Local Priest Seeks to Be an Agent of Change
Goals Include Fostering "Soft" Relationships
Published: June 26, 2008
in The White Plains Times
By Michael Pellegrino
He can be seen around town riding his motorcycle, or enjoying a beverage at the Lazy Boy Saloon.
At age 39, he’s young as far as religious leaders go, he’s a triathlete, and he’s way into the slow food movement.
It might be easy to pigeonhole him as the “cool priest in town,” but the Rev. Gawain de Leeuw,
rector at St. Bartholomew’s Church, is much more.
In a recent interview, he came across as a free thinker but not a free speaker;
he weighs his words carefully and delivers them deliberately and without apology or obfuscation.
Father Gawain, as many people know him, was born and raised in Rochester.
He has been in White Plains for 10 years and at St. Bartholomew’s for seven years
(he was previously curate at Grace Church).
Before coming to White Plains, he served in churches in Seattle and in Korea.
He received his undergraduate degree in philosophy from Oberlin College, cum laude,
and his Master in Divinity degree from the University of Chicago.
He received his Anglican Studies certificate from the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church.
The War and Religious Institutions
Father Gawain is active with the White Plains Religious Leaders, an
interfaith group of the city’s spiritual leaders formed last year in part to
weigh in on the city’s and county’s treatment of the city’s population of
homeless people who were unable or unwilling to comply with county
requirements for participation in Department of Social Services programs.
Father Gawain said he looks forward to participating in future discussions
of mutual concern, which range from the environment to homelessness,
reconciliation between faiths and international politics. “We’ll talk about
absolutely anything,” he said.
The group’s April meeting included discussion of responses to the war in
Iraq, Father Gawain said. “The reason why there has been little popular
protest is because there isn’t a draft and the cost of the war isn’t equally
shared by the citizens, although we all will be paying for it,” he said.
Father Gawain has obviously put thought into his role and the weight his
words carry to various audiences. Making a point to say that the group of
religious leaders wants to be effective and that part of their mission is to
come up with ways to achieve that goal, he added that members of the clergy
don’t have the same “cultural cache” they used to, since in general they are
no longer the most educated members of the community. As a clergyman, he
added, he is not considered “an expert on international relations,” but he
can still use “the tools in my faith and tradition that allow me to speak
about war and poverty.” His role is “relational” as opposed to
authoritarian, he said. “People listen to what I say because I have a
relationship with them. They may disagree with me on the war in Iraq,” he
added, but his words still hold weight. Views on the war are not black and
white, for and against, but more nuanced, Father Gawain said. “People are
confused about the war and angry about how it’s been conducted.”
When it comes to affecting war policy or changing hearts and minds,
Father Gawain said houses of worship have a limited but important role to
play in creating relationships. “Almost every mainline denomination and the
Catholic Church came out against invading Iraq, but it didn’t seem to have
much impact,” he said. “I believe the most effective thing churches can do
is build relationships. Those relationships in themselves create their own
St. Bartholomew’s runs a youth program that Father Gawain said is
“deliberately small” and focused on ensuring kids finish their homework “so
they can go home without any anxiety.” Father Gawain said that evidence
shows, and he believes, that children who don’t have time to play with each
other actually have more challenges paying attention and being social with
their peers, “so we want to provide a place where kids can do their homework
and also have a safe place to play without being burdened by the
expectations that have been imposed upon them.”
Father Gawain said he sees his church (at 82 Prospect St.) and all
churches as “fundamentally voluntary and cooperative institutions.” He added
that “one of our primary strengths is our physical plant, which we want to
share with people in the community. We’re able to provide organizations a
place for their events at less than half the cost of other institutions,
because we want to support the community; that’s our job.”
Father Gawain also sees establishing “soft connections” as integral to
his role and that of his church. Such connections, as described by Father
Gawain, are acquaintances in the community as opposed to close friends. The
health of a community depends deeply on soft connections, he said, just as
it depends on close friendships and family relationships. “The church is an
organization that’s not the government and not business that provides a
venue for people to build these ‘soft’ relationships.”
St. Bartholomew’s Community Supported Agriculture Cooperative is just one
example of the church’s going beyond its own building and its own
parishioners to effect change. “I believe that the practice of my faith
revolves around shared meals, fellowship and hospitality,” Father Gawain
said. “One aspect of God’s promise is the land’s abundance.” The cooperative
has participants from Irvington, New Rochelle, Greenwich and beyond. To live
ecologically, he said, is “a consequence of good stewardship.” The
cooperative provides shares to participants who in turn get to buy directly
from organic farmers; the produce is brought to the church the day after it
is picked (for more information, visit
Father Gawain is interested in the slow food movement, saying we need to
take more time to build relationships and to eat together.
“We live in a culture that’s too fast and too convenient,” he said, “and
it’s destroying us.”