Rev. Carleton Bakkum: Started in the circus, survived a shooting and found his way to God is your source for free news and information in Williamsburg, James City & York Counties.

The Rev. Carleton B. Bakkum
The Rev. Carleton B. Bakkum

The Rev. Carleton B. Bakkum, rector of Grace Episcopal Church in historic Yorktown, celebrated 27 years of service with the church this past July. Bakkum’s easy-going and welcoming nature casts no doubt that he was meant for this position in life.

Born in Dalton, Georgia, he was raised in the First Presbyterian Church. He said he left the church “in a big way” at the age of 14. “I was a lost and angry soul for the next eight or nine years, while at the same time, pretty wildly creative with theater, music and photography,” said Bakkum.

After obtaining a B.A. and graduating from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, he joined the circus as a promoter and traveled the Eastern portion of the United States.

He was working alone one night in Athens, Georgia, when an intruder entered his office. Bakkum was hit five or six times on the head with the butt of a gun and was nearly murdered. “My head was pretty smashed in, I was then shot point blank in the face, but the bullet missed me,” said Bakkum. He describes the event as a symbol of the face of evil and simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It was at this point that he began reassessing what life was all about. For the next few months, Bakkum thought he’d scroll through all the world religions to see what was out there. “As I delved further and further, on January 3, 1977, I had a radical conversion experience. I was just snatched up by Jesus, shown the universe, forgiven and given a whole new entrée into what health and wholeness might be,” said Bakkum.

He left the circus and went back to St. Petersburg, Florida, finding employment selling electronic organs at a mall and working as a waiter and piano player at a restaurant. Eventually, a couple of strong mentors directed him toward seminary. He ended up at Princeton with $900 in his pocket.

“I quickly caught the vision of becoming an Episcopal priest,” said Bakkum. He graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity Degree and then entered General Theological Seminary in New York City. After he was ordained, he found a position as assistant rector at Trinity Church in Upperville, Virginia, near Washington, D.C.

About four years later, Bakkum heard through word of mouth that a rector’s position would be opening at Grace Episcopal Church. He landed the job. “They took a chance on me, I was a young man in my 30’s at this point,” said Bakkum. With assistance from his wife, Elsa, the two began implementing changes such as an Easter Vigil, a folk choir and reinvigorating the vestry and Sunday school program. He began working earnestly to conduct meaningful and substantive services. The congregation has grown to almost 600 members and has been in its current location since 1697.

Bakkum enjoys immersing himself in the arts during his free time. He plays the keyboard, djembe drum, autoharp and enjoys singing and painting. “I’m convinced every person is a singer, dancer and artist. It’s easy to compare ourselves to others in a culture that has created an environment where people seem to get shut down early, and it’s lying there latent in every person just ready to be rediscovered,” said Bakkum.

It isn’t uncommon for the preschool students at Grace Episcopal Day School to encounter Bakkum during their daily travels at school. “He quietly lights up the room and is a great communicator with people of all ages,” said Paula Kempton, co-director of Grace Episcopal Day School. “The students hang on his every word, musical note, or flash of magic as they are led to the spirit and heart of God,” said Kempton.

Bakkum turns 63 this month and doesn’t have any plans to leave the church in the near future. “Of course it’s a question that’s in the air. You’re kind of forced to retire at 72 in the Episcopal Church. I try to keep my ear to the ground. Am I used up here? Am I not fresh anymore? Do they need something different? They keep telling me no, so I’m just holding on lightly,” said Bakkum.

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