The organ music, the sheer numbers of people, the celebration seemed almost too big for the tiny historic church building to contain. Parishioners and friends of all religious stripes were saying goodbye to Rev. William “Chip” Stokes, pastor of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
After 14 years at St. Paul’s, Stokes was named last month to become the 12th Bishop of New Jersey, a diocese that encompasses the southern two thirds of that state. Stokes assumes his new position this summer and will be ordained Nov. 2.
But Monday night’s church service was for celebrating the well-loved pastor and his wife, Susan.
It included rabbis, as well as speakers from the Buddhist, Muslim and Baha’i faiths. All this was in keeping with the Stokeses’ efforts to broaden the interfaith community. Among those efforts are a partnership with nearby St. Matthew’s Church, a black parish, as well as with Temple Sinai, with which St. Paul’s shares a concert music program. St. Paul’s also participates in Family Promise, a cooperative of churches and synagogues that supports and houses homeless families.
Bishop Leo Frade of the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida, teased Stokes about the times he had challenged him, adding, “Remember, it’s going to happen to you now.”
Frade’s wife, Diana, called Stokes and his wife, Susan, “the dynamic duo of St. Paul’s, a great ministry team.”
Speaker after speaker praised Stokes for his passion for social justice and Susan Stokes for her indefatigable energy in service of St. Paul’s ministries to families and children.
“Chip and Susan Stokes, you are my superheroes,” said Pam Cahoon of C.R.O.S. Ministries, a Palm Beach County food pantry. “The only way I can feel OK about your leaving is to think about what a wonderful gift you’re bringing to New Jersey.”
“Wow,” said Stokes when his turn came to speak. “Your words have been so gracious and kind. From the moment we entered this community, you welcomed us into your hearts. When something needed to be done, people appeared in front of us. It has touched our lives to be part of so many wonderful things.”
The entire congregation stood and clapped for their departing pastor and his wife.
At that point, when eyes were being dabbed with handkerchiefs and there was a chance that the celebration might turn sad, the yellow-shirted members of the Delray Community Choir assembled on the steps of the altar and raised the rafters with three rousing, hand-clapping spirituals that earned the only other standing ovation of the evening.
“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine, in Delray, in New Jersey, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!”