The call to ministry wasn’t exactly a straight ring-through for Katherine Kussmaul.
She describes it as more of a “know and grow” thing. There’s been a quiet, consistent encouragement to use her gifts that has grown through various experiences, from her teenage years in Texas and on to today — her 30th day on the job as pastor of St. Giles Presbyterian Church in Raleigh.
“It’s a little crazy to start the week before Holy Week,” Kussmaul said as we sat in her office amid half-unpacked boxes. Her protective-yet-friendly Bichon Frise, Dibley, settled into a space between us, keeping a keen eye on her mom’s visitor.
“It’s busy and crazy, but the people are here. It’s always overwhelming to want to know people better than you know them in the beginning,” she said.
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Kussmaul has come to the helm at St. Giles just ahead of the church’s jubilee. The 50th anniversary celebration will take place this weekend with food, fellowship and worship. With the celebration comes a time for reflection for longtime members, and a challenge to relative newcomers to commit to service to God and each other and to extend a legacy of service to a changing local community.
She returns to the congregation 15 years after she served as an intern there. A graduate of the Duke School of Divinity, she’s worked in Leeds, England, and spent nine years at Cary Presbyterian. Her most recent post was in Illinois, where she served for four years before pulling up to St. Giles on Ash Wednesday.
But thus far, being back in the Triangle has helped her to feel prepared for the work ahead.
“I breathe easier in North Carolina,” she said. “I’m grounded here. I’m more steady, I’m more confident.
“When your roots are deep, it’s easier to grow up,” she said, and gestured skyward.
St. Giles is nestled in a wooded campus on Oak Park Road, just two right turns off Glenwood Avenue, though completely out of sight behind a line of businessees including Fresh Local Ice Cream and the iconic — but recently shuttered — Fat Daddy’s. Three decades ago, when John Hawes and his family first worshipped there, it was set within a white, middle-class neighborhood in a growing area of town.
The issue now, he says, “is continuing outreach to an increasingly diverse neighborhood.”
The Midtown neighborhood where St. Giles is located is getting browner, in keeping with our region’s booming Hispanic population, which is estimated to be above the state average at about 10 percent.
Hawes remembers how members of St. Giles and other area churches banded together to rally against the neighborhood schools plan touted by former Superindentent Tony Tata. He recalls getting a bus to drop kids off for after-school programs at the church and the nearby YMCA branch, and trying to figure out a way to “reach” neighborhood kids after they vandalized one of the church’s recreation centers.
Among the insitutions that deal with human services and the demographic changes that influence social and community needs, churches are sometimes overlooked. Residents expect public schools, local government and even media to reflect the needs of our changing city. But churches like St. Giles and others that have existed as part of Raleigh’s civic tapestry over the years are institutions to watch as we continue to grow.
There are fewer children in St. Giles’ neighborhood now. There are more neighbors whose first language is Spanish. And there is an ongoing need, parishioners say, to continue their 50-year mission of taking the light of Christ out into the world via service.
That’s the challenge Kussmual sees at the core of her work as pastor.
“This is a place that people can receive care in this hard part of their life, and then they can turn around and offer care,” she said. “I see St. Giles as the part that captures that part of Christian living. How do we expand that from the church to the broader community?
“How do we take who we’re called to be, and God’s spirit, to work together to say that we’re going to be a genuine presence of God in this community?”