As a child, Amy Meaux sat at the table with her grandfather on Sunday afternoons through the summer, counting up the offering collected at that morning's church service.
On Monday mornings, she went with him to the bank to deposit the money. She tagged along with him for funerals, card game potlucks and meetings with the pastor as well.
Meaux, the only child of two working parents, spent half of each summer in Ohio with her mother's parents, who taught her card games and encouraged her to be artistic. She spent the other half of summer in Florida with her paternal grandparents.
"Everything he did was really centered around his church community," says Meaux of her paternal grandfather, Joe Dafler. "I think that's really how I was able to come to the beginning sense that I could do this for a living. I thought that would be pretty cool."
That early experience was in the Lutheran Church, where women were first ordained in 1970. The Episcopal Church, which her family joined when she was in fifth grade, began accepting the ordination of women in 1976.
"Especially in the South, lots of women I know were told no, over and over again, but I was really blessed. No one ever told me no," says Meaux, who last month assumed the position of dean and rector of Little Rock's Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. She's the 21st person -- and the first woman -- to fill that role in the church's 136-year history. "No one ever discouraged me or said, 'You know, you're a girl. You can't do that.'"
Rett Tucker, Trinity's senior warden, expects her appointment to have a ripple effect.
"We're extremely excited about her," he says. "She has tremendous good energy and I think she's going to be wonderful for the Cathedral and I think she'll also play a role in the community as a community leader."
Meaux, he says, is interested in racial reconciliation, which dovetails with Trinity's covenant partnership with Bethel A.M.E.
"I know that she wants to build on that and grow," Tucker says.
Sybil Hampton Jordan, retired president of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and a longtime member of Bethel A.M.E., met briefly with Meaux over the summer.
"We have a series of activities that just make us good neighbors, very ecumenical," says Jordan says of the Bethel and Trinity congregations, "but also she's really concerned about some ongoing community outreach to a larger community, that we would do something that would [affect] the community downtown, particularly the community of families. It felt like a blessing to have Dean Meaux say that she had a heart for that type of project."
Last month, Meaux and her family -- her husband, Jared, who writes software for a living, and their children, Elise, 16, Jacob, 13, and Woodrow, 8 -- moved to Little Rock from Danville, Ky., in the middle of a pandemic, one week before school started.
"Don't most people do that?" she quips.
No stranger to moves, Meaux was born in Beaufort, S.C., but moved to North Carolina when she was in second grade.
"My dad still worked in South Carolina but it was just that the community we moved to was just a little bit bigger," she says.
THE BIG EASY
When she was in high school, her family moved to Mandeville, La., on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain, across from New Orleans.
"It's really hard to say you're from New Orleans unless you're born there but that's basically where I was formed," she says. "I call New Orleans home even though we haven't lived there in 16 years."
Her parents, Rick and Christy Dafler, were born and raised in Ohio.
"I always say that I was a Southerner raised by two Midwesterners," she says.
Her mother was a hospice and home health care nurse. Her father was a food scientist.
"My dad's wicked smart, and he taught himself how to code, how to program," she says. "We moved to Louisiana so that he could still stay in the research and development of packing food, but really working with the computer programs behind controlling the machines that pack the food."
Meaux didn't lean toward either of her parents' chosen fields and she didn't have a career path clearly mapped out as she completed her bachelor of arts degree in English and sociology at Louisiana Scholars' College at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches. She took the Law School Admission Test and started applying to law schools, but she was stumped by the admissions essays she was required to write outlining why she wanted to go to law school.
"I was like, 'Because my adviser told me to?' I did not have a good reason," she says. "I could not answer that question and I just burst into tears."
She sat at the kitchen table in the little house she rented with friends, struggling to compose an explanation of her legal aspirations, and when asked why she was crying she exclaimed, "I can't do it! I want to go to seminary!"
"The words just came out," she says. "I couldn't stop it."
Applying to seminary was more complex than applying to law school.
"You have to have permission from more than your bishop, you have to have permission from like a whole slew of people to go to seminary, as someone who's going to be ordained. I knew that was going to be a year-long process, but the gift of my process was that it actually wasn't as long as it can be because I already knew so many of those people," she says.
