Journey of faith has led him here

Rector: The man called to lead Maryland's largest Episcopal parish feels his Jewish heritage will help strengthen interfaith ties.

January 15, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The Rev. Paul D. Tunkle doesn't fit the august image of one who would be rector of the region's largest and wealthiest Episcopal church.

He drives a motorcycle. He's got a direct, no-nonsense and slightly sarcastic style typical of a native New Yorker. And he was born and raised a Jew.

Tunkle, who will be installed later this month as the 10th rector of the Church of the Redeemer, the largest parish in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, is an adult convert to Christianity from Judaism. He shared his background in one of his first sermons at the church in North Baltimore's Homeland neighborhood.

"I grew up in New York City, in a secular Jewish household," he said. "We celebrated Passover and seders in our home. We had Hanukkah celebrations and Purim celebrations. We went to synagogue occasionally, but it was more social pressure than it was religious observance."

He continued with the intensely personal story of his spiritual quest, his marriage to a Christian woman and his dramatic conversion experience during a violent winter storm on the rocky coast of Maine.

As he begins his ministry in Baltimore, Tunkle says he is happy to share the story of his spiritual journey, but is concerned about the reaction of the city's Jewish community.

Seeing their continuity as a matter of survival, Jewish leaders have denounced Christian proselytism and what they perceive as the elevation of Jewish converts as model Christians, such as the 1998 canonization of Edith Stein, a Jewish-born Catholic nun who died in a Nazi prison camp.

"I am very respectful of the Jewish faith," Tunkle said in an interview. "I do not want other Jews to do what I did. If every Jew in the world did what I did, there'd be no more Judaism, and I don't want that to happen."

Tunkle said he works "at cross purposes" with the group Jews for Jesus, which is made up of evangelical Christians of Jewish origin whose goal is to get other Jews to accept Jesus as the messiah.

"I'm just not there. I want to celebrate the rich resources of Judaism and help Christians understand that the Jews' relationship with God is equally as valued as the Christians' relationship with God."

Hearing Tunkle's approach, Arthur C. Abramson, the executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said he did not expect great dispute.

"If he's simply saying to his congregation, `This is where I once was and this is where I am now,' I don't consider that a proselytizing message, one suggesting conversion and `Follow me,'" Abramson said. "If it's done in a manner suggesting `Why don't you follow me?' there's a problem. That's not a message that will be well-received in Baltimore or anywhere else in the United States where there's a Jewish community."

The lay leaders at Redeemer who called Tunkle as rector saw his Jewish background as a possible advantage in continuing positive relations with Baltimore's Jewish community, one of the country's largest with about 100,000 individuals in 37,000 households.

"Redeemer has been very strong for years in Jewish-Christian dialogue," said Jeffrey P. Ayres," senior warden for the Baltimore church. "The fact that he has the background and knowledge of Judaism and the sensitivity to work with all faiths ... was a very positive factor."

The Bronx-born Tunkle said he began his spiritual journey at age 20 when he was awed by the Rocky Mountains during a visit to Colorado in the early 1970s. He was struck by the notion that something that beautiful and grand could not have happened by accident. So he began to dabble spiritually.

"I had an opportunity, among other things, to learn some yoga, some transcendental meditation. I sat at the feet of a 14-year-old eastern mystic guru. And I flunked out of finding God through alternate nostril breathing," he told his congregation.

He also met and began dating his wife-to-be Judy in Colorado. He said she informed him that if and when she decided to pursue matters of faith, it would be in the Christian faith of her childhood.

They married and moved to Rockland, Maine, where Tunkle began working as an accountant at a fishing company. The couple attended an Episcopal church.

"I was observing, Judy was worshipping," Tunkle said.

At one point, he said, he read the Bible cover to cover and concluded: "This is either the greatest hoax in the history of the world or it's the best news I've ever heard in my life, and I would like to know which it is."

Tunkle said he became obsessed with the question until it reached a crisis point. He left his house late one stormy night, drove to a rocky promontory, "and I uttered the first prayer I uttered in my life ... I stood up, stuck out my chin, raised my fist into the sky and said, `I can't take this anymore. If you're out there, do something!'"

He said he saw a flash of lightning "and in that flash of light appeared the risen Christ in this posture: Arms extended, perhaps arms of crucifixion, perhaps arms of victory, perhaps arms of welcome. It came and went as fast as a flash of lightning."

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