by Clark Groome
When Emmanuel Ato “Manny” Mercer, the new assistant rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill, made the 5,700-mile trip from Ghana to Atlanta in 2000, little did he know just how that journey would change his life.
In Ghana as a young man he had attended an Anglican all-boys secondary school. After a mandatory year of national service, during which he taught civics, environmental studies and English in a junior high school, he enrolled in the Saint Nicholas Theological Seminary in Cape Coast, earning a licentiate in theology in 1998.
“Right after seminary I was posted in a little town,” Mercer said in a recent interview. “After two years, I decided to come to the United States to study for a Master of Divinity degree at Emory University.”
His hope was to take what he learned here and return to Ghana and teach at the seminary, but that began to change the first weekend he was in the States.
“When I came to the United States I didn’t know where I was going to worship,” he said.
He found All Saints Episcopal Church on the Internet. It was at All Saints that he began to face the cultural differences that exist between branches of the Anglican Communion in Ghana and the United States. The Communion is a worldwide federation of 38 autonomous provinces, all of which are in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury and, therefore, each other. An Anglican from one province is welcome to worship or, if ordained, to minister in any other.
That first Sunday he became aware of the cultural differences.
“In the course of the service, the first cultural shock was that there was a woman who was celebrating the Eucharist,” he said, noting that there were no women priests in the church in Ghana. “During the service I was trying to figure out whether I should take the sacrament from her – I did.”
During the week following that first service at All Saints, Mercer met with the church’s rector, who offered him a half-time job, part of which was to preside at a healing service on the Sundays when he wasn’t preaching or presiding at the Eucharist.
Then came culture shock number two.
“About half the congregants were gay or lesbian,” he said. “I didn’t know that. There were these two guys who were always together. They came for prayers at the healing service. They came to church every Sunday. I thought they were friends. I didn’t know they were more than friends.
“This was very very new to me. When I first heard that [they were partners] I thought ‘How am I going to pray for these people?’ I did not believe in what they were doing. But I did pray for them.”
He also did a lot of reading, praying and talking with others, gay and straight.
“I got to know the verger (the layperson who has responsibility for making sure the various services are well organized and well executed), who was gay,” he said.
He also read a book by L. William Countryman, an Episcopal priest and emeritus professor of biblical studies at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, Calif.
Mercer said that Countryman basically says that in baptism we are all made Christians, and that “if we are one in Christ then what is the difference whether you’re black or white, gay or straight”?
“Whatever you are, you’re no different from another person,” he added. “God doesn’t see you individually as African or gay. That’s not a primary concern because baptism makes us all one.”
Because of his friendship with the All Saints verger, the question he said he had to ask himself was “Is God concerned about his sexuality or concerned about his faith?”
“My answer was that God was concerned about his fidelity to the faith,” he said.
Along with the various culture shocks Mercer, 40, faced, his life also changed when he met the woman who would become his wife. Monique is a New York native and was visiting a friend in Atlanta when they met at a party. They married in 2004. They are now the parents of daughters Havilynd, 8, and Frances, 7. The other family member is a dachshund named Sweetie.
After earning his M.Div. from Emory in 2004, he went to Yale, where a year later he received a Master of Sacred Theology and certificate in Anglican studies.
For the next four years he was the associate for pastoral care at Trinity Cathedral in Columbia, S.C. While there he also supervised the youth and children’s ministries. Away from the cathedral he was a volunteer fireman, a soccer coach and a mentor at the South Carolina Juvenile Detention Center.
In 2009 he enrolled in the University of South Carolina School of Law.
“I wanted to study how religion and law danced with each other,” he said. “Nothing I found in the classroom resembled anything I was thinking about doing.”
He decided to go back “to what I love doing – being a pastor.”
Looking for a full-time position closer to Monique’s family in New York, he was drawn to St. Paul’s “by [rector] Cliff [Cutler’s] mission for the church and what the church was supposed to be about, his whole interest in peace and reconciliation.”
“For me, coming from a place where we’ve had different political systems or coups d’etat and violence,” he continued, “the whole idea of peace and reconciliation appealed to me.”
His responsibilities at the local parish include “pastoral care, [education], youth, children, young adults, anything apart from raising money,” he said with a chuckle. He has described St. Paul’s as “a church of both faith and fun.”
“It’s a blessing for me to be here, sharing the ministry of the church with Cliff,” he said, noting that he plans to become an American citizen. “One of the important messages that Jesus said was ‘I came that you might be free.’”
“The idea of liberty, that you’re free, that you can do whatever you want to do,” is what he said he loved most about the United States. “It’s not the same everywhere. Most places people are told what to do, but here [you’re free].”
The Mercers are living in Ft. Washington.