Lowell Grisham

Church leader leaves legacy

Posted: November 5, 2017 at 1 a.m.

"St. Paul's is an incredibly gifted congregation with leadership and a passion for ministry and wonderful gifts, and all I had to do was to say, 'Y'all just go and do what you're called to do.' My formula for leading a congregation has been pretty simple: 'Everyone has gifts -- what are yours?'" -- The Rev. Lowell Grisham

As the Rev. Lowell Grisham sits in the back yard of his beautiful home in Fayetteville, Murphy and Lovie -- his family's tiny spitfire dogs -- mill about his feet. Grisham absent-mindedly strokes the head of Murphy as he talks about stepping down as the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, a job he has had for 20 years.

"It's been so fun-filled," he says. "I feel like the luckiest priest in the Episcopal church. I'm so glad to have been called to St. Paul's -- it's been a wonderful match.

Through Others’ Eyes

“Working with Lowell is one of the singular privileges of my life. He has the energy and charm of a 3-year-old. the mischief of an adolescent, the integrity and competence of an adult, and the wisdom of a tribal elder. His tears spring readily whether with empathy with someone else’s suffering, in the joy of worship, and with the humor he manages to find in so much of the world around him. As a mentor he has taught me to take mission and ministry seriously and myself very lightly.” — The Rev. Suzanne Stoner

“Lowell’s zest for living is obvious in the ways he conducts Sunday services. After a Sunday school sermon he always makes time for a parishioner or two who want to talk. Then he will race to the back of the church where acolytes, choristers and other priests are already arrayed, his legs churning and feet skidding around the corner to line up for the procession into the sanctuary. Every year when he follows the procession out after the celebration of Pentecost, you can see how he delights in waving the long red streamers over the congregation.” — John Duval

“Lowell makes all that approach him feel appreciated, his spirituality inspires, and his steering the church into serious outreach has made St. Paul’s a vibrant, living, loving and caring community. His persona has led to sustained and impressive growth in members. He has grown the church’s mission by welcoming all and encouraging all to become active members. Under his guidance, St. Paul’s has become the lodestar Episcopal Church in Arkansas.” — Bill Clark

Next Week

Brinda J. Jackson

Little Rock

"I can only be grateful."

Grisham is a gifted storyteller, but when he talks about this next transition in his life, his words come a bit more slowly. There are more pauses. He's leaving a position he clearly adores earlier than he expected because of a recent injury.

"I planned to retire next summer, when I'll be 66," says Grisham. He looks, easily, 10 years younger than that age. "I had hoped to do a kind of hand-off and let the church go through that process of a search without the need of an interim [pastor]. But I bumped my head and suffered a mild traumatic brain injury that left me with a lot of lethargy, with regular headaches, some severe, and with some cognitive issues -- difficulty with processing visually, writing became much harder, speaking harder."

But his parishioners watched as Grisham forged forward in his duties, despite the pain.

"He injured his head the day before he performed the wedding ceremony in our back yard for our son Niell and Niell's bride, Anjana," says close family friend and parishioner John Duval. "His words of encouragement to them before the actual taking of the vows were inspiring and won the hearts of Anjana and her parents from India. We had no idea until later that he was hurting physically. The Holy Spirit must have indeed inspired him, because he couldn't tell us later what he had said but thanked us, and with his own brand of good humor, asked me to recite what he had said, for posterity."

"The cure, the remedy, is rest," says Grisham. "I need to rest. I tried resting, and the church runs beautifully without me, it really does. But it's so easy to get into things I really want to be a part of, and there are some things that a rector just has to do. The church needs a rector so things don't fall through the cracks."

Despite the obviously bittersweet nature of the transition, Grisham is, as always, relentlessly positive. He is -- as those who attend his church or read his Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette religion column know -- progressive to the core, and progress means moving ever forward.

