Chosen Family

Shirley during a visit to Kayoro, Uganda

I was able, recently, to interview one of our quite active and longtime members, Shirley Sailors. We talked about faith, giving, chosen family, and the connections between them. In my time as rector, I have come to know Shirley for her involvement in several programs, but also as an adult who has deeply invested both time, talent, and treasure in the lives of some of our children and youth. I was curious to know how those relationships emerged, and how she envisions her role in connection to these, her chosen family.

[JERED] Hello, Shirley! I know you’ve been at Saint John’s for quite a while, and you’re well known by many. But, for those who might not know you or your background here, can you give us a little insight into when you joined and how you’ve been involved over the years at Saint John’s?

 [SHIRLEY] I began attending St. John’s in April, 1982.  Laid off from my job in February and no longer having a work group, I had begun to feel the need for community.  Growing up with a church connection, it was logical to look there for compatible people.  I quickly found a “home” and being unemployed had the time to participate in a variety of activities, becoming very active very quickly.  Most of that volunteer work was involved in what is now termed Faith in Action.  Later, I also undertook more institutional responsibilities, serving on the never-ending Search Committee after the retirement of Grayson Clary and as Junior and Senior Warden in the early 1990s when Dick Lampert was Rector.  My involvement now is again primarily with Faith in Action programs, particularly the St. John’s Clinic in Kayoro and the Farmers Market and related food programs. 

[JERED] Wow! That is a long time at Saint John’s and a lot of ministries served! I know it can be hard to talk about personal matters like faith, but can you say a little about your own spirituality, what keeps you coming to church all these years, and what you take away from being a part of a faith community?

 [SHIRLEY] Community is the reason why I continue. It is people. My spiritual or religious sense is limited. I am pretty much a “here and now”, in the world, kind of person. I don’t know how many sessions on personal prayer and meditation I attended over the years at St. John’s before I recognized that just isn’t me. I find my sense of being with others as of highest value. 

[JERED] That’s helpful. And, in the church, we do place a high value on community. As you know, we refer to the church as the Body of Christ. Which means we associate our community with Jesus, with the Divine. I often wonder on baptism days if the congregation fully appreciates the promises they make to the children being presented. In a very real sense, the promises we make are on a par with the godparents and parents when it comes to supporting these children in their life and faith. It is an extraordinary thing to see that our children don’t just belong to our individual families but, through the church, they belong to our whole faith community and the Body of Christ. Does that meaning inform why community is such an important part of your connection to church?

[SHIRLEY] I suppose it is there in part. I am aware of this connection, and at times take meaning from it. But, ultimately, people are the reason, in and of themselves. I find great importance in the value of connections in community, in the people here at St. John’s.

[JERED] And, ultimately, those connections and those people are the main reason I wanted to interview you for Finance First Friday. Over the years I’ve seen how engaged you are in the lives of several of our young people. I heard, too, about your generosity in giving scholarships to help some of these kids through college. But, more than this, I could see that you had genuine friendships and deep relationships with each of them and they with you. Can you tell us a little about how those relationships emerged and evolved over the years? 

[SHIRLEY]  Because I don’t have children nor have I had close family with children, I have enjoyed “borrowing” kids over the years for fun activities as well as providing occasional relief to their parents.  As a single person looking on, I am regularly amazed by the difficulties of parenting and impressed by those who do such a good job.  I appreciate the families who have “let me in” to their lives and trusted me with their children.  Beginning with my two Godchildren, with whom I have a very special and close relationship, and continuing over the past 35 years with a number of children, primarily from St. John’s, I have been fortunate to be a non-family adult who is interested in what they’re doing and who they’re becoming.  Children can never have too many adults in their lives who care about them.  And I have the fun of attending concerts, sports events, and hearing what’s up in the lives of young people – things I would never otherwise experience. 

[JERED] It is so true that kids can never have too many caring adults in their lives.  Research backs this up even in matters of faith. In fact, the National Study of Youth and Religion, a longitudinal study of youth across religious traditions in the U.S., found that for faith to “stick” with kids into adulthood in meaningful ways, kids needed at least 5 faithful adults in their lives. You talked about what you gained from these connections, but it is clear that you not only received meaning and joy from your relationships with these kids, they also gained so much from you. And, not just the kids. As a parent myself, I can imagine that what you did here must have meant a great deal to these kids’ parents. 

