St. Columba’s bearer of the good news

12/20/2012

Before he left his hometown in Georgia for a job across the country, the Rev. Robert Weldy Jr. was told by an Episcopalian pastor that he was destined for priesthood.

It was a prediction that came as a surprise to Mr. Weldy, who in the late 1990’s sought to build a life in Alaska after working for several years as a counselor. But it was one that proved true, as his career in human services eventually converged with his circuitous path to ministry.

“You want to make God laugh?” asked Mr. Weldy, 55, as he leaned back in a chair in his study at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Inverness. “Make plans for
tomorrow.”

That outlook has helped shape Mr. Weldy’s credo and his approach to the congregation of 60, whom he has served for the past year and a half. But the reach of his ministry is not confined to his parish; rather, he seeks to spread it across a community whose religious beliefs are noticeably less pronounced than those in other parts of the country.

“It’s a lot easier being a minister in the Bible Belt, where everyone believes,” said Mr. Weldy, who grew up in Savannah, Ga., where he spent Sunday mornings as a youngster in the crowded pews of a Presbyterian church.

Mr. Weldy’s enduring fascination with the Christian dogma, including rituals like baptism and Holy Communion, can be traced to his upbringing. “The spirituality of the Christian church was something I always found intriguing,” he said.

His interest in theology has led him to explore other denominations of Christianity, including the Methodist Church, and participate in weekend retreats at a Roman Catholic monastery.

After earning his master’s degree in family counseling, Mr. Weldy worked at a psychiatric hospital and began attending mass at an Episcopal church. The liturgy and “rich form of worship” he encountered there inspired him to join as a parishioner in the mid-1980’s.

His faith deepened with his passion for counseling, leading him to enroll in a ministerial program, called “License to Preach,” during which he sought advice about whether he should pursue ministry.

After earning his doctoral degree, Mr. Weldy left his home state for Alaska, where he worked as a health administrator for a nonprofit care center. There he occasionally participated in search and rescue missions, at times involving expeditions across the tundra to recover missing people. He also met his future wife, Candace, who was at the time teaching at a local school.

On their second date, Mr. Weldy shared his aspiration to join the priesthood.

“She said, ‘You know, I always knew I was going to marry a minister,’” Mr. Weldy

said. He enrolled in a seminary program in Wisconsin, and graduated in the early 2000’s.

After exchanging vows, the couple moved to an American Indian reservation in the high desert in Nevada, where Mr. Weldy met a former lay minister who told him about a church in Inverness that was seeking a priest. That church was St. Columba’s, where he is now seen on Sundays giving sermons and occasionally offering counseling services to those seeking spiritual and other forms of relief.  

The congregation of St. Columba’s, which formed about 115 years ago, was ordered in the early 1950’s by a visiting diocesan bishop to seek a more spacious property. Church leaders soon acquired what is now a four-story church and retreat house, built by a wealthy family in the late 1920’s as a summer home that was used for ceremonies like weddings and other gatherings.

The congregation emerged as an official parish after a former rector, John-David Schofield, had a minutes-long vision of Jesus Christ wearing a gold crown that appeared to be undulating like flames. A model of that crown, rendered by a former parishioner, now sits atop the altar in the chapel.

Designated by the Red Cross as a disaster shelter, the church has offered safety to locals displaced by natural disasters, including a flood in 1982 and the Mount Vision Fire of 1995, which left many residents without homes. The church has sleeping arrangements for more than 30 people but, in an emergency, can house about 100, Mr. Weldy said. It also has a downstairs kitchen, where parishioners gather after mass for meals.

The traditions of the church are largely rooted in Catholicism, with holy water near the entrance and holy sacraments offered at the end of service. But Mr. Weldy sees it more as a “middle-of-the-road” alternative for those with varying belief systems.

The Episcopal Church in the United States was formed sometime after the American Revolution, when it broke away from the Anglican Church of England, which separated from the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages as King Henry VIII sought to settle one of many divorces that drew scrutiny from the papacy. It is part of an international association, the Anglican Communion, consisting of factions of the Anglican Church.

The Episcopal Church’s thousands of congregations across the country are tied together by what is known as the Book of Common Prayer, made up largely of scripture found in the Bible.  

Stances on controversial issues like homosexuality vary by parish, each of which is run independently under the discretion of bishops with state dioceses. Changes to church policy—issued by a national legislative body called the General Convention, which gives bishops authority to decree certain rites within their dioceses—have created rifts within the church.

In 2009, the church granted bishops approval to allow their priests to ordain practicing gays and lesbians as ministers, a move that touched off an already simmering opposition among some
denominations.

This summer, a day after the church gave authority to priests to ordain transgender members, the convention passed a policy blessing same-sex unions, called “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant.” The rite permits priests in all states to marry same-sex couples.

The decree is a source of contention among church officials and parishioners whom Mr. Weldy said are “much more literal in their interpretation of the
Bible.”

“Everybody has arguments to make,” Mr. Weldy, whose views on such issues tend to be more conservative, said. “I think we’re far from a resolution.”

Still, the strength of the fabric of the church, he said, lies in its cultural and social diversity. “Harmony doesn’t mean that everyone’s singing the same note. To me, the miracle, the mystery, is that these folks can break bread together,” he said.

That sense of fellowship is what drives Mr. Weldy, who views his leading role in one of the two Episcopalian churches in West Marin—the other, St. Aidan’s, is in Bolinas—as a chance to expose others to a faith upon which he has relied amid uncertainty and doubt.

He turned to that faith Sunday, as he prepared a sermon that would try to make sense of the elementary school shooting last week in Connecticut. Like many, he and his wife were overcome by tears as they followed media coverage of the scene at Sandy Hook Elementary School in New Town, where 27 people, including 20 young children, were slain Friday by a gunman who also shot and killed his mother and later himself.

“She said to me, ‘What would you tell someone if they said, ‘Why would God allow this to happen?” he recalled his wife asking.  

Such unanswered questions are a part of Mr. Weldy’s faith. Still, he did not waver in his sermon on Sunday, when pews were filled with parishioners in what some said was one of the largest turnouts in recent years. “Our God is a God of love and peace,” he said. “This is evil. And evil wins every time when people want to blame God for some type of tragedy.”

The incident, he said at the end of the service, is a reminder of the volatility of life.

“Life is short,” he said. “We don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us. So let us be swift to be kind and make haste to love.”