"The only hard part is that I have had so much fun, and I love it so much," he says. "I've got such a great team, the staff, I just love. I haven't been able to be vested and in the chancel too much lately, but I've been improving a little bit, and I've been doing more of that. And I was up there last Sunday, and it just felt so good, listening to the choir and seeing my friends. I turned to [Associate Rector] Suzanne [Stoner] and said, 'This is so much fun.'"

Rooted in the '60s

Grisham was born in Portland, Ore., though you can tell by his soft, southern accent -- a molasses-thick mix of Mississippi and Arkansas drawl -- that he didn't stay there for long. His father was an F.B.I. agent, his mother was a teacher, and both had southern roots. They returned to his mother's home state of Alabama when Grisham was a baby, but from about second grade on, Grisham was raised in Oxford, Miss., where his dad was a federal prosecutor who then started his own law firm with a friend.

As a child, Grisham says he was endlessly curious about his father's work with the F.B.I., but his taciturn father remained mum on any salient details.

"I remember reading all of those F.B.I. books, you know, that you read when you're in grammar school," he says. "And thinking how cool it was, that he had worked there, and pumping him for information about gangsters but -- nothing. Those guys are really secretive. The only sort of childhood bragging I could get from him was that he was a really good pistol shot and, at one point, he had some kind of record at Quantico."

Grisham's eventual role as a community leader in human rights causes was forged in the tumult of the 1960s.

"We grew up in the days of the civil rights struggle," he remembers. "I was in fifth grade and my sister in second when James Meredith integrated Ole Miss [in 1962], and our town turned into a battleground. Riots, occupation by federal marshals and regular Army units ... my dad was a 'rule of law' sort of fellow, and he said that integration was the rule of law, and that's what we should do. And that made him a liberal in that context. He was pretty moderately conservative, but in that context, if you weren't for segregation as a white person, you were a dirty liberal."

Grisham's pastor, the Rev. Duncan M. Gray Jr., also became someone to look up to during this time. Gray reached national prominence when, during the integration efforts, he was beaten by a crowd of white rioters he was trying to calm.

"His integrity and his activism really made an impression on me," says Grisham of his hero.

A bright student, Grisham graduated from both high school and college early and was working for his alma mater, the University of Mississippi, when he met his wife, Kathy. By 1975, the pair were married, and both decided to start law school. Just one year later, though, Grisham's life took a sharp left when he set his sights on the seminary.

It was a decision that, he says, seemed "very sort of slow and organic," and had its roots in a freshman class he took called "History of Ideas" taught by an avowed atheist.

"She was a wonderful woman," says Grisham. "Early in the class, she looked around, and she said, 'I suppose most of you are Christian, aren't you, or you go to church?' A lot of people nodded, and she said, 'Well, let me ask you a question. God is good, is that right? That's what you've all been taught?' And we all nodded. 'And God is all powerful, is that not right?' And we all nodded. 'Well, then, why is there evil?' She waited, and let that sink in, then she said, 'Either God is all powerful and not good enough to overcome evil, or God is all good but not powerful enough.' And she had me. I had not been taught about that. So on that day, I started doubting what I had been taught -- a wonderful gift. So I became an agnostic that day.

"Eventually, I came to answer that question in a way that satisfied me, and, in the process, rediscovered an adult faith that was compelling and satisfying. I think that if I had just kept the childish faith I had inherited, it never would have been big enough to draw my adult interest and passion."

"Lowell had served on the vestry at his church, and then I was elected to that position," says Kathy. "By the time he verbalized an interest in going to seminary, I had seen it coming, and I wondered why it had taken him so long to speak up."

Learning to lead

The couple moved to New York, where Grisham would study at the General Theological Seminary, in the heart of the city. It was a stimulating environment, but when he finished with his studies, he found himself heading south again.

"I told the Canon to the Ordinary -- he's the guy who arranges placement -- I said, 'There are five places that you can send seminarians to. There are three of us coming out this year, and I'm good with any of the five except this one, and I can't work with this guy.' And that's where he sent me."

The placement was in Natchez, Miss., and Grisham says that, at first glance, he was sure that he wasn't going to be able to get along with the current rector of the parish.

