Almost Ready for the Keys

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

The Rev. Bill Lupfer has worked full time for six months to prepare for his new call as rector of Trinity Wall Street, but he’s still figuring out what exactly he’ll be overseeing.

“Trinity is hard to study because it has so many parts,” Lupfer said in a recent TLC interview at the New York Marriott Downtown. “I had no idea how much Trinity does.”

It’s no surprise Trinity Wall Street might have a few niches and ministries still unknown to Lupfer, who ceremonially receives keys to the church as its 18th rector on Feb. 22. Trinity has been described as the most complicated parish in the Episcopal Church, and its scope is as vast as its history is long and its pockets deep.

With a $4 billion investment portfolio, mostly in Lower Manhattan real estate, Trinity can afford to do a lot more than most congregations. About 200 staff members, who do everything from managing downtown office buildings to publishing a quarterly print magazine, all report to the rector. The church gives away $7 to $8 million in grants, gifts, and assessment to the Diocese of New York. It stages concerts and conferences, provides low-income housing for 330 retirees near South Street Seaport, operates St. Paul’s Chapel near Ground Zero — and a lot more.

“We have nuns,” Lupfer said with a chuckle as he listed the ministries he’s still discovering. “We’re related to the Sisters of St. Margaret’s, so we have three nuns, members of our parish, who do a lot of pastoral care with us. So it’s a lot going on.”

Trinity’s had a long time to weave this complex web. Chartered in 1697, the congregation has land dating back to a 1705 grant from Queen Anne. Its chapel, St. Paul’s, is where George Washington immediately went to pray after his inauguration as the United States’ first President in 1789.

Since the early colonial days, the congregation has given away 96 percent of the approximately 230 acres it received from the queen, Lupfer said. It donated a tract to create what is now Columbia University. With a later gift to the City of New York, the parish made possible the Holland Tunnel under the Hudson River to New Jersey.

Now Lupfer, a 53-year-old Chicago native and longtime advocate for low-income housing, hopes to build on work he did in that arena as dean of Trinity Cathedral in Portland, Oregon. His plans aren’t specific yet, but he intends to explore with the congregation how low-income housing in high-priced New York might become a larger part of Trinity’s ministry.

“We were formed to promote the common good,” Lupfer said. “For us, it would be a vision for the kingdom of God now, on earth as it is in heaven, and do everything we can to bring everyone to bear to do that.”

Lupfer brings to this demanding role an unflappably calm demeanor that puts people at ease, even in stress-filled corners of New York. This trait could serve him well in the transition, which has included a cross-country move to the big city with his wife and their two teenagers. It also fits his passion for racial reconciliation, which he says grows in part from his experience of being married to Kimiko Lupfer, who is of Japanese descent.

“We’ll be talking about race as long as I’m here,” Lupfer said, “because racism is about condemning the other. It has to do with our fear of the other. And that’s a key Christian formation: to lose that fear and see Christ in the other. When we can’t do that, it goes against everything we are as Christians.”

Lupfer’s style, at least during an interview, is to lean back, think big, and see ahead with a large dollop of hope. At the end of a long day during the annual Trinity Institute conference, he turned off his phone and gestured westward out a meeting room window of the hotel. His eyes lit up as he spoke of plans to build a new parish center. Its mission will involve serving three groups equally: the congregation, the growing residential neighborhood, and people in need.

“How can we use a building to create home for people who are spiritually and physically homeless? That’s what I’m asking people,” he said. “How do you create a place where people walk in and say, Oh! This feels like home?”

From his new perch as leader of a complex institution, Lupfer is planning disciplines to keep him grounded. Having worked as a prison chaplain in Connecticut, he will begin his tenure as rector on February 22 with a visit to inmates at Rikers Island.

As with many things at Trinity, establishing a new rector is no simple process. Lupfer’s formal institution as rector occurs later, on Ascension Day, May 14. That will give him a little more time to learn all his new church does.

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