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May 29, 2015 | Carol E. Barnwell

Woodworking and Ministry: both Process of Revelation

[Diolog Magazine] Murray Powell has been ordained for 37 years. He has served churches in Beaumont, Tyler and Houston; biked with a team on several MS 150s from Houston to Austin; and was vicar of Lord of the Streets homeless ministry in Midtown Houston. He brews his own craft beer and, despite being born without a left hand, is a master woodworker. While semi-retired, he currently serves as assistant rector at St. Mark’s, Houston. His vocation as a priest and avocation as an artist share some revealing dimensions.


Powell’s family moved to Houston from Tennessee in 1956 and had the distinct luck to purchase a home next door to one Tom Bagby, founding rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church. Though the Powells were Presbyterian, their growing friendship with Tom and Mary Louise Bagby eventually led them to the Episcopal Church, so Murray Powell grew up at St. Martin’s, where he was confirmed and served as an acolyte. 

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When he was 16, Powell remembers Bagby talking to him about ordination. “I see in you makings of an Episcopal priest,” Bagby told him. “I want you to think about it.” 


Powell went on to graduate from Robert E. Lee High School and entered The University of Texas in the fall of 1968. “I got there in time for the tear gas,” he said, remembering the protests against the Vietnam War. He left college a semester shy of graduating “to avoid any decision on a future course for my life.”


Bagby’s words echoed in his mind over the next several years, while he worked selling advertising for several area newspapers. When he was 24, he met with Bagby to talk about seminary.


“I remember he called Milton (Richardson, then Bishop of Texas) and we went right down to the Cathedral to talk with him. It was a whirlwind … I took the GRE a week later and entered seminary at Virginia Theological Seminary in the fall of 1975,” he said. Powell finished his UT communication degree during the following summer and, with support from St. Martin’s, completed seminary in 1977.


Following his ordination, he served at St. James’ and St. Matthew’s in Beaumont (now closed); Christ Church, Tyler; Christ Church Cathedral in Houston; and St. John’s in Austin before becoming rector of St. Michael’s, Houston, where he served from 1992–2005. St. Michael’s is now Hope Episcopal Church. Powell became vicar of Lord of the Streets in Midtown Houston in 2005 and assisted at Trinity part-time. “What I learned at LOTS was that I knew a lot more about homeless ministry when I got there in 2005, than when I left in 2010,” Powell said. “I was most struck by what I received from the people there. It was a pleasure to be known through LOTS. My ministry there was very powerful.”


While Tom Bagby guided Powell’s ministry, his love of woodworking came from his father. “My dad always had a project going and he could do anything,” Powell said. He grew up helping his father with projects around the house and still uses his father’s table saw in his home shop today. His father was a recovering alcoholic and Powell believes that his dad’s recovery “cemented his spirituality in a quiet way. My dad lived a sermon of wisdom and intelligence,” he said.


Powell expanded his repertoire from furniture to objects (“queer little Murray things”) when he bought a lathe. He joined Gulf Coast Wood Turners and found “a place to park my soul” in the creativity process.


He built a music stand in the shape of a clarinet; several bishop’s croziers (inlaid with turquoise); impossibly thin vessels with beautiful, elongated spindle tops; boxes and document tubes.


Powell started an arts program at Trinity and at St. Mark’s to help people connect with their creativity. Parishioners create Stations of the Cross in wood, glass, watercolor and many other mediums; and after Holy Week, these pieces are auctioned to help support outreach, making each collection both unique and ethereal.


At times, woodworking is an escape, Powell admits, but mostly “it is a celebration.” It is a process of discovery and, “I am more connected with ‘me’ when I am working with wood,” he said. As in his ministry, Powell tries to see what lies concealed in the whorls and knots, the rings and the bark. Ultimately, a gem is revealed, sanded smooth and oiled to highlight a previously hidden beauty.


“I live a charmed life,” Powell said. “I love doing what I’m doing.” It is a legacy to the spark that Bagby first recognized, an ability to see beneath the surface and bring out the best, in people or in a block of raw wood salvaged from the roadside.



An exhibition of Powell’s work will be held at the Beeville Art Museum May 16-July 17, 2015. The museum is at 401 East Fannin, Beeville, TX 78102. Open M-F, 9-5 and Saturday, 10-2. Admission is free.   361.358.8615