June 10, 2021
Rev. Claire Brown
This week on Everywhere Radio: Host Whitney Kimball Coe talks with Rev. Claire Brown. Brown. Brown is an Episcopal priest, writer, facilitator, wife, and mama living and ministering in rural Tennessee. She talks with Whitney about how rural churches and faith communities are called to show up on the front lines of social healing work in this moment: facing the challenges of the pandemic, responding to calls for social and racial justice, and grappling with how we build more just and inclusive communities.
Learn more about Rev. Brown.
Episode Clarification: In the audio of this episode, Whitney misstates the population of Athens, Tenn. It is 15,000.
Claire Brown: So the commission of living faithfully and compassionately was always meant to be for the whole community, not just one voice, not just one leader, but something to figure out in all the messiness and the beauty altogether. And I think that our faith can offer us that witness, if we’ll let it.
Whitney: That’s Claire Brown, today’s guest on Everywhere Radio. Everywhere Radio is a production of the Rural Assembly, and I’m your host Whitney Kimball Coe. Each episode I spotlight the good, scrappy, and joyful ways rural people and their allies are building a more inclusive nation.
Whitney: Reverend Claire Brown is an Episcopal priest, writer, wife, and mama, ministering in the Episcopal diocese of East Tennessee. I’m really excited to have mother Claire on Everywhere Radio because, and here’s the disclaimer for this episode, she is the rector at my home parish, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Athens, Tennessee. Regular listeners will have heard me speak of my hometown. Athens is a small rural town of about 1500 souls located in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. We have more amenities than some rural places and fewer than others. We have a small school system and a public library, a YMCA, and a vibrant arts center, and like many Southern towns, we have an abundance of churches and faith communities that show up to provide for the immediate needs of our rural population, from food insecurity to addiction support, to housing support.
In my parish, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church is known for three robust ministries in particular, including a food pantry called Table Graces, a period equity ministry called Love Period, which distributes free period products, and a shelter for homeless and addicted men called Grace House. Mother Claire Brown came to us in the midst of the pandemic, and begins her ministry in Athens just as the country is edging closer to resuming our pre pandemic routines of work, travel, play, and worship. It feels like an important time to check in with spiritual and faith leaders in rural America to listen to their stories of navigating a public health crisis, finding creative approaches to continuing worship and ministry, and organizing the urgent work of social healing and repair. So I’m pleased to introduce Mother Claire, and I’m so grateful to you for saying, “Yes,” to this conversation. Thanks for being on Everywhere Radio.
Rev. Claire Brown: Well, thanks for having me.
Whitney: And I wanted to start by asking you to share just a little bit of your story, of your journey to becoming a priest. Where did you start your journey?
Rev. Claire Brown: So this is one of those times in adulthood when hindsight is 20/20. When I was about eight or nine years old, growing up in the conservative branch of the Presbyterian church, I asked my parents, “How come boys can do this job but not girls?” And I was the kid who loved church Sunday morning, Wednesday night, VBS, count me in. I was taking sermon notes. If it was a sermon I couldn’t understand, or it was going over my head, I would just be leafing through the pew Bible or the hymnal. So I had hunger and curiosity in a pretty precocious way from childhood.
And then I found my way into, with that leading question about gender equity, I found Pentecostal and charismatic churches where the spirit of God falls on the sons and the daughters, as prophet Joel said, but ended up coming to some different conclusions than those faith traditions when I was a college student. And it was while I was in college that a friend invited me to go get his roommate’s dog blessed. And anybody who’s familiar with high church liturgy knows that that is our silly, and beautiful, and strange blessing of the animals and pets at St. Francis Day, and I was hooked.
I thought it was so charming, and weird, and grounded in human and other created bodies. And that’s how I found the Episcopal church kind of to start, but I along the way got pretty burned by church communities. I got hurt, and I watched people I love getting hurt, particularly LGBT friends. And I also found that there weren’t a lot of space for my questions. And so I actually wound up going to graduate school for religion at Vanderbilt Divinity School, thinking that I would study it and keep it at an arm’s length. And that’s where I fell in love with what the church could be all over again, finding new expressions of faith, and finding a robust community of dialogue and disagreement, and most of all finding churches and being welcomed into churches that really saw their role as agents of social and spiritual transformation for more love and justice in this world.
And that kind of kicked off my formal sense of call and discernment. Coming back home to the diocese of east Tennessee, where that college parish was located, and finding my way from there through our very robust discernment and preparation process to become a priest.
Whitney: Oh, thank you so much for sharing all of that.
Rev. Claire Brown: Yeah.
Whitney: And you touched on something that I wanted to explore with you here too, which is the role that churches and faith communities are poised to play in the ecosystem of community, why they’re important. And I don’t think it’s just for rural communities by any means. In your experience, what is the role that the church plays?