This was in March 1997, her senior year of college -- her fifth year, since she had completed a second junior year studying abroad. Meaux moved home and worked in an after-school program at a small private school that was attached to her church, preparing to take a year to get ready for seminary.
"I figured out how to pay my bills," she says. "I babysat. I did an after-school program. I created work. I had this wonderful principal at this Episcopal school. If I created something he would be like, 'That's awesome. Keep going.' So I tutored kids, I substitute taught, I did all kinds of stuff. I had no idea what I was doing. I made it up as I went along."
She met Jared during that time after he started working for her father. As their relationship got more serious, she decided to take another year before starting seminary. Her bishop helped her find a position at an Episcopal school in Metairie, La., during that time.
"I had no experience. I liked kids, that was it. They hired me as interim school chaplain. I had never taught in the classroom, I had no idea what I was doing. I was responsible for chapel, for pre-K through fifth grade, teaching religion to all those ages," she says. "It was wonderful. It really cemented for me my call to ordination. It became, 'This is what I'm supposed to do. I just need to find the right seminary.'"
Though Meaux's official summer visits with her grandparents ended around the time she turned 14 and had a summer job, she remained close to them and made trips to their Florida home, even after she started college.
Meaux's grandfather died the weekend she started studies at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, in August 1999, the same weekend as the Concordat of Agreement was signed allowing Lutheran ministers to serve Episcopal congregations and vice versa.
"My grandfather was always a little disappointed that we left the Lutheran Church and went to the Episcopal Church, but then he was really pleased because I went to seminary in Texas at the place that had a co-program with the Lutheran program, so you could go there as an Episcopalian or a Lutheran. He could feel like they were still going to get some good Lutheran theology in me," she says.
She and Jared had married a few weeks earlier, honeymooned and then moved from Metairie to Austin.
"It was crazy," she admits. "It seems to be the way our life works for the most part, but it also all just came together."
Jared quickly found a job and she started her studies.
"I'm a real generalist. I like to read, I like to write. I don't really like chemistry or science -- I came from a STEM family but those [attributes] don't come to me naturally. I never really found in college, like, my thing, you know, something I really loved," Meaux says. "Seminary was like, 'Oh my gosh, I could have been studying this stuff like this whole time? Why did no one tell me?' It just really was like walking into everything I knew my brain was made for, my heart was made for."
When Meaux graduated from seminary in May 2002, she became associate rector at Trinity Episcopal Church in New Orleans.
Two years later, in the midst of evacuating for a hurricane with her first child, then just 8 weeks old, in tow, Meaux got a call from St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Dallas.
"That's the largest Episcopal church in the country," she explains. "I remember so vividly, I was sitting in the car and the phone rang. We were evacuating two miles an hour down this stretch of road in the city, trying to get to my in-laws' house on the North Shore and they said, 'Do you want to come and work for us?' I was like, 'Yes, I would like to come!'"
She was there for seven years.
"It was a huge gift," she says. "They really had no business hiring me because I was so inexperienced."
Transitioning from Trinity, with its average Sunday attendance of about 400 and its relaxed New Orleans pace, to the more energetic lifestyle of Saint Michael and All Angels, with a membership that fell somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000, took some adjustment.
"By the time I left, my title was associate rector for children, youth and families, and I was responsible for our ministries to anybody who was from pre-birth to graduating high school," she says. "We had about 1,000 families in our care, and we did programming for a mother's day out program, a preschool program, plus children's ministry and youth ministry."
A congregation that size warranted having at least six or seven clergy on staff, she says, but at one point the church was down to three.
"And that was the year our son, Jacob, was born," she says.
It was at St. Michael that Meaux met the Rev. Rob Leacock, now chaplain at Episcopal Collegiate School in Little Rock.
Leacock remembers the day Jacob was born. His family and Meaux's had gone to the State Fair of Texas the day before and had gorged on corn dogs and funnel cakes and other fair fare.
"We were going to go on the Ferris wheel and Amy was like, 'I don't know if I should go,'" says Leacock, who encouraged her to trust her instincts.
Meaux waited while the rest of the group went on the ride. The next day she called to tell Leacock she wasn't feeling well and was going to the doctor.
"She called a little while later it was like, 'I'm actually having this baby early,'" he says. "That was kind of scary. Jacob was fine and it's kind of a weird story, but we remember it with laughter."
