After 17 years at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Joplin, the Reverend Frank Sierra looks forward to widening the circle upon his retirement. While he will miss celebrating life in the congregation, Sierra says he will continue his ministry of reaching out to all faith communities in Joplin and growing the kingdom, or circle, of God.
Sierra, 66, came to Joplin with his wife in 2005 from San Antonio, where he served three smaller churches. The couple were looking for a smaller town with a more northern climate. They were struck by the beautiful church and friendly people of St. Philip’s, they said. The church building dates back to 1908 and is a Joplin landmark. Sierra often pauses to think of the generations of people who have worshiped there and cherishes the opportunity to serve in a place where he feels the presence of God.
“That’s how I felt when I first entered the sanctuary, when I came for the interview process,” Sierra said. “The architecture, the stained glass windows, the sense of history of the many generations of people who have worshiped here – it was overwhelming. I thank God every Sunday when I enter the sanctuary to begin our liturgies because it is a nice place.
While noting that pride can be a sin, Sierra said St. Philip’s members are rightly very proud of their historic building. A recently completed fundraising campaign has provided new flooring in the original sanctuary, new lighting and new bathrooms, among other improvements. St. Philip’s congregation wanted to take care of the building and pass it on for another 100 years to give glory to God, Sierra said.
“I am grateful to be able to end this chapter of my ministry here with these people,” Sierra said. “Most importantly, it’s a beautiful place because of the people there. It’s not just the architecture, it’s that the people here make it a point to welcome you and share God’s love with you.
A prime example of this occurred after the May 2011 tornado. Under Sierra’s leadership, the church provided assistance to tornado victims in a variety of ways. The church held two large giveaways of donated items such as appliances, clothing and household items. Church members gathered to collect donations that were open to anyone who suffered loss in the tornado.
“One of the biggest things for me is trying to build that sense of community here in St. Philip of who we are as the body of Christ in the world today,” Sierra said. “It’s not what we can get out of the community, it’s how we can give back to the community around us, how we can be of service.”
Another accomplishment Sierra fondly remembers is St. Philip’s role in forming the Joplin Interfaith Coalition. Organized in the aftermath of the 2011 tornado and the 2012 Islamic Society of Joplin Mosque fire, the coalition now operates with churches including the Roman Catholic Church, ELCA Lutheran Church, Disciples of Christ, the Joplin Synagogue, the Joplin Islamic Society and other denominations.
These faith groups met weekly until disrupted by COVID-19, sponsoring discussion groups, interfaith worship and service projects. Sierra said these interfaith discussions were meant to share information, not to get members of another faith to see where they were wrong. For him, the job of the coalition is how they can work together to grow the kingdom of God and widen the circle to include more people, he said.
“I think it’s important for any congregation to work with other denominations,” Sierra said. “If they are blessed, then the body of Christ is blessed. We shouldn’t be in competition with each other.
“A matter of hospitality and love”
It was in this spirit that interfaith partners came together to host an iftar dinner at St. Philip’s in the summer of 2012, after the arson attack on the Joplin Islamic Society mosque. Iftar is an evening meal with which Muslims end their daily Ramadan fast at sunset.
Sierra said it was important to him and St. Philip to provide the Muslim community with a place to have this meal and show their support. For Sierra, the iftar dinner was not meant to be a big statement but a welcome to a hurting community.
“For them to lose their center of worship in this way was tragic,” Sierra said. “We wanted to be able to say to them, ‘We don’t know why this person did this, but you are part of us. You are hurting, and we need to be there for each other as children of God. It was about hospitality and love for another human being.
Even in retirement, Sierra plans to remain active in Joplin’s religious community. He and his wife, who died in 2020, had planned to stay in Joplin after he retired. According to church regulations, a priest who retires cannot worship for at least one year at the church where he served. This is to help establish a new direction after the priest leaves.
Sierra plans to use this time to visit services of other faiths, as well as the synagogue and the mosque. He also looks forward to volunteering as a hospital chaplain, hosting Ronald McDonald House, and getting involved in Joplin’s LGBTQ community. Sierra will also do supply work in the diocese, replacing priests on vacation.
Although he will miss serving the members of the St. Philip’s congregation, he knows their future is secure.
“I will miss the celebration of life, the births, the baptisms, the confirmations, but also the funerals and the celebration of their life that they represented,” Sierra said. “I know they are in good hands because God is always watching over us. I know that it is not because I leave that God leaves.