Forty-six years of preaching and more than 1,300 career sermons later, Reverend Ed Bacon will walk out the doors of Pasadena’s All Saints Church this weekend, feeling two things as he leaves his historic post for his retirement and a new home close to family in Georgia.
“I feel gratitude and joy,” he said, in a late afternoon interview in his office last week. The afternoon sun illuminated him sitting in his chair as we chatted, creating a comfortable pose that might only be described, forgive me, as beatific.
Reverend Ed Bacon will preach in his final service as rector of All Saints Church at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday, May 1, on “The Journey of Love-Alignment.” The service will be held in front of the church at 132 North Euclid Avenue
“I have just been so grateful for how this retirement has evolved. It’s been an eighteen-month process,” he began to explain, slowly.
“With a long lead time so the search committee can do their work, and the whole plan is working, and that always makes you feel powerful and joyful, and I love this work, so much and I love this place and I love the people, and I love the mission and I love the agenda, and so there is a lot of affection and gratitude swirling around,” he said, smiling.
He agreed that there is retirement and then there is retirement, so, asked to describe his own, he thought for a moment, and said, “ I don’t have good language for that yet.”
But it was language — his sermons and writings — along with his work, that brought him the renown he earned in Pasadena.
Born in Jesup, Georgia, Ed Bacon was raised the son of a conservative Baptist minister and school superintendent. He eventually enrolled at Mercer University in Macon, where he planned to become a doctor. But Mercer changed everything. It was where his philosophy of “inclusive compassion and justice for everyone” would be born. He would then nurture this belief in his works to come.
As a student, Bacon met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by chance at the baggage claim in the Atlanta airport in 1967. That meeting set him on the road to his work and his career, one which at a deep level he had probably chosen, anyway.
Since arriving at All Saints Church in 1995, Reverend Bacon achieved the kind of attention and even fame he likely didn’t need, but that many church leaders could only dream of. Among his many awards are recognitions from numerous educational institutions, and community councils, including the Religious Freedom Award from the ACLU, as well as a FAITH Award from the NAACP and a Peace Award from the Islamic Shura Council.
The awards speak volumes about his long-time commitment to diversity and unity.
But back to that retirement. Says Bacon, “I feel like I’m grasping for words and metaphors, but it feels like I’m going from an institutional priesthood to a non-institutional freelance priesthood. I’ve always said that I would never stop working, until my last breath, and that I would be a priest until my last breath.”
“And,” he continued, “ I do see, as we reach a certain age, the importance of putting down the institutional responsibilities, and that’s where I am now.”
“But the challenge of life is to be yourself in your public life as well as your private life,” he said, explaining the dual role of revered public figure and husband, father and friend to so many. “So I think with the help of this community, I’ve had a pretty good batting average of being myself. It’s easy to be your false self in your public institutional mask, but this place really invites a kind of transparency, integrity and being who you are, so that has helped me.”
While he can point to so many social and church-wide achievements, perhaps the greatest has been one of the smallest, but with larger ramifications. It’s been helping so many of his parishioners rid themselves of their fears.
“I have discovered here that there is this deep human hunger, to get a leg up on their fears,” he said. “People inherently understand that fear sabotages their desire to flourish; it is the enemy of creativity and thinking, it erodes relationships and prevents someone from becoming their true self. The people who come here want to hear that, as a reminder.”
“One of the propensities that human beings have is amnesia about life-giving things,” he explains, “but people know that fear keeps them isolated, and that’s the myth of the separate self, that somehow we are not connected, but I find people hungry to lose those fears.”
That tiny message has changed so many lives in so many ways, and Reverend Bacon is the first to understand that. That message has been the underpinning of so much of his work in helping the church reach out to the Muslim community, for example, or perform gay marriages when other churches would not (which All Saints was doing, in fact, even before his arrival).
In 2009, when Reverend Bacon told a phone caller on the Oprah show that “being Gay is a gift from God,” the nation paid attention, and in a good way, the growing acceptance of gay marriage can be pointed to as being one of the best examples of his inclusionary work.
But what he will remember most is the simple path, he says.
“Just being a part of the journey for people — the marriages, the baptisms, all of that — as well as the deep relationships that we have created with Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and others,” he recalled wistfully, “as well as the experience of all that supportive energy we received when the IRS was investigating us ( a two-year probe by the Bush Administration following a 2004 anti-war sermon), and then marriage after marriage after marriage of gay people once we were able to do that. That’s what I will remember.”
And now, Reverend Ed Bacon has literally given away his books, the house is Georgia is being prepared, and his bags are being packed. He will leave a legacy of compassion equally as large as the church itself, but will always remain a simple Southern preacher, preaching understanding and openness.