Feature Article: Austin People
by Brittani Sonnenberg
Photographs by Dave Creaney
The story of Austin, its people and culture, would not be complete unless we talk about the city’s rich and complex spiritual side. This month, we visit with four who step outside the prescribed roles of flock leaders, plunging into the intersection of religion and politics. For these individuals, following a calling was never about staying comfortable.
It’s a wildly divided time to be living in the United States. Many of us walk around with a thousand papercut resentments: ways that we wish our lives, and others, were different. With that hurt comes a weariness, a need to rest.
Love is not a victory march; it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah. —Leonard Cohen, from “Hallelujah”
The four men profiled in this story are flock leaders of different faiths. They have each, in their own way, devoted their lives to heading right into those discomforts with the goal of helping and healing. They have gone to the intersection of religion and politics, risking being disliked, even separated from their congregations, in hopes of finding a better path forward. They are the first to admit that they are not always very good at it. It can leave them lonely and tired. But they, as Rilke, the Bohemian-Austrian poet, put it, try to love and live the questions. They each work within separate spiritual traditions, but there are countless Austinites—atheists and believers, women and men—pursuing these questions and connections, hesitantly or relentlessly. You may be one of them.
Interviewing these four, and hearing about their approaches, felt like a balm to me, and brought to mind a quote from the Chinese writer Lu Xun, who lived in equally tumultuous times: “Hope is like a path in the countryside: originally there was no path, but once people begin to pass, a way appears.”
If I see you on the path, I hope I wave. And if I forget, will you wave to me?
Executive Director, The Front Porch at All Saint’s Episcopal Church
“I’ve always followed my bliss,” says Stephen Kinney, and takes a sip of tea. We’re sitting in his surprise of an office: what feels more like a cozy English cottage than an outreach ministry office. An overflowing bookcase rises to the ceiling, with titles like “Blogging for Dummies” and “Meditations on the Tarot” tucked in among theological tomes, novels and books on psychology. Light pours in through large windows.
“Most people call that ADHD,” Kinney continues, with a small smile. “I call it ‘on the quest.’ I’m restless until I at least explore something that is calling to me.” This restlessness has taken Kinney, the executive director of the Front Porch, a former secular nonprofit now housed within All Saints Episcopal Church, far from his upper middle-class Houston beginnings and a more predictable path.
Still, in the slight drawl, the ease, the teasing wit, you catch glimpses of the would-be hometown lawyer. Except he’s not talking about how a recent case went down in court, or who beat who on the golf course. He’s talking about being “a real Buber guy,” referring to his love of the late Jewish philosopher. He’s talking about bringing believers and non-believers together for “Pub Church” each Sunday at Scholz Garden. And Kinney, whose youngest son left for college this September, speaks about all of it with the gaping wonder of a ten-year-old kid who just scored front-row seats at the World Series.
As a child, Kinney says, he “was a little mystic,” taken by mystery and stories. When he read the Sermon on the Mount in eighth grade, it scared the hell out of him, and felt “too hot to touch.” Subsequent years saw him entering college and pledging a fraternity, just like his peers. Still, the questions kept nagging. “I hitchhiked though Europe my junior year, and came back looking like a character out of a twentieth-century existentialist novel,” he wryly admits.
The opposite poles of frat parties and Sartre’s bleak pronouncements left him unsatisfied. Kinney vowed to give up drinking and smoking for Lent his senior year, but that spring, something else shifted. “I went in to Lent to give up a vice or two, and I walked out having given up my whole life. I heard a call to wholeheartedness, to utter change, not just nickel and diming.”
Kinney became fascinated by the evangelist underground. “This was before evangelists got politicized, before Jerry Falwell. Back then, it was subversive,” he says. Ultimately, however, the group’s beliefs clashed with Kinney’s own, and he moved on: to a seminary in Boston, to an Episcopal high school back in Houston, and to New York, with his new wife, Gwen. There Kinney began studying at both the Jewish and the Union Theological Seminaries. “I took a deep dive into the Book of Acts. … I began to glimpse that the gospel is about getting in touch with Jesus before he got turned into a religion. That gave me a framework, at the heart [of which lay] the certainty that the gospel is about having community with otherness. When we get out of our own tribe, everything becomes so much richer. That was the radical insight of early Christianity.”
