A conversation of recollections with Jerry Hames

Episcopal Life editor to retire after four decades as a religious journalist
May 9, 2007

He has logged four decades as a religious journalist. He has worked for three Presiding Bishops and has edited nearly 200 issues of Episcopal Life since 1990 (or, as it was known in the early years, The Episcopalian.) He has had a view of the Anglican Communion from both sides of the United States -- Canadian border.

He is Jerry Hames, the tireless, dedicated editor of Episcopal Life. After 17 years at the helm of the church's national, award-winning monthly newspaper, Hames announced his retirement, effective June 30. "I never, never, ever imagined that what was to be a short bout continued for 17 years," he shared through a big grin.

In a series of interviews over a few weeks, Hames revealed, shared and recalled some of the memorable people he has met, some of the great events he watched unfold, and some of the things that made indelible marks on his life. But mostly, he talked about the value of communication, and the impact that Episcopal Life has had implementing the mission of the Episcopal Church on a Christian life.

Hames has been a mentor and friend to many in the field as evidenced by his recent accolades. In April, he was honored by the Episcopal Communicators with the prestigious Janette Pierce Award, the highest award the organization bestows. Just days earlier, he was presented with an honorary life membership by the Associated Church Press and the Association of Denominational and Ecumenical Publications in North America.

Hames' legacy will continue well into the future. Canon Robert Williams, director of communication for the Episcopal Church, announced that the Episcopal Church Center's Office of Communication has established the Jerry Hames Scholarship for Multicultural Communication "to empower a communicator with bicultural or multicultural experience for work at the Church Center or in an Episcopal diocese to increase our multicultural competence as communicators."

Hames has had the rare privilege of closely witnessing and reporting on some of the most profound changes in the Anglican Communion. In his true understated manner, he noted, "It's been an interesting time. The job has been challenging, an exciting time for the church and therefore an exciting time for me."

After a thought he added, "I was swept up in the challenge."

Meet Jerry Hames
Most know Hames as an ever-calm presence, meeting every deadline and breaking news story with professionalism and determination.

Nonetheless he is also well-known as a welcoming person, with a ready grin that lights up his entire face. Tall, soft spoken, pensive with a smile that belies the intelligence that lies beneath, Hames is Canadian by birth and still has family in Canada. At 67 years old, he has lived in the United States since he assumed the position of editor, living in three different dioceses over 17 years. He has applied for American citizenship and lives in Plainsboro, New Jersey (Diocese of New Jersey) with his wife, Barbara. They attend Trinity Episcopal Church in Princeton.

Before his 17 years as editor of Episcopal Life, he served 22 years as editor of Canada's Anglican Journal (it was previously called Canadian Churchman, which Hames admits was "a bit sexist at that time").

Prior to that, Hames was the information officer for Anglican Church of Canada for four years. After university graduation, he was a reporter for three years at the Windsor Star. And then two years at the London (Ontario) Free Press.

Hames is a graduate of the University of Windsor with majors in English and History. "There wasn't any degree in journalism or communications back then," he chuckled.

'The Turning Point'
Although he was raised in the Anglican Church of Canada, Hames says he was attracted to the Episcopal Church when he was young. "I loved the incredible richness of the Episcopal Church," a theme he repeated during the interviews.

When he lived in Windsor, Ontario, Hames often made the short jaunt to Detroit, Michigan. "I remember hearing Malcolm Boyd read his poems in a coffee shop at Wayne State in Detroit," he said, caught up in a memory of that priest and author who wrote the critically acclaimed Are You Running With Me, Jesus?

Hames worked hard at both the Star and the Free Press, covering local and county news and eventually the religion beat, "which wasn't full time at either newspaper."

In remembering his days as a beat reporter, Hames looked wistfully away as he shared his "turning point."

"The turning point for me came when I was assigned to go to Selma and Montgomery Alabama to cover the march." The march, of course, was the history-making one led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for equal justice and an end to discrimination.

Canadian university students and interested people, he continued, organized a rally in Ottawa in 1963 in support of King and the civil rights movement underway in the United States. "I was not working at the Free Press that Saturday," he laughed, "so I got on a bus with students and the Anglican chaplain and went to Ottawa." It was a seven hour bus ride that would lead to a life-change for Hames.

His coverage and his photos of the Ottawa event landed on the front page of the London Free Press. "All this on the front page, and I really only went with the students because I had nothing else to do," he chuckled.

Five days later, three clergy -- two from the Anglican Church of Canada -- sponsored a fundraiser and raised $15,000 for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "Because I did the initial story, I was sent to Selma."

Upon arrival in Alabama, he and his photographer were unable to travel to their hotel because the major news services scoffed up all the rental cars. March organizers intervened, and the two were placed in private homes in Selma. "We were billeted in with people who were in the march," he said. "I met all kinds of people."

It was the people who made the lifelong indelible impression on him, living with them and experiencing their lives firsthand. He spent the next few days covering the march, and being greatly affected by the dedication and determination of those who were seeking justice.