Rev. Claire Brown: Ooh, it’s such a big question.
Whitney: I know, it’s a big question.
Rev. Claire Brown: Well, and the answer I think is complicated. Christianity in the US, rural and not, is so part of our story of systems of power in our country. The earliest colonizers came with the cross of Christ as their banner, literally. And so the institutions that founded our country, while the separation of church and state is the law of the land, it certainly wasn’t the culture. And culture always wins out over policy. So I think there’s an interwoveness there, but I also think that maybe the more positive side is that our religious institutions, and I think Christianity is a powerful one, have the potential to tell us back the stories of who we are, and to be a story that is bigger than we are at this moment in time.
That’s why, even though I’ve moved away from some of my evangelical roots, I still love the Bible. And I still love those old stories, because it reminds us to be humble, that we’re just one little chapter in this thing that is so much bigger than us. And I think that’s helpful for any kind of community justice or organizing work too, is to remember that we just are one step along the way, which kind of moves me into the idea of churches, religion, people who are religious serving the role of social change makers. For me that is not only sort of a social institution making, but deeply connected to spiritual change making, and the formation of emotionally intelligent communities that know how to speak to one another well.
I think church at its best is a place where we practice that together. We practice praying together. We practice studying the bigger story we’re a part of together. We practice hearing each other’s stories and listening well and with compassion. I hope that the church at its best can be a place where we practice accountability, and taking responsibility for our mistakes together. And I think there’s also something inherently hopeful, but with a gritty determined sort of hope about the Christian story that we are always following in the steps of Jesus, whose story really didn’t have an ending. The story of Jesus, we often think of culminating in death and resurrection, but the story goes on after that. There are these appearances, and stories, and teachings, and then he ascends, but it’s not a proper conclusion. So the story lives on. So we are joining in that unfinished work with a sort of determination, and a grittiness, and a faithfulness that can endure the fact that we will never arrive.
Whitney: Hmm. Sit with that for a moment. I mean, throughout all of what you were just describing, you used words like “We,” and, “Together,” and, “Community,” and “Our stories,” it’s very plural as opposed to individualistic. And that’s kind of counter-cultural in a way. And I wonder how… Yeah. Why is that important right now, particularly in this time, in this moment we’re in?
Rev. Claire Brown: Mm. Oh, that’s great. Yeah. I think the shift away from the corporate to the individual is such a modern construction that to try to move away from that is actually deeply faithful to the enterprises of our faith. Well, you and your family I think we’re at Pentecost, or maybe one of the kids, and I talked about how the Holy Spirit didn’t just come to one person. This story from the book of Acts in the New Testament, Jesus has gone, he died, he rose, he taught and healed, and then he ascended to heaven, and everybody is sitting around saying, “What do we do next?” And Jesus had said he was going to send a comforter, but nobody really knows what that means, but then the Holy Spirit comes when all the people are together. And not only just the friends of Jesus who are already kind of part of the picture, but this whole urban community actually, that was both urban locals, but also a lot of rural folk coming into the city for a pilgrimage.
And so the commission of living faithfully and compassionately was always meant to be for the whole community, not just one voice, not just one leader, but something to figure out in all the messiness and the beauty altogether. And I think that our faith can offer us that witness, if we’ll let it.
Whitney: And in this time of pandemic when we’ve been separated by social distancing and just a desire to slow the spread of the virus, I think it’s been an opportunity to lean into that foundation of communal care and by staying apart, but in some ways it’s really challenged that witness that… Yeah, what you were just describing about we have this foundation that’s a communal commission in a way, but it’s been hard for us to live into that in this moment of COVID-19. So I’m wondering how that stretched you as a spiritual leader, as a faith leader, during this time?
Rev. Claire Brown: Yeah. Well, So very practically speaking, I had to overnight stop being just a priest, and a pastor, and a teacher, and also become a web designer, and a televangelist, and a script writer, and a legal consultant as we tried to-
Whitney: Yes, and a public health official.
Rev. Claire Brown: A public health official, there were so many things that were brand new territory. And at the same time, Whitney, there was such a gift in being able to take a really careful, cautious approach in leadership in a church that was rooted in that old story, so that we didn’t wait for the governor. We looked to Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi and said, “In humility consider others as better than yourselves.” We don’t know exactly what this thing is, but we know what the utmost care looks like. So that was both a grounding and a stretching, having to exercise these new capacities that were very imperfect. And the way forward was also astonishingly clear, because I think… And people a lot wiser have said this before I ever did, but there’s a sense that the pandemic was apocalyptic in a biblical literature sort of sense, not in a Hollywood sense, that it’s not the end of the world like King Kong and giant tornadoes, but it is the end of an obscuring of things that were true as things were being unveiled in biblical-
Whitney: It was that revealing.
