On The Walking Dead, Father Gabriel has always been a point of curiosity for me.
When we first met the character, he'd holed himself up in his church after civilization began to fall, subsisting on dry goods from the food pantry. He'd also been haunted by the many people he'd refused to give refuge from the undead.
He's not the most likable person at that point. Several others clearly don't think much of him, and are critical of his softness, and his clinging to being a priest even after his failures to help others. As happens with everyone else, the more Gabriel is exposed to the dangers of this new world, the more hardened and utilitarian he becomes.
Gabriel is one of the few people on the show who retains his former vocational identity. Rick kept wearing his police uniform only for a short while, and another group of officers and a doctor whom the group encounters later on are still in their identifying garb. Otherwise, one wouldn't really know by looking at the bulk of the characters what their former lives consisted of before the zombie virus took over.
And yet Gabriel keeps wearing the collar, and it's not until the episode "One More" in season 10 that we get any kind of an explanation as to why. He and Aaron are tied up in a warehouse, and their captor asks him why he wears it, to which Gabriel responds, "Because the Word of God still matters." Basically the collar serves the same functions now as it had before: a representation of faith for others and for himself.
The more interesting faith-related conversation in this episode, however, comes prior to the duo's capture. They've found some playing cards and whiskey and have helped themselves to both, after which things turn philosophical and Aaron wonders how his companion knows so much about poker and alcohol. He quips, "Is there a whiskey class in seminary?"
To which Gabriel responds, "Yes." He proceeds to tell a story about a pastoral mentor, Father George, who took him to the funeral of a young man who'd died of cancer. He describes the service and Father George's ease and eloquence in leading it. Afterward, Gabriel continues, Father George rushes him to the car and speeds to the family's house for the wake, wanting to get there before the others. When they arrive, Father George rushes to the liquor cabinet and pours two whiskeys, one for himself and one for the father of the deceased.
Then he tells me, "All I have to do is be with them in the moment, speak from my heart and don't worry about what I think they want to hear." I try but I'm not as good at it as he is. And then later he tells me that real ministry isn't preaching from a pulpit. It's talking to people one on one on their own terms, just relating to them, you know? That's how I know about whiskey. It's how I know about a lot of things.
You can watch the full scene here:
I recently led a training for seminary students preparing for the next stages of their journey toward ordination. One of the participants asked how students could bridge the gap for themselves between the theoretical of the classroom and the actual practice of ministry so that entering their first call wouldn't be such a steep learning curve.
My response was to lean into any kind of field learning that they could, whether Clinical Pastoral Education or whatever other requirements they had to serve as student ministers before graduation. The classroom stuff is important, but actually standing at gravesides, sharing coffee (or whiskey) with people in need of an understanding ear, and meeting the flesh and blood people whom God created and loves will make the bigger impression.
Gabriel's mentor modeled the how and where of real ministry: sipping whiskey in living rooms, sitting with people at hospital bedsides, standing in cemeteries with those feeling the tenderness of loss. It's talking, laughing, crying, being honest, and being human with others, showing them that the Word of God still matters.
Such modeling may come from the on high of the pulpit, but it more effectively will come side by side, over drinks or food, joy or sorrow, shared mutually and with compassion. And where two or three are gathered, God will be there, too.