• Tyson House

July 2020 Newsletter

Welcome to our Newsletter

Dear Tyson House friends, family, students, and alumni, Back in March, as UT moved online and Tyson House did too, we began to see alumni and others joining our online worship and Bible study. This was a beautiful thing we’d like to build on, and this newsletter is a first step! As we send it, we hope to find others who would like to know how things are at Tyson House! We start with an article by my co-chaplain, Fr. RJ Powell, on spiritual direction and vocational discernment, which are the heart of all we do here, discerning our calls in life, in light of God’s love in Christ. Next, we have a letter from Demetrius Seay, a Tyson House regular from 2010 to 2014, who then transferred to MTSU to pursue a degree in Songwriting! Degree in hand, he took a moment to share about his time with us. Thank you, Demetrius, and congratulations! After that, we have an article by current resident, Micah Ketchens, whose library job in the archives led him to find quite a bit on Tyson House. Thank you for sharing, Micah! And finally, I did a quick summary of the past 10 years at Tyson House, which happen also to be my first 10 years of being a pastor. Matter of fact, I still have a beautiful stole given to me by then-student, now-Episcopal priest, Fr. Zack Nyein, which he bought in Jerusalem as a present for my ordination. In future issues, we hope to share more highlights and photos of past years, an ongoing sense of how our ministry is developing, and more from students and alumni who have played a central role in life at Tyson House. Toward that, I have a request. If you know others who might like to receive this newsletter or be part of it, please send info to

In Christ, with you,

Pastor John Tirro


Faith Formation and Discernment

Making Disciples – A reflection Fr. RJ Powell

“Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?” (BCP 304) Since the very beginning of the Church after the Spirit’s inaugural breath at Pentecost after the Lord’s Ascension, the teaching and fellowship of the Apostles has been handed down generation to generation. Each of us who are called Christian have had some relationship with that teaching and fellowship, whether in a formalized catechism class before Baptism or Confirmation, or perhaps much more informally in the care of a parent or grandparent. Over the centuries, teaching and fellowship, breaking the bread of Communion, and prayer have been hallmarks of the communities that consider themselves disciples of Jesus. But what makes a disciple?

2019 Confirmation trip to St. James Episcopal Church. Left to Right: Micah, Madison, Lucas, and Fr. RJ

As a ministry that primarily focuses on students in one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in Tennessee, Tyson House has been a center for Christian learning and discipleship since its conception as an Episcopal ministry almost a century ago. The strength of this mission at the University of Tennessee was rejuvenated and strengthened by the re-forging of Tyson House by the partnership of the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, becoming one of the first fully integrated ministries of the Full Communion agreement almost two decades ago. Our primary mission continues to be a home for learning and fellowship in the way of Jesus.

Beginning in the Fall of 2018, a group of students and I began some more intensive study in preparation for Baptism and Confirmation. Using the Catechism from the Book of Common Prayer, Martin Luther’s “Small Catechism, and a book called Walk in Love by Scott Gunn and Melody Wilson Shobe, we spent a year discussing God, scripture, sacraments, discipleship, service, prayer, and friendship. As foundational as these topics are, perhaps some of the most important work we did together and among the other folks in the ministry was some deep discernment of calling.

College years are naturally a pivotal period in young adults’ lives. It’s often the first time some folks consider their own lives and the world around them, including their faith, on their own terms. And so it should not be a surprise that discernment of God’s call also begins to become clearer during these years. As pastors, one of our delights is to help sharpen the focus of this important work with a little wisdom, grace, and intentionality.

It would be super-efficient if we could create a program for individual discernment perhaps similar to the intense process those seeking ordination go through. And perhaps also it is a blessing that the lives and callings of students are far too diverse to be programed away. And so, the wily task of walking with individuals, listening to their stories and dreams, caring for their wounds, and celebrating their successes is the blessing and challenge of being a priest and pastor in such a setting.

Picture taken during our 2019 All Saints Service with a baptism, two confirmations, and a reception!

