FARGO – In the endearing classic, “Charlotte’s Web,” author E.B. White writes, “It’s not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.”
Jamie Parsley has been described as both, with the addition, “…and a beloved priest.”
The rare combination began unfolding early on. “At 13, I got this very clear calling to become a priest, and it completely rattled my life,” he says.
Parsley, a Lutheran then, recalls the first tap. Perusing thrift-store shelves, he spotted a dusty St. Joseph missal. “It was from about 1963, with Latin on one side, English on the other, and a biography of the saints,” he says. “That book enraptured me.”
Not only did saints’ lives interest him, but he was intrigued by the Blessed Virgin Mary, he says. “Everything about it seemed so mysterious.”
That same day, while walking in a cemetery near his home in West Fargo, Parsley experienced a “very clear inward feeling of ‘I am supposed to become a priest,’” sensing it was Mary, Jesus’ mother, speaking to him. “And that was it. One day I was one thing, and the next, my whole life was going onto a very different trajectory.”
Some of his friends then had begun rebelling against the faith of their upbringing, even becoming atheist. “My rebellion went in the opposite direction,” he says. “I was very convicted; enough to stand my ground.”
In high school, Parsley became known as “that guy who was going into the priesthood,” and despite the consternation of some family members, at 15, he was confirmed Catholic at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Fargo.
His cousin Renaye Clemenson remembers the stir. “It kind of shook up the aunties,” she says, chuckling, “but he was very sincere about it. He wasn’t afraid to go against the norm and do what he felt was right.”
Clemenson describes Parsley as “an old soul,” even when young. “He’s not wired the way the rest of us are on some things.”
Parsley wouldn’t argue the point. At 18, he started in at St. John’s University at Collegeville, his sights set on seminary. But it wasn’t to be.
“I was only there a couple days, and realized something wasn’t quite right,” he recounts. “I was kind of lost after that. I was like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole, and for a time, I didn’t know who I was.”
For a time, he “kind of floated around; I drifted away from the church.” Though his faith in God remained strong, he says, his faith in the Catholic Church waned. He began dipping his toes in other religions, including Zen Buddhism, but nothing really clicked.
One day, a Lutheran pastor friend asked if he’d ever looked into the Episcopal Church. Curious, Parsley went to a service at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in North Fargo, and his soul reignited. “It’s kind of bizarre that I’m there now (as pastor),” he says.
Parsley says he needed that wandering time to better understand others who feel adrift. It’s also when he fell in love with poetry. “I had my first poetry book published when I was 22, my second at 25, and another when 27,” he says.
He’d first confronted poetry in high school, where, in a class with Cindy Bleier, he discovered that poets weren’t “just these dead white guys that lived in England,” but poetry was to be found also in America, with the likes of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson – and that it didn’t always rhyme. “There was something exhilarating and free about that kind of poetry, and it captured my imagination.”
During that drifting time, he sent some of his own poems to Mark Vinz, a local poet and writing instructor, who responded with an encouraging word. “That was enough to sustain me for a long time.”
In 2004, Parsley was inaugurated as an associate laureate of poetry, under the recommendation of North Dakota’s poet laureate, Larry Woiwode.
“I chose him as an associate laureate on the basis of an early book, ‘The Loneliness of Blizzards,’ which I believe was his best,” Woiwode says. “I’ve followed his books since, nine more, I believe, so he’s a prolific, well-versed – if one may use that term – poet.”
Parsley went to graduate school in Vermont, thinking he might become a writing professor, but his calling to the priesthood gently persisted.
The calling returns
“I was finishing up grad school, getting ready to find a job, and, once again, something wasn’t feeling right,” Parsley says. Discovering that the Episcopal Church had priests, he wondered if that could be his calling. “As I started to pursue that, the doors kept opening…and that’s where my route went.”
He ended up at the Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Wisconsin. “I got my master’s degree at 29 and was ordained when I was 34.”
Finally, “everything made sense,” he says. “I realized that calling at Sunset Memorial Gardens all those years ago – this is what it was all about. And Mary’s presence through all of that was there for me.”
Michelle Gelinske first crossed Parsley’s path some 20 years ago at a funeral at which he was assisting as pastor, and she, doing music ministry.
“Our friendship grew from an intersection of common interests,” she says. “We discovered we both liked Nirvana, and R.E.M. (bands), and there were certain parts of ourselves that were similar,” if not unusual. “If we visit someplace new, we don’t mind going off to a cemetery and reading dates on gravestones.”
Over time, “as you learn these bits and pieces about somebody, you start to connect on a soul level,” Gelinske says. The two have collaborated on “countless services of every sort,” and even combined their gifts on poetry-set-to-music endeavors.
“Sometimes, we’ll end up thinking alike, and one of us will sing out a line from a song from something from the past, and we’ll join in together,” she says. “There’s just that sense of connection” that is rare.
As for his pastoral role, she sees him as “a modern-day Jesus” of sorts, always “looking for that person who maybe needs an opportunity to talk, taking them to Atomic Coffee, and if they need a pair of shoes, to Target to get shoes.”
Often, he works behind the scenes. “He’s buried ashes of people who have been left unclaimed,” Gelinske notes, helping “bring somebody’s life to a close, and letting others know they had a blessing on their existence and weren’t forgotten.”
Parsley has a way of encouraging a feeling of hope, even in death, while still embracing life, she adds, balancing life’s joys and sorrows “by celebrating those joys.”
Clemenson agrees that Parsley “can joke with the best of us,” while still retaining a seriousness about the faith.
His “mid-century modern” home is decorated in that fashion, she says, adding that he also likes watching “Bewitched” and “scoping out antique stores,” and is both voracious reader and movie consumer.
And don’t get him started on plane crashes. “He’ll give you the dates, places, and the number of people who passed away in each,” Clemenson says. “He’s got all these bits of trivia in his brain.”
Parsley is not only interested in what has come before us, she says, but what we are now, and approaches people in a very non-judgmental way, seeing all as children of God.
A legacy of listening
Jordan Schroerer says soon after meeting Parsley, they discovered ways of relating that went beyond the norm. Growing up Catholic, Schroerer knew his birthday of Dec. 9 falls on the Feast Day of St. Juan Diego. Since Parsley was born on Dec 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, they’ve swapped jokes about whose birthdate is best.
“It’s just one of those bizarre things to reference that most people wouldn’t understand,” he says. “I’ve always been fascinated by religion and faith and different perspectives, and he is a wealth of knowledge on all sorts of things.”
But it’s more than just head knowledge, Schroerer says, noting that Parsley, as a storyteller, is first a good listener, a skill he began practicing as a teen while discerning his vocation. Even then, “he was listening with his whole soul, to Christ,” he notes, “and I think if you are able to hear that message at a young age, you’re a natural listener, and through listening, you heal.”
Watching Parsley engage with those of different persuasions, Schroerer also has been impressed with his subtle, compassionate approach to evangelizing.
“He has this way of getting people to reflect on their faith and on the bigger picture without ever making it noticeable, so you don’t feel like it’s a lecture,” he says. “It just feels like a mutual conversation. But when you leave it, you realize he brought you one step closer to being whole, being fully you.”
Parsley’s poetry and musings on faith can be found at http://jamieparsley.com/.
Salonen, a wife and mother of five, works as a freelance writer and speaker in Fargo. Email her at email@example.com, and find more of her work at Peace Garden Passage, http://roxanesalonen.com/.