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Fauquier Times Democrat Citizen

Warrenton, Va. 20186

The Adventuring Priest

By: David Roos


When members of Grace Church in The Plains are asked to describe their soon-to-be departing assistant rector with a single word, the flock is evenly divided — half the congregants say the Rev. William MacDonald Murray, (known to all as Rev. Mac) is impossible to describe in only one word and half immediately answer with adjectives describing joy and energy.

Father Mac at Grace Church Corralling the popular minister for an interview entailed trailing after the self-described life adventurer last Sunday as he crisscrossed the churchyard greeting the Homecoming gathering. He was meeting newcomers, posing for pictures and wrestling a huge box of donations to Second Hand Graces into the storage shed.

It was easy to understand Rector Caroline Smith Parkinson's comment, "When I went looking for an assistant rector I wanted someone with enough energy to keep up with me, and with Rev. Mac we got more than I prayed for!"

As the Homecoming hubbub died down and the last of the guests filtered away, Murray suggested a move inside to a comfortable place to continue the conversation. Not surprisingly, that place of comfort for Murray was in the choir pews beneath the two-story-tall stain glass altar windows that bathed the wooden benches in colored light.

As he settled himself in the pew, it was difficult to tell if he was a 54-year-old priest or a teenager with his elbow propped on the door of his car in the turbulent summer of 1969, driving with his friends to Woodstock.

His adventurous road to this pew in The Plains and his calling to the ministry took many turns, some steered by his conscious choice to "meet people where they are" and some guided by his belief that God gives all of us permission to be adventurers in life.

"I was invited to leave high school early. I am a Chapter 1, Verse 27 Christian," he announced as he reached down in the pew and picked up the red-jacketed Bible to read the citation, "And so God created humankind ... blessed them ... and God saw everything that God made and it was very good."

With his rock star smile he explained that it is exciting to him that people are called to go forward expecting the good in the world and to see what is out there with their own eyes.

Murray continued, "Being a Christian for me is simply a matter of loving God with all my heart, loving my neighbor and loving myself. If you can be present and living in the knowledge that you are part of a created order and you are beloved, you will know happiness."

There is no doubt that Murray believes in the empowering optimism of love and it certainly explains why his congregation uses words like gleeful, enthusiastic, exuberant, energetic, bigger-than-life and joyous to describe their assistant rector. Said one parishioner, "He's not coming at you with theory, he's grounded in reality and that makes him effective."

The source of his joy and energy seems to be fueled by an almost nuclear chain reaction of activity he sets off when he interacts with other people.

In the beginning, Rev. Caroline Smith Parkinson and the Grace Church leadership had a plan to reenergize the parish. As the new century approached, the leaders of Grace Church realized that they could be more than the demure parish that was always ready to quietly fund a good cause and work behind the scenes to help to others.

The church was ready to grow toward the light beyond the stone walls. As an ambitious expansion of the physical building progressed, so did the outward reach of the vibrant community programs.

Parkinson quickly realized Murray's knack for being a catalyst for action and a relentless recruiter of helping hands was just what the congregation needed. Combined with Murray's drive to build connections within the community, the alchemy of the parishioners' work ethic and the vestry's leadership created a powerful force of renewal within the parish.

When Murray talks about all the things he's seen flourish during his time at Grace — whether it is the expanded food pantry, Little Graces Pre-School, Navajo Missions, Second Hand Graces, The Wood Ministry, the Giving Tree, Habitat for Humanity or countless other projects — he beams with pride and affection. He starts listing the names of people involved in all the projects and it sounds like he's reading off a list of the church membership rolls.

One of his early pastoral templates was Rev. Embry Rucker, the legendary spiritual leader from the early days of Reston. "Serving the community and a social ministry — Embry Rucker was one of the first to say out loud to me that the ministry was my calling. When you are loved by God and know that you are cared for, you want to help others. If you have the confidence of being loved what other option do you have but to give that love away?"

To Murray, building community isn't the work of repentance, or even an act of charity, rather it is an irrepressible response to being part of a community — the response to love is to reach out and help those in need.

Murray throws his mind open to many new thoughts and experiences and occasionally throws his body over one too many edges — he broke his back once participating in the "sport" of sand dune jumping.

Times have tempered his enthusiasm for defying gravity, but Murray is still a thrill seeker, even if the thrill is surprising others by pushing the boundaries of his imagination to try something new.

The conversation in the church freely careens through a variety of topics, much like Murray's famous adventure careening on a sled down a darkened, snowy Italian hillside. Described by one congregant as "a Renaissance man disarmingly packaged in a panda suit," Murray has amazing range when it comes to engaging the joy in experiencing the human community. He can revel in attending the solemn sanctity of a blessing ceremony by a Navajo elder or he can be found singing a capella selections from "Phantom of The Opera" on a Christmas Eve visit to a friend's home.

As the stain glass windows' light recedes and the questions turn to the future and the bittersweet parting of the joyous friar from his beloved flock. "I'll take away huge memories. Memories of the kids. Being with the people, the outreach to the community, the opportunity to know them, to love them, the bonds with the church family."

And what will he do when he gets to Milford, Mass. what is his plan when he is rector of his new parish? "I'll meet them on their terms," he answered with a smile.

Leaving the darkened nave of the church, Murray's smile is the sun's rival, "I have to catch up to my bride and see what we are doing this afternoon!" He moves quickly across the church yard, heading toward a congregation in Massachusetts that will be getting so much more than they prayed for.

Copyright © 2006 Times Community Newspapers
Used with permission.