After a stint in Fredericksburg, Kinney decided to pursue a PhD in Austin, and in 1998 he began leading a small salon with journalists, lawyers, and quantum physicists, among others. “It was born from a hunger for dialogue. Everyone shared the larger questions, but not everyone was religious. The ones who wound up leaving were those who had finalized the answers to the questions long ago.”
That salon morphed into today’s Front Porch series and its hallmark program, Pub Church, a weekly gathering geared towards tackling tough questions. Recent Front Porch events have ranged from a discussion on the Black Lives Matter movement, to a “Post-election detox,” to lectures on Native American spirituality. “I gravitate towards a postmodern interpretation of truth, where it is seen more relationally,” Kinney says. “That gives me the mojo to get beyond the binary notions of conservative and liberal. If your mind is made up, you’re not going to be a happy Front Porcher.”
This approach hasn’t made the Front Porch popular with everyone: “We’ve gotten emails from conservatives who think we’re crazy. But we get just as much frustrated feedback from liberals, which I see as a good sign.”
The joy comes from reaching those for whom such conversations provide a profound relief, he says. “Most people come to us by word of mouth. We have regulars who love us and who aren’t ashamed to bring their friends. The friends show up and say, ‘Oh, shit. I can do this. This is different. Something is happening here.’”
Kinney still feels deeply connected to the mystic he knew himself to be as a little kid, but admits that the path has sometimes been lonely. A constant fellow pilgrim on his numerous paths has been his wife, Gwen. Kinney points to marriage as the ultimate crucible for a true encounter with the other. “There’s nothing like marriage to burn off narcissism,” he says.
Partnered up or not, he believes we all have a fundamental need for dialogue and exploring uncomfortable questions. “There’s a hunger for transcendence,” he says, especially today. Most of us crave a space “for the self to be in the forgetful joy of others.” For Kinney, that place is—where else?—the Front Porch.
Rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim
Stepping into Rabbi Neil Blumofe’s office feels a little like walking into a cave. Not the pitch-black, eerie-dripping kind of cave, but the magical kind of cave that gets advertised on roadway signs in Alabama, spangled with stalactites. In his office, however, the gleaming ceiling is one of pressed tin. His furniture embodies a funny mix of associations: two rocking chairs suggest a Southern verandah, the leather stuffed sofa and the bookcases feel like something out of Sherlock Holmes and the hamsahs on the wall conjure, again, that mineral, cave-like glinting.
The room’s eclectic nature is no accident: Blumofe happily admits to being a jumble of identities himself, and of “living multiple lives at once”: as a committed rabbi, a jazz devotee, a reader, and a spiritual leader intent on exploring diverse traditions and beliefs in community. Throughout all these “lives,” he sees a through-line, a centering focus of inquiry and a curiosity about disparate paths. “Judaism,” he says, “is a recovery of the ineffable.”
Blumofe grew up in a Chicago suburb that was not historically Jewish, where he felt like the “exotic one.” During his Bar Mitzvah, a Torah fell over, an unhappy occurrence that demanded 40 hours of fasting from those gathered. When some of the non-Jewish attendees asked what they could do to help in the midst of the uproar following the accident, they were told by one of Blumofe’s relatives that they could “wait outside.” That insensitive dismissal cut the 13-year-old Blumofe to the quick. It wasn’t until a study abroad year in Poland, when Blumofe visited Auschwitz, and was struck by photos of Holocaust victims gathered in ordinary moments of community, that he felt a tug to return to Judaism. “My whole body changed, the floor of my heart dropped out,” he says. “I wanted to take the risk of a more meaningful life.”
For Blumofe, the words of Hillel, a Jewish sage—“If not now, when?” continue to guide his work. Blumofe tries to help people ask better questions; to hear themselves articulate what they’re seeking. “People objectify rabbis,” he says. “But Judaism privileges the questions over the answers. I try to avoid absolutism, and instead trust my instincts, examine how things become porous.”