Hames recalled, "It was thrilling and exciting to experience part of this country's growing up."

Covering the church
When he began reporting on the Episcopal Church from Canada, he recounted that many countries, such as Mexico, Philippines, Liberia, Brazil, which have since gained autonomy, were all a part of the Episcopal Church. "It was a diversity that could only be experienced in the United States," he recounted.

He shared some of the international experiences that also made indelible impressions on him. "One of my earliest trips to church overseas was to Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania," Hames relayed with enthusiasm. "The church struggling in Uganda under an authoritarian dictator who kept his eye on everything. I saw the church in Tanzania where the diocese had a peanut farm and was raising peanuts, which is a real staple crop, to help pay for training of clergy and the ministry that they were doing. It was a lesson to me about the self-sufficiency or partial sufficiency of churches overseas -- that they're not just sitting back wishing for money from North American or England."

Another memorable trip was to Lima, Peru "where I met with a group of Canadian and Anglican bishops who were preparing for Lambeth Conference -- an earlier one. In two or three days at Lima you could see the squalid poverty on the hillsides while people with money lived down below in walled compounds in safety. Ramshackle shacks going up the hill. It showed the tremendous work that had to be done to restore people's dignity and self–worth. And there was the church, working along side of the poor."

In a quiet voice, he shared, "Those were inspirational to me."

By the numbers
He's worked with three Presiding Bishops -- six years with Edmond Browning, nine years with Frank Griswold, and one year with Katharine Jefferts Schori. He states emphatically, "I'm sorry that I won't be able to serve the new PB more -- there is so much promise and excitement in the church now."

He edited and produced nearly 200 issues of Episcopal Life. "There were 120 issues in the first 10 years," he counted. "Then we went to 11 issues in a cost-cutting and cost-saving move. So that's 77 more."

And that doesn't include all the Convention Dailies he oversaw during the past six General Conventions.

He's covered 10 General Conventions for two Anglican Provinces. For the Episcopal Church: 2006 Columbus, Ohio; 2003 Minneapolis, Minnesota; 2000 Denver, Colorado; 1997 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 1994 Indianapolis, Indiana; 1991 Phoenix, Arizona. For the Anglican Church of Canada: 1988 Detroit, Michigan; 1985 Anaheim, California; 1979 Denver, Colorado, 1970 Houston, Texas.

His work for the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada has sent him traveling to five of the seven continents. Each journey resulted in news articles, reflections and a lot of memories.

At Episcopal Life
He is the first to point out that a lot has changed since he became editor. "It was then called The Episcopalian." Faxes were just coming into use, car phones weren't prevalent, and cell phones were still a bit in the future. Newspaper layouts were completed on boards; now they're computer-generated with little or no paper.

Today, Episcopal Life boasts 35 diocesan partners as wrap-arounds, up from 17 during the early part of Hames' tenure. And under an innovative new program, parishes with 1,000 or more households can print their monthly publication wrapped around Episcopal Life. There are three in this new model -- St. Mary's in Anchorage, Alaska, Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland and Church of Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Plus, in an effort to assist those diocesan newspapers which have redesigned into magazines, the national publication now offers six pages of "The Best of Episcopal Life." Right now there are two such contracts.

Even though these accomplishments and more occurred under his leadership, Hames shies away from the spotlight. He speaks glowingly of all the writers and photographers and columnists and staff with whom he has worked, repeatedly pointing out that, "It's a team effort."

He can't remember how many professional awards from various peer groups he or Episcopal Life has received for this work, reiterating, "It's been a team effort." (In 2005, Episcopal Life reported the number topped 191.)

He is very pensive when he talks about the newspaper, communications, and their effect on society. "The publication is really a community builder insofar as it informs people, it attracts new people, it enables growth and there is the exchange of ideas."

Things to be proud of
"I've had some really good times," he said. "The need for good communications is imperative for people to inform, educate and inspire. In particular, in writing stories about inner city parishes and in other countries has been important."

He cites the recent launch of Episcopal Life Online as "one of the most recent exciting things."

"There is no one-way to deliver communications to people," he stated. "The launch of Episcopal Life Online is a real milestone for church communications."

Hames also credits the expansion for new printing partners and the development of the weekly bulletin inserts.

"One of the things I am happy about in Episcopal Life in the print edition and Episcopal Life Online is the opportunity for spiritual reflection. I think that one of the neat things about the internet is that you can use it at any time for any particular purpose you might have in mind and for many people it is to stay connected and to know that other people are reading and dealing with the same thing."

A view of the church
Hames shared his feelings about the Episcopal Church and its place in the Anglican Communion. "One of the things I have been most proud about in this church and it has come back recently is the shared governance that clergy and laity have with bishops."

He continued, "I was always struck, even before I came to work here, about the shared responsibility for decision making. This has come back most recently with the House of Bishops' letter when they expressed to other Anglican churches in the communion that we have a shared a responsibility in governing the church. Not all clergy and lay people have that privilege in many churches in our own communion."