One thing I’ve found to be truly life-giving to me as priest at Tyson House is the genuine passion for inclusion and a curiosity for how God fits into the sometimes cacophonous differences that inclusion brings around the table. While sweet harmonies are the majority norm, dissonance of personalities, experiences, and opinions often take center stage, as one might expect when you have seven college students living together in tight quarters, along with the many non-residents coming through the doors. But it is there, in those often-fraught conversations that God is shown to be present.

In all the work for beautiful worship, all the planning for meaningful Bible-study and Catechism, all the work that goes into food pantries and service projects and inter-faith/inter-denominational dialogues and spiritual retreats, it’s funny how God still shows up, perhaps most poignantly, in the day-in-day-out rhythm of prayer and simple beauty of life together. Disciples are not made by well-planned catechism, wise counsel, or inspired worship, as valuable and indispensable as these things are for individual and communal formation. Disciples are those who listen and follow.

As someone whose life was deeply impacted by campus ministry when I was in college, I know first-hand the strategic and life-altering importance it has on our college students. But sometimes we clergy forget that we are also members, individual parts, of the community; that we also are disciples, or students, of the Teacher. Today, I’m filled with gratitude to simply be a fellow-student discovering new depths of being a disciple of Jesus, new ways of listening to others, new rhythms and paces of walking together, new insights and discernment of the Spirit as we “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and the prayers.”


Alumni Spotlight

My Tyson House Experience Demetrius Seay

In the fall of 2010, I left my hometown Tullahoma, TN heading for my next chapter at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. It was a tiny town with the population of 18,000. Even though it was smaller than the university I was about to attend, it was home I was leaving. I was entering a big new world coming from a small town with a conservative religious background. I was a pastor’s son and I was a little sheltered. Also, I was secretly gay. I wasn’t in a safe space for eighteen years. I had no idea what I was about to experience at UTK. I was excited and scared at the same time. I wondered, would it be freedom or more hiding?

With that in the back of my mind, I finally arrive to this incredible new world. It was more than I thought it could ever be. Being in the Pride of the Southland Band was one of the best experiences of my life! I continued to make friends and for a while hide who I was. I decided not to attend church with my sister. It wasn’t that we weren’t on good terms. She knew I was gay and loved me the same. However, the church she attended was the same denomination we grew up in. I knew that was no safe place for me. In fact, I stopped going to churches of any kind because I expected them all to shun me. Until one day in Spring of 2011, I had a friend ask me to play clarinet at a Tyson House service. I was hesitant, but I decided to go. Little did I know that very day, I had found my safe haven. The amount of love, acceptance and fellowship at Tyson House was life changing. From that point on, my whole life at UT became a secure, mostly anxiety-free experience. Tyson House was my rock, shelter and support system. My intellect and philosophies were nurtured there. I was presented with many educational and learning opportunities. They helped build onto my character and my thinking. Dealing with situations and challenges started to become a little easier.

Later on, I finally had the courage to come out to all of my friends. I have to admit, I’m one of the lucky ones. A moment that I expected to be so scary turned out to be wonderful. A warm moment filled with love and kindness. I’ll never forget when Bishop Gene Robinson came to speak at Tyson House. He spoke so much wisdom about dealing with the struggles of being homosexual in the church. His insight on the matter helped me not be filled with anger but with patience. It helped me deal with coming out to my family. If it weren’t for the impact of Tyson House on my life, I’m not sure how much harder my early adulthood experiences would’ve been. When times seemed to get tough, I knew where I could go. Even in the silence of the chapel, I found peace and I found solutions. The impact the Tyson House community has had on my life is major. I still dream about it. When I have those occasional anxiety ridden college nightmares, Tyson House is where I go for safety. If any one ever invites you to go, give it a shot. You just might stumble upon your own little safe haven.


Student Spotlight

A Reflection on Pride Month Micah Ketchens

On the congregational level, some churches have started referring to June as “Pridetide.” It’s liturgically appropriate, given that the Day of Pentecost, celebrated close by, was its own riot, with the fire of the Spirit burning old barriers to the ground. But it also reflects June pride celebrations in a religious context, reminding us that the secular and the spiritual are not as distant as we often pretend.