This devotion to the questions can lead to thorny moments. A recent example was Blumofe’s proposed itinerary for an interfaith trip to Israel, which included a possible stop at Yasser Arafat’s tomb. Many Jews regard the Palestinian leader as a terrorist, and when a congregation member saw the itinerary, he became incensed and wrote Blumofe a letter calling for his resignation. The itinerary was then leaked to the press and to other Jewish organizations. The internet, as it will in such cases, exploded.
For Blumofe, the incident, which caused a painful splintering in the congregation, served as a sobering lesson. He had intended the stop at Arafat’s tomb to be an opportunity to question myth-making and historical narratives. Looking back, his deepest regret is not reacting more thoughtfully to the angry congregant’s initial letter. “I should have just picked up the phone and called, instead of emailing,” he says.
I see solitude as a retreat into the wilderness that allows me to realign my perspective.
During such divisive episodes, and even in times of comparative unity, Blumofe admits that his work can be profoundly lonely. “You’re a part of people’s happiest and saddest occasions,” he says. “You’re present, but you’re also on the periphery. This can lead to a feeling of living one’s life vicariously. This makes it essential to enjoy what’s before me and to cherish my times away, too. I see solitude as a retreat into the wilderness that allows me to realign my perspective.”
Jazz is another arena that profoundly feeds Blumofe (a classically trained musician who served as a cantor before he became a rabbi), and there’s a reverent warmth in his voice as he tries to put words on his love for the form. “Jazz embodies the highest sense of what human life can be. It’s based on chords, yet improvised. It’s not just about one person. It’s about taking chances, and unexpected turns..”
Inside and outside his synagogue, Blumofe is passionate about taking steps in new directions and knitting new alliances. The congregation will be enlisting one of America’s three female scribes to write their next Torah. Blumofe teaches at Austin’s Presbyterian Theological Seminary, is the current president of the Interfaith Action of Central Texas and runs a jazz series with KUT at the Cactus Café. “Jewish Americans and African-Americans share the pain of being a historic minority,” he says. “It’s right on top of both of our musical traditions. Playing jazz together opens up the chambers of the heart, [which allows for the possibility of] subsequent conversation.”
Pastor at David Chapel Baptist Church
There’s a framed, handwritten document hanging on Joe Parker’s office wall, one that doesn’t immediately arrest your attention like a painting or a photograph might. Until Parker removes it from the wall and tells you what it is: his father’s letter to Martin Luther King, a college friend, urging him to come to Montgomery and preach. King eventually agreed to the call, and the two joined other Montgomery civil rights and religious leaders in historical actions like the famous bus boycott and the march in Selma.
As his parents’ only son, the young Joseph Parker was expected to follow in his father’s religious footsteps. “I never really wanted that,” Parker says. “But my father took me around with him as a youngster.” In the mid-’50s and ‘60s in segregated Alabama, that meant witnessing scenes of utter devastation, like the aftermath of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, where four young black girls were killed. “The smoke from the bombing was still rising when we got there,” Parker remembers. “I was nine or ten.”
When the Parkers moved to Birmingham, Parker’s father continued his civil rights efforts. “He allowed the church building to be a protest planning site,” Parker says. “It was taped and bugged, you could hear clicking sounds on the phone, and see white men in suits—FBI agents—standing at a distance during meetings. Sometimes white preachers were invited to my father’s pulpit. I grew up in an environment where I was well aware of racial differences—I had to sit in the back waiting room to see my doctor. But that never made me feel inferior, thanks to my parents, my teachers and the community.”
When he began high school, shortly after integration, Parker chose to attend the neighborhood school, which was predominantly white. “Sometimes when I walked to a desk, all the other students would get up and I would have to sit alone. In biology class, we had to put a sample of our own blood on a slide, and a bunch of classmates gathered around. ‘What are y’all looking at?’ I asked. They wanted to see if my blood was the same color as theirs. I wasn’t offended. It wasn’t mean-spirited; it was curious. After a while, people began to see me for me. All of those tough experiences strengthened me, allowed me to develop my character. Without my parents’ support, those times might have really damaged me. Instead, they motivated me.”
