Spiritual but not religious, a description of a lot of folks from Asheville and surrounding environs, including my wife Shonnie and me. So when we arrived in Asheville in 1997, seeking a church to attend was not high on our list of priorities. In fact, it wasn’t on our list at all. But after several people at various times told us “I think y’all would like Jubilee,” one Sunday morning we decided to give up the Sunday comics and a second cup of coffee and get ourselves downtown to find out what this Jubilee! thing was all about.
What Shonnie and I found was an inclusive and spirited group of folks sitting in a circle, an eclectic four-piece band playing rock and jazz tunes, and an inimitable minister named Howard Hanger who led uplifting, socially-conscious, exuberant celebrations each and every Sunday. Yeah, there was some Christianity thrown in, as well as some Judaism, Native American tradition, Paganism, Hinduism, as well as wisdom from other spiritual practices. But there was no fire and brimstone, no dogmatic moral code was demanded, no promises of pie in the sky. There was, however, a call to love and connect with one another, to feed the hungry, to house the homeless, and to work for economic/racial/gender justice. It was close to a perfect fit for us, though I sometimes excused myself during the Bible reading to hit the restroom or make brunch reservations down Wall Street at Early Girl Eatery.
Now Shonnie and I have been Jubilants (members of Jubilee!) for more than 20 years. And during that time, we have both served on the Jubilee! Board of Directors and helped lead Jubilee! into the digital age as members of the team that created their first website. What’s more, Howard officiated our wedding ceremony in 1999, and he baptized our daughter Gracelyn in 2011. Yet, for some years now, we at Jubilee!Community have known that sooner or later Howard would retire from his role as Minister of Ritual and Celebration. And many of us wondered how, even if, Jubilee would survive without this unique, expressive, playful, openhearted, life-affirming, genuine man.
After all, Howard officially founded Jubilee!. After holding celebrations in the basement of the Central Methodist Church, where Howard served on the staff for five years, the Jubilee! Community was incorporated. In 1989, Jubilants rented an abandoned nightclub on Wall Street in downtown Asheville, and the first celebration at this space took place in August of that year. Though Jubilee! has refused to indulge in an “edifice complex” (that is, pouring lots of money into a fancy physical structure), we bought the building in 2000 and over the next few years did the work to create the earth-friendly, inviting space you see today. What you don’t see, however, are the hundreds of thousands of dollars that were donated to worthy service organizations in Western North Carolina in lieu of purchasing fancy, cushioned pews and other ornamental accoutrements.
Now after thirty years, Howard has retired, and Amy Steinberg, has been chosen. But for us no one can replace Howard in our hearts, where we will hold and honor him for the rest of our lives . . . and, who knows, maybe even beyond. Thank you for the huge role you’ve played in our lives, Howard. Thank you for keeping the main thing the main thing. Thank you for being you.