In his search for a way to serve God and his neighbor, what’s a tattooed, cigar-loving, drum-playing Pentecostal-raised boy to do? Meet Lakelander Stetson Glass, a middle-school teacher, graduate student and candidate for the priesthood in an obscure Episcopal denomination.
He’s also at the center of the recent Black Lives Matter protest movement in Lakeland, arrested during the May 31 demonstration and then invited to participate in the first of a series of community forums on race relations, joining young black activists in advocating for changes in policies and in attitudes in the white community.
Glass, 29, says that his spiritual journey has been one of wandering from one tradition to another and never quite fitting in, until he joined a recent trend that brings together the long-separated liturgical and evangelical traditions within Protestantism and also allows him the freedom to express his convictions about social justice.
He is studying to become a priest in the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches (CEEC), a small and loose-knit collection of parishes that observes high-church forms of worship – vestments, candles, recital of creeds, weekly celebration of the eucharist – with the passion and emphasis on Bible and salvation of the evangelical and Pentecostal traditions.
“It’s been a journey of discovery. When you’re raised being convinced about everything and then everything is challenged, it really shakes things up,” Glass said.
He was raised in the Lakeland area by a single mother and graduated from Mulberry High School. The family attended a Pentecostal church where his maternal grandfather was the pastor, but when visiting his father’s parents, he would attend their Methodist church, which exposed him to a more liturgical form of worship.
With a foot in each camp, Glass earned a bachelor’s degree in ministry from Southeastern University in Lakeland and worked as a youth pastor at United Methodist churches in Plant City and The Villages before returning to Southeastern to work on a master’s degree in theology. He considered becoming a pastor in the Assemblies of God or the Church of God, returning to his Pentecostal roots, but his studies in the Bible led him to question some of that tradition’s teachings.
“The way I was raised, you took the Bible literally – when it mattered. I realized reading the Bible that my notions about what’s right became challenged,” he said.
Glass worked for GEICO and as a teacher at Excel Christian Academy and decided to pursue a PhD through Bangor University in the UK, focusing on the biblical Book of Revelation. During his studies he met Ed Gungor, a bishop in the CEEC, whose own spiritual journey resonated with Glass.
He also discovered that the CEEC’s blend of liturgical and evangelical and Pentecostal practices was what he had been looking for.
“Something about the sacraments and liturgy had a way of grounding me. When I didn’t have the words to say, the formal prayers were something I could hold on to,” he said.
If the combination seems strange, like oil and water, Glass compares the ancient rituals and worship practices to a trellis.
“The trellis helps shape an ivy. New growth is being formed on the past,” he said.
The CEEC is part of a trend that has been around for more than 30 years. In the 1980s, young evangelicals and Pentecostals began to realize that their traditions were ignoring much of the history and theology of Christianity, said Robby Waddell, professor of New Testament at Southeastern. Waddell cited the work of Robert Webber, who taught at Wheaton College, Billy Graham’s alma mater.
“There is a not insignificant trend of young people longing for historical Christian traditions. Robert Webber saw this. He called it ‘ancient-future,’” Waddell said. “Pentecostals are radically open to the (Holy) Spirit, but they read the Cappadocians and find that in (fourth-century bishop and theologian) Basil the Great also. For Stetson, the CEEC pulled a couple of strands in his own life together.”
Glass has been ordained as a deacon in the CEEC, a transitional step toward the priesthood. He found fellow travelers at Southeastern in two professors: Chris Green, who teaches theology, and Waddell, both of whom are also deacons in the CEEC. In addition to his duties at Southeastern, Waddell also is a pastor at Oasis Church in Lakeland, which is affiliated with the Church of God but incorporates liturgical touches into its worship, among them observing historical church seasons such as Advent and Lent and holding communion each Sunday. Glass and his wife and children regularly worship at Oasis.
Perhaps fittingly, it was on Pentecost Sunday that Glass was arrested while participating in a protest that had broken away from the main rally in Munn Park and moved to the intersection of North Florida Avenue and Memorial Boulevard.
As Glass tells it, other duties had prevented him from being at Munn Park, but he arrived at the Memorial Boulevard protest, wearing his clerical collar and a cross, about 7 p.m. as things were winding down. Despite an earlier outburst of violence, things were peaceful, he said, until the Lakeland Police Department’s SWAT team arrived and tried to disperse the remaining crowd.
The police fired crowd-dispersal gas, and Glass said he walked into the crosswalk on Memorial Boulevard, hands raised, and sat down in order to draw police attention away from the crowd, which included women and children. Officers arrested him, although he was released and charges against him were later dropped. He was let go from his teaching position at Excel Christian Academy, but he has a new position as a middle school teacher at Navigator Academy of Leadership, a charter school in Davenport.
Glass said his participation in the protest is just another part of his spiritual journey.
“What’s kept me so passionate about the CEEC … is our commitment to loving people, and having honest and open dialogue is what has kept us grounded,” he said. “The CEEC supports everything I’ve done. I’ve always cleared everything with the bishop.”
He has formed a nonprofit, The Just Church Initiative, with the goal of being a partner with organizations and local governments to further justice causes.
“One thing local churches do well is outreach,” Glass said. “Marching, policy issues – churches struggle to know where to begin.”
Allyson “AL” Lewis, who organized the Call to Consciousness community forum on June 8 in the wake of the protest, invited Glass to join the panel of speakers. He described how he had to explain to one of his four children – all of whom are adopted and children of color – about the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Glass’ remarks generally were well-received by the black community members present.
“Originally I struggled with not wanting to be viewed as a white savior. But Jarvis Washington (president of Black Lives Matter Restoration Polk) told me, ‘We come from different races, different cultures, and if the community that’s not of color is to be our partner, we need you to help us make them understand,’” Glass said.