Grace Episcopal Church
Where: Corner of Washington Street SE and Boulevard, Gainesville
More info: www.gracechurchgainesville.org or 770-536-0126
With three professional degrees under her belt, the Rev. Cynthia Park has a lot to offer the congregation at Grace Episcopal Church.
“I wear several different hats in my job,” Park said. “But there’s no sense that I take off my priest collar and put on my Erasmus hat and do translating. It’s who I am, doing all three.”
And Park finds uses for all three of her degrees as the new associate rector for the church, a position she started in October.
Park’s first professional degree certified her to work as a therapist in private practice. She then attended Virginia Theological Seminary and was ordained to the priesthood in the Diocese of Virginia. Park then received her Ph.D. in Semitic and Egyptian languages and literatures from The Catholic University of America.
But no matter how far Park progressed in her private practice, priesthood or education, she was always fascinated by the concept of man’s relationship with God.
“I was intrigued by the idea of what it looks like in real time and space to be connected to God and each other,” the 60-year old Texas native said. “My therapy practice branched out into doing some teaching around that topic of how we relate to God and to each other in the most dire of circumstances.”
Park, who was raised in the Presbyterian Church of America, became an Episcopalian in 1970 because of the denomination’s “invitatory nature.”
“(Episcopalianism) invites dialogue, it invites pushing back, asking hard questions and not being quick with easy answers,” she said.
Ultimately, though, it was Park’s work as a therapist that led her to the priesthood.
“I became very intrigued in particular by the narratives in (the Old Testament), because so many of the narratives resonated with stories from my therapy practice,” Park said. “(I met with) a lot of people who felt marginalized, and the whole story of the Hebrew people is that they’re marginalized and God chooses them.”
The themes that run through traditional biblical stories were very prevalent in the inner lives of Park’s patients.
“I was fascinated by these ancient stories and themes that seemed to recur around men and women, around classic family dynamics of jealousy, envy, favoritism, betrayal, and what that looks like to wrestle with all of those themes in the context of being people chosen by God for a special relationship,” Park said.
The fascination with ancient texts led Park to get her doctorate with an emphasis in Hebrew and Aramaic. Translating ancient texts is one of Park’s favorite hobbies. She compares the challenging process to doing a sudoku, where every step reveals a new layer of meaning.
Park came to Grace Episcopal Church to work with Father Stuart Higginbotham, the church’s rector. As a priest and a scholar, Park said, she couldn’t ask for a better co-worker.
“If you’re a physicist and Stephen Hawking calls, you drop it and go,” Park said. “If you’re a priest and a scholar and Stuart Higginbotham calls, you drop it and go.”
Higginbotham said the same of Park.
“(Park) brings an enormous wealth of wisdom and groundedness to the community at Grace, and I personally love having a clergy colleague with whom I can visit and discern,” Higginbotham said.
Even with the warm welcome and support she receives from Grace Episcopal, being a female priest can come with its disadvantages. The Episcopal Church officially ordained its first group of women in 1974, but many in the religious community at large do not accept female ordination. Park’s own younger brother, who is active in the Presbyterian Church of America, refuses to accept her role as an authority in any church.
“It has definitely affected the family dynamic, because our family is a very faith-centered family, and so it’s not just awkward,” Park said. “It is actually painful because it is perceived that I have turned my back on God’s ordained role for women.”
While the local ministerial alliance in which Park and Higginbotham participate has been “wildly enthusiastic and welcoming,” the larger religious community has at times been less than open.
“I encountered another ordained person in the grocery store and approached him to introduce myself,” Park said. “He turned his back on me and walked away.”
But Park credits the staff and congregation of Grace Episcopal with making her transition into her new position easy. She looks forward to everything they’ll be able to accomplish in the future.
“With a community as large as Grace, it is important to nurture a sense of collaborative ministry — focusing on one’s gifts and strengths — and I think our staff does this extremely well,” Higginbotham said. “Cynthia’s presence only magnifies the seeds that the Spirit has planted in our midst.”