Two deacons ordained October 21 at the Cathedral of St. Philip bring years of experience serving others to their new roles in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta.
Tommie Thompson-Zaher will serve as deacon at Atlanta’s Church of the Common Ground while Debra Bruner-Smith will be the deacon at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Milledgeville.
The Venerable Carole Maddux, an archdeacon of the Diocese, said the two bring needed real world experience to their roles.
“As the Church moves into the future, we find it is more a future beyond the walls of the parish and into the lives and needs of the world. This is the realm of the deacon—an order called to lead the Church and her people into service in the world and to tell the Church the needs of the world,” Maddux said.
Bruner-Smith, a forensic phycologist, and Thompson-Zaher who has worked in prison ministry for years are well suited to meeting the needs of those whom they will serve, Maddux said.
“They will reach those who are in prison or in pain, those trapped by poverty or mental illness—the Children of God beyond the walls of the parish who are looking for the hopeful light of Christ. The deacon will lead the Church and her people into those worlds, with service and prophetic voice, making the diaconate critical to the future of the Church,” Maddux said.
Deacon John Ray, who is director of diaconal formation for the Diocese of Atlanta worked directly with the candidates.
“So basically, I work with the candidates and report up to Janet Tidwell who is the archdeacon of formation from the time somebody gets their postulancy letter until the time the Bishop lowers his hands on their heads,” Ray told Connecting News.
Ray said candidates are assessed on their competency in the history and tradition of the Episcopal Church, theology, and scripture; the meaning of the diaconate and the role of deacons; human awareness and understanding; and practical training and experience in the liturgy and spirituality.
On the Tuesday after her ordination Bruner-Smith said she had already hit the ground running.
“This morning I went over to Saint Stephens and had a meeting with Father David and set up our contract, got the keys, and had our clericus call, and toured around Milledgeville a little bit.”
She and The Rev. David Probst, rector of St. Stephen’s, will map out her work over the next months, Bruner-Smith said.
“I’ll do the serving at the table and everything the deacon does and then we’ve got to get to know each other more before we can decide what projects need doing because I don’t know the Milledgeville area very well,” she said.
Regardless of her assignment in Milledgeville, Bruner-Smith said she will be working with the homeless.
“My heart is for the unhoused so I will still work that personally on my own. I’m hoping that we can do something in Milledgeville.”
Bruner-Smith worked as a juvenile probation officer in Georgia and Pennsylvania and said she has always felt the call to serve others.
Bruner-Smith is also a member of the Order of the Daughter’s of the King, an Episcopal women’s prayer, service, and evangelism order.
“That was the first order I was in and so I’ve always had a heart for service and the marginalized community so I guess I felt the call to do more and being a Deacon was how I felt I could do more for that community.”
Thompson-Zaher said she has been working in prison ministry a long time and hopes to continue that work as a deacon at The Church of the Common Ground, a parish in Atlanta serving those experiencing homelessness.
“I work with families whose loved ones have mental illnesses and are in jail or have experienced some kind of incarceration. That’s a huge need and mental illness doesn’t discriminate. These families are people who have loved ones who come from all racial backgrounds, all social and economic backgrounds. I will say though that it’s our justice system that discriminates, and it seems like poor people of color are victims of the criminal justice system more than people who have money.”
Thompson-Zaher said being a deacon “means having the opportunity to let people feel free to have more conversations about the people on the margins, people with mental health issues, people incarcerated, the poor single families, and the disabled. All the on the margin people.”
At Common Ground she will focus her prison ministry on jails and juvenile detention centers in Fulton and DeKalb counties, Thompson-Zaher said.
Thompson-Zaher said she became involved in prison ministry after her son was incarcerated.
“When I did my first sermon and talked about my son’s incarceration people came up to me after the sermon and said my son, my grandson, my sister, my you know and started a lot of conversation, so I think deacons can start conversations,” she said.
Thompson-Zaher said her last sermon as a candidate was about restorative justice, a victim-centered process that facilitates dialogue between the person responsible for a crime and the person harmed by the crime and creates a path for accountability.
“That’s a concept that we really need to talk about a lot more. It’s not going to solve every problem but if we can get victims and people who’ve been harmed to come together and sort things out – especially in the schools – so that we’re not sending kids off, just expelling them and sending them to prison rather than employing restorative justice. I think that’s going to be important.”
Watch the ordination here…