Highlights from a Michael R. Sullivan interview
This interview took place on Wednesday, October 19, prior to Michael R. Sullivan beginning at Kanuga on November 1, 2016.
This November, the Rev. Michael R. Sullivan leaves Atlanta, GA and sojourns to the Blue Ridge Mountains to begin his tenure as the 10th president of Kanuga. A native of the South Carolina foothills, Michael holds a Master of Divinity from The University of the South–Sewanee, Tennessee; a Juris Doctor cum laude, from the University of South Carolina–Columbia, South Carolina; and a Bachelor of Arts summa cum laude, Wofford College–Spartanburg, South Carolina (Phi Beta Kappa).
Michael’s Kanuga story
Michael possesses a powerful public speaking presence. In a recent talk, he recalled a time when the Spirit of Kanuga truly moved him. He was visiting in the summer of 1997 for the former Spirituality Conference, during what he describes as a dark time in his life. (He goes into heart-aching detail in his first book Windows into the Soul.) Mary Anne Haden handed him a piece of raw clay and said, “You have the hands of a sculptor.” He took the clay, and as he sculpted it in his hands, he felt a deep connection and peace from the process.
As “life weaves him back” to Kanuga, Michael emphasized the importance of truthfulness and authenticity, along with this call: “The key to [Kanuga’s] success depends on our willingness to tell our sacred story.”
Setting the scene—October 19
Michael sits in his office at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church in Atlanta, pausing for a brief moment of sanctuary from his emotionally charged week. Aside from getting things in order before his transition, he says farewell to the congregation and community he has served for the past seven years. In his office, six volumes of poet Mary Oliver rest with Eliot and Auden on his bookshelf next to the Bible and The Book of Common Prayer. Though he has not had time to himself this week, he shares this moment of peace to give this interview:
Interview with the Rev. Michael R. Sullivan, President of Kanuga as of November 1
Kanuga: I know this week must be hectic for you; I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me. Are you looking forward to relocating from Atlanta to Western North Carolina?
Michael Sullivan: I leave in Atlanta many people and places that I love. I have put my heart and soul into my work here, but I am reminded of the psalmist’s words in Psalm 121. I need to be able to “lift up my eyes to the hills from which comes my help.” To go to Kanuga is a dream. It’s already a sacred place to me, and now I feel I am being invited to experience it on a deeper level.
K: What do you see as one of the first things you’d like to do as president of Kanuga?
M. S.: The most essential thing for me is to hear stories of Kanuga from everyone. I want to see the common threads that run through our stories. I am not arriving at a place to bring my own agenda. I arrive at a place that already has a deep tradition and sense of itself.
My dad used to tell me, “Don’t plant pine trees. Plant cedars and live oaks.” Bishop Kirkman Finlay [the founder of Kanuga] didn’t plant pine trees. He planted enduring trees, and those are the things we have to notice and fertilize. How do we take that great inheritance—that dream—and give it to the future? We are not just telling a story from 1928. Kanuga is living.
We are trying to show the world radical hospitality that stops people where they are and allows them to use their gifts. This is something a hotel cannot offer. I think it’s the people that I’ll need these first months and first years, and it’s always going to be the people throughout my time and tenure there.
K: It’s funny, because my next question was going to be, “What do you see as something you’d like to preserve about Kanuga,” but you answered that with my previous question. So, let’s talk about you on a more personal level. What’s the best book you’ve read in the past year?
M. S.: Well, I just finished a book about the hazards and hopes of black male lives called Between the World and Me [Ta-Nehisi Coates]. It was emotionally charged—a very hard lesson to read. I read the poetry of Mary Oliver almost every day. If you look at my bookshelf, there are about 17 books in the queue. The Bible is in that list, and I keep it in my reading list all the time. It’s a big part of who I am and how I’m challenged. Also Falling Upward [Richard Rohr]. It was instrumental in showing me my call to Kanuga.
K: I’ve heard you enjoy traveling to Ireland. What sparked that interest, and what helped it grow?
M. S.: So with a name like Michael Sullivan, you are drawn to travel to Ireland. [He laughs.] On my first trip I met a man named Con Moriarty, and he and I have become incredibly close—so much that when I go to Ireland now, I introduce him as my brother. He introduced me to the love of walking the hills… to sacred walking. We have traveled to ancient sites that dot the west coast of Ireland, viewing artifacts, ancient Christian symbols and standing stones. Over the years, Con has introduced me to writers, poets, cheese-makers, those that make Irish whisky, and I have fallen in love with a place that has become like an ancestral home.
K: What did your role entail as a fire department chaplain in Atlanta?
M. S.: About two and a half years ago, I became chaplain to a fire department here, with about 125 firefighters. I recognized that I could be a chaplain in title, or establish relationships with the people in the department. So, I trained to become a firefighter myself. I learned how to climb to the top of a 100-foot ladder and not fear. I’ve learned about critical incident stress management and how to prepare for disasters. I’ve grown to love the work and the people who do it. That role has been huge in my life. When you are a chaplain for a fire department, there are real-life dangerous situations. You are looking for ways to give some light. Over time, I hope to establish that type of relationship in the Hendersonville community.
Michael concludes by expressing his interests: cooking, fly fishing, pottery—but his true loves are his wife, Page, and their children. Their daughter Mattie is a junior at Rhodes in Memphis, TN, and Jack is a freshman at Wofford. He finishes by saying, “I adore my family. My children challenge me and help me grow; my wife challenges me and helps me grow.”