Episcopal churches put their hearts into Valentine’s Day

February 13, 2014
Tickie Shull, ECW president at Trinity Episcopal Church, Newark, Ohio (L) and Linda Dimon hold Valentine cookies to be taken to homebound parishioners. Bonnie John also participated in the effort as did Billie Richey who is holding Valentines cards by the Sunday School classes. Photo: Carol Morello/Trinity Episcopal Church

Tickie Shull, ECW president at Trinity Episcopal Church, Newark, Ohio (L) and Linda Dimon hold Valentine cookies to be taken to homebound parishioners. Bonnie John also participated in the effort as did Billie Richey who is holding Valentines cards by the Sunday School classes.
Photo: Carol Morello/Trinity Episcopal Church

[Episcopal News Service] If Valentine’s is a day for love, then Episcopal churches are spreading it around.

Like the “Have a Heart” fundraising campaign in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, for the Church of the Redeemer’s African Children’s Mission (ACM) ministry to Malawi.

Or the cookie outreach launched by the Episcopal Church Women at Trinity Church in Newark, Ohio — home-baked cookies for homebound seniors.

Couples are planning to renew their wedding vows at many Episcopal churches, including St. Alban’s Church in St. Pete Beach, Florida and at the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York City.

Trinity Church in Fort Worth is offering a free Parents Night Out and St. Stephen’s Church in Santa Clarita, California, crafted cards and heartfelt messages for local seniors and singles.

So, who was St. Valentine?
Given that the Roman Catholic Church in 1996 demoted his saintly status and the Episcopal Church recognizes others on Feb. 14 (saints Cyril and Methodius), it isn’t all that clear who St. Valentine or Valentinius actually was or why a day devoted to romantic love, roses and chocolates became his namesake, according to the Rev. Sam A. Portaro.

St. Valentine“There was possibly more than one character named Valentine,” according to Portaro, who retired in 2004 after 22 years as Episcopal chaplain at the University of Chicago.

Portaro’s Feb. 14 meditation in his “The Brightest and the Best” (Cowley Publications, 1998) companion reader to Lesser Feasts and Fasts, the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints doesn’t mention Valentine, but concentrates on Cyril and Methodius instead.

“Some people trace the influence of Chaucer as helping to elevate the prominence of Valentine, and associating him with love,” Portaro added. “In that period he is associated with courtly love which, as we know, is a very romantic view of love that’s not grounded in reality.”

The Rev. Tim Schenck agreed. “It’s, frankly, a bit odd that love is celebrated on a day named for St. Valentinus,” said Schenck, rector of St. John the Evangelist Church in Hingham, Massachusetts.

“If you want to celebrate Valentine’s Day with authenticity, try dressing up for your romantic dinner as the martyred saint,” said Schenck who has been known to reflect about the holy ones in annual Lent Madness “saintly smackdown” he helps run, set to resume March 6, where viewers pick their most favorite saints.

“Or perhaps just stick with chocolate and roses and tell your beloved about Saints Cyril and Methodius – the 9th century missionaries to the Slavs whom the Episcopal Church actually commemorates on February 14th,” he added.

Some traditions identify Valentine as a priest; others, a bishop. “Most of them tend to center on a character who lived in the 3rd century and was around under the persecution of Emperor Claudius II and there are stories of his martyrdom and his life tends to have been centered largely around Rome,” Portaro said.

He compared ninth century Russian brothers Cyril and Methodius, missionaries in the area that became Czechoslovakia who invented the Cyrillic alphabet and made liturgy and worship available in the language of that region, to modern-day Canadian brothers Alexandre and Frederic Bilodeau.

Alexandre Bilodeau, who won the gold medal in freestyle skiing Feb.10 at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia,

Saints Cyril and Methodious

Saints Cyril and Methodious

dedicated the victory to his older brother Frederic who has cerebral palsy, Portaro said.

“They’re such an icon of genuine love, the kind of love that we really do want to lift up and celebrate, a kind of selfless love of one human being for another,” he said. He noted that “Alex clearly and openly identifies his older brother Frederic as his hero.”

He said that the two brothers “exhibit such a beautiful example of the kind of love we should have for all of our relationships but especially in marriage” and that the missionaries Cyril and Methodius’ selfless work “is far more representative of the kind of love we want to lift up within the Christian community than any of the mythologies associated with Valentine.”

