Graduates provide year of service through Missouri program

Friday, January 3, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST

ST. LOUIS — There's a happy buzz at Deaconess Anne House on a chilly December night. The sounds of jokes, laughter and good-natured teasing, along with the tempting odors of a savory dinner, fill the kitchen. The spirited talk continues around the big table and turns to Harry Potter: "What's your house?" asks one, and the others respond. There are, it appears, a disproportionate number of Ravenclaws.

They could be a group of graduate students, sharing a house off-campus, but most students aren't using the dining room as a chapel, dominated by a large icon of Christ Pantokrator. The seven recent college grads living in the house on Sullivan Avenue in Old North St. Louis are engaged in a year of service to others, living in "intentional community," and following a way of life based on the ancient Rule of St. Benedict, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.

Three months into their fellowship year with the Episcopal Service Corps, they're comfortable together. At dinner, personalities emerge: Michaelene Miller, Anna Lacey and Jillian Smith tend to take the lead in conversation, while Stacey McKnight, Miranda Caulkins, Delilah Papke and Eric Bablinskas are less outspoken. Testing revealed that "there are only three mild extroverts in the group," said Miller, 22.

For entertainment, they have a library and a TV with a signal that's a sometime thing, hooked up to DVD and VHS players. (They cheerfully accept donations of discs and tapes: "We watch a lot of movies," Smith said.) There are musical instruments, "which get used a lot," observed McKnight. They have time to themselves. The living quarters — all but Bablinskas share a room — on the second and third floors are quiet zones later in the evening.

"'Intentional' and 'mindfulness' — those are our two buzzwords," said Smith, 22. Add "discernment" to that, as the fellows strive to discern God's will for them, and what they should be doing, as a regular part of their daily routines. "It's a peaceful place to be," added Papke, also 22. "It's a safe place to be."

"It balances out," said Bablinskas, 24, the lone male among the fellows. "The gender balance, not so much."

Deaconess Anne House is a new initiative of the Episcopal Service Corps and of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri, "a community of faithful, diverse, and passionate young adults, transforming the world and ourselves by striving for justice and peace among all people," according to the Corps website.

It's named for Deaconess Anne Pew, who ran a settlement house, Holy Cross House, in the neighborhood in the early 1900s. Like her, this year's fellows live here, on a street that mixes well-maintained houses with others that need help. Most of them work nearby, in a neighborhood that many St. Louisans know primarily for Crown Candy Kitchen.

Each fellow spends 32 hours a week as an intern at a local not-for-profit, while taking part in a program of spiritual formation, education and community engagement. Each one is sponsored by a parish in the diocese, and has a mentor to meet with regularly. Four are Episcopalians; three belong to other denominations.

The program director is the Rev. Jon Stratton, 29, a lean, young priest with a bushy moustache and glasses. A native of Flora, Ill., he was raised in an Assembly of God church but explored other denominations as a student at Eastern Illinois University. "I instantly fell in love with the liturgy at the Episcopal church, while experiencing the same Christ I did growing up." He and his wife live in Gravois Park.

The fellows, from all over the country, checked St. Louis as a choice among 29 national locations on their applications. There were 70 applicants; a select few were interviewed, Stratton said.

Those chosen are "low maintenance," with a mixture of personality types, people interested in and open to new experiences and new ways of doing things, excited about the possibility of change and drawn to a life of practical Christianity.

Each day begins with a service of morning prayer, from the Book of Common Prayer. Monday nights are dedicated to a communal dinner, followed by the Eucharist. Weekly chapter meetings that begin and end with prayer, along with readings from St. Paul and St. Benedict, allow for the discussion and settling of grievances and regular house business, such as preparing the rotas for food preparation, grocery shopping and liturgy planning.

Sean Thomas has been the executive director of the 32-year-old Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, a neighborhood-based community organization, for more than a decade. He worked with the diocese and with Stratton, giving advice throughout the process of setting up the program.

"I think they're a perfect fit for the neighborhood, and the neighborhood is a perfect fit for the program," Thomas said. "This is an area in transition, suffering from disinvestment and abandonment for decades; it really has been coming back to life. People with a strong sense of passion, a strong sense of vision, are behind that. People attracted to the Episcopal Service Corps have a very similar work ethic, passion and optimism about what can be in the future. They have a lot to contribute."

Smith, a cellist and self-taught guitarist, works in the office at Episcopal City Mission, at the Lakeside Residential Center for juvenile offenders, and at the Art and Music Village of one of her sponsoring parishes, All Saints in north St. Louis.

In a narrow upstairs room at All Saints on a recent Thursday afternoon, Smith taught guitar to three solemn little girls in matching sneakers. Only Camryn Moore, 10, is tall enough that her feet can rest on the floor. Those of her sisters, Camille, 8, and Cayleigh, 7, dangled, but they sat up straight and concentrated on their instruments.

Smith, from Smyrna, Tenn., kept them working, giving out compliments, encouragement and tips, along with lots of high-fives as they went through their lesson.

"Getting to work with kids and getting to do music is probably my favorite thing," she said.

She got involved with the fellowship, she said, because "I wasn't sure what my path should be after I finished college. I wanted to do something that would help other people. I wanted to do something useful with my life. So I found something that was through the church, and that was about service and giving back."

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