Friday, September 21, 2012


Last year I tore the cartilage in my knee.  It required surgery which, in turn, required that I use crutches and a cane for about a month or so.  What was once a simple walk from the rectory to the parish became a rather laborious trek.  It was also, at least initially, a little exhausting.  Instead of walking, I found myself having things e-mailed to me from an office 50 or so feet away.

I can't imagine what it would be like to have Parkinson's Disease and decide to translate the Holy Bible into the native languages of China with only the full use of one finger and using a turn of the century typewriter that required about twenty pounds of pressure to move a key.  However, that was the achievement of our Friday fellow, who served in the early 20th century as our bishop in Shanghai.

Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky [his name always sounded to me like the title of a Tom Lehrer song], who lived from 1831 to 1906, was an Episcopal Church missionary to China at a time when most missions were funded by the missionary's wealthy family or trust fund. 

[Rather like most of the "bi-vocational" clergy who serve as the "new" model for ministry, at least according to the still-existent (!) House of Bishops.  This notion amuses me as I have never, in my entire career as a full-time clergyman, been able to afford to have fewer than two jobs at any one time, but I digress.] 

He was unusual in that he was born and raised a Jew, had studied to be a rabbi, and, after studying the messianic prophecies in the Hebrew Bible, converted to Christianity, studied at the original General Theological Seminary [I actually lived in what had been his room], and gained ordination in the Episcopal Church.  Since he was an orphan, I'm guessing that he didn't have to face much in the way of a shocked and disapproving family. 

Since Schereschewsky had neither wealth nor a trust, he sought patronage for his work and found an innovative manner of raising funds by using his considerable intelligence and industry in translating scripture for use by other China missionaries.   As he was fluent in English, Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Polish, and Russian, the Chinese dialects did not offer him much resistance.  What did offer resistance was the crippling condition of his hands; a resistance that he overcame through pure stubbornness aided by faith. 

In addition to his translations, Schereschewsky founded St. John's University of Shanghai, an institution of considerable quality and reputation that existed until it was "re-purposed" by the Communists in the early 1950's.

Although he has his own feast day, and it may seem redundant to also feature Schereschewsky on a Friday, I offer him today as I've always felt some kinship with him, and not just because we shared a dorm room some 120 years apart.  Historically, the Episcopal Church's clergy have almost always been from the more elite portions of our society.  It was difficult in earlier times for those of no money and little pedigree to find a place in the church, let alone become ordained.  Schereschewsky cleared that hurdle through intellect and faith, not to mention prodigious hard work.  The stubborn Christianity that still exists in the "Godless" paradise of Communist China owes its life to his work.  As such, he serves as a model to those of us from modest origins; reminding us that when God calls, even the most unlikely of candidates can find a place, a role, a responsibility in the Church if we are willing to simply bring to it our positive and hopeful response.