The Rev. Randy Callender has been the pastor of St. Phillips Episcopal Church in Annapolis for two years. Originally from Philadelphia, he made his mark there in 2011 by becoming the first African-American male priest to be ordained by the Diocese of Pennsylvania in 25 years. However Callender, now 31, recently talked about how he cared less about making a mark in Annapolis and more about helping his parishioners make theirs.
Q: Tell me about your background. How did you decide to become a minister?
A: I grew up in the city of Philadelphia, west Philadelphia exactly. When I tell people that they start singing the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, but I grew up in an area where there was a lot of crime, a lot of drugs…I grew up with a lot of friends who were drug dealers.
But one thing they used to argue was that it was because of their community that kept them down, but I always had a relationship with my creator, God, in knowing that it wasn’t my community that was keeping me down, but it was God who was going to push me forward.
So at the age of 13, that’s when I decided I was going to become an Episcopal priest, and I surrounded myself with so many powerful people in the Episcopal church, with icons who many people outside of the Episcopal church would not even know their names, like Bishop Barbara Harris, who was the first female bishop in the Episcopal Church. After I graduated high school I went to Voorhees College, which was an Episcopal school. I spent a year and a half there in Denmark, S.C., and then transferred to Cheyney University, where I graduated with a degree in communications and broadcasting.
From there I went to seminary, the Cambridge, Massachusetts [Episcopal] Divinity School, and it was there where I realized I was involved, or my heart was impassioned, for social justice, and letting people know that the Episcopal Church was a congregation, or a denomination, that was open to all God’s people, the young the old, white or black, rich or poor. It doesn’t matter who you are.
Q: One of the things you said you wanted to do was encourage more unity among the Annapolis parishes. How is that coming along?
A: When I first arrived in Annapolis, I realized that each parish was doing their own thing. St. Anne’s, St. Margaret’s and St. Luke’s. There are four Episcopal churches in Annapolis, and everyone kind of did their own thing, and I am the type of person who likes to collaborate and build relationships, and let people know that regardless of what church you work at, we’re all brothers and sisters. Because I had relations in Philadelphia with the rector at St. Luke’s and at St. Margaret’s, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be. And so we have a joint Easter vigil service with St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, we started working with St. Margaret’s on a winter relief program, and for those who are homeless, we provide food and shelter, and we’re working with St. Anne’s to provide ways as to how our two churches can come together and work on some of these issues.
Q: How are your other outreach efforts going?
A: We have a brother who came here who works at BWI airport in Baltimore, and who spoke here in Annapolis during Labor and the Pulpit Day to talk about the unfair wages that are going on at BWI and how he lost benefits. We brought him here to let him know that this place is a safe place where he can let his voice shine and know that he is heard, and that if there is anything that we can do as a church, we’re here to support him. So the people heard the story, heard his message, some chose to support him with money, others chose to support him by word of mouth and others chose to support him through protest; to not shop at the stores that treat him unfairly.
Q: What are your impressions of Annapolis?
A: I’ve been told that Annapolis is the city where everyone gets to shine, but since I’ve been here, I’ve been finding out that’s not true. When I first came to Annapolis I was amazed at the pockets of neighborhoods here, it was new to me…I was amazed by the pockets where you can go to one neighborhood that has million dollar homes, and walk a block or two blocks to a middle class neighborhood, and then another block to what we would call project homes. And I was just amazed at the pockets of people living in different areas with different incomes, and how everyone stayed within their pocket instead of expanding outside; where someone told me in a very wealthy neighborhood that, “We don’t have crime, that doesn’t happen here,” whereas someone who lives two blocks down will say, “Yeah, I just got robbed the other night.” It’s just amazing, whereas in Philadelphia, if there was a rich neighborhood four blocks away, you’d better believe those poor people would be robbing the rich people in that neighborhood. Here, people say you’re not supposed to be in that area.
Q: Knowing that, how do you affect change?
A: Well, one thing I preach here a lot at St. Phillips is that I grew up in an area where the clergy were the leaders in the community, and that was it. It wasn’t the church, but the pastor, the deacons and the lay leaders, and that wasn’t effective, because everyone knew who the pastor was, but once the pastor moved on or retired or moved to another church, or died, there was no more connection between that church and the community, and things started to decline.
Being here at St. Phillips, I want to empower my parishioners to make a difference in the community. When we hear, “Did you hear about the new school that was built?” or that church that was helping people out in the community, I want them to say St. Phillips, not Father Callender, and such and such…I want them to say St. Phillips was out there.
I’m still in the process of building relationships, out in the community and figuring out what the young people want. When change comes within the church, forget about Sundays. You can have change throughout the week. You can have a Friday service where you don’t have to do anything traditional. You can find a service that can incorporate all those different things, where there’s great service, where there’s singing and dancing, and Facebook.
Q: You’re a husband and a first-time father with a nine-month-old son. How do you balance being father to your own family with being the father of your parish family?
A: It’s a challenge within itself, but I practice what I preach, and I know that it has to be God first, family and then church, in that order. I praise God every way that I can, and I try to take care of my family.
Am I perfect at it? No, because sometimes I get so caught up in the ministry here, and I love what I do, and I get caught up with it so much that sometimes, when I’m supposed to be home I’m not at home. And self-care, sometimes when you get so caught up with a job you neglect to take care of yourself trying to take care of everybody else.
Sometimes people will say, “Well Jesus took care of everybody,” but there were times when Jesus needed a break to take care of himself, and there were times when he would run away from the crowd and say, “You’re the disciples, you take care of it, and every time he’d try to get some rest, they’d come knocking and say, “Umm, Jesus, come down here…these people want to talk to you.”
And that’s how we are as human beings. They’re going to call me. They’ll say, “Father Callender, there’s somebody here at the church who needs $20 to eat, and can I give them $20?” Well it’s your $20. You don’t need permission from me to give them $20.
What I’m trying to do is empower them to be leaders. I don’t want people to say that Father Callender changed things, no. It was St. Phillips, it was Annapolis.
My mentor always told me, always make sure you have your hands in everything, but never leave your fingerprints.