The 2015 General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City was full of excitement, and St. Peter’s very own rector was right there in the thick of it, keeping a running tally of the highlights, helping Paul Burrows, chairman of the Legislative Aides Committee, and working with the Committee for the Confirmation of the Presiding Bishop. Mother Susan’s diary takes us straight to Utah…
Monday June 22
Snuggled into a plane with people who go to Las Vegas in June, the scent of jet fuel fills the air, as various monsters—engines, children, hissing air vents—roar around me. No guzzling of refreshing, alcoholic beverages, laughing and chatting with the folks. I’m the one with coffee, hunched over her iPad, reading Buechner.
What feels like a long time later, after a connecting flight and dinner, I walk over to the Salt Palace Convention Center, my new home away from home for the next week or so.
The homeless problem here rivals San Francisco. Every block I am hit up for money. “I’m so hungry and no one will help me,” one young man pleads. SLC is dealing with the problem by setting up what look to be red parking meters, encouraging people to put money into the meters—which goes towards helping the homeless—and not give it to the mendicants.
On the way back to the hotel, a gentleman and I fall into conversation at a street corner. He’s at the convention too, representing Bethlehem. As in the birthplace of Jesus.
After dinner I spot a gelato place and think perhaps just a small cup. As I step in, there is “Bethlehem” and his in-laws, and they buy me dessert. They are lovely and handsome with Middle-Eastern manners and it occurs to me as I make my way back to my hotel that I’ve just met someone just like Jesus and his family in the flesh…
Tuesday, June 23
Paul Burrows flings his arms around me and lifts me off the floor, and says how glad he was to see me—since he’d decided to make me his assistant. I now have two jobs.
Paul introduces me to everyone as his assistant, and people begin to think I know stuff… which is madness. I’m completely adrift in this massive convention center and have now discovered that the Marriott across the street is also filled with meeting rooms. The main doors to their lobby have the Episcopal shield on them, as if we had bought the place.
But by afternoon it’s clear that I have the best of all worlds here: I get to be one of the first people to know who has been elected Presiding Bishop on Saturday and I just run around helping people who are doing the serious, tedious work of considering resolutions, organizing hearings, etc.
In a rare bit of spare time I wander the huge hall, full of exhibitor booths set up by organizations like the Forward Movement people, who publish the Day by Day, or groups working for peace between Palestine and Israel (both of whom also have booths), as well as missionaries, missions, all sorts of worthy organizations.
Among the exhibitors are my Bethlehem family, whose roots in that area date from the 16th century. They sell carved olive wood figures, silken wraps, and icons made by the people of the Holy Land to support Christians in Bethlehem (less then two percent of the population now), raising awareness of their struggle to survive.
I run into the people from Lent Madness and feel like I’ve met a superstar!
Tomorrow’s first meeting is at 6:45 am. I walked seven miles today—in a four block area!
Wednesday, June 24
Heat bounces off the walls, the pavement, the cars. When you step inside, the blast of cold air feels good for a minute or two… until it doesn’t. Indoors it gets chilly. So people are walking around in this remarkable heat with sweaters or long sleeves.
Also, these aren’t ordinary city blocks. It takes me 15 to 20 minutes to walk to the convention center from my hotel, which is only two blocks to the south and two blocks to the east… and it’s another 10 minutes from one end of the convention center to the other. If I need to be at the far end of the convention center by 7:00 I have to leave the hotel at 6:35… and catch the lights.
I’m assigned to the Committee for the Confirmation of the Presiding Bishop, and all this committee must do is make sure the election goes well. It occurs to me that it could do its work in about half the time. It’s an important committee, but until Saturday, when the new Presiding Bishop is elected, it’s just a lot of talking.
Thursday, June 25
The convention finally starts—officially—though people have been here for days, and our committee has met several times. Breakfast in the lobby of the hotel looks like coffee hour at an Episcopal church. St. Marriott in the Desert!
All the orders mix together. No one seems to notice who’s a bishop, priest, deacon, or lay. We’re all together, and we’re all over the place—a thousand of us in about a half mile radius and we’ve pretty much taken over the hotels and restaurant,s and of course the convention center. We make instant friends with each other in lines with only the barest thread of connection.
By necessity all the meetings are held in massive rooms with 30 foot ceilings, no windows, and breezy air conditioning. If the lights are lowered the rooms have all the ambience of a cave. If I had to work here, I would bring in Becky Schenone. She and I would have the ceilings draped in fabric before you could say “Hang it up!”
I’m sent to assist the Marriage Committee at their hearing in the evening. It’s a mixed crowd. Most are in favor of marriage equality but two or three speak against, one of whom managed to speak against though insisting he was for it. People are polite, almost apologetic, as they make their statements.
