When Sharon A. Alexander was growing up in Edinburg, Texas, she played golf or tennis on Sundays. She never imagined she’d someday be an Episcopal priest.
An eighth generation Texan and the oldest daughter of a lawyer who didn’t attend church, Alexander wanted to be an astronaut. She never flew into space but did log more than a million miles flying from the Far East to Eastern Europe as a high-powered attorney working international bankruptcy cases.
“I was married to my job,” said Alexander, 55, who is single. “I know what the Apostle Paul meant when he said we put the wrong things at the center of our lives.”
Her life took a dramatic turn in 2003. She was flying back from a church mission trip to a Bolivian orphanage.
“My favorite Bible verse is, ‘The word became flesh and dwelt among us,’” Alexander said, adding that without the John 1:14 passage, “I wouldn’t have and couldn’t have made that change of direction without that.”
“If God can come down in human form, I can change from being a lawyer,” she said with a laugh.
Alexander is the first female and eighth rector of Trinity Episcopal Church of Baton Rouge, installed in a Jan. 13 service presided over by the Very Rev. Morris K. Thompson Jr., bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana.
Alexander is looking forward to expanding the 1,000-member church’s influence from the nearby LSU campus to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to the Amistad Mission orphanage in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
Fluent in Spanish, she intends to expand Trinity’s outreach to the ever-growing Hispanic community here, and, as overseer of Trinity’s Day School, wants to model Jesus to children.
“I take it seriously when Jesus said let the children come to me,” she said. “I want them to help at the altar.”
She relates to teenagers and, like many of them, likes “The Walking Dead” TV show, as evidenced by the Walking Dead Nativity Scene on her office bookshelf, given to her by the youth of a previous ministry. Several of the show’s characters are protecting the Holy Family and baby Jesus from approaching zombies.
“I’m a huge fan of ‘The Walking Dead’ because it has, not overtly, but throughout it, amazing Christian themes,” Alexander said. “It is a theme of hope in a hopeless society. It is a society where all the structure, all the support has crumbled. There’s no government, there are no hospitals that make sense, the army has clearly failed.
“That plays on our worst fears and what do we do with that? Where do we find hope?” she said. “As Christians we find our hope in Christ.”
A long journey to Christ
Although she didn’t start attending church until college, Alexander claims a firm biblical salvation.
“I can’t say I woke up one morning and Jesus was there with me,” she said, “but I came to realize over months and even years that Jesus was always there.”
Her definition of being born again, she said, “may not be the same way an evangelical sees it. I trust that if I am on the path, that I am following Jesus. I have said, ‘Jesus, you are the most important thing in my life.’ God’s going to take care of it.”
After graduating high school in 1978, she attended the University of Texas at Austin combining archeology, history, journalism, and a minor in Spanish. During her junior year, a professor teaching a history of religion in the United States “played the most amazing sacred music — deep, wonderful, ancient music. There was something that connected with me.”
The students investigated their own family’s religious history. She discovered in her own story many Christians and even a preacher or two.
“Faith was not important to my immediate family,” she said, “but it was clearly important to my ancestors.”
She began attending an Episcopal Church, where, “for the first time I had ever had a priest want to talk to me and not tell me ‘if you don’t believe what we believe you are going to hell.’ He actually encouraged my questions. It didn’t take me long to become an Episcopalian.”
She continued at UTA earning a masters degree in business in 1985, then graduated from Southern Methodist University School of Law in 1990.
By then she was attending St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Dallas, and, at 30, was confirmed and serving as an acolyte.
“The first time I got to serve near the altar — I washed the priest’s hands — I was already committed Christian by then. I felt something at that point that was just powerful,” she said.
In 2003, the Episcopal Church was rocked by homosexuality issues centered around the Rev. Gene Robinson.
swBy then she was serving on the church’s vestry, or board of directors.
“That ripped the church apart in really terrible ways,” she said. “St. Michael and All Angels is a really big church. People wanted to leave, people wanted the church to leave (the Episcopal Church), the gays were saying ‘this is the best thing happening.’ The question became what is God calling us to do?
“My answer was not to rip ourselves apart over these issues when we have people starving on the streets right outside our door,” she said.
Alexander said she needed a break and volunteered to go to Amistad Mission orphanage in Bolivia. There, God changed her life.
“I had no idea that what Mother Theresa said was so right — ‘You meet Jesus in the eyes of the poor children in a way that you don’t meet Jesus in any other way,’” Alexander said. “That whole trip was just powerful to me. I met my goddaughter, Mercedes, I found chaos and direction and salvation all in the same year.”
“I knew on the plane ride back I was to work for God and not the law firm,” she said.
She became a lay leader, earned a Master of Divinity degree from Southern Methodist University in 2010, and moved to New Orleans, where she served as director of community ministries at Trinity Episcopal. Bishop Thompson ordained her as a priest on Aug. 11, 2011, and she served as priest-in-charge at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Mandeville until this year.
While the issues of gay marriage and homosexuality continue to vex the church and the culture, Alexander wants to “be careful,” she said, about biblical absolutes.
“Honestly, I don’t know what the right answer is on the issues of sexuality,” she said. “We can’t just look at the gay issue, we’ve got to look at divorce, we’ve got to look at disintegrating families, we’ve got to look at the big picture and we’re not doing that.
“Jesus has so many more important things for us to be doing,” she said. “Jesus never once said, ‘I’ll have dinner with everyone except for the gays.’ That wasn’t part of who he was.
“We need to be careful about putting absolutes in there that may not have been intended,” she said. “Jesus commanded, ‘Come and see and follow.’ He didn’t tell people ‘You can’t not get married or get married.’ He said, ‘Follow.’”