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Celebrations of Faith: Heistand named 35th rector

May 14, 2012

Special to the Standard

NORTH KINGSTOWN – The Rev. Virginia Heistand, a single mom of three, sits in her sun-drenched, book-filled study in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
Beaming, she declares, “Everything in my world has changed in the last three months and it’s wonderful.”
In that timeframe, she has become the venerable Wickford church’s first female full-time minister – although other women have served in interim roles – and, after a career in clergy housing, she has purchased her first home, in rural Hope Valley.
Rev. Heistand is St. Paul’s 35th rector and is the daughter and granddaughter of distinguished ecclesiastics. Her father, the Rt. Rev. Joseph Thomas Heistand, Bishop of Arizona, was a staunch supporter of women’s ordination; her grandfather was the Rt. Rev. John Thomas Heistand, Bishop of Harrisburg which is now the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania.
Living up to their legacy, she says, “is one of the hardest things in what I do. My predecessors were so faithful, so strong; they were towers of faith. The more you love God, you can and want to do a good job but I know I will never be as good as either of them.”
On the other hand, Rev. Heistand is cheered and sustained by words of wisdom from a nurturing priest after she’d undergone a tough evaluation of seminary field work. “She said to me ‘The Lord has called you to be you, not somebody else.’ It gave me a lot of hope; removed the pressure.”
A graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary, Virginia was ordained to the priesthood by her father in 1991, the year before he died.
Born in Virginia and raised in Arizona, she comes to St. Paul’s from Westover Episcopal Church in Charles City, Va. The parish is so small, she says, laughing, that her three kids were “half the youth group.”
Those children are 15-year-old Emily and Harrison, adopted from Bulgaria, and 13-year-old Caroline, whom she learned she was expecting almost immediately upon returning home with the twin babies.
Heistand was recruited by St. Paul’s after the church had been under the nearly two-year stewardship of an interim pastor.
“I was not actually looking,” she notes. “They called me and asked me to be in their process. I loved them from the first [time I met them]. The congregation has a lovely, clear, strong faith [mixed with] a lot of laughter. They’re really nice people here; very open.”
The North Kingstown church is the fourth she’s served.
Rev. Heistand, who has a particular devotion to Bible study, is clear about the personal belief she shares in her sermons: “Every Gospel should be good news.”
She adds that she makes pastoral illustrations of how ancient scriptures translate to modern life but finds the majority of people already have deeply personal faith. “Most of us live in the intimate connections with God.”
Simply knowing what the Gospel says is not enough. She believes the how trumps the what –the existence of all that information is there as a matter of fact. “It’s not up to us” to decide what’s relevant. Knowledge without action, essentially, is meaningless.
According to Rev. Heistand, “If you pack the head full of stuff but not the heart, or don’t give your hands and feet something to do” with the teachings, there’s really no point. She quotes a clergy friend who says of the church, “It’s not a party for saints; it’s a hospital for sinners.”
She adds, “If we’re doing the work of the Lord, we’re gong to be clothing, feeding, sheltering people.”
Rev. Heistand asserts that when you come to church, “You’re here to be transformed. It’s not a peaceful babysitting moment; you’re about to be broken open and be made new.”
For a woman who is brilliant, centered and comfortable in her faith, she insists – remarkably – “I always thought I was a really boring parish priest. I preach the Gospel, visit the sick, point people to God, work with youth and bake a lot of cookies. I’m a meat-and-potatoes dinosaur. But I’m really blessed.
"To be present when a person realizes that God loves them despite everything, to see that happen is a privilege."
The secret to Rev. Heistand’s serenity couldn’t be simpler. It is this: “Love God and love your people.”

Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN.

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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