‘I came here to be healed’Dec 30, 2020 02:24PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
“Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.”
When Dr. Patrick Bowman “Bo” Gordy-Stith arrived with his wife Vicki to become the new pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Odessa in July of 2018, he was carrying the unbearable weight of grief that took form in the face of a severely broken human being who saw his life now on the ground, tattered and torn into small pieces.
That’s when the miracle began to happen.
For the next two years, the parish and its people – from their deeds and actions and through their faith and commitment -- helped slowly repair some of what Gordy-Stith and Vicky had lost when their adopted son Elijah was killed one month before, just days before his 21st birthday.
The healing of Bo Gordon-Stith began on the Sunday of his first sermon. Somehow, word had circulated that he was an avid cowboy hat wearer, and when he arrived at the church, he looked out at the friendly faces he and Vicki would get to know well and saw that many had donned cowboy hats.
Immediately, he saw that the St. Paul’s was a church of road trips, selfless engagement, a spirit of community and global awareness -- a call to action that his predecessor Rev. Karin Tunnell had created that extended well beyond the borders of Odessa, Middletown and Townsend.
He saw St. Paul’s join with other MOT community organizations at “Rise Against Hunger” events, that assembled meals to benefit developing countries. He saw the church’s youth mission cultivate and grow food at Clairvaux Farm in Earleville. He witnessed church volunteers stuff school bags for back-to-school give-aways. He dug his hands deep into the soil at the church’s Covenant Garden, where fresh vegetables grew and later distributed to the Neighborhood House. He mentored young people two mornings a week at Silverlake Elementary School.
This, he knew: That this was a congregation whose mission statement “Reaching Up, Reaching In, Reaching Out” had manifested itself in the form of a directional signal turn that would take Bo Gordy-Stith and Vicki on a two-year journey that would help them survive each day on the backs of the church itself. What he did not yet know was that for
Gordy-Stith, becoming the pastor at St. Paul’s had become more than an extension of his calling. From the time he became a pastor 25 years before, he was a self-professed storyteller whose messages wove the resilience of every day life into the fabric of Jesus Christ, and here he was, in Odessa, sharing his grieving like a story slowly unfolding.
“I began to realize that there was a whole lot more to me than that of a bereaved parent,” he said. “Part of the healing was that there was room for grieving and also room for lots of other things.
“I realized that my grieving had to
happen in the church, in the midst of everything else. This is where
the rubber was going to meet the road, to see if all the things we
talk about and believe in were in fact true.”
* * * *
On a rainy weekday morning in March – just a week before a global pandemic changed the course of human life, perhaps forever – Bo Gordy-Stith sat in his office at St. Paul’s. He is the proud owner of a generous smile, the analytical mind of an engineer and the insatiable curiosity of a poet. Behind him rested a long line of photographs that serve as celebrations and chapter markers of a life spent in the company of his passion. There were pictures of him beside Vicki at the United States Naval Academy, on sabbatical trips and photos of Vicki – also a pastor -- embraced by friends and parishioners.
There were also photographs of his children Joy and Eli and Elijah.
Elijah Riley Gordy-Stith was born on July 28, 1997, and was the product of a broken home and often beaten by his father, who later served time in prison. When was 11 yeas old, the Gordy-Stiths officially adopted him.
“At the adoption hearing, the judge asked Elijah, ‘Do you want to be their son?’” Gordy-Stith recalled. “He said ‘Yes.’ The judge then turned to Vicki and me and asked, ‘Do you want to be Elijah’s parents? We said Yes.”
Now the father of an adopted child, Gordy-Stith knew that Elijah’s journey would not only be his son’s, but his as well. While there were challenging times in their relationship, father and son had slowly come to an understanding of each other. They made a habit of embracing each other when they met and when they parted, they embraced again.
“Out of that grace, a new relationship formed,” Gordy-Stith said.
On the night of June 12, 2018, Bo and Vicki were on a sabbatical when they learned that Elijah had been shot and killed in the Pike Creek section of Wilmington. They drove back to Delaware and buried their son after a June 16 memorial service at Skyline United Methodist Church in Pike Creek, where Bo and Vicki served as co-pastors from 1997 to 2011.
Prior to leaving for Odessa, Bo and Vicki returned to their sabbatical. For Bo, it would become a spiritual journey that would last for the next several weeks.
“In the emotional and spiritual shock of his death, I realized that part of this journey will be about finding my way back to hope,” he said. “Not only had the bullet killed Elijah, but in some ways, I felt like it had also killed the hopes and dreams we had for him.
“With any number of powerful and crippling moments, many of them are never fixed,” he said. “The death of our son wasn’t fixed. We loved Elijah, but it wasn’t enough in the end to help spare his life.”
On July 22, 2018, five weeks after he buried his son, Gordy-Stith officially became the new pastor at St. Paul’s.
Gordy-Stith was, on that March morning – like he has been his whole life -- a passenger on a train that has embarked on an endless journey, and in many ways, the metaphor was an accurate one. Vicki had accepted a position to become the new head pastor at the Epworth United Methodist Church in Rehoboth in January and had already left Odessa. Bo was preparing to leave St. Paul’s and join her in early July as assistant pastor.
The arithmetic is easy. Gordy-Stith had spent, almost to the day, two years at St. Paul’s. For some, it is the time equivalent of a single flap of a butterfly’s wing, but for Bo Gordy-Stith, the two years that he and Vicki spent at St. Paul’s became a rebirth that saw them become witness to a miracle – the reassurance that their grief would not be entered into alone. The congregation that had once greeted Bo with cowboy hats had reached down and picked up the broken parts of his life, right beside him.
“The community knows the heart of the leader who is here for a season,” he said. “I respect the fact that the Methodist Church shuffles us from parish to parish, because it helps remind us that we are not the true leaders of the church.
“There is something about gathering back within the walls of being resurrected that reminds us that the truth of love is bigger than anything,” he said. “The last word I want to tell the people of St. Paul’s is that while I was only here two years, I came here to be healed.
“I want to tell them, ‘Thank you.’”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].