2019 PrideMass held at Messiah Lutheran Church

In recent years, Tyson House has collaborated with our supporting congregations and ecumenical partners to create PrideMass, a service that coincides with Knox Pride. This might be the clearest example of those barriers disappearing, but the story goes back further, as early as the 1960s. Father Al Minor, a long-time Tyson House chaplain whose healthy skepticism for ecclesial boundaries saw him performing joint Masses with the campus’ Catholic priest, working on a sexual health clinic with the campus’ Presbyterian pastor, and walking, collared, in many a campus protest.

In his memoirs, Father Al writes that gay congregants “felt accepted and welcomed [at Tyson House] in a time that did not happen very often.” Despite this, it was also Fr. Al (and the then-Bishop of Tennessee) who barred Integrity – an organization for queer people within the Episcopal Church – from using Tyson House as a meeting place. Only a vague reference to some “troublemaking” gay attendees hints at their reasoning.

Father Al retired in 1994. “Within the next six or seven years,” he writes, “all of the gay members of the congregation of that time had died of aids.”

Last year I had the privilege of interviewing Rev. Bob Galloway, former pastor of Metropolitan Community Church, Knoxville. He and his husband, Rick Sawyer, were aids activists during the height of the plague, and much of the work done for the queer community in this city can be linked to them in some way. When I mentioned my involvement at Tyson House, Rev. Galloway cited Rev. Kay Reynolds, Fr. Al’s successor, as a great supporter of inclusion in the Church. It was around this time that Integrity was allowed to meet at Tyson House, a practice that continued until at least 2000.

In 2000, the Episcopal Church in the United States and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America entered into full communion. In 2004, Rev. V. Gene Robinson became the first openly non-celibate queer person to be consecrated to the episcopate. In an article published in the Daily Beacon (pictured above), Brett Backus (now ordained and serving in Knoxville) spoke out against a proposed diocesan schism. This sentiment was shared by the Episcopal chaplain, Rev. Chris Chase, who with Lutheran chaplain Ward Misenheimer, changed Tyson House from an ecumenical building to an ecumenical ministry, with joint services and programming.

It’s hard not to become an amateur historian at Tyson House. But as interesting as church politics can be, I mainly find myself wondering about the people. About the intricacies of pulling together a communion with a gay bishop and one that wouldn’t allow the ordination of homosexuals for another six years. About the aids patient Father Al counseled for three years, until his death. About the faithful folks on Integrity. About the troublemakers, and the conversations, and the tension.

Which of them cried in the chapel when their friends were attacked in the Fort?

Which of them lit a candle in the chapel when someone else was killed for bearing the image of God in a way that made others uncomfortable?

Which of them died during the plague?

Organizations are not perfect, and understanding that is part of what helps us do better. Tyson House is no exception. But when I think about the dozens of queer kids whose names I will never know, I hope they found solace around dinner tables and communion tables. I hope they know that God never left their side, even when the world was cruel. If it was Tyson House that helped clue them in on that, we’ve done more good than we can imagine.

This is the point. This is the bottom line. For God so loved the world, the kosmos, the entirety of known creation. When we meet someone, when we discover something, when we come out, when we are faced with the blatant presence of everything we hadn’t considered before, when queers and queens and transwomen uproot parking meters and smash windows and purify the temple of Christopher Street and refuse to render their dignity unto Caesar, God already loves it.

It doesn’t matter if the world knows. God does. And God loves. When I pray at Tyson House, and my voice hits the ceiling and echoes back, it brings with it the prayers of generations. A chorus of friends, siblings, eunuchs; the world’s oppressed and God’s beloved. And this is where Christian community comes in: to bear witness to the tears and the joy and the pain and the bigness of it all. To be struck down and not destroyed. To celebrate that Jesus has died, lived, and ascended, and made here-ness and there-ness into one-ness.

For myself, Pridetide is far from arbitrary. It’s a type of Advent, maybe even a type of Lent. It celebrates the tension of the now and the not-yet, the beauty of our lives as we know them and the hope for something indescribable, what Jesus called the Kingdom of God. It’s also, unsettlingly, a reminder that we play a role in the bringing of that Kingdom. We can’t rest on our laurels of being “the good ones.” We are tasked, day after day, with the immense work of healing the Body of Christ.