Parker also says his love of playing the saxophone helped with the isolation. “There were only 15-20 blacks in a school of 2,000. I was a people person but I also craved solitude. The sax is a solo instrument. I would practice three hours a day, I’d been doing that since I was a little kid. It helped me tolerate being alone and not feeling bad about it. And when I had trouble—if I was struggling with a subject in school—I was determined not let any of the whites know about it. I just got it done.”
Years later, Parker began practicing law and would go on to become the first African-American president of the Austin Bar Association. He was recruited to work at Tom Long’s law firm. After a few months, Long called him in to his office and said, “I’ve noticed you hardly ask any questions. Is it because we’re white and you’re black?” That was in 1987; Parker was 35. “It was the first time I’d been confronted about a behavior I’d developed in high school,” Parker says. “I’d been so determined not to reveal that I was challenged by anything. [Tom] knew that I had questions; everyone who started out in [civil litigation] did. I had to acknowledge that and reflect on it, and ask for help.”
There was another subject that Parker increasingly found himself reflecting upon: the ministry. As much as he’d tried to distance himself from his father’s calling, he occasionally agreed to preach at churches. Multiple pastors urged him to join the ministry. But it wasn’t until Pastor Obey, at Austin’s David Chapel Baptist Church, told Parker that he wanted him to be his successor, that Parker felt moved to seriously consider the “calling,” and began seminary studies.
When Obey passed away in 1992, Parker decided to apply to the church’s nationwide search. He made it to the final two candidates. When the committee selected him as the top choice, they decided not to bring in the other preacher for a sermon. Parker grimaces, remembering what followed. “But then there was an uproar in the church. People had two fears: 1) that I would be just like Pastor Obey, or that 2) I would not be like him at all. ‘We don’t want a lawyer for a pastor,’ they thought. Some deacons filed a lawsuit, saying that the bylaws hadn’t been followed, and named me in it. I had to go to trial. The hardest thing was to be pastoral, to not participate as a lawyer.”
Throughout this challenging time, Parker says, he had a specific prayer: “ ‘God, guard my heart.’ I didn’t want to become vindictive or angry. I knew it wasn’t about me. It was a spiritual fight. And after I won the lawsuit, it took three years to repair the damage. The two deacons who had fought me in court stayed, and we developed a good relationship.”
While he deeply admired his father’s activist legacy in Montgomery, Parker says that he has followed a different path at David Chapel Baptist. “The role of the black preacher has changed,” he says. “When my father was preaching, he was one of the most educated people in the community. They looked up to him for guidance. I have the view that most people don’t come just to hear me talk about politics. I have a knowledgeable and informed congregation. They don’t need me to be Daddy. They allow me to be open and authentic. I’ll cry in the pulpit. Let’s face it; I grew up with three sisters: I’m touchy and huggy, and I don’t think that makes me any less of a man.”
Still, Parker is attuned to national events that demand his presence and commentary. After the September police shooting in Charlotte, even though Parker was scheduled to preach at another church, he called an early morning service at David Chapel Baptist to acknowledge the congregation’s grief and offer his own reflections. In trying to grapple with the sorrow of recent police shootings, he says, a memory surfaced from when he was a young teenager, attending the largely white high school.
“I was walking down the hall when I spotted a group of white boys in the corner. I saw something glistening in one of their hands. The next thing I knew, a white boy was coming at me with a knife. I was full of fear and I fled. I ran all the way to my house, crying, enraged. My mother was in the kitchen. I moved past her and went to the drawer for a butcher knife. I was intent on going back and killing that boy. But my mother caught me and stopped me.”
Parker pauses. “I understand these angry black boys today. They don’t have anyone to intercept them. That day, fifty years ago, I was so angry and afraid that I was willing to get out a butcher knife. I don’t know what I would have done if my mother hadn’t been there.”
Being there, above all else, is what Parker strives to offer his congregation, and the larger community. “I don’t need approval or affirmation,” he says. “Going through everything I’ve endured has given me a strong sense of self. I was raised to be a servant. Not a second-class citizen, but a pastor who was brought up in the culture of servanthood, trying to improve things for others.”
