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Aug 18, 2016 | Carol E. Barnwell

Two Robes, One Mission: Transformation


Whether presiding on the bench or at the altar, Keith Giblin seems completely at home. The Beaumont native and U.S. magistrate judge was ordained a bivocational priest in 2014 and serves as vicar of St. Paul’s, Orange. 


Giblin describes himself as a “lifelong learner” and his serial return to school seems to support the notion. After high school, he went to work at the local Goodyear plant and applied to Lamar University when he learned of the company’s tuition reimbursement plan. Giblin was the first in his family to attend college.


“It took me 10 years to graduate while I did shift work,” Giblin said.  During that time, he married his wife, Joyce, and started a family. He’d always wanted to be an engineer, but after graduation, realized his passion lay in more liberal arts. It wasn’t long before Giblin enrolled at South Texas College of Law in Houston, commuting three days a week, sharing duties for eight-month-old Aubrey, while Joyce continued her nursing career the remainder of the week.


Giblin lifts the knocker and lets it fall on the door between his chambers and the wood-paneled courtroom. Everyone stands as he walks in and steps up onto the bench. Several attorneys quietly shuffle papers and listen for their cases to be called. Some people look bored, others appear nervous. For the half dozen offenders—shackled and clad in gray and black stripes with bright orange rubber shoes—it might be hard to imagine the judge presiding at Eucharist. But, after witnessing Giblin’s manner and hearing his conversation with one prisoner after another, the respect and dignity he accords each is unmistakable and picturing him at the altar is natural. 


“People are basically good,” he said, “Some of them just make mistakes.” No doubt a surly offender would unearth a formidable side of the presiding officer, but Giblin begins with respect. 


Giblin’s grandmother helped raise him and his three sisters after their mother died suddenly when Giblin was 17. “Things were upside down but Dad started cleaning the house and learned how to cook and my grandmother helped a lot,” Giblin said.  “I learned honesty, integrity and the benefits of hard work from my parents and my grandmother,” he added. 


Neither parent was particularly religious, but Giblin said he tried the Methodist church with his sister and the Roman Catholic church with his grandmother. Later, he and Joyce visited other denominations as a young married couple. 


“Nothing seemed to fit,” until the judge he would later succeed, the late Wendell Radford Sr., invited the Giblins to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. “The liturgy amazed and touched me,” Giblin remembers. “I felt I was praying the same prayers our Christian mothers and fathers prayed centuries ago.” 


Giblin, who served 14 years as a federal prosecutor before his appointment to the bench, remembers Radford telling him he would be a priest one day.  Other people said the same thing to him.


“I don’t know what they saw, but I know I was happiest when I was active in my church community,” Giblin said. “Perhaps it was that.”  Radford had planted the seed, and after learning about the Iona School for Ministry, Giblin’s course was set.  He went through a discernment process with the help of the Rev. Nancy DeForest and others at St. Stephen’s, Beaumont. Then it was back to school. 


Giblin attended the Iona School on weekends for three years, during which time he served as head of congregation at St. Paul’s. After his ordination, he was named vicar. 


“I certainly wasn’t new to school,” he laughed. “I love learning and meeting interesting people. The minute I touched the door at Camp Allen for my first [Iona] class, I knew I was home,” he said.  Giblin found the instruction at Iona every bit as vigorous as the advanced law degree he earned at the University of Houston. 


In addition to his court duites, Giblin holds a Wednesday evening service at St. Paul’s, followed by a book study and dinner. He does two services on Sunday morning with adult education and devotes Sunday afternoon to hospital or home visits with parishioners. He also teaches religion to eighth graders at All Saints School.


“The congregation is the most amazing and loving group of people,” Giblin said. “They support me in every way possible and are very active in ministry.” 


Bivocational clergy are non-stipendiary and as such, provide clerical leadership for small churches without the financial pressure of having a full time rector. Giblin said clergy leaders stretched his faith and spiritual life and he hopes to do the same thing for his parishioners. 


“My priest invited me to do things I might not have considered. I needed that nudge,” he said, adding, “I’ve always tried to see the good in people.” He sees potential for transformed lives in both his roles.  Of his congregation, Giblin said: “I’m getting more than I’m giving … You wonder if you are worthy but luckily that’s what grace is about.”