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New Priest Knows How to Work a Crowd

Rev. Kris Kramer uses colorful background to heal wounds at Saint James Episcopal.

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Rev. Kris Kramer in Saint James Episcopal Church.

Rev. Kris Kramer, the new priest at Saint James Episcopal Church, has a more diverse background than many clergymen. He has worked as a waiter, an insurance salesman and a traveling deejay. He has coached football, basketball and Special Olympics athletes. Originally a Methodist, he spent nine years in the United Kingdom and was ordained by the Church of England after earning his doctorate at Oxford University. Kramer also played opposite actress Susann Fletcher in a Radford University production of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas."

He is comfortable in front of an audience.

After his first month at the church, parishioners say, their new priest has already had a unifying and invigorating effect on a congregation rocked by the upheaval that has run through the Episcopal Church since it ordained an openly gay bishop in 2003. As a result of that conflict, the Saint James parish recently lost its priest and about 30 members, who had wanted Saint James to leave the Episcopal Church. The departing members started meeting up the road at Washington Mill Elementary, and some tensions remain between the two groups.

Whether it is the knack for team-building that Kramer employed as a coach or his deejay’s ability to "get this party started," as they say, that has helped him to re-energize the congregation, his parishioners seem pleased.

"It’s just gotten very joyful around here," said Marge Smith.

"He has a contagious enthusiasm," said vestry member Bob Whitehouse.

Ellen Cleary agreed. "You can just feel the energy – the renewed energy."

Ann Chadwick noted that Kramer was putting in the legwork to reach all of the church’s members. She said he attended the funeral of one congregant’s fiancé about two days after he arrived at the church. "He didn’t know her, but he knew she was hurting, and he let her know he was there and that he cared." In his first week, said Chadwick, Kramer had visited the church members who need communion brought to them at home. "He did make a point to visit the neediest people," she said, adding that Kramer was still doing so.

"He’s also been visiting the people who stopped coming to church," said Smith.

Tom Chadwick noted that Kramer is well-rounded and good with children, and Cleary said he was a strong speaker and writer.

"I know, coming in, that one of my biggest tasks is to kind of settle things down here," said Kramer, the only ordained member of the church’s staff. "The place is in really good shape in a lot of ways." He said that, while not everyone in the church may believe all of the same things, congregants could all come together to do God’s work. "This place is committed to being a healthy place, and a wholesome place, and a place where everyone is welcome."

WHILE TAKING THE job may have been a little risky, he said, it has the potential for greater reward. "This is where I want to be," said Kramer. "I don’t want to be in a fight, but I’m an old football player, and I want to be on a team I believe in." He said two of his focuses would be on the children’s and music liturgies.

Music is important to Kramer, who plays the guitar, banjo and piano, and also sings. It was one reason he enjoyed Oxford University. "You know you’re in a wonderful place with beautiful music when the queen’s sister will pop in from time to time," he said.

He also enjoyed working as a coach to the men’s varsity basketball team at Oxford. The team’s second loss of that season, he said, was in the national finals. The team also went on a playing tour of Czechoslovakia, where the team captain was from. "We had a blast," he said.

Prior to his time at Oxford, Kramer studied in a number of other institutions in the United Kingdom, including a monastery on the island of Iona, off the coast of Scotland. He said his overseas travels and his subsequent conversion from Methodism resulted from his admiration for John Wesley, the Anglican evangelist who co-founded Methodism. He decided to visit the important places in Wesley’s life. "As a Methodist, I got in touch with my roots, and in getting in touch with my roots, I found I wanted to be a Church of England priest who’s on fire for the Lord," he said.

While abroad, he met his wife, Caroline, of London, who is now a priest at Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria. The two have four children, ages 6 to 11.

After returning to the U.S., Kramer became a rector at the Grace Episcopal Church in Radford, Va. and a chaplain at Radford University. During those years, he coached football at Radford High School, where he was assistant coach to Norman Lineburg, who is legendary in Virginia high school sports. He also was the deejay for the school’s prom every year, work that harkens back to his earliest job.

"In high school, I had a real thing about being a deejay," he said. At the age of about 16, he assembled a sound system and light show, calling it "The Dance Machine." For about 10 years, he and the machine deejayed dances and parties around western North Carolina, where he grew up and got his undergraduate’s degree. He said the work almost paid his way through college. The machine also paid for his first year of seminary school at Duke Divinity School, when he sold it off, fog machine and all, although he could not bear to part with the LP record collection, which he still has. Even after selling the machine, he deejayed occasionally at two night clubs in Ashville, N.C.

AMONG HIS OTHER extracurricular activities in Radford was starring as Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd in the university’s production of the musical, "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." Guest star Susann Fletcher had asked to play opposite an adult, and Kramer got the part. However, he said, he had to ask permission from the bishop and his church’s vestry before accepting the role, because it meant he would have to swear a lot.

It was not the first play he had acted in, but he said it was the most exciting, in part because it sold out every night. "It was a big hit, because we had all these college girls in lingerie dancing," he said.

At the end of the last performance, after taking her bows, Fletcher called Kramer back to center stage, pulled an Easter lily from inside the bouquet she had just been handed and gave it to him. Half of his congregation was in the audience, he said, and at seeing Fletcher pass him this symbol of resurrection, "people went crazy." Then, she kissed him and brought down the house.