Rev. Claire Brown: Yeah, the revealing. And So I think it showed us we think we’re patient and kind, but have you ever worked a full week with two kids at home and also taught them? Right? Like, “Whoa, turns out we aren’t so patient and kind.” We thought we were good neighbors until we’re having to make decisions like, “Do I do this thing the way that I always love to do it, or do I stay at home because they say that you’re not protecting yourself actually, you’re protecting others?” There were just so many pieces that showed us where our growing edges are in a really hard way. And it also unveiled, even as those growing edges in our own personalities and spirits were shown, and of course growing edges seems a little too gentle as a reference for the social ills that became so loud over the last 16 months, but I think we also saw that deep truth from Mr. Rogers where the helpers were.
We saw people in medicine going above and beyond what they ever thought they’d have to do. We saw people getting creative about how to care for one another and support each other. We saw parents rally and support their kids in pods work together to be extended and chosen family and support each other. So I think the unveiling is not always bad. It also shows, again, a lot of gritty hope about what we could be if we choose to live into that.
Whitney: And now that we’re kind of on the cusp of some kind of re-entry, I mean, I think the national vaccination rate is around 45% in… But here in McMinn County where you and I are, it’s about 30%. So reentry is a little bit fraught at the moment, but I wonder if there are lessons that you’re taking away from these 16 months about how do we proceed in coming back together or tweaking the way we’ve always been doing things? Is this a time for holding ourselves accountable to a new way of doing things? All of that. I know this is what’s keeping you up at night. [crosstalk 00:17:22]
Rev. Claire Brown: It is. These are the questions I lose sleep over.
Whitney: I know.
Rev. Claire Brown: Oh man, I keep coming back to something our Bishop Bryan… In the Episcopal church, we have a system where churches are part of regional groups called the diocese. And so our Bishop is the Bishop of East Tennessee from about the east side of Monteagle up all the way to the furthest northeast corner of the state. And he talks about moving at the speed of trust. And this is a refrain that he had before the pandemic, because it’s always true, but I think it’s, again, very that’s loud in my ears right now. It’s not like this is a secret, so I’ll say it on the air, but our parish has been the most cautious in our region around precautions, around closing, and staying closed for a very long time, over a year without any in-person services. And not everyone is of one accord on that.
It’s hard to stay the course when we don’t have a lot of firm local or state guidance. And when the culture is very… I don’t mean this in a political party way, but in the truest sense very libertarian of, “I will decide what is best for me.” And so to say, “We’ll still move at the speed of trust,” is a lot slower than anyone actually wants to move, no matter what they think about it, because it means that we have to keep talking to each other. It means we have to hear out the reasons why people are approaching things the way they are, even if we don’t agree with them. And it means we have to be more cautious than we otherwise would. I think because this is a matter of public health, it is less ideological and more embodied than maybe other places where our community would not have been of one accord on movement and change.
And so people who are not feeling the trust, it’s because they don’t want to get sick and die, or pass it to other people that they love. And so that’s a really visceral, truly visceral, embodied concern. And it takes a long time to build that kind of trust together.
Whitney: So much of what we talk about at the Rural Assembly is about how do we build more inclusive, more just rural communities, and a nation, how do we build a more inclusive nation? And I think that trust piece is really central to a lot of what we discuss. And we’re always looking, I’m always looking for tangible examples of how you build it. I mean, is it these conversations that we need to keep having over and over again? Or is it building a barn together? Or is it putting on a play together? How does trust get built and how do faith communities support that?
Rev. Claire Brown: Mm. So I love Building a barn. I’m not so rural, even though I grew up in a small town in north Georgia, and am now in Athens, I’ve never built a barn, so I will own that right off. But I think this sense of tactile community care provision is that connective tissue. I’ve walked into our community in this parish life, what some people think of as the middle of the pandemic, and others very hopefully are saying is the end of it, but what I’m finding is that people who are most on board for what our leadership decides are the people who served with the food pantry, Table Graces, with Love Period, with Grace House, or in other capacities in the community.
It doesn’t all have to be through church, right? But people who have been attending to the physical needs of our community members, whether that’s parishioners or not, throughout this whole thing, see the toll, the economic toll, the physical toll of public health, and recognize what is more essential. And so whether we’re in the parking lot, or on Zoom, or inside is not as essential as somebody who is hungry getting fed this week. Whether we ask you to wear masks inside or not is not as essential as girls and other menstruating persons making it to school because they have what they need. There’s this sense of the community connected by practical love is the community that can rightly order it’s love, because it’s a good, good thing to love gathering together in a gorgeous building and sharing communion. And it’s a good thing to sing together, but we have to rightly order those loves. That sounds so Platonic, I think it was Plato the person who talked about ordering the loves. Was it Augustine? I don’t remember. Edit this part out.
Whitney: No, I don’t remember that part either, and I’m a religious philosophy major.
Rev. Claire Brown: But the idea-
Whitney: But I love that actually, the right order of loves.
