A Leap into the Suffering, Sacramental World
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Mark 8:35
At 35, I took a leap of faith and started at YDS. I said goodbye to my career on Wall Street and my co-op apartment in Manhattan. I gave up a life of money, pressure, and prestige. Today I’ve mostly forgotten my life before the leap. I almost don’t remember that I found a church home—for the first time—only two years before seminary. Until 33, I had lived without the church.
We who have taken the leap of faith into ministry sometimes suffer from a lack of sacramental imagination. In our efforts to uphold the institutional sanctity of the sacraments, we fail to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch where God’s omnipresent grace is revealed in the world.
Today I look back and shake my head. How did I do it? Without a church home, how did I survive cut-throat, 80-hour work weeks? How did I overcome my self-hatred for being gay? How did I find comfort after the World Trade Center attacks without a Christ-centered community in which to pray and grieve and love and be loved?
Taking a leap into ministry changed my worldview. Now I can’t imagine life without the church. When I meet someone who has no church, I ask myself, “How can I help this person find one?”
Recently, though, I’ve been wondering if this worldview is too narrow. Instead I could ask, “How can this person help me find God … outside the church?”
We who have taken the leap of faith into ministry sometimes suffer from a lack of sacramental imagination. In our efforts to uphold the institutional sanctity of the sacraments, we lose what it means to be sacramental: that which offers an outward sign of an inward grace. We fail to see and hear and smell and taste and touch where God’s omnipresent grace is revealed to us in the world. In a mourning dove building a nest. In a bowl of lentil soup with a friend. In the shared laughter of an audience in an off-Broadway theater.
I’ve lately been questioning my too-narrow worldview because I am a queer Asian American pastor who has relocated out of the Northeast region familiar to me. After several unsuccessful church-related job searches elsewhere, I’ve had to let go of the expectation that I will find full-time employment in the church. Many congregations are open to hiring an Asian American straight person, or a white LGBTQ person, but not many are willing to employ full-time a queer Asian American. Needing a full-time job, I had to widen my search outside of church life.
Data Analysis, Gospel Work
What I found has surprised me. Today I work at a nonprofit law firm that serves people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles. I support attorneys and paralegals on a team that helps homeless veterans. Most of our clients live with mental illness, often caused by sexual trauma during their military service. My job sounds more interesting than it is. I analyze data for grant reports and I follow up on requests for military records that can support a veteran’s claim for disability benefits. The work is simple but needed.
As a pastor in New York City, when I met with a person experiencing homelessness, the most I offered was subway fare, a supermarket gift card, and a prayer. A prayer is priceless, but a prayer cannot guarantee the funds needed for stable housing and ongoing mental health care. My colleagues at the law firm help people living on the streets move into stable, long-term housing. Through this work outside the church, I am more directly living the Gospel, as defined in Matthew 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Freed to Follow Christ
Is this work a ministry? At first I troubled myself with the usual questions that leaders in the church like me ask: Does this position require a theological education? Does it involve administering the sacraments? As I’ve said, the daily work is simple. I crunch numbers and make phone calls. I don’t preach. I don’t lead people in prayers over bread and cup. The work is clearly not a church ministry. Yet I believe it is sacramental.
I trust I am answering the call of Jesus. I am confident I am living the Gospel. With this newfound vocational clarity, I’m no longer concerned whether my job meets a particular definition of ministry. I’m simply helping people get housed. God has freed me of the stumbling block of the church, which for me was getting in the way of the Gospel. I have been freed to follow Christ.
Fourteen years ago, I took a leap of faith. My new classmates at YDS did too. We each let go of our former lives and began a new life of learning, transformation, and service. I had assumed that a leap into ministry was a one-time requirement. Today I have learned to ask: How many times must we lose our lives for the sake of the Gospel? For me, twice so far.
I’ve let go of my former life, where my ministry in the church was my full-time job and identity. I grieve that loss. And I continue to honor my commitment as an ordained minister to build up and equip the church for ministry in the world. I guest preach and teach adult education in congregations. I serve on two faith-based nonprofit boards of directors. Of course, I’m tired at the end of a week from the patchwork of church gigs in addition to a full-time job. But I am enlivened—my life is restored—by the clarity of knowing how God is calling me to serve. Until the next leap.
Chad Tanaka Pack is a project coordinator at Inner City Law Center in Los Angeles, and a consulting minister at Middle Collegiate Church in New York City. He serves on the Yale Divinity School Alumni Board.