Lesbian woman goes from singing liturgical music to becoming priest
West Pittston, Pa. (AP) — Throughout her life, the Rev. Rebecca A. Barnes heard a calling to God.
Until her 30s, she answered with a song. Today, she answers with a sermon.
The Rev. Barnes, a West Pittston native, earned the role of priest in charge at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, 232 Wyoming Ave. this past November, after serving at Holy Trinity Church, Inwood, in New York City since 2013.
During her first service at St. Luke's on Thanksgiving Day, after 32 years away from the area, she told those in attendance of her happiness to be back and serving the area she calls home.
"I said, 'My roots are deep and I've never forgotten my roots,'" recalled the Rev. Barnes — known to parishioners as "Mother Barnes" — during a recent afternoon in her office inside the church. Her family has lived in the area since Revolutionary War time, she noted.
Roots run deep
Now a Throop resident, she even delivered The Tribune newspaper during the time she and her family lived in Dalton while she was growing up.
These deep roots in Northeast Pennsylvania have always closely intertwined with the Rev. Barnes' music and faith.
Many members of her family were musicians. The Rev. Barnes' great-grandfather was a music teacher and choir director in Hughestown. And while some members of the family were employed in the medical field, time was always made for music.
The Rev. Barnes took piano lessons as child, taught herself how to play guitar and played clarinet in school band.
Church also was an important part of the Rev. Barnes' early life. Coming from a family with Methodist and Baptist origins, she said she was very involved in church. She sang in the choir at her family's church, First United Methodist Church in West Pittston.
Throughout her youth, she found herself drawn toward singing.
The Rev. Barnes said singing liturgical music was what her voice was best suited for, but it also combined that love of music and faith.
"For me there was a very sacred connection in music," she said.
The Rev. Barnes knew at that time she wanted to share the beauty and the love of God with those around her. To her mind, there was no better way to do that then to use her God-given gift — her singing voice. With that, she headed toward a career as a performing artist.
After graduating from Wyoming Area Secondary Center, the Rev. Barnes earned a bachelor's degree in music and German from Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. She went on to attend Hartt School of Music at University of Hartford in Connecticut and earned a master's degree in vocal performance from the Manhattan School of Music in New York City.
Raising her voice
After earning her degrees, she worked as a church musician, including cantor work and being a soloist for oratorio societies and vocal ensembles in New York City. While still performing, the Rev. Barnes took a job as assistant director of admissions at Manhattan School of Music and then worked in the university placement division of the Institute of International Education, finding grant recipients for visual and performing arts programs around the country.
A Roman Catholic for nearly half of her life at that point, she then turned to the Episcopal Church.
"(The Episcopal Church was) a place that was kind of a perfect blend of my family heritage's and sacramental tradition that is so important to me," the Rev. Barnes said.
Some time after joining the Episcopal Church, she heard a call to ministry. A call that she said was probably there throughout most of her life, though she didn't recognize it.
"The profound love of God that we know in coming together and sharing in the life of the church, I felt deeply drawn and called to," the Rev. Barnes said. "And that's what lead me to answering a call to the priesthood.
"When you look back at your life, you see a thread all the way through."
This was a real possibility for her, since the Episcopal Church allows women to be priests, a movement that started during the 1970's.
Though the Episcopal Church shares similarities of both Catholic and Protestant religions, it also has its share of differences.
For one, the United States Episcopal Church broadly accepts same-sex marriages.
The Rev. Barnes and her wife, Elizabeth Grohowski, have been together for 28 years. When New York passed the Marriage Equality Act in 2011, she and her wife were legally married. From there, the two had their marriage blessed by the church.
The Rev. Barnes acknowledged that there's ongoing challenge and discussion on the matter internationally. In light of Anglican leaders temporarily suspending the U.S. Episcopal Church from full participation in the Anglican Communion due to the American church's stance on same-sex marriage, the Rev. Barnes shared the sentiments made by Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, to her congregation last week. Prior to the decision being handed down, Bishop Curry promised "our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture." The Bishop has since expressed disappointment in the suspension, though the Rev. Barnes insisted it will not affect the church's outreach.
"We've not been kicked out and we're not walking away," the Rev. Barnes added.
On a local scale, St. Luke's remains committed to provide sanctuary to anyone who wants to worship or deepen their relationship with God.
"As far as I'm concerned, this is an inclusive parish," the Rev. Barnes said. "And everyone is welcome."
Walking with people and deepening their faith is the Rev. Barnes' passion. She focuses on social justice ministry and outreach, pastoral care and contemplative spirituality and prayer.
She said contemplative prayer at its core is rooted in Psalm 46, "Be still and know that I am God." She will lead a workshop on centering prayer, a form of contemplative prayer, during Lent, open to anyone who would like to attend.
"We live in a very chaotic kind of world, bombarded with information" she said. "But often don't take time to sit and really listen."
Just as the Rev. Barnes is glad to be back in the area, St. Luke's is glad to have her.
Parish secretary Bonita Ferguson has worked at the church since 2008. She started shortly after the former rector, the Rev. Peter D. D'Angio was priest in charge. After the Rev. D'Angio's departure in 2012, Ferguson saw over a dozen supply clergy serve the parishioners. Ferguson said when the Rev. Barnes arrived in November, it was a breath of fresh air.
"She brought enlightenment and is looking ahead," Ferguson said. "Her fit here is a good fit. She's more shepherding."
While she arrived in the middle of busy preparation for Christmas, which Ferguson pointed out only just begins for the church on December 25, the Rev. Barnes is now starting to meet with parishioners one-on-one to communicate. Ferguson said the Rev. Barnes is open to conversation and the exchange of ideas.
"I don't see any obstacles standing in her way," Ferguson said.
The Rev. Barnes' background suits St. Luke's heavy involvement in the local art community, as well. As a participating venue for First Friday Art Walks and host to musical performance groups like Lyric Consort, Arcadia Chorale and Classical Guitar Society, St. Luke's has established itself as an artistic asset and viable venue in Scranton.
"The arts and music, it all can play such a profound part in the spiritual life," the Rev. Barnes said.
It's easy for her to recognize the important connection between art and faith. After all, she is living proof of it.
While she doesn't get a chance to perform like she used to, the Rev. Barnes still finds a way to combine the two things she loves.
Every Sunday morning, she chants the service, something she to refers to as a "real joy."
"They say, 'Those who sing pray twice,'" the Rev. Barnes said, referencing a quote attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo. "That's a quote I love and appreciate very much."
Information from: The Times-Tribune, Scranton, PA.
By Gia Mazur, The (Scranton) Times-Tribune. Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
The Gayly – January 30, 2016 @ 6:50 a.m.