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POWERBOOK 2012: Bridging dividesBishop Nathan Baxter works to unify people toward peaceful goals

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Bishop Nathan Baxter, at the front door of St. Stephen's Episcopal Cathedral on Front Street in Harrisburg, is a third-generation clergyman. His positions prior to his tenure as the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania include that of rector of Lancaster's St. James Episcopal Church and dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Photo/Amy Spangler
Bishop Nathan Baxter, at the front door of St. Stephen's Episcopal Cathedral on Front Street in Harrisburg, is a third-generation clergyman. His positions prior to his tenure as the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania include that of rector of Lancaster's St. James Episcopal Church and dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Photo/Amy Spangler

The largest framed photograph — maybe 2 feet wide and 3 feet long — in Bishop Nathan Baxter's Harrisburg office is of him and the Dalai Lama, kneeling in Washington, D.C.'s National Cathedral, eyes closed, hands pressed together, praying.

The image of Baxter and Tibetan Buddhism's spiritual leader is as powerful to the casual viewer as it is to Baxter, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania. He smiles ear to ear talking about that day.

That meeting is just one of many Baxter has had with spiritual leaders, as well as politicians. Letters from former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, former first lady Nancy Reagan, and many others cover the large wall on the left in his office, thanking Baxter for his ministry.

As dean of the National Cathedral, he planned President Ronald Reagan's funeral. He presided over a multifaith remembrance service after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

But at the center of his career was a calling, he said.

"I have always tried to remember that that is God's calling in my life," Baxter said, "to be someone who reaches out to care for people, whether it's an individual or a diocese or, at a special moment nationally, to speak words that bring healing, that bring curing, that remind people of God's love even in the midst of tragedy."

Baxter said he pushed Bill Clinton to be honest about his personal troubles. He pushed George W. Bush to seek Muslim leaders to speak at the Sept. 11 service who would be recognized as authentic among other Muslims, not just Messianic Muslims who recognize Jesus as savior the way Christians do.

Baxter has had private conversations with all the presidents back to Jimmy Carter, as well as U.S. Supreme Court justices, members of Congress and key national business leaders. When he has their ears, he tries to guide them to do what they know is right, deep down.

"I've used that opportunity to remind them that in the momentous decisions they have to make … what does your faith say to you? Include that in your consideration. Don't forget in all your consultations and debates and so on, put this in your prayers, because I know you're a person of faith, even if you're not active."

Those who know him say Baxter has always worked to unify people toward goals of peace and understanding, whether that's gay or straight, black or white, left or right, Christian or Muslim. That makes him one of the most influential figures in religious communities, in the nation and in Central Pennsylvania.

"(Baxter is) a very spiritual person. He befriends people and is easy to talk to. People can talk and trust him," said Peter Schmiechen, former president of the Lancaster Theological Seminary.

Baxter has a way of disarming people and drawing them into conversations that promote greater understanding among people who might have talked past each other many times before or simply have different cultures and history, Schmiechen said.

"Later, Nathan would find bridges that are important for relations between black and white folks," he said.

That was important to the Episcopal Church because it has predominantly white congregations in many areas, Schmiechen said. So Baxter was always working on those bridges. Those lessons served Baxter well wherever he went, he said.

It's important to understand that no one is as one-dimensional as he or she may appear, Baxter said.

He said he faced that often, but particularly when he spoke at the funeral services for former U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright, a man known as both a staunch segregationist and creator of the Fulbright Program, one of the most prestigious academic awards for international studies to further international understanding and peace.

Baxter said balancing Fulbright's long opposition to civil rights and his opposition to the Vietnam War — where Baxter served as an Army medic — was personally difficult.

"I struggled with that, but I finally came to the place where I said, 'We are complex beings,'" he said. "And how do we look at a person's life, not just one particular piece?"

In 2003, after what was a 12-year spiritual whirlwind in the nation's capital, Baxter came home to Central Pennsylvania. He was born in Coatesville, Chester County, and grew up in Harrisburg.

He was seeking to minister to a smaller congregation, to lead a more traditional parish life, Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray said.

Baxter's time as rector at St. James Episcopal Church in Lancaster wowed many there, Gray said. It was suddenly worth getting up early, just to hear him speak.

"To call him spectacular would be an understatement," Gray said. "The guy took some of the most difficult passages in the Bible and related them to everyday life."

And Baxter dove into the issues of the day in Lancaster, too, he said. Whether that was violence or community development or understanding among various people in the city, he wanted to be a part of those discussions, he said.

"The guy exudes leadership," Gray said. "He's a personable intellectual who doesn't really wear it on his sleeve."

In 2006, Baxter became bishop of the Central Pennsylvania diocese. Gray joked that he wanted to write a letter saying Baxter wasn't the caliber of man they were looking for, just so Lancaster could keep him.

Baxter's natural leadership was no surprise to Bishop Charlie F. McNutt Jr., who retired from the Central Pennsylvania diocese in 1995. Baxter is always helpful around the diocese, he said.

"He's straightforward and very gracious to other people," McNutt said. "You don't have to agree with him."

Baxter continues to spread messages of inclusion as bishop. He has led efforts for greater acceptance of homosexuals in the church community, offering to bless same-sex relationships. It's still a controversial subject among Episcopalians, but homosexuals are just as capable of being moral people as anyone else, he said.

"I deeply believe we are beginning to learn that sexuality, as God has created it, is diverse. But we have to be responsible in that.

"The value of people being in a committed relationship, showing mutual respect for one another, creating a home and a life as best they can do it, reflects care for children or the community. All of that belongs in that 'one' that we understand to be the Christian community."

Through it all, Baxter said, he has strived for greater understanding among different people — he's looked to build bridges where maybe there were none before.

"Power has a lot of different currencies," he said, "and it's about how we use those currencies … We can use that to influence and affect the world around us for good or for ill."

About Nathan D. Baxter

Age: 64

Education: master of Divinity and doctor of ministry degrees, Lancaster Theological Seminary; additional studies at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., Harvard Graduate School of Education and Warren Deem Management Institute at the Columbia University Executive Center.

Family: Married to Mary Ellen Walker Baxter; two adult children; two foster children; nine grandchildren

Hometown: Harrisburg

Residence: Lower Paxton Township, Dauphin County

First job: Katz Grocery Store on Capital Street

Current job: bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania

Last book read: “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson and “Have a Little Faith” by Mitch Albom

Guiding philosophy: “The Lord is with me; I shall not be afraid.” Psalm 118:6

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