THE NATURAL STATE
Leacock threw Meaux's name in the hat when it was announced that the Rev. Christoph Keller would retire as dean and rector at Trinity. The Meauxs are the godparents of the Leacocks' youngest child.
"I had just come out of seminary and gotten my first job at Saint Michael and All Angels and I was figuring things out, so I was watching how she did things and I was following her cues about things," says Leacock of first meeting Meaux. "We became good colleagues and close friends and our families became very close."
Their families are looking forward to spending time together again, now that they are in the same town.
"She has got some of the strongest interpersonal skills that I've ever known in a member of the clergy. She remembers people's names really well and she remembers things about them and she's a person that people feel really connected with," he says. "She's also a real foodie. She always knows great places and she just knows good things to order. I bet you Amy's restaurant knowledge now already exceeds my own after I've lived here for a little over four years. I bet she has sussed out a lot of great joints already."
Harriet and Ralph Cousins of Dallas became close to Meaux while she was in Dallas.
"She would just light up the services," says Harriet Cousins. "She was a youth priest and she is particularly gifted at that."
Meaux asked the Cousins' then-18-year-old son to be Jacob's godfather.
"Our son wasn't necessarily struggling but he needed another adult in his life, and Amy gave him that love and attention that he needed. It was very heartening to see how he flourished in working with Amy," Ralph Cousins says.
Meaux spent six years in Dallas, and by 2011, she was ready to take on her church, Trinity Episcopal Church in Danville.
"Saint Michael and All Angels had really given me the opportunity to grow my skills administratively," she says. "That's a huge thing you don't learn in seminary that you have to be able to do as a priest, is to do a lot of administrative tasks."
Now in Little Rock, Meaux is looking forward to more conversations like the one she had with Jordan and to the potential for using the resources at hand to create something good for the community.
Her family became Episcopalian when she was a child because of an issue with racism among the clergy of their particular Lutheran church. She insists that structural racism must be confronted.
"We have to figure out a way to unravel those structures and talk about our history in ways that are honest and vulnerable so that reconciliation can happen so that we can do whatever the next thing is. I do not think that our culture does reconciliation very well. I think the Cathedral should be a place where some of the most renowned speakers who are looking at racism theologically and biblically should be speaking and preaching ... I'm really hopeful that we're going to be able to do that work," Meaux says. "I'm really excited about being a part of the life of the Cathedral and with the life of the Diocese of Arkansas. I think that there's so much goodness and richness that's going to come from being in ministry with the people there."
Amy Dafler Meaux
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Nov. 16, 1974, Beaufort, S.C.
A BOOK I RECENTLY READ AND LIKED: I have just begun “Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson. She’s an incredible writer and we desperately need to engage in these hard topics. I also love fiction. I am loving “The Resisters” by Gish Jen.
IF I HAD TO EAT THE SAME THING EVERY DAY IT WOULD BE: Pizza, and I’d eat it for every meal.
MY MOST PRECIOUS CHILDHOOD MEMORY: Spending the summers with Grandpa Joe.
TO MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY, I WOULD INVITE: In addition to my family, it’d have to be my two favorite writers, Madeleine L’Engle and Terry Pratchett, my two strongest spiritual mentors: Grandpa Joe and Jesus, and Amy Poehler (because she’s one of my favorites).
MY KIDS WOULD SAY I’M: Bossy and a good listener.
THE BEST ADVICE I EVER GOT: Keep practicing doing hard things.
I WANT EVERYONE TO KNOW: They are beloved and chosen by their Creator.
SOMEDAY I WANT TO: Oh gosh. I try to live every moment as it comes. And I am loving my life right now. I do hope one day to travel to Africa. And I’m so grateful for everything I have already done and for this day.
I KNEW I WAS AN ADULT WHEN: I had to work on my birthday.
MY PET PEEVE IS: Whistling.
SOMETHING FEW PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT ME: I’m kind of an open book. There’s nothing I wouldn’t tell anyone about
myself or my life. So, here’s a random fact: when I was a child, I dreamed of being a ballerina.
THE MOST FUN I’VE EVER HAD: Every moment with my family hiking, on the beach, or just being together at home is the most fun I will ever have.
I WISH I COULD: Feed, house and educate every child. We are stronger when we value our children and their well-being.
ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Authentic