Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Psalm 51:10
Meet the Rev. Canon Melissa Hays-Smith, Canon for Justice and Reconciliation Ministries in the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia. The Diocese received a grant through The Episcopal Church Office of Evangelism for a revival and pilgrimage during its 100th anniversary celebration.
Share a little bit about yourself.
I found The Episcopal Church through marriage to a lifelong Episcopalian. I came from a Protestant background kicking and screaming but have loved TEC as the way to define my faith in adulthood. My role has been in recent years archdeacon, although I will rotate that role over to another deacon but will retain duties as part-time canon for justice and racial reconciliation. I have been a deacon for 12 years, which is my primary call. As a longtime professional social worker, I recognize the level of injustice in the world but felt called to address it not just through social policy and programs but more comprehensively, in a spiritual approach. My goal is to open the eyes of my fellow Christians to the work that needs to be done in the world and, perhaps, help them to see how to go about it.
My relationship with the Office of Evangelism has been just prior to and since our January 2019 revival. When we first began talking about a diocesan revival in Roanoke, Virginia, with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, we had to stop and think about what that might mean for us – the revival service itself, as well as its aftermath throughout the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia.
Planning for the event itself was time-consuming and important. We took a team approach, with each of us on the bishop’s staff taking lead on certain parts. My part was to organize and implement the Gainsboro Pilgrimage on the day before the revival. Reconciliation and justice pilgrimages are part of The Episcopal Church’s long-term commitment to racial healing, reconciliation, and justice and are a recommended vehicle for “Practicing the Way of Love.” The day of the pilgrimage, we received an overview of urban renewal in Roanoke and then walked a few blocks in the Gainsboro neighborhood. Along the way, we stopped at key sites to reflect on what was destroyed by urban renewal and what were the long-term effect on residents, mostly African American. We sang as we walked and offered prayers at each stop. The pilgrimage ended at the Dumas Center, where adults who grew up in the Gainsboro neighborhood and lived through urban renewal, shared their stories. This required months of making new connections/renewing old ones within the African American community to get their buy-in and collaboration. I think the revival really worked to energize and revitalize our diocese, congregations, and communities. We had more than 2,000 people, and at least 500 were not Episcopalian!
Share a story in your current ministry about a time when you felt blessed.
Since the revival, there have been new opportunities to make progress in racial reconciliation. Just the presence and message of Presiding Bishop Curry opened people’s hearts, as did our broad welcome to the community to join us at the civic center that Sunday morning. New work groups focused on justice have cropped up, old ones have new energy, and people that we didn’t know before see us (The Episcopal Church) as allies.
Blessing is about being part of the cycle of giving and receiving and practicing generosity and compassion. In what ways are you called to pass on blessings to others?
Proclaiming the Gospel during Holy Eucharist and through my activism out in the world.
How has your work with the TEC Office of Evangelism impacted you and the community in which you serve?
Just having an Office of Evangelism in TEC has had a big impact in how I see my own ministry, as well as how our diocese conceptualizes evangelism. Sometimes it just takes that kind of focus to bring everyone around and get our attention.
What about the practices of the Way of Love or the Jesus Movement gives you hope for the Church?
I see a future in these practices and not in continuing to “do church” as we have been doing. I believe that especially young people are looking for meaning in their lives, not membership. We can offer this meaning through revising our explanation of what church is and can be, walking as Christians in the world around us, as well as through more flexible worship times, etc.
Are there any other thoughts about the practice of Bless that you’d like to share, or anything about your ministry as it relates to TEC Office of Evangelism you’d like us to know? The Office of Evangelism needs to reach out to all deacons and really try to make important connections with them. Deacons are more likely to take this and run with it, being models to the laity.