An Interview with Br. Keith Nelson:
You went to Navajoland this summer; how and why did this come about?
This opportunity came about as a direct invitation from our diocesan bishops in Massachusetts, for me to participate in a new component of formation for ordinands that will take effect in 2024, a period of cross-cultural ministry. Though I was ordained a transitional deacon in June of this year, they asked that I also participate. It’s aimed at building deep relationships and facilitating essential hard conversations about race. It asks white ordinands in particular to immerse themselves in the experience of church communities who are majority Black, brown, or indigenous within the Episcopal Church.
I spent some real time in prayer about it, and the prompting that emerged from the Spirit was a strong desire to spend time learning from and collaborating with Native Christians. I returned to our bishops, and we began a conversation from that request.
I have been moved and troubled by the histories of indigenous peoples, Christian missionaries, and the Doctrine of Discovery since first learning about it as a teenager. Those feelings and thoughts have been reignited in the past several years. A passionate spiritual need to enter true intimacy and synergy with the entire creation has been forming my sense of priestly calling. That has found intersection with deepening care and concern about those who have, historically, centered their whole way of life upon that intimacy and synergy: the indigenous peoples of this continent. Finally, within the last year I read the book Unsettling Truths, co-authored by Mark Charles, who is Diné (Navajo) and a Christian Reformed pastor. I wept and sometimes screamed in outrage and, by the end of the book, was convinced I needed to seriously ask: What is the invitation in the midst of this anger and sadness? Then this opportunity came along.
When I was a young chorister in my parish, I became fascinated by the church’s history and very caught up in its worship. Although only half aware of it at the time, I do remember being very drawn to images of monastics as depicted in books or films. When my brothers and I would play together, they’d always want to be the knights, and me the friar! Also early on, growing up on Nantucket Island, I became aware of a contemplative component to my emerging personality. I spent much time on my own, in solitude and communing with God in nature. Often I had a sense that I was being called to a different kind of life. And hearing the gospels, I knew that Jesus invited people to a different way of being in the world, renouncing individualism and violence, and dedicated to community and mutual love.
When did you first begin to have a sense of your vocation?
Even as a little kid, I somehow or other knew that I wanted to be a priest. I used to have a very dark blue wool dressing gown, which I would wear backwards as I wandered around the house pretending to be Mr. Pasterfield, the rector of our parish. I couldn’t have been more than maybe six or seven years old. I remember saying to my mum, down in the laundry room, “When I grow up I want to be like Mr. Pasterfield.” So, from childhood, I always felt attracted to the priesthood, and that attraction never really went away.
My awareness of the religious life came a bit later. While I knew that there were nuns in the Anglican Church – in fact I’d been taught nursery school by a sister of the Sisterhood of Saint John the Divine (SSJD) – it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I learned that there are monks in the Church as well. I learned that through an advertisement in our church newspaper for a summer vocations program at SSJE’s Mission House in Bracebridge. Though I ended up not being able to attend that program, I finally made it to Bracebridge for a reading week when I was at university. During that initial visit, I was really drawn by the silence, the prayer, and the worship. I came away from that first experience thinking, “I could do this.”
When I was a seminarian at Sewanee, my liturgics professor, Marion J. Hatchett, was the chair of the text committee for The Hymnal 1982, and since I didn’t know that this was the sort of committee to which one was appointed – in all my experiences of committees to that point volunteers were welcome – I approached him and said, “I hear that you’re on the text committee; I’d like to work on that.” Fortunately, he did not tell me that I was an upstart (he likely assumed that, as a PhD in English, I would at the very least know how to punctuate). Instead he said to me, “Well, actually, we’re having a meeting in Nashville in a few weeks. Why don’t you come along and see what you think.” Of course, what was really happening was that they were seeing what they thought of me. Apparently, I was not completely useless, since they invited me to keep coming. Bit by bit, I’d help out with the revision of a few lines, then a stanza here, a paraphrase there. The first time I wrote a hymn on my own was because we had the tune Bridegroom by Peter Cutts, but found that the old words were just not salvageable. So I was asked to write a hymn text to fit that tune. The resulting hymn was “Like the Murmur of the Dove’s Song” – my first hymn. That’s how it transpired that I worked my way up from revisions to paraphrases to hymns of my own.