Salt Lake City is thrilled to have us here because of the booze sales. The city government is now about 50 percent non-Mormon, and this changes things drastically.
Episcopal signs are everywhere. Even on the Rite Aide two blocks away and on the hotels’ signs!
Friday, June 26
I keep reminding myself of the people who are unhappy about the Supreme Court rulings, especially when it occurs to me that this week might be one of those weeks where we all look back and think that this may have been a moment when this country moved closer to the kingdom of God. But I am praying for the people who feel frightened and angry and left behind by what is happening. It’s so much, so fast, so big, so different!
Saturday, June 27
A big day. At the end of a big week.
At the election of a new Presiding Bishop secrecy is a big deal, and once someone is elected there will be picture-taking and celebrating for close to an hour before the results are announced. How to keep a roomful of bishops from sending a quick text or email to a wife or friends? It’s a new problem.
The bishops meet for the election at a church a few blocks from the Convention Center.
We are all waiting for the bishops to choose a new PB and send word over word to the committee I work for. My committee then confirms (hopefully!) the election and sends the name to the House of Deputies where they ratify the choice. For the committee, this is our big moment.
At our meeting room a lovely, suspicious security person named Nikki checks my credentials carefully before allowing me in. And then together we crawl around under the skirted tables and behind the curtains looking for people and then under everything for electronic bugs. Apparently, some people really want to know who the PB is before everyone else. Is there a betting pool I don’t know about?
Most people seem to think the new Presiding Bishop will be elected on the first ballot, which means the wait should be short. And mercifully it isn’t too long before Nikki smiles, presses the headphones to her ear just a little harder, and then says, we have a new PB. Nikki and I are two of the first people to know. Michael Curry… yes!
And the riot erupts—excitement and jubilation. People are overjoyed. It’s as if we are greeting a returning hero. Alexander would not have been disappointed when returning from war with the greeting Michael Curry receives on his arrival.
It had been a 14-hour day for me when I heard the chair say she was closing the hearing to outsiders, including legislative aides. It’s still light at 9:00 pm as I walk back to the hotel. And 89 degrees.
Sunday, June 28
I have lunch with an ordained women’s group called “Breaking the Glass Ceiling.” Formed by our diocese’s Canon of the Ordinary, Stefani Schatz, it’s meant to support women who wish to become bishops in the Episcopal Church, an order where women are underrepresented. Though I have no call to be a bishop, I do want to support my sisters, and it is a rich experience.
The “California Evening” that everyone talks about is fun and the food is fab. Even Paul and Michael Barlowe show up.
As I’m walking back to the hotel later, it is still in the 90s at 9:00 pm. I come across “Bethlehem” and his family outside the gelato place, with cups of luscious creamy gelato in their hands. We catch up on our various adventures. I notice for the first time that when I speak, the father speaks under his voice, oh so softly, to his wife, who looks at me sweetly but remains expressionless. It occurs to me—finally—that he is translating the whole conversation. Their energy is so sweet. They are leaving Tuesday, and we must see each other again before they go.
Searing. I cannot think of a better way to describe the heat. It truly sears into one’s skin.
Monday, June 29
What day it is!
At 7:30 am I am at a blindingly boring meeting where they are wordcrafting a resolution. They are going back and forth over two sentences. Now they are wondering how it will be if they take out the word by. Eventually they have tortured the words enough and call it quits just at the same moment as a friend comes to drag me out to breakfast.
And then back to sitting in more meetings, and greeting more people.
Tuesday, June 30
I make it to the big hall just in time to say farewell to the Bethlehem family before they leave for the Middle East. We have our picture taken together, they give me a small bracelet off their table as a gift, and then they’re gone, back to their dangerous home. I’ll have to think about visiting.
I have already been to one meeting where I was to assist with large group, then planted in a meeting space where they need help, and then dragged out to a large meeting where they need a calming presence. I exude calm for the rest of the morning. It helps to have some email and catch up on Facebook.
I can also practice quiet coughing. At first, I thought this cough was dehydration, but now I’ve noticed lots of us have it and people blame the air quality outside. It is funky out there. When I can get to a place where there’s an unobstructed view of the mountains—not easy from downtown—the mountains are floating in a purplish brown haze. It’s that “inverse bowl” thing that keeps the pollution from blowing to somewhere else.
Wednesday, July 1
Paul and I take coffee to Michael Barlowe—the big cheese. We are admitted to the presence and we talk of how remarkable it is to have the convention move from being completely dependent on paper in 2012 to being paperless in 2015, going from one century to the next in just three years. There’s talk of what to do differently in 2018 when the convention is in Austin.
Thursday, July 2. Dawn.
The sky is filled with cotton ball clouds tinged with purple and pink and it’s not too hot just yet. It’s a good way to leave. I am so ready to go home!