"To me, he looked like he was controlling, rigid," says Grisham. "But he ended up being wonderful. He was the best mentor, the best support, I could have ever wanted. He let me do all aspects of ministry and leadership in the church. And he ended up leaving when I had only been there a year or so -- he was called to another church. And so I got to be the interim rector for that congregation, which was a little like drinking from a fire hose but also a terrific preparation."

The lesson, says Grisham, was to keep an open mind and consider all sides.

"It reinforced something I had learned from fifth grade on, and that is that a lot of the stuff that we think we know, we're wrong about," says Grisham. "It's the greatest gift in the world to grow up in a culture that was as wrong as the culture I grew up with was wrong about something as important as segregation, integration, white supremacy and racial equality. The fear of the mixing of the races was profound. And that was a fear that was held by all the mamas and the daddies that coached our little league, and taught our schools, and had the businesses on the square -- and they were wrong.

"It makes you hold on to your opinions and your certainties with a much lighter touch."

From Natchez, the couple moved to Jackson, Miss., and, after 10 years as rector there, went on to Fort Smith, where he served a parish for five years. Along the way, they had two children, Allison and Gray. Grisham says he was just starting to feel restless in Fort Smith and was casting about for other parishes that might need him, when he was contacted by the bishop about taking the parish at St. Paul's. There had been some instability in the parish, and two priests had come and gone in a relatively short amount of time.

"I felt both challenged and nervous when I first came here," admits Grisham. "And then, why did I think that I could handle this?"

"When Lowell first arrived at St. Paul's over 20 years ago now, we were hurting," says the Rev. Suzanne Stoner, associate rector at St. Paul's. "Spirits were low and anxieties high. The first year he spent listening, asking open and honest questions about our past and our pain, all the while lightening our hearts with humor and hope. You couldn't help but want to get to know God the way he knew God."

Forging community

In the beginning, it might have been slightly rocky. The Rev. Duncan M. Gray Jr. continued to be Grisham's real role model as far as the active role a pastor should play in terms of leading the community when human rights are at stake. He got a chance to do just that when Fayetteville's city council attempted to pass the Human Dignity Resolution -- which would restrict the city from making hiring decisions based on sexual orientation -- in 1998.

"I went through a process of thinking and researching and talking and change that left me with a really strong foundation about God's will," he says. "And basically, I saw the fruits of the Holy Spirit in my gay friends and in the relationships of gay couples."

"Lowell is the most compassionate, centered, loving person I have known," says Clark. "With that comes his deep conviction that his views need to be spread and published, an approach that was initially troubling to some parishioners. As I have witnessed his willingness to serve via outreach as well as encouragement of others to act accordingly, I have come to understand that Lowell is happiest when he is immersed in a community that serves and treats all with love and respect. His writings that once may have made some uneasy now inspire and make us proud to call him our rector."

Grisham laughs heartily when asked if he ever received parish push-back regarding his vocal support of local civil and human rights causes.

"The thing about Episcopalians is -- if you have four Episcopalians, you'll find five opinions," he says. "We agree to disagree, and I've always made it clear that I don't know everything. None of us agree with each other about everything. My mama doesn't agree with me on everything. But she loves me. And then we come to the altar, and there we are fed, and we are one body."

Grisham may have strong feelings on certain subjects, but he always maintains an open mind and respect for those of opposing views. When considering the possibility of offering blessings to the parish's committed gay couples, Grisham organized a process where, over the course of a year, parishioners came together, read literature supporting both sides and talked in small groups about the options. At the end of the year, the parish decided to go forward with the blessings.

"I think the process was open enough and safe enough that very few people left, even though a number of people disagreed with the decision," says Grisham.

Grisham's pattern for outreach -- established at the parishes where he served prior to St. Paul's -- peaked in his tenure here.

