Since its inception in 1964, St. Anne’s Episcopal Church has been anything but traditional.
Formed by members of three racially diverse congregations – two white and one black – the church, named for the mother of the Virgin Mary, has always embraced a socially progressive agenda.
Like his congregation, Rev. Lawrence Womack, who was installed as rector of the modest edifice on Fairlawn Drive in June 2011, did not travel the traditional roads to his spiritual destination.
“I accepted Jesus Christ as an eight year-old at a Billy Graham Crusade in Indianapolis,” he recalled. “…The volunteer gave me a booklet, then she reached in her bag and pulled out an unopened red and gold Hot Wheels 1957 Chevy. That sealed the deal form me.”
Womack was baptized later that year and began attending an Episcopalian church, which his parents, both Baptists, faithfully shuttled him to each Sunday so that he could sing in the choir.
As a youth, Womack’s father, a lifelong educator, encouraged him to explore different careers by shadowing professionals in the community. Womack even spent the day with an Episcopalian priest, but at the end of the day informed her that the clerical collar wasn’t a good fit for him.
“I said, ‘Ma’am, with all due respect, I’m just being an obedient son … and that’s as far as I see this going,’” he related with a laugh.
Fifteen years later, Womack encountered that same priest, who told him she had always believed that he would someday answer the call. Womack, a researcher who was educated and trained at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, sought the advice of his friends when he first began seriously considering the possibility of making a career change.
“I fully expected at least one of them to start laughing, but every one of them said, ‘Okay, yeah, I can see that,” he related. “…For whatever reason, it wasn’t as strange to them as it was to me.”
But devoting his life to serving God was not a decision he made lightly. A lifelong lover of science, Womack was living the dream when he first got an inkling that his life might be destined for a different course.
“I got to Baltimore, and I was sitting in the lab at Johns Hopkins with a list of stuff to do in front of me, and I looked around, and there was not a living person in sight, and I thought, ‘Huh, is this really what I’m supposed to be doing?’” he recalled. “I chalked it up at the time to me being homesick and brand new and not having met many people yet. I figured I’d get over it, but it kept gnawing at me.”
Conflicted, Womack sought council from his priest, who helped him embark on a journey of discernment. Then, in 1995 tragedy struck. Womack’s father, an avid cyclist, was hit and killed by a motorist, whom Womack said never expressed any real remorse for the devastation he had caused.
“That was a real gut check there. It really was a test: Can you really do what you say you believe and turn the other check and forgive?” he declared. “…That sort of focused my discussion. I knew my dad was meant to be an educator. He was taken in a tragic way, but he was doing what he was created to do.”
In January 2004, Womack was ordained as a priest in Baltimore, beginning a journey that was a lifetime in the making. After three years, he and his wife Dr. Sharita Womack, an adjunct biology professor at NC A&T State University, relocated to Charlotte, where Rev. Womack had been offered a position as associate rector. Four years later the couple, now the proud parents of three children, were invited to St. Anne’s.
The church has been on the forefront of social justice issues such as LGBT (lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender) rights, alleviating hunger locally and worldwide and advocating for peace, explained Suzanne Reynolds, the executive associate dean for Academic Affairs at Wake Forest University School of Law and a St. Anne’s member for more than 30 years. When the congregation set out to find their new leader last year, following the departure of Rev. Hal Hayek, who relocated to Baltimore, Reynolds, who co-chaired the Search Committee, said the group knew they had to find a priest who shared their convictions.
“It was real clear we wanted someone who shared our commitment to social justice … but we also were looking for someone who was a real pastor, someone who would help people on their individual spiritual journeys and would be a good counselor,” she said. “Lawrence Womack was the perfect choice on both of those counts. He’s committed to his congregation and to their pastoral needs, and committed to justice. He’s also a wonderful preacher.”
In the year that Womack has led the church, which attracts about 115 congregants each week, Womack has lived up to the Committee’s lofty expectations, Reynolds said.
“I think we can do the work that St. Anne’s always has done better now, with such a kind and loving pastor to feed us spiritually,” said the mother of three. “…He’s renewed our energy. He’s made us think that anything is possible. He could not be a better fit.”
For more information about St. Anne’s, visit HYPERLINK “http://www.stanne” www.stanne’s-ws.org or call 336-768-0174.