Acceptance, Love and Hope: A Conversation With Founder's Day Speaker Rev. Travis Helms

Georgia Norton

"It was [because of] Lovett that I realized I can kind of do anything. I can study poetry, be a preacher if I want; the most important thing is just that I learned to love learning.”

A few weeks ago, we all sat on bleachers in the Wallace Gym for Founder’s Day Chapel. Just as we do every year, we listened to a Lovett alum who returned to the school to share a message with students and faculty, and to reconnect with the community that prepared them for life beyond our gates.

This year, that alum was Reverend Helms (’02), a Dartmouth and Oxford grad who shared a speech about acceptance, passion, and trust, inspired by the greek myth of Pygmalion and poetry.

A day later, I got the chance to sit down with Reverend Helms in the skybox after he’d guest taught Ms. May-Beaver’s Old Testament class.  I immediately felt comfortable. I was caught a little off guard when he began the interview himself, asking me questions about my year so far, trying to get to know me as well. But, that’s just the sort of person he is--though Helms is incredibly interesting in his own right, it’s his genuine curiosity and interest about what he doesn’t know that truly sets him apart.

He sympathized with teenage life, mentioning his own difficult times trying to fit in and find himself at my age. Despite the difficult start, however, Reverend Helms said that by the time he was leaving Lovett 17 years ago, he “really started feeling comfortable and confident,” which he credits in part to the “arts and sports communities”  which were big parts of Helms’ life. Because it did take him some time to feel liked and accepted here, he especially valued being able to come back to Lovett to “offer a message of acceptance, love and hope; it’s sort of come full circle to me.”

Helms reflected on how much has changed here-- and how much hasn’t. In fact, Helms even helped build the building in which we sat for the interview (the high school). “It was after my senior year, and then my freshman year in college,” he said. , “I worked for Brasfield and Gory, the general contractors who built this place. They used to have a bunch of construction trailers near the back gate, and I just walked in one day and said I wanted a job this summer and they gave me a job. It’s so cool, since I’d never gotten to see this building completed before now. The whole campus has continued to change in general.” He mentioned the new middle school, the redone pool, and the MAC.

And yet he sensed that some things have stayed the same. “You guys, the students, feel pretty similar to how we were,” he said. “You all seem a little bit healthier though, like emotionally. I felt like there was a lot of pressure to compete and fit in, and I don’t feel that as much with you all.”

Looking back at his Lovett days, Helms affirmed that the school has had a serious impact on his life. “One of my favorite quotes to this day,” he said, “is one I learned in Am Stud. It’s Ralph Waldo Emerson, and he said ‘The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.’” For Helms, “that fire was really first kindled here at Lovett. It was [because of] Lovett that I realized I can kind of do anything. I can study poetry, be a preacher if I want; the most important thing is just that I learned to love learning.”

And that meant learning to follow his heart. On his visit, when he ran into his old sculpture teacher in the faculty lunchroom, Helms said “he touched my collar and he looked at me and said, ‘man, you followed your path.’ I really feel like Lovett was the place that put me on that path to begin with, the first place I discovered what I wanted to do and what made me happy.”

As for the` path Helms followed, he said his high school self might not be surprised if he could see himself now. “I was always pretty involved with different spiritual and religious groups when I was here, from FCA to Young Life--Rev even had me preach at our senior chapel, and so I feel like I always sort of knew I was called to something spiritual.”

His message to all of us is to be true to yourself; It is a message he would have liked to give to himself as a teenager. In fact, he said that his Founder’s Day sermon was in a sense dedicated to his high school self. ”The message that you are good, and you are worthy of love and acceptance exactly as you are.”  He leaned forwards in his chair, “Each person is so unique and is capable of so much, so focus on your unique gifts and work on developing those instead of trying to be what you feel like the world wants or expects you to be.”

According to Helms, these deeper messages are best delivered through story.  In his sermons, he tries to open up the text that he preaches by starting “with a story from my own life, or mythology, or literature… because I want to create a message that is helpful and workable for people.”

Stories help us to get involved and engaged, he said. “And then the truth comes out and sort of surprises them,” he said.  “I think that’s the most powerful way to teach because they can come to the realization on their own and interpret it in a way that’s personal. Sharing a story gives someone the freedom to do that.”

Helms acknowledges that this isn’t always common practice, and he laments how “some sermons can feel almost aggressive or abusive. I think that lecturing is a danger that can be really easy to fall into. I never want to do that--I mean, I want to share my experience and the way I see things, but I never want to presume that that holds true for everyone else. Everyone's on their own unique journey and we’re all wired differently.”

And yet what can unite us is that we all have experiences with things greater than ourselves. “Whether we call it God, or Beauty, or we think about it in a more scientific way--we all have an experience of reality being bigger than us. I just think that, with that being said, trying to confine that to one specific argument for what’s true, it just doesn’t seem helpful; it’s not going to move us forwards--as a culture or a human race.”

His open-mindedness even extends to his own identity as an Episcopal priest. Helm’s explained, “If I was born in North Africa, maybe I’d be a Muslim Imam; if i was born in Tel Aviv, maybe I’d be a Rabbi. I just think that my context has shaped a lot of who I am, and I know God reveals himself to everyone in different ways, so I never want to presume my way is the only way.”

He credits some of his perspective to his upbringing, explaining how he grew up in the Episcopal church and still preaches there today, but his mother was always open to less traditional spiritual practice. “She would practice types of meditation, or contemplative prayer, and also in the episcopal church we have female priests, LGBT priests, we perform gay and lesbian marriages, so, it’s always been a very open church. That was always a very important part of how I was raised.”

At Lovett, his early views were broadened still, crediting the Tibetan Awareness club and Am Stud. “I learned a lot about Buddhism in [the Tibetan Awareness Club], and learning about the transcendentalist writers in Am Stud, a lot of those thinkers were bringing more eastern ideas into their work, so that sort of helped expose me to other traditions.”

Am Stud is also where Helms first discovered Poetry. “I was bored during the history class--sorry history teachers--and I started leafing through my anthology of literature when I found a poem, a poem by T.S. Elliot, an American poet, and by the time I was done, I was actually shaking,” he explained. “It had hit me so hard, because someone who had been dead for over 50 years had been able to communicate something that felt so real and so alive. I just thought that I didn’t know that language could be so powerful and do that to a person. After that, I just wanted to create these experiences for other people because it was so meaningful for me,” he finished.

In college, Helms majored in Poetry and English Literature, and now he preaches with it in his church program, Poetry Church. In a sense, he feels that they are the same thing--religion and poetry. “Poetry, in the same way any good sermon does, involves not only your head but your heart--it uses language rhythmically and musically to create an experience for the reader.” He gave the example of Robert Frost’s Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening, saying the lines “the woods are lovely, dark and deep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.” In this immersive way, both his sermons and poetry act in hopes of communicating messages that are captivating, timeless, and touching. They both serve to illustrate some message that cannot be expressed in plain prose.

And so, walking back to class after our interview, these ideas stuck with me as I considered my own relationships with school, spirituality, and self-expression, wondering what my older self might advise my current one if it was in Reverend Helms position, sharing at Founders Day Chapel. Though I’m not sure what I might say then, I’m glad I have the advice of so many others who’ve already come through Lovett’s gates. I know I’ll keep Revend Helm’s messages in mind as I find and follow a path of my own.

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