Jeanne and Jackie in front of the Bosporus
“All will be well.”
– Reverend Jeanne Leinbach undergoing treatment for breast cancer 2015
Growing up, I never imagined I’d have close friends who are priests (pastors/rabbis/spiritual leaders). It’s not that I don’t like priests. The priest who married John and me, Father Brian Chabala, has been a family friend for years and showed me as a young woman that priests can have humanity and humor. But as a young girl growing up in the Catholic church, none of the priests were very…relatable. Old men who never had children have to work hard to relate to young girls; first, they have to want to. It didn’t seem to be part of the job description. I can’t say I was the best catechism student either. When it came time to make my confession in 4th grade, I was at the front of the line (benefit of the name Acho). The priest seemed to be expecting something. I said, “hi.” He asked how long it had been since my last confession. I must have missed the “forgive me, father for I have sinned, it has been X since my last confession…” lesson. I leaned in and whispered to him that the whole line of 4th graders behind me were newbies. I couldn’t believe no one had clued him in! Then, I proceeded to unburden my soul about fighting with my brother and peeing in the Gulf of Mexico (why did I think that was a sin?), said my Hail Mary’s, and was on my way. Listening to sermons didn’t stir my soul either. I just. Couldn’t. Relate. No offense to old men, but I wasn’t one. In many ways, I was more moved in the synagogues and by the bar/bat mitzvahs of my friends growing up. One of them, Francine Green Roston, even grew up to be a rabbi!
As an adult, I tried again, for the sake of our family. The miracle of our children being born was enough to bring me back to spiritual pursuits. We landed at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. A good compromise for a lapsed Catholic and grown-up Southern Baptist (John), with the incomparable Carnella Peck who immediately stole all of our hearts as the preschool teacher during services, giving us that peaceful hour every week. Also, St. Paul’s struck us as a more inclusive place. I was struck by beautiful Akua Saunders during a weekend seminar and have been nourished by that friendship ever since. St. Paul’s even had…wait for it….a woman priest as Associate Rector! Reverend Lisa Hackney was known for occasionally choking up during sermons, and I couldn’t have loved her more for it. She talked about being a woman in a patriarchal world, a mom, and a girl growing up. Finally, sermons came alive for me. The work of holding holy scriptures in one hand and the newspaper and our daily experiences in the other – trying to make sense of it all – was real. I was into it.
So into it, that I became a lector, a student then graduate of the 4 year Education for Ministry program through Sewanee University, a children’s Sunday school teacher, a vestry (Board) member, and then Senior Warden (chair of the Board) for 2 years, among other roles. When it was time to search for a new rector, I was on the committee. I got to see many, many priests with lots of different styles from around the country and the world. I was moved by these people who live in the place where humanity meets diving inspiration. I became aware of the challenges of leading churches and practicing spirituality in the messiness of human behavior and the reality of organizational hierarchies in which we humans find comfort, even as we strive for democracies. In all of that, we and our kids made deep and enduring friendships, many of which have sustained, comforted, and continue supplying us with endless prayers and encouragement during these last two years of our journey with ovarian cancer. But I grew most from more private journeys, including my relationship with our current rector/head priest.
When we were searching for a new rector, Reverend Tracey Lind, another friend from Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, took me by the hand at a national conference and introduced me to Reverend Jeanne Leinbach from Chicago. “All things being equal, we’d be thrilled to call the first woman to lead St. Paul’s,” said one rector search committee member. And we did.
When Jeanne arrived in 2015, she let me know that she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. She came anyway. She moved to Cleveland alone. An empty nester and single by then, she had no family in town. It was a brave thing to do. I accompanied her to doctors’ appointments, treatments, and surgery. Not all of them, but enough to see who she was and how she walked through these challenges. When she officially became the Rector of St. Paul’s, she stood at the front of a packed church with a bald head, beaming. When she came out of surgery, she cried, not from what had just happened to her body, but because she was so moved by all of the people praying for her. When I worried, she said, “all will be well.” No matter what happens. I never saw her faith waver, and it was one of the most inspiring currents to pass through my life. Her example meant so much to me then. “All will be well” applies to, well, everything, including the (in hindsight) relatively addressable challenges I was facing in my own life back then.
Fast forward to 2020, and it’s my turn to go through (ovarian) cancer…in a pandemic. Jeanne and I are friends with lots of shared personal and professional history. Her example means even more to me now. As a flawed human who can be distracted from that higher love from time to time (especially with severe pain), I have returned to her steadfast belief that “all will be well” as a mantra that brings me back to center, time and again.
So, it’s a great blessing to have her here in Istanbul this week (!) while John spends time at home with our kids (and Rocky :-). I’m an independent person who enjoys alone time, but the chemo + hyperthermia combo can be as draining as it is effective. It helps to have company. We’ve been walking, cooking, eating meals, talking, catching up, taking in the city, praying, and enjoying a nice meal out.
The intimacy and vulnerability of going through treatment with someone other than my husband are new. My body is not the same. I don’t look the same. I don’t feel the same as I did even 2 years ago. But some priests have the best, most comforting words – balm for the soul. I was ripe for a faith infusion. Oh, I never waiver in my belief that there is a higher power, but the day-to-day remembering that “all will be well” in the midst of the pain, discomfort, treatment, and the struggle of a difficult cancer… Well, I’m only human. We all are. It’s one thing to believe there is more than this life we experience daily; it’s another to feel it. To be comforted by the love of something so much bigger. That’s what enveloped Jeanne during her cancer journey. That’s what I witnessed. I can still access it on my own, but sometimes I forget and have to talk myself back into it. It sure helps to have a friend who is a priest remind me. Not so much with words as with her peaceful presence. This pandemic has kept many of us from gathering to reflect together on the Bigger Life, including me. The truth is we don’t need buildings so much as people. People who reflect that love.
I’ve always thought that G-d* speaks to me through people, if for no other reason than I’d be freaked out by a burning bush. I’m lucky to have relationships that give me glimpses of higher love and the peace of “heaven on earth,” starting with my husband and kids, radiating out from there.
Still, it’s special to spend time with a spiritual leader whose calling is to walk the line between humanity and that higher love. There is a lot to be learned by just resting in that example. Thanks to my friend Jeanne, I have this special calm in the eye of one of the most challenging storms of my life.
It’s so comforting.
The ultimate empathy.
Thanks to the Clergy, staff, and community of St. Paul’s, especially Gary Walters (her husband) for sharing Jeanne’s time with me!
*G-d is written this way out of respect for religions that hold this practice sacred.