Stories of St. Paul’s

Once a week, we are sharing a piece of one person or family’s story during this time of physical distancing. This is based on “Humans of New York” — which features interviews from a variety of people from all over the world.

Stories of St. Paul’s includes a brief reflection written by one person or family along with a few photos to share their story. Through reading these posts, we hope that you will learn a little more about one another and feel a closer connection to our community while being physically distant.

JUNE 5th | John B. Murray III

Before COVID-19, I was serving in a temporary role as an Associate at Old Dominion Public Affairs, lobbying members of the Virginia General Assembly during the 2020 session, with the potential of coming on permanently if all went well. I had just finished a year of successfully managing campaigns in Northern Virginia at the state and local level and was settling into a new role back home in Richmond with the wind at my back. Most of my time was spent in committee hearings or in meeting with legislators.

Then COVID hit and all of that changed. Suddenly my career was put on hiatus, and I found myself joining millions of other Americans in registering for unemployment. Fortunately, I’ve had a few life changes to help keep me busy. My lease in Shockoe Bottom was up in March, so I decided to make the move over to a much more spacious and dog-friendly loft in Church Hill. While I didn’t have a dog, I’d always wanted one and knew I needed an apartment that was open to the idea. The move came and went and once again I found myself with an exorbitant amount of free time. This free time led to perusing the list of available pets on the SPCA website which then quickly lead to adopting a handsome two-year-old beagle who I later renamed Baxter.

To say COVID has changed me would be an understatement. I’ve grown a beard, adopted a pup, reprioritized family time, and actually started cooking. The world seems less hurried and much more simplistic and in a way, everything is new again. Eventually, life will pick back up and some sense of normalcy will be restored but who really knows what that will look like – the possibilities are endless. For now, I take comfort in remote church, the occasional evening prayer, and the words of Philippians 4:6-7, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

John B. Murray, III is a cradle Episcopalian, recovering politico, West Point native, Hampden-Sydney grad, and new dog dad who spends his time perfecting chicken salad recipes in between frequent walks to the park. He recently served as campaign manager to State Senator Barbara Favola and Fairfax County Chairman Jeff McKay. John B. moved to Richmond in 2016 and has called St. Paul’s his spiritual home ever since.

MAY 29th | Joni and Mark Dray

– Reflection written by Joni and Mark

Clueless! Joni “homemaking,” “grandchildrening,” reading, volunteering. Mark “retired” tho’ still going to the office, playing golf, helping Joni make Souffles. Breakfast out, drinks with friends, grandchildren’s activities, Carver School, Forum, Ballet, Firehouse… The Virus rumbled, we left for Mexico. We did not lay in supplies!! We considered staying – lots of sun and nobody sick – but headed home. That meant quarantine.

How lucky we are to have a home at Wintergreen. We have been here since March 20th. We feel safe and do not worry about social distancing. We are watching Spring creep up the mountains and fog from the valley rise to cloud our windows. The Virus seems far away, and we feel a little guilty. We have each other. We are blessed but sad. We are especially missing family and friends and hugs from grandchildren. There is much need everywhere. We try to help.

We have been married for 55 years. Joni jokes this is because we spent so little time together! Mark worked long hours and Joni did everything else. Being together 24-7 has been a big change but has turned out to be a grand adventure. Time has slowed with few appointments or obligations. More talking and better listening – although we both know it all!!! Loving and caring has become more immediate and real. Mark has learned how to do lots on line. We are “Zooming,” and Joni has come to cherish the technology she once disdained. The greatest plus is reconnecting with so many family and friends.

Faith? We now attend on-line services, coffee hour, and Bible Study. We learn, catch up with old friends, and embrace new. Hearing God’s voice in this strange new world…having hope in the face of pestilence – seeking connection, healing, and love.

Joni and Mark grew up and attended college in Ohio. They were high school sweethearts. Their current RVA home at the Prestwould is located in the center of VCU’s Monroe Park Campus. They are dedicated City dwellers. Mark is a retired lawyer who practiced Benefits Law with Hunton & Williams and still does pro-bono work there. Joni is a retired 2nd-grade teacher, mother, and whatever. Their daughter Melisa, her husband Matt, and their grandchildren Adell and Luke live in Richmond, and their son Justin and his wife Libby live in Venice, California. Mark and Joni were drawn to St. Paul’s 50 years ago by great preaching, great mission, and great people.

MAY 22nd | The Jameses

Joseph (Joe) | Phyllis | Dominique | Douglass

– Reflection written by Joe James

I remember the day when COVID-19 took over our life. It was March 12th, and Phyllis was planning to leave for Florida on Friday the 13th. The plan at that time included a quick trip to spend a night with her mother in Port St. Lucie, and I would join her the next day for a vacation with my cousins in Tampa. It was a very quiet day at my place of work, and we were all content with the idea that COVID-19 would remain in New York and NOVA. We had received our PPE and placed them in a safe place knowing that we wouldn’t need them. About 11:00 a.m. my staff informed me that one of my patients was coming in after exposure to the coronavirus, and that he was not feeling well.

My family and I led a very quiet community-focused life prior to the pandemic. Phyllis and I are working at becoming empty nesters and no longer have to make emergency food trips to Williamsburg. My oldest son, Dominique recently moved to Chicago, and Douglass is threatening to move out soon. We travel as a family and enjoy each other’s company. With the arrival of the pandemic, all of our plans have changed; but, the thing is, I believe our family is now much closer even though our son is so far away.