Bryn Mawr: ‘Have a Heart’ campaign for AIDS orphans
Since Julie Williams has a heart for helping children orphaned by AIDS in the African nation of Malwai, she hopes others will, too.

This Valentine’s weekend, she helped to launch an appeal to raise money for the African Children’s Ministry (ACM) of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

For example, a mere $10 will provide a year’s worth of school supplies for two children orphaned by AIDS. There are an estimated 550,000 orphans in Malawi, according to the fundraiser flyer.

Just $75 treats one hundred pregnant women for malaria at the Global AIDS International Alliance (GAIA) mobile health clinics. GAIA is a parent organization of the ACM.

And for the $160 investment of paying the room and board of a nursing scholar, the returns are amazing—increased healthcare capacity in the AIDS-challenged country.

“Our fundraiser just happened to crop up at about the right time and we thought it was a natural, an easy message to have a heart and give at this time,” Williams told ENS.

Throughout the year, the ACM committee also organizes trips to Malawi and other fundraisers, including for a “GOT GOAT” food empowerment project, said the Rev. Stephen Billings, who convenes the ministry.

The ACM involves an ongoing relationship with an exchange of people between the U.S. and Malawi, Billings said.

The ministry has been incorporated as Sunday school lessons “and demonstrating how assisting the needs of the children of Malawi and their families relates to the millennium development goals,” Billings said.

“What we’re talking about, when we talk about sending Valentines to Malawi, is medical packs, bike ambulances, children’s feeding programs and school scholarships, malaria nets and other related services for the well-being and the stability of families with a priority on children who are already orphans who are at risk,” he said.

“We’re talking about training nurses; there’s a dearth of nurses. GAIA has a program for scholarships and support for several generations of nurses trained primarily in Malawai, but several are trained in this country.”

Billings said he’s also known as “the goat man” because he gives a token plastic goat to donors as a reminder to people of gifts to Malawi.

Fort Worth: a ‘Valent-erific’ night out for parents and in for their children
Erin Martin said she and her husband Josh don’t get many nights out and so she was really excited when she learned that Trinity Church in Fort Worth was offering a free Parents Night Out for Valentine’s Day.

“My kids really like it there,” she said of the church. “They enjoy the programs and feel comfortable and we feel comfortable leaving them, so I was excited that we could all be part of it without anyone being mad. The kids were happy and we were happy,” said the stay-at-home mom with three children, aged 4, 8, and 10.

Kimberly Cooper, the church’s children’s ministry coordinator, said 30 children are signed up so that, while their parents get a night out on the town, they’ll have a fun night in of their own.

The idea for the event all came about “when we realized that Valentine’s Day was on a Friday. We thought, wouldn’t it be great to give parents the night out?” recalled Sarah Martinez, church communications coordinator.

The evening starts at 5:30 p.m. and will include games, a condensed Godly Play lesson about God’s love for all creation, and an opportunity to make heart-shaped bird feeders by mixing gelatin and birdseed, Cooper said. “They’ll be able to take them home and hang them outside to feed the birds,” she said.

The event, also an outreach to the church’s preschool families and promises to be “a Valentin-terific evening for all,” Martinez said.

As for Martin, “we’re going to try and go out to dinner,” she said. “We don’t get many nights out, not just for fun. We have people we can ask to watch our kids but we use that up on things that we have to do. This is more like something we get to do. We can go and spend time and enjoy ourselves and I don’t feel like I’m inconveniencing anyone.

“We really enjoy the program,” she said, adding “it’s a good service to the community.”

Cookies and Cards, oh my!
This year, Tickie Shull and other Episcopal Church Women members at Trinity Church in Newark, Ohio weren’t content with just baking dozens of sugary treats with lots of pink icing and tasty sprinkles; they made their annual Valentine’s Day outreach a multigenerational effort.

“Our Sunday school kids made cards that are as cute as can be,” Shull told ENS. “They have Valentine spelled out vertically and then it’s says John 3:16 horizontally. And they put a special message inside: ‘from the Trinity children. You are so loved. Happy Valentine’s Day.’”

