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Eyes lock in on the cross and follow it down the aisle as its bearer leads the procession until the last person of the seemingly endless line grabs the entire congregation’s attention. Entering the back of the sanctuary, Father Mark’s flowing robes make it appear as if he were gliding down the aisle. His regal voice resounds off the white marble and fills the room with his presence. His charisma is absolute; his passion is sincere. It’s Sunday morning, and, while my mom had to pull me out of bed, there is no place in the world Father Mark would rather be. And for that, he is loved. He is adored.
I had just turned twelve when Father Mark shook my hand, addressed me by name, told me it was a pleasure to get to know my family as well as he did, and then said he was retiring. He finished by saying, “Always love your neighbor.” Confused, I mustered a “Yes sir.”
At the time, I didn’t understand the underlying causes of his retirement. Now, I can fully comprehend that he fell victim to a scar on the face of the Episcopal Church. He voted for a bishop based on merit—a man that was arguably the most qualified for the job. The man that Father Mark thought could best lead the Diocese of Dallas happened to be gay. When Father Mark publicly supported this bishop, some members of our church, modern day Pharisees, turned on him.
Intolerance sucked the life out of hymns and dampened sermons. The congregation ran through the motions and came on Sundays as if only to get credit for being there. Prejudice tore a community in half.
Six years later, I haven’t heard a sermon that had everyone talking and discussing after the service. I haven’t seen the sanctuary so full that collapsible chairs have to flood out into the halls and people willingly watch the service on television screens. I have yet to meet another man who can turn hundreds of heads at the same time just by entering. I don’t think I will.
I witnessed first hand a man of conviction not only persecuted for his beliefs but also take that persecution head on, unwavering in his beliefs. An inspiration, Father Mark demonstrated that all we can control are our own actions. In a world that is shrouded with opposing forces and the conflicts that arise from those forces, he proved that clinging onto integrity and principle is the only way to conduct oneself. Father Mark will be at the core of my conscience with every belief I have and every stand I make. My thoughts will butt heads with others. It’s a matter of fact. However, I can attest to having seen the correct way to conduct myself in such instances because I have seen the extreme case of a man staring injustice in the face and not backing down. I can and will do the same.
I have learned from Father Mark that disagreements are never about converting any party to the ways of another. It’s about standing strong in our beliefs whatever they may be and leading by example. More than anything, I learned at an early age that true conflict resolution is about civil discourse. Can we expect any solutions to our problems if respect flies out the window when we hear something we don’t agree with?
Maybe seeing the consequences of losing Father Mark is the necessary evil for the intolerant members of the congregation to realize the importance of acceptance. If so, than Father Mark left a legacy at our church; he left a hole that cannot be filled; he left a vacuous reminder of the importance of tolerance. Staying true to his character, he willingly threw himself into the forsaking hands of the people and changed hearts in the process. He shaped mine. He made a profound and lasting effect on a community. He induced us to take one more step in the direction of all “brothers dwelling in unity.”
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