Rev. Claire Brown: Yeah.
Rev. Claire Brown: And I think there’s something to being 16 months, 18 months, depending on where we are into this thing, and saying, “Wow, that took forever, and it took no time at all.” My second child turned two this week, and to see him speaking, and playing, and engaging with the world, and remember that at the start of the pandemic he was just learning how to sit up, and I was still nursing him. That’s no time at all. Even though the days were really exhausting, and the weeks felt really hopeless at times. And so a year and a half in our lives, if we care and save lives, is not that much time. And so we have to protect each other.
Whitney: We’ve talked a bit about Christianity, and how it shows up as part of faith community in rural, but I wonder about your experience with interfaith movements and what that also brings to the ecosystem of a community. We’ll be honest here on the air and say that there’s not a lot of interfaith movement in McMinn county, but we do know that there are Muslim communities in West Virginia, and in Jackson, Mississippi, and there’s synagogues all around us in other parts of the state. And I’ve just been thinking a lot about the way interfaith movement can show up in times like these, and just in general. What’s been your experience with that?
Rev. Claire Brown: Yeah. So I’ll say in some ways multi-faith work that I was more engaged in when I was living in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a larger sized city, not massive, but a little bit more going on.
Whitney: It also has broadband
Rev. Claire Brown: Yeah, great internet, and growing businesses, and also multi-religious communities. I find that by and large, regardless of religious or spiritual tradition, people who show up around the table for multi-faith movement organizing share a lot of common values, even if we don’t share the same sacred text, or we don’t share the same history and story. And that is actually often easier to work with than ecumenical Christian work, where we share the same story, but have come to such different conclusions about it.
Whitney: Yeah. Yes. Oh, well said.
Rev. Claire Brown: So, yeah. I’m still getting to know our sort of very Christian ministerial association in McMinn county, but we’re working on some things together, and that gives me a lot of hope. It’s no surprise to you, and probably no surprise to most of your listeners, that in the rural, Southeast, by and large, the Christianity we see doesn’t generally uphold a lot of gender in leadership equity. So I’m running into some bumps around that, but it’s nothing that’s taken me by surprise.
Whitney: Mm-hmm (affirmative). No doubt either of those things are true, that you’re bumping up against things, and that you’re not surprised, and also that you’re sticking with it, and continuing to show up.
Rev. Claire Brown: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Whitney: Well, I always ask our guests, “What are you reading right now, or watching, or listening to that’s giving you or that’s feeding you, filling your cup, that you would share with the listeners right now?”
Rev. Claire Brown: Yeah. I’ll range from serious to silly, how’s that?
Whitney: Okay, that’s great.
Rev. Claire Brown: Right now I’m reading a book of sermons by St. Basil with a couple of seminary and clergy friends on fasting and feasting, and those questions of essential values and grounding in community are being brought into some really interesting sharp relief by looking at this early church father when they were literally sitting around, and bickering, and doing more than bickering about how do we understand Jesus. Right? Very basic questions to the faith. So that’s been really soul nourishing. I’m also reading a book, if you don’t know this yet, it’s called The Art of Gathering. Have you heard of this book?
Whitney: Yeah, by Priya.
Rev. Claire Brown: Yeah.
Whitney: Priya Parker. Yeah. [crosstalk 00:28:17].
Rev. Claire Brown: Well, I’m just digging into it, and I really enjoy it. I found out about that maybe from another podcast, maybe Brené Brown.
Whitney: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Rev. Claire Brown: And then watching, my spouse and I have just started watching a show called Sweet Tooth on Netflix, and it’s a post-apocalyptic adaptation of a graphic novel that’s about pandemic, actually, and also these kids that are human animal hybrid, and how people are encountering risk, and sickness, and difference, and precaution around all of those things. And when are they compassionate, and when are they violent? And so maybe that’s not silly. I’m sorry. That show is actually quite serious and really timely, but it has some good comedic moments, and just a joy to it that’s keeping it feeling light.
Whitney: Oh, no, I’m really glad to have that recommendation. I saw it the other day when I was flipping through Netflix. So I’m glad to have that. And when you said silly, I thought you might bring up Elmo and Sesame Street, not that that’s always silly either, sometimes that’s some really heavy themes.
Rev. Claire Brown: That’s some good community building fodder from an early age.
Whitney: Yeah. Well, this has been wonderful, and I wish we could keep talking, and I know we will.
Rev. Claire Brown: Yeah.
Whitney: I’m so glad you’re not going anywhere. You live right next to me, so this is really great.
Rev. Claire Brown: Yeah.
Whitney: Thank you so much for being on Everywhere Radio.
Rev. Claire Brown: Well, thanks for having me. It’s good to chat with you.
Whitney: This is lovely. All right. We’ll talk soon.
Rev. Claire Brown: All right.