There are just under 3 million Episcopalians in this country. There are about 10,000 clergy serving the church in some capacity. Of these, about 3,500 are women. One of them is Heather Cook. One of them is me. Heather Cook, as many know, is the Bishop Suffragan of Maryland, who is charged with vehicular manslaughter after hitting and killing a cyclist while driving her car, allegedly impaired by both alcohol consumption and texting while driving. We do not know one another, but we belong to a group of people - female American Episcopal clergy - that comprises just .00001% of the US population. We are part of the same tribe. We are sisters in Christ.
'Family' is a word we use often in the church. There seems to be no other way to describe the sense of closeness and belonging that so many feel in their religious communities. It is a place we know we are safe and accepted, a group of people who have known us over many years, many life events. Our children grew up in theses places, maybe our parents and grandparents, too. We feel related through our common faith and recurring traditions, we have been through many years, many holidays, many funerals together. And when one of our own is in trouble, we rally around them.
Heather Cook is one of our own. She is one of my own. This is so difficult to acknowledge, given what she has done. She has taken the life of an innocent man, a beloved husband and father. The horror of this is almost inconceivable. I personally cannot imagine waking up in a world having to carry this burden, even with the support of my community and my faith. To do it alone seems impossible. Heather Cook is not alone. She was baptized, confirmed, and ordained into a Christian community that boldly answered, 'we will!' when asked if we would support her in her life with Christ. Although I was not present at any of these events, my implicit promise, as a fellow Christian, was part of these vows.
When someone commits a crime or engages in egregious behavior or, as in this case, is responsible for a tragedy because of both, it is natural to distance ourselves from them. We call them 'criminals', 'perpetrators', sometimes 'monsters', or worse. We discuss their diseases and their histories and in so many ways we try to frame the story we tell about the pain they have caused in a way that makes it quite clear they are not like us. This is understandable, given the grief, anger and suffering that ripple out into the community after someone's actions cause violence and even death. We want more than to hold responsible the person who committed this crime, we want the pain to stop, and we want to be far away from it. And we want to believe we are nothing like the person who could do such horrible and irresponsible things.
But as humans, and especially as Christians, we are closer than we think. We believe and proclaim that no one is outside the love and forgiveness of God, no matter who they are or what they have done. We believe in the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the body, and pray this every week. We respect the dignity of every human being, no matter what they have done or where they were born or what they believe. We gather in communities daily and weekly to share the Word and sacrament that gives us life. This is the radical love of God that changes the world, and it is hard to accept sometimes. It is hard to have to say, 'you have done this terrible thing for which you must take responsibility and you are still a beloved child of God.' It is hard to stand with the one who has committed the crime, caused the despair. It is hard to still be family.
Yet I believe we must. I must. I repent of my sins alongside my sister as she repents of hers. I grieve for the family of Thomas Palermo, the man who was killed, as I know she grieves. I hold his family and friends in my prayers as I believe she must. I hold a share of responsibility and guilt for her actions, because as her sister in Christ, I believe I must. I worship a God who was despised and rejected and so I may not reject another, regardless of her actions. I believe in resurrection for us all.
I am a Christian. I am a woman. I am an Episcopalian. I am a priest. There is less than half a degree of separation between myself and a person who has done a terrible thing. We are far, far more alike than we are different, which may be true for us all. I pray for God's mercy on my sister Heather, on myself, on all those who suffer and mourn, on us all as we are called to know the truth of our closeness, our call toward the Love that saves us.
A reminder that this blog is a place where I share my personal views, not meant to represent the Diocese of North Carolina, the Episcopal Church, or any other organization or individual.