Lia Shimada reflects on her 18-year journey at St James’s, her evolving spiritual path, and the gradual calling to priesthood, while sharing personal experiences of grief, love, and growth within the church community,
Eighteen years ago, I pitched up in Piccadilly, searching for a new church to call home. I had recently moved to the UK for postgraduate studies and had, at that point, just one friend in my newly acquired mobile phone. At St James’s, I encountered a gorgeous building and a theology spacious enough for my tenuous faith. Sunday after Sunday, I kept returning to church, until I could not imagine London without it.
I relocated to Belfast to work with the grassroots peacebuilding process, and still I returned. I travelled to London regularly – ostensibly to use the libraries, but really for the SJP walking group and a monthly dose of Sunday worship. I moved back to London, full-time, just as we welcomed Lucy as our new rector.
The call to priesthood emerged slowly.
In August 2013, Lucy and the Liturgy Group asked me to preach, as part of a special sermon series. I spent several weeks in a state of panic, wrestling with the lectionary and writing countless drafts. Now I stood at the lectern. Petrified.
In the silence came a rush of recognition. The sermon was simply a channel for God’s word to the world – and that morning I would preach it.
A few months later, a group from SJP travelled to the Holy Land for an ‘Alternative Pilgrimage’. Somewhere near Bethlehem, I encountered an Anglican priest who exercised an exhilarating ministry, unbounded by parish life. It was an astonishing revelation. I began to wonder ….
We returned to London, to our beloved, familiar church. The Holy Land stayed with me – and so did the slow call to priesthood.
Life unfolded. I fell in love with Jonathan. We married in August 2016, in a small ceremony in the side chapel. At our request, the church remained open, and so we were joined by curious tourists and people without homes, who snored softly in the pews throughout the service. A few months later, this time with the church filled to bursting, we celebrated the Blessing of the Marriage. Quickly, I became pregnant with our first child.
Rowan lived for 39 minutes. His death sheared my life in half, into ‘before’ and ‘after’. On the day of his funeral, through a fog of grief, we carried his tiny wicker casket into church, committed his soul to God, and laid him to rest at Brompton Cemetery.
Jonathan and I stumbled through the aftermath. The congregation walked alongside us, as we moved into and through a terrifying second pregnancy. Two weeks before Brecon arrived, I had the privilege to stand again at the lectern. I preached on joy and sorrow, and on what I was learning of grief’s terrible gifts. To our relief, Brecon arrived safely. Lucy would later christen him, to much rejoicing.
Then the pandemic descended. It claimed the life of my best friend, Patrick. In the thick of lockdown, the clergy lit candles for him, since I could not.
Our third child arrived the following spring, into a changed world. We named her Julian.
Throughout these tumultuous years, God’s call to priesthood pulsed steadily, inconveniently, sometimes painfully, increasingly insistent. I couldn’t ignore it.
When Jonathan and I decided that we should move to Seattle, to be closer to my mother, I knocked tentatively at the door of the Episcopal Church. The door opened wide; life-giving wind filled my sails.
Next August, we will relocate to Seattle, where I will be ordained in the Episcopal Church and Jonathan will serve the United Methodist Church. (With two clergy parents, Brecon and Julian should have plenty to take to therapy in adulthood.) Our living children will lose their English accents and grow up in America. Rowan, of course, will remain in London. In time, Jonathan and I will be buried with him.
Before then, however, I must complete a long placement in another London parish. After 18 years at SJP, I struggle to imagine my life without its wondrous, growing congregation.
You have walked alongside me in grief and in joy. You taught me that my broken-hearted presence has a place in community. You accompanied me as my mediation practice took flight, and as I discovered a parallel vocation to public theology. Over the past year, you prayed for my family and for me, as I battled breast cancer with toddlers in tow. You have challenged me and nurtured me. You have rejoiced with me and in me.
Honestly, I don’t want to leave you.
A few years ago, pre-pandemic, I joined a group from SJP on another pilgrimage, on the theme of Human Rights and the Holocaust. It was a wrenching week. As we travelled, we carried with us this phrase:
Ships are not built to remain safe in the harbour.
Thank you for being my harbour.