"As a leader, Lowell's first answer is always, 'Yes,'" says Stoner. "If someone comes to him with an idea that's consistent with our mission, he provides the full support of the parish. The homeless need a day center, you say? Seven Hills Homeless Center opens. Hungry neighbors? Community Meals begin. Uninsured or underinsured? Community Clinic grows. Women surviving prostitution or human trafficking? Magdalene Serenity House opens. Prisoners want transformation? Prison Story Project is born. Caregivers overwhelmed by the dementia of loved ones? Caring Friends Respite Ministry is created. Cremains left unclaimed at the coroner's office? A cemetery is carved out of the church green space to provide a dignified and holy repose. And the list goes on.

"St. Paul's, under Lowell's leadership, has become a sort of incubator for new life, hope, health and transformation. Many of these missions begin at the church and then grow far beyond, becoming their own nonprofits engaging the larger community."

Lifting others

Magdalene House is the church's most recent initiative. That project was inspired when one of the women Grisham and Stoner ministered to in jail was released and died of a drug overdose shortly thereafter.

"It just broke our hearts," says Grisham. "We did her [funeral] service. And we said, 'We've got to do something.'"

Magdalene House, which will house eight women who are survivors of sexual exploitation and addiction, cost the church just under a million dollars to begin. Grisham says they're about $150,000 away from paying for the project in full.

As proud as Grisham is of the outreach work the parish has accomplished since he came to the parish, he notes that there is something else that brings him great pleasure that isn't always as public.

"There's one part of my life that's just huge," he says. "That's kind of hidden from all of that public view and outreach and advocacy stuff. One of the pieces that has been important to me has been my own spiritual growth, and my dedication to prayer and teaching and empowering other people in prayer. One of the neat things that's happened to me since I got hurt is that a wonderful group has come together. And every weekday afternoon, we go to the library, and we spend an hour in silent prayer together.

"And for years, I wrote a meditation every day on the daily readings from our office for morning prayer and evening prayer, and I published a little book about practices of prayer. So that's been a big part of my life, my ministry, my teaching, my energy and my time."

"As if writing and preaching a weekly sermon weren't enough, Lowell soon invented a new genre -- which in itself is a great writer's accomplishment -- the morning reflection, a daily (daily, not weekly!), brief, online essay commenting on the daily lectionary readings of the Episcopal Church," says Duval. "Another great writer, Miller Williams, not a churchgoer himself, told me he read them every morning, and he often quoted them to me. For believers like my wife and me, Lowell's good humored questioning approach to Christianity, characteristic of those who are most secure in their faith, confirmed our faith."

Grisham says he and Kathy have no plans to leave Fayetteville. Kathy is the executive director of Community Clinic and has helped the organization grow by leaps and bounds. And Grisham says he is eager to expand his contributions to a laundry list of nonprofit organizations he's supported in the past. He says his home is in Fayetteville.

"You know, if you're here, you sense it, you just know it," he says of his adopted hometown. "It's almost indescribable. There is a spirit in this place of community, and a curiosity, a commitment to art and inquiry. An openness and a can-do spirit. It's just a wonderful town."

As for St. Paul's post-Lowell Grisham era, parishioners mirror their optimistic leader's outlook on the future.

"I remember Lowell's very first sermon at St. Paul's," says Stoner. "It was about letting go of expectations in order to live in hope. We were pregnant with expectations but he wanted us to take time to get to know one another, to see which gifts rise from the alchemy of our life together and to follow the lead of the Spirit. That's where we find ourselves again. Our expectations would have been much shallower than what our hope delivered us in Lowell. It's time to lean into that hope again."

"He has nurtured the church for its sake and for God's sake, not for his own," says Duval. "He has made the church a place of welcome and inclusion, but with inclusion, there has always been the expectation that each of us has a responsibility to build the church community and to do what we can to improve the wider communities of Fayetteville, Arkansas, and our world. That spirit is very strong in St. Paul's, and I believe it will thrive, although we will miss him as our rector."

"My hope was that, at the end of my tenure here, we would have, to some degree, changed the identity and the narrative and the memory [at St. Paul's] and I think that's happened," says Grisham.

"And there's very little in my life that makes me as pleased and satisfied that that has happened."

NAN Profiles on 11/05/2017