That’s the tricky aspect of this whole resurrection business: death is at work in us. Working good, working hope, working the Kingdom. And if we perish, we perish, because that no longer means what we once thought it did.

Happy Pride, beloveds. Peace be with y’all.


Ten Years of Tyson House

Rev. John Tirro I’ve been chaplain 10 years now, and it occurs to me, we’ve been several ministries in this time. Most congregations turn over membership every few decades. Campus ministry turns over every 2-3, and the tone shifts with the gifts and interests of those involved. My first few years, there was strong interest in worship, caregiving, and community-building. The next stretch was all about social justice, worker rights, and the launch of Smokey’s Pantry, UT’s campus food pantry, at Tyson House. Toward the end of that period, we introduced internships for young adults to explore life in ministry, Fr. RJ Powell came on as co-chaplain, and we deepened our focus in vocational discernment. Right now, we’re reworking all the above to an online/in-person hybrid format, to match UT’s likely hybrid return in the fall, and rebuilding our website ( to support that. We’ll share more in future newsletters, but for now, here’s a mini-gallery of photos old and new, plus a partial list of what we’ve been up to, to give a sense of the decade.

Clockwise, from top left: Tyson House musicians practice in the chapel, Mud Run to raise funds for Knox Area Rescue Ministries, Bart Ehrman discusses Jesus, Interrupted and others of his books in our common room, Celtic cross and sunset from a Tyson House resident’s room.

Clockwise, from top left: Prayer for Eric Garner, Fall retreat fireside at Grace Point, Carry a huge flag with the UT Pride Center, Smokey’s Pantry logo, Tyson House alumnus Zack Nyein’s ordination to the priesthood, and a recording session for our Some Sort of Ministry podcast.

And, because it would take too much space to show all the photos, here’s a list of other things we’ve done: Lift Every Voice conversations on race and interculturalism; Community Action News & Network resource list connecting social justice leaders; Reconciling Spaces support group for LGBTQ+ people with significant experiences of church, positive and negative; Service Trips and Pilgrimages to Atlanta, NYC, Washington DC, Gatlinburg post-fire, Virginia, Isle of Palms, and Charleston; Retreats to Grace Point, Gethsemani Abbey, and St Meinrad Archabbey; Leadership Retreats to Chattanooga’s Bluff View Arts District, Maryville College’s House in the Woods, and Big Creek Campground; building Habitat houses; playing with kids enduring homelessness at Family Promise; Workshops in worship and theater arts, worship music, conflict resolution, time management, food insecurity on campus, anti-racism, global mission, best practices engaging homelessness, and active listening; PrideMass, Standing at the Rock Against Racism, multi-congregational Easter Vigils, and other special worship reaching out to the community; Bonfires and S’mores in our parking lot, Reformation Day Indulgence Sales (baked goods), Ice Cream at the Phoenix Pharmacy & Fountain, and other events to help students find and make friends; marches and rallies with Black Lives Matter, United Campus Workers, and Pride Festival; hosting bassoon consorts, Knox Gay Men’s Chorus, and other groups as needed; Speaker Events with Rachel Held Evans, Bart Ehrman, Amy-Jill Levine, Traces of the Trade film-makers Dain and Constance Perry, Bp Gene Robinson, and Phyliss Tickle; Bible studies, book studies, and topical conversation groups; Spiritual Direction and confirmation classes; confirmations, baptisms, and ordinations; dinner and worship every Sunday UT is in session,; Internships in Ministry Coordination and Administration; and a Residential Program with leadership development and mentoring in all the above. It’s been quite a decade! Thank you for your part in it!


Alumni Calendar and Support Us

Thank you for reading the first edition of our newsletter! For more information about what we are doing and to support us with an online donation, visit our newly improved website,

You can also support us with a purchase of Tyson House merchandise on our RedBubble page at All proceeds help support us! Tyson House clothing, stickers, mugs, and more are available there!

To support our work further, please share the newsletter sign up with other alumni and supporters you know. The link is at

Also, mark your calendars for our upcoming St. Michael Alumni Night on September 28, 2020. More details about this event will be coming soon as we determine the safest way to host the event this year!

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