By Kirk Petersen

The Episcopal Church has chosen a weird city as the venue for the 2018 General Convention. That’s not a criticism. The Austin Independent Business Alliance adopted “Keep Austin Weird” as its marketing slogan in 2002.

General Convention, a triennial event, will meet on July 5-13 in Austin’s convention center, which is weirdlessly named the Austin Convention Center. Austin has an estimated population of 950,000 people, making it the second-largest state capital (after Phoenix) but only the fourth-largest city in Texas (after Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas.)

The city is part of the Houston-based Diocese of Texas, led since 2009 by the Rt. Rev. C. Andrew (Andy) Doyle, Bishop of Texas. He oversees one of the largest dioceses in the Episcopal Church, with average Sunday attendance of 24,000 in more than 150 churches. The diocese is one of five contained entirely in Texas. (In addition, the Albuquerque-based Diocese of the Rio Grande includes nine Texas counties, including El Paso.)

The Diocese of Texas will host an open barbecue on Saturday evening, July 7, right after the daily worship service. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry will preach at the service at the Palmer Events Center, which holds 6,000 people, and the diocese hopes local folks will bring their friends to see the man the British press has dubbed the Royal Wedding Bishop.

Another highlight: General Convention will meet in a city that has an Episcopal seminary, and the Seminary of the Southwest is eager to welcome the faithful. This opportunity does not come around too often. In 1913, General Convention met in New York City, the home of the church’s headquarters and the General Theological Seminary. In 1949 it met in San Francisco, across the bay from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

The seminary has planned three events:

  • On July 4, the night before the first legislative day, the Seminary of the Southwest is co-sponsoring a fireworks party with Church of the Good Shepherd on the Hill, a five-minute drive south of the convention center. A reception with live music begins at 7:30, followed by fireworks.
  • On Sunday, July 8, there will be a Eucharist at 10 a.m. at the seminary’s Christ Chapel [Google Tour], followed by an open house and buffet brunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The seminary’s leafy campus is a 10-minute drive north of the convention center. (The campus also houses the Archives of the Episcopal Church, but that organization has not planned any public events.)
  • And on Tuesday, July 10, the seminary will host a reception for alumni and friends just a block from the convention center at the J.W. Marriott from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. The Very Rev. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, dean and president of the seminary, will talk about Southwest’s past and future.

The convention center is a huge facility, spanning six city blocks, with 881,400 gross square feet of space. The cavernous exhibit hall will have more than 150 exhibitors, and the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies will be on separate floors. If you visit, wear comfortable shoes.

There are approximately a zillion restaurants within walking distance, featuring every cuisine and price level. Anyone with enough energy for nightlife after long legislative days can find nearby dancing and live music. You can find suggestions for dining and activities at the Austin Visitor Center, diagonally across 4th Street and Red River Street from the convention center.

Austin is a blue enclave in a red state. In 2016, Donald Trump prevailed statewide with 53 percent of the vote, while Hillary Clinton won 43 percent. But Clinton outpolled Trump in Travis County, 66 to 27 percent. Same-sex marriage will be an issue at General Convention, and Travis was the only county (out of 254) that voted against a 2005 amendment to the state constitution banning recognition of same-sex marriages, civil unions, and domestic partnerships.

The city is named for Stephen F. Austin, a politician who led the effort to bring settlers to Texas in the early 1800s, when the territory was controlled by Mexico. He’s been called “the Father of Texas,” but he was not an entirely admirable man. He encouraged the growth of slavery in the territory by giving new settlers 80 acres of land for each slave they brought with them.

Besides weirdness and blueness, what is Austin known for?

The travel site Expedia.com ranks Austin as the coolest city in the country, based on a variety of factors, including arts and entertainment, dining options, and the like. The official city motto is “Live Music Capital of the World,” and the city boasts strong ties to musicians, including Willie Nelson, Janis Joplin, Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan, and the Dixie Chicks.

Be advised that Austin is cool only in a metaphorical sense: the average high temperature in July is 95 degrees, with an average low of 74. But Texas is in the Southwest, so it must be dry heat, right? No, dry heat is further west. Average daily humidity for Austin in July is 65 percent (88% in the mornings), which is slightly worse than New York City, but not as bad as New Orleans.

Each March, Austin hosts South by Southwest, a conglomeration of music, the arts, and professional conferences in the Austin Convention Center — the same venue as General Convention.

The original Whole Foods Market is about a 20-minute walk west from the convention center on North Lamar Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. The store also houses the Red Okra Restaurant, where the most expensive item is the $11 Gorgonzola Mushroom Burger, and you have your choice of three local beers.

If you want to see weirdness, there’s a Museum of the Weird less than half a mile from the convention center, featuring “authentic freak animals, real mummies, fiji mermaids, shrunken heads, and life-size wax figures of historic sideshow celebrities.”

You could get your weird on by watching more than a million bats flying out every evening from under the Congress Avenue Bridge, less than half a mile from the convention center.

Want to swing on a trapeze? Bring $10 to Trapeze Texas, a mile and a half east of the convention center.

Or consider a jaunt to the Cathedral of Junk, five miles southwest of the convention center. For 30 years, Vince Hannemann has been turning an estimated 60 tons of castoff items into a backyard shrine, featuring multiple rooms and thousands of pipes, car parts, signs, fans, tools and … well … junk. By appointment only: 512.299.7413.

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