For recently ordained priests Christina Vance and Hannah Mudge, blue jeans are as much a part of the uniform as are clerical shirts and white collars. Each part serves an essential purpose.
Jeans are practical for their day-to-day work at Oaks of Righteousness Café & Ministry Center, a mission of the Diocese of Albany in inner-city Troy, New York.
On any given day, Vance and Mudge provide safe space for dozens of children in the hardscrabble North Central neighborhood. They’re playing Wiffle Ball, making burritos for kids who’ve earned them by doing chores, or otherwise getting dirty in kid-oriented activities.
But their collars, too, serve a function that’s every bit as pragmatic for their mission, which is to make disciples of Jesus Christ in a place where life is often hard and hope can be elusive. Collars signal to their wary, mostly African American neighbors that these two young white women might be trustworthy.
“Some of them think we’re nuns,” Vance said. “For the most part, they just think, Well, these people are somehow God people. And it’s just been helpful relationally because for most of them, that’s a positive thing in that neighborhood.”
Neither Vance nor Mudge knew exactly what to expect when the two friends discerned a call, upon their graduation from Trinity School for Ministry in 2010, to ministry in Mudge’s home diocese. All they knew was that they were called — and they would need to find jobs.
Vance made coffee drinks at Starbucks. Mudge worked as a veterinary technician and a church educator. They convened a house church and sought the Lord’s direction. They realized their work was not as much church planting as it was making disciples.
Soon, support from parishes enabled them to set up shop where a diner had closed. Thus began the renewal of an Episcopal presence in a neighborhood where Episcopal parishes closed years ago.
Now the center provides drop-in hours after school, hosts adult Bible study, and convenes worship services. The two priests pray with anyone who comes in feeling stressed. If someone has a court date and needs an advocate for support, they go along to the courthouse.
So far, they’ve baptized three children and are preparing 10 more. Preparation includes learning the Apostles’ Creed, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Lord’s Prayer.
Each day involves listening for where God might be opening doors, Vance says, or calling them to try something new. When their cars are vandalized or someone yells at them, they try to offer a Christ-like response. Through example and patience, they’re learning what it takes to make disciples.
“It gives us a chance to grow in a major way, to literally bless those who curse us and to model that for the kids,” Vance said. “We can model: if somebody calls us a foul name, we can show them that the response doesn’t have to be harder punchback. But it’s hard though. I mean, we’re human. So we’re learning a lot, too.”
G. Jeffrey MacDonald