The handmade cards go with the homemade heart-shaped cookies that go to housebound seniors who seldom, if ever, get to church, she said. “It’s just been something that’s been appreciated and it’s been fun to do.”

“And, it’s always a team effort,” Shull said. “It’s a joy. We like our ministries. We just want to spread the love. Valentine’s Day is all about love, right? Well, that is what we are trying to do, to just spread it around.”

Similarly, Kimberlee Bridgeford got together with a couple of other parishioners at St. Stephen’s Church in Santa Clarita, California to make about 130 Valentine cards “for shut-ins and single people and senior citizens and newcomers.

A scrapbooker, it was second nature for Bridgeford to amass ribbons and stickers and rubber stamps and three-dimensional lace, and all the accoutrements for fancy embossed cards and heart-felt messages. She worked with Rosa Holdredge and Wendy Rickman on decorative cards, bookmarks and envelopes.

“We did them all by hand and then we had another 70 that we embellished and put bookmarks in. We gave those to the Canterbury Village retirement home adjacent to the church property, for the residents,” she said.

Bridgeford said she began the practice after her own mother passed away two years ago. She missed receiving her mom’s card, Bridgeford recalled.

“One parishioner told me she hadn’t received a Valentine since she was in grade school and she’s 70 years old,” Bridgeford told ENS. “Everyone needs to feel loved and thought of. We want them to know we do care, that this is not just a Hallmark holiday. This is letting people know we care about them.”

Now, mission accomplished, all the cards done and in the process of being delivered, she reflects. “We had a wonderful time. And I can’t wait to find out what everybody felt when they got their cards.”

Each card is unique and “every one is made with love,” she added.

Vows renewed, deeper, stronger love
Ernie McKenzie, 72, says the idea of renewing their vows has always appealed to him and his wife Anna, 71. After 17 years of marriage they will join other couples at 6 p.m. on Valentine’s Day at St. Alban’s Church in St. Pete Beach in southwest Florida for vows, snacks and champagne.

“It’s a way to not necessarily rekindle but to relive those same feelings and what they meant to us back then, and now, and hopefully will mean the same forever,” he said.

Similarly, in New York City, at least a dozen couples will gather at 6:30 p.m. at the Church of the Heavenly Rest for what the Rev. Matthew Heyd, rector, is calling “a short service of thanksgiving and renewal of marriage vows” open to the community and followed by a champagne reception in the narthex.

“It’s a wonderful way that we observe the sacred part of people’s lives,” Heyd told ENS. “We hope it will be both meaningful and fun. We’re encouraging people to bring their children. Last year, people had their kids come and watched them renew their wedding vows.”

“It’s a way to lift up the blessing of the sacrament of marriage and to honor the time that people spent together. It’s a remarkable thing to look back on commitment they made whether it is one year or 50 years and to ponder how in joy and difficulty they’ve been together.”

A lot of their relationship was physical when they first married, McKenzie said of he and Anna, “but, as time progresses, it becomes a lot deeper. You gain a lot more respect for your partner. You get to the point where the physical doesn’t mean that much anymore, but the ability to be there for your partner means everything.”

And that’s exactly the sentiment the Rev. Georgene “Gigi” Conner, priest-in-charge at St. Alban’s is hoping to acknowledge on Valentine’s Day.

“We’re expressing a deeper commitment,” Conner said. “The hope is that when people stay together, love becomes deeper.  You get over romantic love and get into the deeper meaning of what love really is. We see it occasionally in couples where one person has become very ill and the other does not abandon them but is right by their side.

“Or, there’s a huge adjustment for people who’ve gone off to war and come back and they’re somewhat changed and how do you nurture that person back to wholeness and that can be done through love rather than just saying it’s not going to work. We live
in a society of quick fixes, where we think everything’s going to happen right now rather than staying in it for the long haul.”

Ernie McKenzie said the day promises to bring both tears and smiles.

“It’s just, there’s a closeness that we have that you never seem to be able to show,” he said. “Even though we talk about it, something like renewing our vows gives you something to be able to show that you really do care and that your mate really is number one.

“Renewing our vows to us is just saying that we’re willing to commit for another 17 years or however long. Our feelings are just as strong as they’ve ever been, even though they may be a little different.”

–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.