[SHIRLEY] Yes, one family let me take their toddler one afternoon after Church on Sunday for a few hours every week just so they could sleep or rest or whatever. The father was clergy, and I can only guess that Sundays are exhausting for clergy, so, yes, it was a break for them. But it was a gift for me. I got to watch this little girl grow up each week doing little girl things together with her. I remember one Sunday she pulled all the pots out of the cupboards in my kitchen and made a fun mess! You know, normal kid things. We went to parks and playgrounds. Simple stuff.

Not having kids doesn’t mean you don’t want them, like them, want to be with them. It just means I don’t have any in my house. Being with kids enabled me to do the things I liked doing – going to the zoo, the Children’s Theater, etc. I don’t have kids but I like doing things kids like to do and taking kids makes it more fun. As I realized the benefits I was gaining from these kids, I realized I wanted to give back.

[JERED] One of the ways you “gave back” was in the form of informal scholarships. Can you say more about why you chose education as one tangible way to support these kids?

[SHIRLEY] One of the difficulties of parenting these days is certainly the cost of rearing children and, especially, of sending them to college.  I am old enough that I went to school during a time when states fully supported higher education for their citizens.  The basic cost at a public university was minimal and for me the addition of a state-supported teacher education scholarship meant a semester’s tuition was $19 which included textbook rental.  I do not see how students and their parents are able to afford education at today’s prices and feel a bit guilty that it was so cheap for me.  Because I am not a parent and have been fortunate to have had a good salary and now a good retirement, I have excess funds that I enjoy using to support students that I like and with whom I’ve developed a relationship.  Ten students have so far been recipients of my Book Scholarship that pays for textbooks for undergraduate college education.  That doesn’t represent a huge amount of money but does provide some financial assistance to the students as well as helping them realize that someone outside of their family is rooting for them to succeed and willing to invest in helping them do so.

[JERED] That is really quite wonderful. I appreciate how you make sense of your own experience of receiving affordable education and “paying forward” in a sense this privilege for others who have not had the same opportunity. Does your philosophy or belief about helping others stem in any way from your faith in God? What drives your generosity?

[SHIRLEY] I feel like I have been so fortunate. Others have not. Not through any goodness or worth on my part, just by happenstance as it were, and I feel as if I need to share what I can with those who have not been as fortunate, by no fault of their own. The idea that by God’s choice some are rewarded and others are not offends me, because that is not my vision of God. I am jealous of people who have a strong concept of who God is. But I do know that such a vision of a God who shows favor to some and not others is not my own.

[JERED] Thank you for saying that. Absolutely, the image of God in our tradition is of one whose blessings are all grace – unearned and unmerited. God’s love is given to all, freely, without reservation. It is a small vision that says God’s love can be earned or that God loves some and not others. You talk about how your giving stems from a sense of appreciation for what you have and/or what you’ve been given in your own life, and I’ve heard you talk before about how it makes you feel good to be able to help these kids out in this way.

[SHIRLEY]  And there are some benefits for me in addition to “feeling good.”  For example:  I enjoy traveling, and I arranged a trip to Prague to coincide with a student friend’s junior semester abroad.  I had the chance to learn from a knowledgeable person who introduced me to the college and a different part of the city.  The other members of my Road Scholar tour, basically senior citizens, were impressed that I had such a young friend and were excited to welcome her and her roommate to join us old folks on a tour and concert.  As someone with few members of a birth family, I am grateful for these relationships as a way to deepen connections with people I see as a family of choice.

[JERED] Ultimately that is what our faith is all about – about our connections to one another not just by blood and familial relationships, but of an equal and profound bond we share with others, across boundaries of age, gender, race, and culture, through the body of Christ. Thank you, Shirley, for taking the time to share some of your story both of your connections with Saint John’s and with your family of choice and about how finance and money play a role in these. 

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