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If you buy into the conventional wisdom, it doesn’t make sense for someone to move to D.C. to get out of harm’s way. But for the Rev. Nancy James, the city offers that which makes her most at ease. “There’s a giftedness to being in a diverse society,” says James, 50. “Even if there’s crime, it’s a safer place for everybody.”
James moved to Capitol Hill 10 years ago, after her decadelong stint as rector of two rural Virginia churches was thwarted by a campaign of intimidation and harassment. She shares the ordeal in her recently published book, Standing in the Whirlwind: The Riveting Story of a Priest and the Congregations That Tormented Her.
It’s an alarming title for a story that begins with an earnest “pilgrimage towards God.” After receiving her master’s in divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, James moved to Culpeper County in 1985 to lead the parish at Christ Church, a small, run-down Episcopal church in Brandy Station. She was one of the first female rectors in Virginia, but, she says, the community welcomed her warmly. Within a few years, numbers at Christ Church had swelled, significant repairs had been made, and James had taken a post at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in nearby Rapidan, as well. “The churches on Sundays were just such happy little places,” she says.
James had always knit her spirituality with her love of social work. While finishing her seminary studies, she had done fieldwork at the D.C. Jail, counseling women charged with prostitution. Later, she had taught English to teenage offenders at Lorton Reformatory in Fairfax County and worked for the juvenile court of Virginia.
For James, sharing her passion for service was an integral part of her priesthood: “I enjoyed encouraging the church to participate in the ancient, life-giving tradition of caring for others,” she writes. Her encouragement was initially well-received, and both churches hosted a number of luncheons for homeless D.C. men. However, there were still those who “believed black and whites shouldn’t attend church together,” says James. This conviction—spurred by some parishioners’ reluctance to accept a female priest and a fierce local debate over a Christ Church–owned Civil War cemetery—eventually came crashing to the fore.
In 1993, James says, she began receiving unwanted attention and harassing phone calls from a member of Emmanuel’s vestry. More phone calls, from parties unknown, escalated to break-ins, vandalism at James’ home and churches, and the disappearance of two pets. “It was like only my favorite things were taken,” says James. “That was the game.”
“I was shocked,” she says. “I was too young to be part of the ’60s, but I do remember [them]….Maybe I was naive to believe that stuff didn’t go on anymore.” No suspects were ever arrested.
James found solace in the writings of 17th-century French religious thinker Jean Guyon, whom she discovered while working toward her doctorate in religious studies at the University of Virginia. Guyon was a mystic who, despite great suffering, promoted “pure love,” in which “God doesn’t honor our divisions and hatreds,” writes James.
But the most therapeutic words during, and since, the ordeal have been James’ own. Throughout her year of fear and frustration, James kept impeccable records—both as a spiritual release and with hope that someone might finally be held accountable. In January 1995, she accepted a directorship at a D.C. women’s shelter and left Culpeper. She spent seven years writing Standing in the Whirlwind, time she needed to “get some peace back in my life.”
“I really want the book to be a book of hope,” says James, who now leads services at St. John’s Lafayette Square and teaches religion, philosophy, and literature at American University. “The story’s kind of dramatic, but I think everyone has those years…where life is just overwhelming….If you persevere, you can overcome [it].”—Anne Marson