He was emphatic: "I have a real problem with some people in the Anglican Communion who say we should have a consensus before we all move forward. They are talking about the sexuality issue today. If we waited for consensus, we would not have women in the priesthood today. We would not have a woman who is our Presiding Bishop today. It would not have happened."

"Sometimes in good faith, you have to step out and lead. And I think the Episcopal Church and the Canadian church and some others, such as South Africa, are taking the lead in this current issue of sexuality."

People he'll never forget
Of all the people he has met, who does he name as his most memorable person? After considerable thought, his eyes cleared and he declared, "Mother Teresa. Because of her humility, her good works, coupled with her humility. And the work that her order continues to do in her name. She gave them sustained leadership so that, even after her passing, they were able to continue to do that work."

But he's not limited to only one memorable person. "There are Anglican leaders who most impressed me," he stated. "People who fought against apartheid. Trevor Huddleston. Beyers Naude, a layman who worked in the Council of Churches in South Africa and was on the front line. Desmond Tutu. Colin Winter, who was bishop of Namibia. These were all Anglicans. Trevor and Colin were British, but they in mindset were with the South African people. Their skin was white, but their message was black, their thoughts were black and when they talked, they stirred emotions within and were forceful thinkers. Like the leaders of the civil rights in the south, they were strong leaders and churches elsewhere listened to them when they spoke."

Of the role that the Anglican Communion played in fighting apartheid: "The churches here in North America went to shareholders meetings to represent the Anglican Church. As a result, they caused some changes in investments in South Africa at the time. So the Anglican Church's influence in the South African apartheid struggle was strong. "

He added, "It made me proud to be an Anglican."

The most difficult
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Hames admitted, "One of the most difficult stories to cover -- and it always hits home when you have to deal with betrayal -- was the occasion in 1994 with the embezzlement of $2.2 million in church funds by the former treasurer (Ellen Cooke). Because it had a lasting impact on the mission budget of the national church, it rightly or wrongly cast a shadow on the national church and it affected the morale of the national staff that lasted for three to four years."

He was one of the lead reporters in the church press on the Cooke story. "I was on a trip with Presiding Bishop Browning and (House of Deputies President) Pam Chinnis in the Diocese of Nevada when we received the call."

He spoke haltingly when he talked about those dark times.

"When something happens inside, it has a lasting effect," Hames said. "Working relationships, especially in non-profits or charitable organizations, are built on trust. When you don't have trust, you really don't have much to work with."

Hames agreed that it took a long time for people to recover from the incident. "It affected people's work, it affected the mission of the church, it affected the budget, and the overseas work the church was doing."

His voiced filled with sadness. "I can't think of anything as disappointing as that. It impacted the whole middle part of that decade – the 1990s."

But, he quickly added, "Trust and health has been restored. We have new leaders."

What now?
Hames won't be sitting idle in retirement. In fact, he's got lots of plans. First, he'll continue with what he does so well – writing. "There's no plan for a book, but I'm a fan of short stories and I would like to spend some time in retirement writing profiles on people, not fiction. Some in-depth look at some of the very interesting people who come through the Princeton area for theological study or theological inquiry reflection. Princeton is a hotbed of religion and it's difficult to escape religion in the Princeton area with the university and the seminary."

Thanks to his hectic, deadline-driven schedule, Hames hasn't had a chance to do much personal reading, and that's next on his list of things to do. "It's going to be a little adventure to determine what I will read in retirement," he laughed. "What I'm reading now are books for consideration for review by Episcopal Life and other topical things. There really hasn't been a lot of time for relaxation reading."

He would like to "take a good serious look at some historical books from the area where we live right now. I appreciate history."

And, there is a vacation – "a real vacation" he inserts -- in July to the Pacific Northwest and Vancouver. His plans for this trip are to expand on one of his passions that was reflected in the pages of Episcopal Life.

"One of the really interesting things that I have been able to do with the art and soul section of the paper is to highlight some Episcopal artists, painters, sculptors, people who have designed interiors of churches for specific events with banners and artwork. I'm going to be visiting a couple of those and write about them."

He continued, "Art and sculpture has contributed so much to the richness of our liturgy. And with the formation of the Episcopal Church Visual Artists (ECVA) it's brought new visibility to the role that arts play in our liturgy."

He's not a member of ECVA -- at least not yet. "There's been a principle involved in not joining any organization. I think if you join an organization people have an expectation that the group will get frequent coverage. As a matter of principle I have not joined any church group because I think the perception of impartiality is very, very important. I think it's important to not get into public perception that you're playing favorites."

But in the coming years, "I have a spiritual side and I'm looking to deepen that spiritual side in retirement," he said. "I want more time for reflection that I haven't had time to do."

His legacy
Many will remember him as a friend, colleague, mentor, editor, ever-vigilant reporter, professional, writer, etc. While people will remember Hames with their own memories, how would he want to be remembered?

"I hope that one of the things I was able to do in my years in religious journalism is to write some stories that would inspire people to let them know that the church was working beside the poor, the marginalized."

And that's quite a legacy.

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