​Rev. Gray’s Cantillation: “We’re in this together”

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

Asked about his spiritual vision for the Sewanee community, the Rev. Peter Whittlesey Gray said, “We’re at a time in which we are all having to make sacrifices for the care of our neighbors. The most significant spiritual and physical matter that we face is the fact that we’re in this together. The decisions we make have ripple effects for the entire community.”

Gray recently assumed the role of chaplain of the University of the South. “I was elected chaplain, and two weeks later the world shut down,” Gray observed, remarking on the challenges of the times.

Conducting worship services remotely was “a novelty” at first, Gray conceded. But an unsettling awareness quickly settled in. “How do you continue to care for people in new and creative ways when you don’t have the luxury of them walking in the door?”

“The challenges of isolation and loneliness are real as are the challenges of selfishness and self-absorption,” Gray said. “They’re at opposite ends of the seesaw. The more we lean into one, the more the other is a threat.”

Gray praised the University’s media resources for the streaming platform, which enables worshippers to attend in person or remotely by employing high definition cameras that “can give a sense of being in the place.”

“But in church ministry what feels most familiar to us we do in person,” Gray stressed. “Handshakes, hugs, singing, being human together with other people.”

“We muddle our way through trying to figure out how to nurture people in faith and spirituality at a remove. Six months ago, it would have felt unfulfilling and weird building relationships with folks you’ve never met when you only know what the top third of their face looks like. And yet, our need and capacity for human connection has the ability to transcend the obstacles we have to deal with.”

An obstacle Gray faced at his previous ministry in Mississippi is illustrative. To ward off de facto segregation, a coalition of black and white pastors looked for ways “to create a space” where Christians could come together across racial and denominational barriers. With a colleague, Gray founded a 6:45 a.m. Sunday morning one-hour gathering held at a different church each month. Following breakfast and a two-minute mini sermon, those gathered shared personal concerns for their families and communities. They then prayed out loud for each other’s needs.

“I dreaded that early morning alarm,” Gray admitted. “But there was never a morning when I didn’t leave feeling refreshed by the relationships that were being formed. The slow drip of sharing bits of one’s life and having your concerns prayed for by someone else.” Gray’s colleague called the monthly event “building a tent over the railroad tracks that separate us.”

After college, Gray considered pursuing a Ph.D. in theology. Enrolled in the graduate program at Vanderbilt Divinity School, a professor in one of his classes told the story of the people of Israel sent into slavery in Egypt and Moses leading them out. “How he used familiar biblical narrative to interpret the world as it is struck a chord with me,” Gray said. “I was interacting with the bible in a new way and it was enlivening.” Gray realized bringing others to that sort of interaction with scripture was “what I wanted to do with my life and the place where that sort of work would happen most frequently would be in the pulpit.”

Joining Gray in Sewanee are his wife, Giulianna Gray Cappelletti, a priest and counselor, and their two children, Joseph, age nine, and Francesca, age six.

Gray acknowledged the pandemic has made it take longer “to put down roots.” Yet Gray finds the challenging times “energizing professionally and giving a clarity of focus to what the fall’s ministry will look like.”

In response to the observation that due to the pandemic he assumed his new role with little fanfare, Gray said. “Actually, it’s fine. Having a low-key entrance suits me.”