From the Belly of the Fish

Jonah 2Tomorrow I will be speak to our seniors during their Chapel service—my topic: Jonah. The story of this lost man has sparked my imagination since I was very small because it is so visually compelling. The Episcopal mission of our schools clearly should live in such places and such moments as those that occur in chapel—the rhythm and the familiarity of the liturgy, the comfort of a community sharing pews together. However, I would think all of us in Episcopal schools might agree that the mission of our schools must exist ubiquitously, not simply confined to specific sacred spaces and specific moments in our daily and weekly schedules. Such thinking is far easier to assert than it is to incorporate into the living truth of a school.

I am working to make sure that in my role as Head of School this year that I am more consistently naming how what we do outside the walls of the chapel is at least as much an expression of our Episcopal identity as hymns, collects, and even homilies from the Head of School. For us that means discussing our three-campus model, which draws students from around fifty zip codes and includes students from a stunning range of racial and economic backgrounds, as sourced from our Episcopal connection. It also means framing our work through the new St. George’s Bunkhouse, a satellite adjunct campus focusing on helping our students develop the habits of the good neighbor, as a natural step for a school such as ours. And it means that when we are helping our students understand the importance of sportsmanship and positive cheering, we name that brand of school spirit as an essential ingredient of our school’s identity.

In working to be intentional in making the connection between what we do and our Episcopal identity, I am reminded that the work of our Episcopal schools is often counter-cultural. Our school exists in a town that has on a regular basis pulled at its seams along racial, economic, and geographic lines. Our job is not simply to chafe against that corrosive momentum, but to present an alternative to it—to value everyone as a child of God, to reach into the humanity that connects us rather than toward the divisions that turn us from each other and thus, I believe, from God. Clearly the issues that pull painfully at the fabric of Memphis are issues all over the country. The work we do in Episcopal schools is not getting easier, yes, but that only means it has never been more important.

So tomorrow I will talk a bit about Jonah, a man who lost sight of his mission, and in order to find it again he had to be entombed in the belly of a slimy fish, ask for forgiveness and grace, and be burped up on a beach. Here’s hoping we don’t have to spend time in the belly of a whale to keep our Episcopal mission in our sight.

About the author

J Ross Peters

J. Ross Peters serves as Head of St. George’s Independent School in Memphis, Tennessee. Before coming to St. George’s, he was Head of Upper School at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Georgia. He has also served as Upper School Director at Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio and as Assistant Head for Academic Affairs at Asheville School in Asheville, North Carolina. He holds a B.A. from The University of the South and an M.Ed. from the University of Georgia. Read more on Ross’ blog at