By Kirk Petersen
A former Roman Catholic priest from India, who worked briefly on a cattle farm after leaving the Roman Catholic church, was chosen on the first ballot to become the XIV Bishop of Idaho.
The Rev. Joseph “Jos” Tharakan was elected from a field of three at an online convention February 19. If he receives the necessary consents from half of all diocesan Standing Committees and bishops with jurisdiction, he will be consecrated on June 25 at the Cathedral of the Rockies, a Methodist Church in Boise.
“I’m still overwhelmed,” he told TLC. “I cried for the last four days. I’m just overwhelmed by God’s love, that’s all I can say.”
Tharakan was born and raised in a devout Roman Catholic home in Kerala, India. After graduating from high school at the age of 15, he became a Franciscan friar, and later a priest. In India he was “an itinerant preacher, music composer, spiritual director, theology professor, and interim high school principal,” according to the biography he submitted with his candidacy.
The bishop-elect currently is the rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Springfield, Missouri, and previously served both Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches in Arkansas. He came to Arkansas at the age of 33 at the invitation of the Catholic Bishop of Little Rock.
“I left the Catholic Church on the day of Pentecost in 2001,” he said. “I struggled with a couple of issues. Mandatory celibacy in the church, I just could not believe it is necessary to find really good, holy priests in the church. I also believe both men and women, all people should have access to the altar. I could not deny Communion to anybody based on their life or situations, and so it was a hard struggle for me.”
Four attorneys at Tharakan’s last Catholic parish owned a large cattle farm in Chester, Arkansas, and to support his transition they offered to pay him $500 a month to help the farm’s manager. It didn’t go well. “I think I have a mechanical curse,” he said, explaining that he burnt the engine of a tractor by neglecting to check the oil, and later broke a fork on a forklift.
He said he believed the damage came to about $60,000. “And so the attorneys said Jos, you can stay home and we will pay you $500. And I did, and they paid me for the next three months.”
He had better luck with computers, and started a business providing internet access to poor and rural communities.
“Then when I found the Episcopal Church, it was like coming home,” he said, with none of the issues that caused him to leave the Catholic church. “I didn’t have to struggle with these things. All people were acceptable to God.” He was accepted to the Episcopal priesthood in 2006.
He had no ambitions to become a bishop, but a friend repeatedly insisted he look into the opening in Idaho. “You have to look at the profile, it is you,” the friend said. “So when I read the profile, I thought, oh my gosh, they are looking for me.” Still he resisted, until finally submitting his paperwork on the last possible day.
Idaho is one of the whitest states in the country. It is, no doubt, home to many worthy citizens, but has also been associated with neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups. Tharakan was asked how this might affect his episcopacy.
“What I found when I went to the retreat is that they were very open and welcoming of me,” he said. “Now, that doesn’t translate into the whole state being open to me. But then my history says, I have not yet encountered a situation where they are unwilling to listen, if I am willing to give my ear to them.” Every church he has served in has been overwhelmingly white, he said, and in some cases he was the only person of color.
Tharakan’s second wife, Kimby, has siblings in Idaho, but he had never visited the state until he went to the search committee retreat in December. They have six children between them from previous marriages. Only the youngest, a 16-year-old boy, will move with them to Idaho.
He will succeed the Rt. Rev. Brian J. Thom, who has served since 2008. The Diocese of Idaho includes 26 congregations in the southern portion of the state, plus a single congregation a few hundred yards across the Wyoming border. The see city is Boise, the state capital. The northern panhandle of Idaho is part of the Diocese of Spokane.
The other candidates were:
- The Rev. Kenneth Malcolm, chaplain of Trinity Episcopal School in Austin, Diocese of Texas; and
- The Rev. Thomas Ferguson, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Sandwich, Diocese of Massachusetts.