The close of their professional time in Wilton for the Rev. Dr. Jason Coker, Rev. Mary Grace Williams, and Dean Nancy Hasenauer leaves a great void. Each has had a special ministry enriching many lives here.
Jason Coker, who is moving back to his native Mississippi to assume high-level Baptist leadership positions there, has been a driving force for the good here including with the Rev. Dr. David Graybill leading Wi-ACT when it did its first refugee resettlement a decade ago. In the course of doing all of that great work in our community (and beyond) while also pastoring Wilton Baptist Church, Jason found time to earn his Ph.D. in theology from Drew University to go with his Yale master’s degree. His recently published doctoral dissertation on James, brother of Jesus, has become a very well-received book.
Jason found the solitude to do his dissertation research and writing in the library of Temple B’nai Chaim while on sabbatical from Wilton Baptist. This book was thus an ecumenical venture appropriate not only to our town’s very closely interconnected faith communities but also to its subject matter. His book addresses the time a generation after Jesus’ death when what became Christianity was still a sect of Judaism and could either have continued on that path under James’ leadership or gone off in a different direction as it did under Paul’s leadership. Jason’s book beautifully illuminates this seminal period in Judaism and Christianity.
When Rabbi Rachel Bearman of the Temple and Dr. Kareem Adeeb of the Islamic Institute joined Jason in a panel at Wilton Library in March commenting on Jason’s book, Mary Grace Williams was the moderator. Mary Grace was a founder of this interfaith library series that for a decade has illuminated issues of faith to large audiences. This kind of work is central to her view of a life of faith as one lived in community. Her vision of life in community is reflected in things like going around town to distribute ashes on Ash Wednesday to those workers unable to go to their church. The first year, she was met with some understandable consternation, but in subsequent years the reaction has been, “Welcome; we’ve been waiting for you!”
So, too, at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, she has been for 14 years not only an outstanding preacher and teacher but also a real empowerer of laity to build community. Envisioning what could be, she has sent her parishioners out to bring that vision to reality. In doing so, she has advanced community-building even as she has brought new ideas to us all, like Wi-ACT’s meal-packaging that has now grown into a 165,000-meals-packaged, all-day event each October employing 750 volunteers from all across our faith institutions and the larger Wilton community. She is moving on to be a chaplain, administrator and teacher at Bard College and the clergy head of its adjoining Episcopal church, and we can’t wait to see what she will do in community-building there!
Referring to a dean as having a ministry might seem odd if you don’t know Middlebrook School’s Dean Nancy Hasenauer. The fact is that for almost two decades, Nancy has been addressing the needs of students and teachers alike as dean after devoting the prior 26 years to teaching English. Her role as dean has been central to the enormous vitality of that school, helping to earn it national awards and having an important influence on students’ lives.
The affectionately dubbed “kitchen table” in her office is legendary. The situs of resolution of serious discipline problems for sure (this is middle school after all, where hormones are raging and frontal-lobe judgment centers still developing!), it has also been a place of great encouragement and help for students working hard but needing thoughtful, discerning academic support or having a rough day and desperate for moral support. Nancy’s door always opened to those in need, and her office might well be occupied by a teacher or staffer if not already taken by a student.
Students knew that in her they’d have a fair adjudicator and relentless supporter, and teachers knew she had their backs. The result is students who feel school works for, not against, them and teachers who want to be part of such an uplifting environment. That’s a key role of a great dean — a role not always well-understood by those outside school settings but deeply appreciated by those within.
So these ministries are ending here, but their fruits will surely continue blossoming!