The Rev. J. Barney Hawkins IV -- just "Barney" to his 3,500 Episcopal congregants -- spoke in soft North Carolina cadences as he exchanged hugs and handshakes with a long line of people at his last Sunday service at the Church of the Redeemer in North Baltimore yesterday.
After five years, a time he described as "richer than it sounds," the 51-year-old rector has resigned to teach at the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. He will direct a doctoral program to train the next generation of Episcopal priests, scholars and leaders.
Children were invited to kneel at the altar during communion, a Hawkins trademark. Hawkins officiated one last time at the church in the 5600 block of N. Charles St.
After the service, some of the 600 churchgoers cried; others were philosophical at the parting celebration, which featured Southern music and food.
"We learned to stretch and dream. It was a good ride," said Ashby DeLashmutt, who works at the Maryland Episcopal Diocese.
"I'm being called to something rather than leaving something," Hawkins said in an interview last week. "It's the right thing."
Still, he said, it was neither easy nor tidy to pack up his life in Baltimore: "There are always letters and things to say."
Some of those things were said in his last sermon, given a week ago, when he discussed life's setbacks: "Life will wound us and be a self-centered odyssey, unless we give ourselves to others -- to family, to friends -- and to a world that yearns for our caring, loving and giving."
"We come [to the church] because we're broken," Hawkins explained in the interview. "This is a hospital for sinners, not a hotel for saints."
The church, made of wood and stone, was arranged in an open design so that members of the congregation can "see another person's face, catch someone's smile," he said. The 1958 church stands beside the original stone chapel, built 145 years ago, where 20th Century poet Ogden Nash was married.
During his time here, Hawkins began a "Blessing of the Animals" service, which brought family pets into the sanctuary once a year, a foot-washing service before Easter and a Montessori-style Sunday school.
He also has emphasized outreach. "We're trying to connect with the city more in going beyond our walls," Hawkins said. To that end, the church has worked with Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit group that builds housing, and recently was host of a conference on regional issues.
Of all the changes, parishioners said they are most thankful for the Sunday afternoon healing service, where family and friends pray for loved ones who are ill. Hawkins instituted it when Butch Michel, a longtime church member, was diagnosed with cancer shortly after Hawkins started his ministry.
Frances Kelly, a cancer survivor and mother of two, said, "You don't have many ministers like that in a lifetime."
Teaching through stories
Hawkins said he was willing to take a new path because of his wife's breast cancer diagnosis last fall. Linda Wofford Hawkins, whom he has been married to for 25 years, is associate rector of Church of the Good Shepherd in Ruxton.
"That made me more open and vulnerable. I realized for the first time we're not writing the script," he said.
He brings an autobiographical approach to his sermons, which he defines as a private conversation in a public place.
"Storytelling is part of his style of teaching," said senior warden Deborah Prout, 47, who has attended the church since childhood.
Hawkins said he is leaving at a time when business is booming -- when, he said, "there are more baptisms than deaths. That's a good statistic."
One occasional Sunday Scripture reader agreed.
"If you want to go when you're on top, now's the time to leave," said Thomas C. Frazier, the former Baltimore police commissioner and now a Justice Department official.