Goodbye, Polk

Published 9:23 pm Friday, November 14, 2008

The Rev. James K. Polk Van Zandt stood staring up at the Genesis window inside St. Paul’s Episcopal Church explaining its meaning.

The several different images pictured in the ornate stained glass represent the many different theories of the earth’s origin.

Ideally, the Episcopal Church is a place where different people with varying ideas can come together and worship in harmony, Van Zandt explained.

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According to his parishioners, Van Zandt has been a perfect representation of that belief. It will make it that much harder to see him leave.

“The key with Polk is he encouraged you to take ownership,” said A.C. Reeves, a member of the church for 11 years who was on the search committee that recommended Van Zandt. “It wasn’t his idea, or that he had to do it or be in control. He got everybody to participate. And that’s really the thing that’s been wonderful.”

Van Zandt will preside over his final service with the church Sunday, ending a tenure that he says is longer than most rectors.

He came to Selma from West Point, Miss., in 2000 and began the work of generating a healthy congregation. He soon found out that a strong parish had much more potential than just within the church’s walls.

Since arriving in Selma, St. Paul’s began events like Lobster Fest and its pumpkin patch. Although they and others like them were meant as fundraisers, they have served a more meaningful purpose by bringing people from several different areas of the community together.

That is also true of the Downtown Ministerial Association, which began in earnest when Van Zandt arrived eight years ago.

After he saw that some of the city’s oldest and most traditional churches had no strong ties to each other, Van Zandt was instrumental in creating a dialogue among leaders of each one.

St. Paul’s changed physically as well. New Tiffany windows, a refurbished pipe organ, and structural renovations are a few of the improvements.

One of the biggest elements of change Van Zandt deals with, like all pastors, is in society.

The Bible’s words have remained the same for thousands of years, but worldly influence leaves some questioning their relevance.

“When you start messing with the actual Sunday service, that tends to get people riled up’” Van Zandt said. “And that’s probably because things are changing so much in the world about us that people see the church as an anchor — a place that’s not changing. And we want to honor that because we have a 2,000-year history that means something. Scripture is most important, but our tradition is also important.”

However, reason tempers scripture and tradition — three things Van Zandt said are an integral part of the faith.

“In the Episcopalian church, we tell people, ‘Don’t leave your brains at the door.’”

Per policy of the Diocese of Alabama, the church cannot name a new rector earlier than a year after Van Zandt’s departure. In the meantime, St. Paul’s will name an interim.

Bill Gamble, senior warden for St. Paul’s, is responsible for putting together the search committee.

A mountain of a task awaits when that time comes.

“I think the way that I would express Polk’s relationship with our church is he’s been almost a perfect fit for us,” Gamble said. “In saying that, he has related to the members of the congregation in so many ways. He stirred us up without causing a stir. He’s gotten us to do things that I thought were beyond what we could do.”

Van Zandt said he won’t immediately leave Selma but will eventually take a position as rector at another St. Paul’s, this one in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

The Rev. Joe Knight will be in charge of pastoral care and preaching before the interim rector arrives.

A retired rector, Knight said there would undoubtedly be a grieving process after Van Zandt’s departure.

“He’s a rare person that has no hidden agenda and no control needs,” Knight said. “It’s been a pure pleasure to work with him, and besides that, I’ve developed a friend for life. He is a wonderful person. I think because of his demeanor and his style, the church is one of the healthiest that I’ve ever been in.”