Death and the Life of Ministry

by Holly Clark-Porter

A little over a week ago, my wife Kaci (also my co-pastor) and I opened up our daily quarantine news from the El Paso Times to find not the daily Covid count, but the announcement of the death of the 23rd victim of the El Paso Walmart Shooting. After being shot and in the hospital for almost 9 months, Guillermo “Memo” Garcia died. 

In that moment, two crises collided in our community and it felt almost unbearable. It made me feel useless and angry. It made me want to scream and cry all over again like that August 3rd day when a bigot (and other words) killed moms and dads, sisters and brothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, and babies because of the color of their skin. And now, the girl’s soccer team that Memo coached won’t be able to surround his family. The community won’t be able to gather like we did 9 months ago in vigil and pray together in two languages. This community and all of Memo’s friends and extended family won’t get to weep the way we need to—together. 

That day, August 3rd, carved its own Rio Grande in the history of our country, but it also creaked and seeped into my own ever-morphing understanding of ministry. Kaci and I had just moved from Wilmington, Delaware to El Paso, Texas to be the co-pastors of Grace Presbyterian.

Photo by Anton Darius via Unsplash

Our very first Sunday was the day after the Walmart Shooting. 

Our funny sermon written weeks ago would be scrapped for a sermon written in the early morning hours of Sunday, written with an impetus and energy only pain, injustice, fury, and Christ’s hope can create. Our new congregation, many of whom are Latinx, did not greet us with the smiles and cheerful hugs we had imagined just days before. Instead we were met with snot and wounded tears. People tried to still have some of that “fiesta” spirit for their new pastors, and we so appreciated that act of love, but we were all in a state of undoing and the only thing that would do, was the reality of what was before us, death and dying.  

That morning Kaci and I felt overwhelmed, honored, beloved; we felt strength and weakness; we felt sure and unsure. This shared grief allowed us to be their pastors immediately. And that is how we began our pastorhood at Grace, which is funny because death and grief have ordained much of my life and career. 

You see, I accidently and perhaps begrudgingly found myself working as a funeral director and a funeral chaplain for several years. This was unplanned and depending on how you look at it, a total deviation from my pastoral career or an absolute necessity. I did about 5 funerals a week as a pastor, while picking up dead bodies from homes and morgues and tending to their families and funerals. It was weird. And, I’ll tell you about that more later, but it was also wonderful. That’s I want to share with you in this time of NEXT Church blogging—the intricacies of seeing the embalming table so to speak—the behind the death scenes—through a theological, reformed lens and how this lens can inform the everyday life and living of the Church. 

If death isn’t your thing, re-think that. Because death and grief is all of our thing. In life and in death, we belong to God but in belonging to God, we belong to the realities of life and death. Those realities are present constantly, not just at bodily death, but death/grief of expectations, careers, ideas, understanding of society and one another. My time at the funeral home and other death experiences wasn’t just about death—they were about how we live, love, and have our being. 

So, yes, this blog will talk about the kind of death that comes with funeral homes and pastoring, but it will also speak to the universality of death and what it does to us. It will be funny, because OMG, death’s antics can be hilarious. It will be gut-wrenching and heartwarming. It will be honest. It will be a season for every purpose under heaven, a time to plant and a time to pluck up, a time to live and a time to die, a time to break down and a time to build up, a time to mourn and a time to dance. 

I hope you’ll join me in life’s juxtapositions as we lift candles to life, as we sit vigil in the darkness of death, and as we find empty tombs telling us to get back on the road, there’s work to do. 

The Reverend Holly Clark-Porter is an irreverent revered who adores people, even the annoying ones. In her work, she hopes to bring people back to Church by uplifting the importance of a joyful community, the strength of working together for justice, and by giving voice to the relevancy of faithful love over hate and destruction. She has a passion for preaching, writing, and nerdy church things. Holly received her B.A. in English at Schreiner University and her M.Div from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where she was a recipient of the Charles L. King Preaching Award and a member of the Scotch Council. She has served as pastor of Big Gay Church and Calvary Presbyterian, both of Wilmington, DE. She was also a funeral director and funeral chaplain at McCrery & Harra Funeral Homes (DE). Holly and her wife, The Reverend Kaci Clark-Porter, recently moved from Delaware to El Paso, Texas, where they serve as Co-Pastors of Grace Presbyterian. They love camping, travelling the world in search of food and wine, and spoiling their pitbull, Hazel.

Holly is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on how death shows up in the life of faith.