Phyllis has set up her office in the dining room, and I’m still working out of my office. Douglass is still in graduate school and reports having an enormous amount of work all the time. My sartorial habits have changed drastically, my wife made a quick trip to Costco and bought me new pants. At first I refused to even consider the idea of wearing them but after a serious discussion I’ve adjusted nicely. I’m also expected to come home, change in the garage, shower immediately, and then I can interact with the family.

Over the past two months we’ve been in touch with many friends with whom we’ve lost touch. Instead of spending money on vacations and restaurants, we now cook at home. Prior to COVID-19, my oldest son and I were planning a Route 66 trip this spring. Instead we read together at lunchtime two days a week. Phyllis speaks with her mother, and Dominique, almost every day.

Working as a physician in a COVID-19 environment is scary. It reminds me of the days when I was training in New York and HIV made its presence known. I remember being afraid to even enter the room of patients with HIV/AIDs. Today I saw a patient with HIV, we had a great conversation. Hopefully, in a few months I’ll be able to have conversations without a mask and actually see smiles and even some frowns.

Phyllis and Joseph moved to Richmond from New York/Connecticut in 1997. They became members at St. Paul’s in 1997. Phyllis teaches at J Sargeant Reynold Community College and Joseph is an Internal Medicine Physician. They have two sons, Dominique and Douglass. Joseph is the Senior Warden at St. Paul’s.

MAY 15TH | Justin Castonguay and Keydron Dunn

– Reflection written by Justin Castonguay

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. Turn and face the strange. Ch-ch-changes. There’s gonna have to be a different man. Time may change me. But I can’t trace time…” We’re pretty sure Bowie got a glimpse of 2020 when he wrote these words. True – change is inevitable, but when it comes in floods instead of waves, it can be a lot to swallow at one time.

Keydron and I have been city boys and social butterflies over the past ten years – performing, networking, and being fabulous! Needless to say, physical distancing AND moving to the country have been quite the adjustment for us both. We were blessed to close on our first home on March 20, 2020. We purchased a beautiful house on an acre of land out in Henrico. The property came with a charming detached cottage where my mother is now living after spending her whole life in West Point. For us, right now is the perfect time to stay at home!

Luckily, both Keydron and I have been able to work from home during the quarantine. We both work at a coordinated care program for seniors with disabilities – the most vulnerable population to COVID-19. Death has always been a reoccurring theme of our job, but the numbers have spiked drastically as of late. It’s tough, but we try our best to make each precious moment joyful for them. I love overhearing Keydron call them all daily with his corny jokes, tricky trivia, and beautiful singalongs. I’m not sure he realizes that he warms my heart as much as theirs when he sends them messages of love.

It has been very cathartic for us to be able to “nest” and piece together our new Shangri La during this difficult time in the world. Now we’re blessed with so much green and sky and room to spread out which has greatly helped us maintain our sanity. The former owners had quite the green thumb, so as spring sprung, our yard filled with glorious colors and fragrances. We spend every nice day outside taking it all into our mind, body, and spirit. Every barefoot walk in the grass is a prayer. Every buzzing bee and songbird is a psalm. Every warm breeze through windows is a reminder of God’s Grace.

Justin and Keydron both work at InnovAge PACE, Program of All-Inclusive Care of the Elderly. Justin is an Administrator and Keydron provides Recreational Programming. Both are local performers of stage and screen and can be seen as their alter-egos Magnolia Jackson Pickett Burnside and Barnabas Beverly Burnside.

MAY 8TH | The Coogans

Dave | Joan | Lucy | Leo

– Reflection written by Dave Coogan

In BC-19, the time before the plague, Joan, Leo and Lucy were out the door by 7:30 a.m. or 8 a.m., leaving me, Dave, to either be productive in my job as an English professor or play drums. Now the children sleep in while Joan slogs through meetings. Then they wake, descend the stairs, eat whatever, and watch. In quarantine, there are witnesses. They have their stories. I have mine.

We anticipated the need for comfort during this trying time. Joan discerned what this might entail, and Lucy heard the call to bake. But it still hurts. I can’t see my students face to face. I can’t do my podcast. I can’t go to band practice or play a gig. Lucy misses her many sundry meet-ups with friends. Leo has had to move his dungeons and dragons online. Joan and I have had to suspend our long-standing Saturday morning Sub Rosa date.

But nothing really changes. Each day, Joan shames me with just how much work she gets done. I try to compensate by cooking dinner. We eat. Leo treats us with a discourse on open-source coding and the evils of Big Tech. After dinner, Lucy and I sing and play at the piano and often post something fun to Facebook. We get likes letting us know who is listening, connecting. Other nights, we zoom with family, with old friends, and in these ways we remember who we are out there.

Each day is a gift. Wake, eat, work, walk. We are lucky. We want not. Compared with so many people I know from teaching writing at the jail who are out now struggling to survive, who don’t have a home to shelter in, who can’t wake and eat and wonder about “likes” on their social media but struggle to figure out the next move in life, we are blessed. Grateful. I have a phone that works and can tune in Charlie for evening prayer. What am I really missing?

As an English professor, I need to close by noting that the worst phrase in this crisis is “social distancing.” It’s just not that. That’s not what’s happening. It’s physical distancing. COVID-19 can’t stop us from being God’s people, plural, purposeful, joyful.

The Coogans live in Church Hill and have been attending St. Paul’s for 16 years. David is a professor at VCU and Joan works for the Federal Reserve. Lucy is a junior at Appomattox Regional Governors School and Leo is an 8th grader at Binford Middle School.