Pastor at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church
Exiting Mopac at Wells Branch, you pass New Austin Church, housing a large Pentecostal congregation whose website proclaims the Bible to be the “flawless Word of God.” St. Andrew’s Presbyterian, two miles down the road, with a sign reading “Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Hands,” comes as something of a surprise in this north Austin suburb. Inside, the pastor, Jim Rigby, leads me not to his office, but to the nurse’s room, which is “neater.” He flashes a quick, self-deprecating smile, and makes a joke about the colon cancer magazine on the shelf.
Jim Rigby is many things. A former lyricist and guitarist in Stevie Ray Vaughn’s first band, who decided to pursue a PhD in Ministry. A man who dabbled in televised comedy sketches, where he perfected the character of a televangelist hawking religious hand puppets. Most recently, Rigby has gained a reputation as one of Austin’s most radical religious lightning rods. He’s fought for feminism, LGBTQ rights, and, most recently, on behalf of two Guatemalan refugees, Hilda and Ivan Ramirez. The journey to such an activist role has been a long one, Rigby says. But he cites one of the Presbyterian Church’s fundamental aims, to be “reformed and always reforming,” as informing his own approach.
“Justice is when you’ve done the math of what love really means,” Rigby says. Like many of Rigby’s more poetic thoughts, this requires a little unpacking. “In other words,” Rigby is happy to explain, “justice demands fighting for a redistribution of wealth, for restructuring hierarchies. People want to do it within their privilege. But that won’t work.” For a while, Rigby says, he, too, followed this pattern as a young pastor.
An awakening of sorts occurred after a terrible year in which two women in his parish were raped. Rigby began attending trainings on preventing sexual assault, which in turn awakened him to the need for reproductive health care. And with the dawning of this new feminism came the realization that he had been trapped in the patriarchy. “By not challenging the patriarchy, I was reinforcing it,” he says. “The change was very slow. I got bummed out. At first I thought I was feeling sorry for women. Then I realized that my sadness was about grieving for my own sense of self. I would no longer be the competent male who controls the conversation. I began to see the violence that is hidden and frozen in our hierarchies, particularly in Texas. Men often don’t have any clue that they’re misogynist. You have to step out of that identity to see it.”
At that point, Rigby decided that it wasn’t enough to be “liberal,” which worked within the assumptions of the problem. Stepping outside of those assumptions, Rigby says, he began exploring his “growth edges. I was just a little boy from Dallas, but as I worked to [dismantle my latent sexism], I felt my humanity recognized for the first time. And I discovered new parts of my humanity.”
Rigby describes being present at the Capitol for a recent abortion-rights rally as one of the most moving things he has experienced: “It felt like the building was shaking; there was this weird vibe. We went running out; we heard that the Texas Rangers were there and people were being arrested. Then I saw the Rangers backing down, as the women poured out. We started up a chant. The men said, ‘Whose house is this?’ And the women yelled, ‘Our house!’ There was a sense of the sacred.” Rigby’s voice breaks, remembering the night. “It was a group of people owning their humanity.”
Rigby sees spirituality on a continuum with creativity. “They’re two different depths,” he says. “If you’re just looking at a painting, it’s art. If you’re drowning in it, it’s spirituality.” It doesn’t have to be about ‘religion’ for you to be overcome by something, and to feel a reverence for it. What takes you deepest? When have you been overcome by gratitude and awe? Sometimes the calling is away from the church. It’s important to seek out more community, to explore new conduits, and unfamiliar doors.”
Ultimately, he says, “privilege hurts us. Those higher up on the totem pole are farther from their roots, much more able to distract themselves. My heroes are someone who’s been able to put the pieces back together after everything has fallen apart.” The trick, says Rigby, is to “help people want what they need. The symbols of religion all too often work like a broken compass. You go north, for north’s sake. But that’s worse than no compass at all.” Literal interpretations of the Bible, he says, are bad ethics.
Rigby has faced criticism for his beliefs from within the Presbyterian Church. But “you feel closer to people, as you move farther away from fitting into the machine,” he says. “And those who share your commitment to social justice become your family.” It’s not a matter of acting on courage, he insists. It’s a feeling of having your back against the wall. “I follow where love leads,” he says. “I don’t like press conferences, or controversy. But I’m aware that if I don’t say something today, it won’t change. It’s a prophetic moment.”
Read more from the People Issue | December 2016