulled out all the tough topics for me.

Being the rector of a parish with a school generally means some involvement with the administrative side of the school: sitting on the school board, working closely with the head of school, coordinating facilities use, and so on. Some schools, including ours, also want the rector to take part in the spiritual life of the school community. In my case, that means leading school chapel once a week, presiding at monthly celebrations of the Eucharist, visiting religious studies classes, and being a supportive presence in children’s faith lives. I’ve baptized students and talked about death with them after the loss of a grandparent. Interacting with students was not something I expected to enjoy when I accepted this call, but it’s turned out to be one of my favorite parts of my job. The kids are engaged, curious, creative, profound, and often hilarious.

Silicon Valley is a challenging cultural location for a faith-based school. Read more

The Love of the Play is the Thing

I have no doubt that I am called by God to the sacramental priesthood. Parish ministry is another story. While I find many elements of my job rewarding, there are plenty of things about being a generalist in a parish (which is all I’ve done for my six-plus years of ordained ministry) that don’t necessarily fit well with my personality (introverted and heady) or my training (we all know about those classes in administration, group dynamics, and boiler repair that they don’t offer in seminary!).

And then there are the ongoing structural changes in the church and in ministry as a profession – the decline of the mainline denominations, the gradual eroding of full-time jobs with benefits – that make the whole concept of ministry as a long-term profession uncertain and stressful. Several of these factors are currently converging in my professional life and making it difficult to feel that I’m actually doing the work I’m gifted, called, and trained to do.

One of my saving graces for the past year or so has been finding my way – almost entirely by serendipity, which is another way of saying the movement of the Holy Spirit – back into the theatre. As a high school student, I was obsessed with Broadway musicals – listening to the albums, attending the shows, attending the intensive theatre program at the Diocese of Connecticut’s church camp. Within a couple of years, I was writing my own scripts. The first ones were resoundingly awful, but by the time I was a year or so out of college, I had an adaptation, about 80% complete, of a young adult novel that I had loved as a kid, and I knew that it was good. (The biblical resonances of that last phrase are deliberate.)

However, I’m a writer and lyricist – I can’t compose music. And so, for thirteen years, the script languished in a drawer. I approached half a dozen composers trying to find someone with the right combination of skills, but none were interested.

Last year, as part of my second job with the campus ministry at the local university, I stumbled into the idea of being “chaplain” to the theatre department’s production of Les Miserables – a script soaked in the Gospel from beginning to end. The director, a woman who wrestles with the divine and with the big questions in almost every production she does, introduced me to the cast at an early rehearsal. Within minutes I was talking to the junior playing Enjolras (the leader of the student revolutionaries) about what it meant for his character to be a Christ figure. And just like that, I was rejoicing in having the kind of conversation that engages and feeds me, and in being present to these incredibly smart and talented kids as they found and pursued their own vocations and welcomed me into their creative process as only theatre people can. To immerse myself joyfully in the atmosphere of a theatre in the middle of a rehearsal process, and in the instant community of a group of people engaged together in an all-consuming artistic task, was something I hadn’t even realized I’d been missing, but that felt like coming home.

I hung out with the theatre kids throughout that production and cried my eyes out during the performance. I have kept in touch with many of them (and will be “chaplain” to another show this fall). And, of course, having renewed my adolescent enthusiasm for Les Mis, I was reminded of my own script languishing in the drawer.

In May, chatting at random on my sister’s Facebook page, I got into a jokey conversation with a friend of hers who writes music and said, “Hey, F., do you want to write a musical?” When we got in touch by private message, we discovered that she had wanted for years to adapt the very same Young Adult novel on which I was already working. Talk about a Holy Spirit moment!

F. is actually a trained composer, and knows about things like how to obtain copyright permission to do an adaptation, and so we were off and running. I sent her my script, which she loved. We talked about how to structure the score and what revisions might be necessary. She started to write music. I loved most of it, but had constructive criticism for some of it, as did she for my lyrics. So far, we’ve worked astonishingly well together, all feedback has been well received, and we’re creating something that neither of us could do alone. As I write this, in the third week of December, we have just received an enthusiastic response from the current holder of the rights to the novel, who is passing on our sample scenes and songs to the publisher.

This project has been a labor of love for me from the beginning. Apart from one elective undergraduate class in musical theatre writing, I am entirely self-taught when it comes to structuring a musical script and writing lyrics. I know that I can do it, and do it well. But it is profoundly affirming to have that knowledge confirmed by someone who also knows the job (and by the few interested listeners who have so far heard the results), and to have my gifts and skills welcomed, understood, and encouraged. And it is deeply refreshing to do this work: to use a technique that comes naturally to me, to engage in a collaboration in which feedback is both honest and positive, and straightforwardly improves the end result. Perhaps the biggest contrast with parish ministry – much as I love it! – is simply the fact of having that clear end result: to be working on something well-defined and easily evaluated rather than nebulous, ever-changing and never-ending.

The joy of this process has helped keep me going over the past six months. Using my gifts to create something and to be able to say “I did this, and it is good”: this is something that is part of the birthright of every human being who is made in the image of God the Creator. I hope to be able to keep it as a central part of my life and work.

And when the bus & truck tour of The Perilous Gard comes to your city, be sure to get tickets!

Grace Pritchard Burson is an Episcopal priest who lives and works in the seventh best small town in America, along with her seven-year-old son and nine backyard hens.

Krista Paradiso, the artwork contributor, is a United Methodist Elder serving on the south side of Chicago. She’s also a spouse and mom who enjoys difficult questions, modern quilting, high femme fashion, science fiction, and glitter. One day she will get around to blogging so she can have a link to share.

Photo is original artwork costume design for The Perilous Gard by Rev. Krista Paradiso.

Why College Chaplaincy?

An Imaginary Dialogue Between a College Student and Her Chaplain

Chaplain: That sounds fine to me. What are you researching?

S: Well, we were supposed to interview a professional woman about her job. I was kinda curious about
why you are a chaplain so I thought I’d ask you, if that’s okay, that is…um, well, and if you have time…

C: That sounds good to me. I’ve got some spare time now. Ask away.

S: So why are you a chaplain?

C: I’ve always understood it to be a call.

S: A call?

C: Something God has asked me to do, not in so many words, but through my life experiences. When I was a sophomore in college, I came to the realization that I had some of the gifts that indicate a call to ministry. It was a scary prospect, but at the same time, the minute I said the words out loud I felt at peace and a little excited. That inner sense of peace and excitement all at once has always been an indicator to me that the Holy Spirit is involved in whatever decision I’m about to make. I had the same feeling about volunteering in Northern Ireland for a year and about coming to Wilson.

But back to your question, at that point I really loved my college chaplain. She was a fantastic role model, and I idolized her a little. Well, maybe more than a little. I guess at the time I thought, “I would hate to work in a church, but I could totally work at a college. That sounds like fun.” Working in a church sounded stifling at the time while working at a college sounded liberating. I spent a lot of time exploring all of the ministry options while I was in graduate school, and after all that searching I came back around to the same place. This is the work I love.

S: What do you love about it? Read more