by Jason Ciarlante
I am a 40-year-old Sicilian Methodist born, raised, and residing in Staten Island, New York. Being Sicilian I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church, but was saved and called to serve in the United Methodist Church.
So I left behind aspirations of law school, supported my wife’s medical career, and became a stay-at-home father for our two boys, Jason and Joshua. I have recently earned my master of divinity degree from Drew Theological School and am seeking to become a certified candidate within the New York Annual Conference toward deacon’s orders.
I have served as a youth pastor for a year at Vincent United Methodist Church in Nutley, New Jersey, and am currently enrolled in a yearlong clinical pastoral education residency at Eger Rehabilitation and Nursing Home, Staten Island, earning my last three credits toward board certification as a chaplain.
It was in these last two years of chaplaincy that I came to the realization that the deacon track reflected a genuine response to my calling. My growing theology of grace and mission in the world are fully actualized for me in the coupling of the diaconal walk and my work as chaplain. One of the revelations that helped bring this surety to fruition was my love of something very dear to Wesleyan methodology: small groups.
Young Adults: For Us—By Us
My time as a youth pastor at Vincent helped me see this more clearly. As the first youth pastor this church I wanted to build on the group’s already solid foundation. They were eight to ten youth, ages thirteen to sixteen, who attended every Sunday with their parents. I wanted to understand the spiritual and emotional context of this group. I began with a series of questions to get honest answers for how they felt about church: what they liked and disliked, what they would change and why. This gave me a better understanding of where these youths “were” within their own spiritual walks.
Three things were blazingly clear by their answers. First, they found it hard to relate to anything in what they referred to as “their parents’” church. Second, the church itself wasn’t really speaking to them, or at least not speaking their language. Last, if they could change anything, it would be the music and the atmosphere.
I found an empty room in the building that we cleaned and painted. We took old couches we found around the church and created a lounge-type ambiance. Here I invited the youth to create their own space for worship and devotion. The name For Us—By Us was inspired by the popular FuBu clothing line.
At a For Us—By Us gathering, one youth brings in a Bible passage and another brings in a song that they connect with. The only requirement was they had to really feel that song; other than that, they could bring ANY song. The group would each read the biblical passage one at a time and then say what they heard, what they felt, and what they found interesting. Then, the youth who brought a song would briefly explain why they picked it and how they felt about it. Then we all would listen to it. Again, we would each talk about what we heard and how we felt. In this way we heard the scripture and music communally, but each of us was then able to say how it affected them individually as well. This is important because it gave each of them a chance to express themselves and be heard.
This created genuine opportunities for them to identify with each other on a deeper, peer-to-peer level. It offered me the chance to more practically apply the scripture to the context of their lives, thus connecting the practical reality they face every day with our scared text. Many of them would often say later that it was in that connection that they found meaning, hope, and a way to express their faith in a more genuine way. Working with these young adults is something that I will never forget.
Men’s Cigar-Shop Ministry
While serving as a youth pastor I became increasingly aware that I was always seeing and talking with mothers. Where are the fathers, I wondered?
I began by telephoning the fathers. Many replied that they were simply too busy on Sunday mornings with work, leisure activities, or other things. All of them, when pressed, admitted that Sunday worship just wasn’t for them: they did not feel at home there and preferred other ways to find fellowship and connect with the Spirit. Most of these other ways were secular activities that had potential for a deeper, more spiritual atmosphere. Yet rarely did anyone see it that way. In fact, many of them get more spiritual nourishment from the comradery and companionship that comes with activities like meeting at a local cigar shop to have a smoke with good friends.
This gave me the idea to start a men’s group Bible study at a nearby cigar shop. For these meetings I carefully selected Bible passages that would directly relate to and tease out many of the issues men face. Issues of love, sex, and violence, such as found in stories of the rape of Dinah, the Tamar and Judah story, Abraham in Egypt, as well as other scripture portions that are rarely discussed in congregational and other communal settings, as Prof. Danna Nolan Fewell noted in the syllabus for her course “Love, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Bible” at Drew Theological School. I envisioned a circle of comfortable chairs, a smoke-filled room, open Bibles and deep discussions about marital stresses, masculinity, and how men relate to their wives, children, each other, and God.
Many of our conversations at the cigar-shop Bible studies addressed the difficult topics that so many of our religious and political leaders keep pushing folks to have.
They talked about privilege, race, sex, and masculinity, all prompted by the Bible passages we read. The comfortable, masculine atmosphere of the location offset the usual discomfort that often accompany these sacred conversations. The collective trust and comfortable setting allowed the men to tolerate a lot of shared unease about such hard topics.
The men gathered twice monthly for the better part of year. Once we incorporated some locals from the shop, one of whom then came to church one Sunday.
Sinatra & Cannoli
Harbor House, the assisted-living facility related to Eger Nursing Home, asked me to begin a group for the male residents. After talking with many of the men I learned that a majority shy away from the usual bingo or craft activities. These just did not seem “manly” enough for them. I also discovered that a large Italian population resides here. Being Italian myself, I knew that two things are always beloved and never balked at by older Italian men: cannoli and Frank Sinatra.
I decided that the medium would be music, and specifically for this audience and context, Frank Sinatra. Sinatra songs have powerful narratives that touch on many of life’s practical issues. “I Did It My Way,” “That’s Life,” and “You’re Nobody Until Somebody Loves You” stir up questions and musings about life, faith, and meaning.
Usually, it would have been an uphill battle to get a group like this to discuss such topics. Here the music made space for them to acknowledge some of the 500-pound gorillas in the room. For example, “I Did It My Way” sparked confessions like “my divorce was probably my fault because I did things my way, the [man’s way], and that’s how I lost my wife.” This led to conversation on emotions, patriarchy, marriage, and compromise. “That’s Life,” which in its own way addresses theodicy and the reality of accepting life on life’s terms. The context was made more intimate and more comfortable by the cannoli I brought. This beloved Italian treat evoked a living-room, after-dinner atmosphere that many of them fondly missed.
In our second year we have moved onto other music they’ve suggested: songs that connect them to their wives, who have passed, or their childhood homes and the love they remember there. Some of these songs are from the 1920s and ’30s. When I find them on YouTube and play them, the emotional connection is so strong that many times we all simply just listen in silence or at times we weep together for the days that have gone by. Here, the spiritual awareness has comes in an appreciation of where they are within this life instead of being resentful and ashamed. Many of them have remarked that this group has given them perspective and on where they have come from, where they are going, and perhaps most importantly, where they are today.
The Power of Small Groups
The sense of community in each of these fellowships has shown me the power of small groups. The feeling of belonging and making genuine connections are miraculous. Here it’s OK to cry, laugh, and feel all the feelings that one might otherwise suppress. While in such a group, participants are free to be their genuinely broken but beautiful selves. Brene Brown says in her book on shame, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t) (Avery, 2007), “Where gratitude and appreciation live, shame cannot exist.” Furthermore, I believe that with a grateful and appreciative heart, anyone anywhere can open up to find a connection with God.
As a chaplain on the diaconal walk, I am called more and more to create sacred spaces outside the church walls for this very reason. In these moments in those shared sacred spaces I have witnessed endless possibilities to nudge the everyday stories of people’s lives into a deeper connection with God and our scripture.
Jason Ciarlante is pursuing certified candidacy toward deacon’s orders in the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.