by Grant Vance | Photos by Danny Alexander
A priest and company walk into a bar. It’s a classic setup. To transcend cliché, let’s say it’s a pastor, painter, actor, spelunker, bird-watcher, philosopher and writer – in a coffee shop.
The writer introduces himself, prompting and establishing the interview for these prolific characters. He asks his first question, anxiously avoiding excluding anyone from his inquiry. Something simple but refined, a real knockout opener.
“Could we start with names?”
The pastor, painter, actor, spelunker, bird watcher and philosopher warmly acknowledge the writer’s efforts and respond.
“Bill Shannon,” they say simultaneously. “It’s nice to meet you.”
The joke here is that this is hardly a joke at all. Slightly fictionalized for the sake of story-telling, sure. But Bill Shannon, although one person and not several, encompasses all of these titles, not to mention those of husband, father, grandfather and storyteller. All that’s missing is tinker, tailor, soldier, spy. But who knows, they may be next.
What’s certainly not missing in Shannon is a love for people and nature, and the desire to learn everything about each, respectively, while also impacting the likes of each as positively as he possibly can.
He’s not only interesting—he’s interested. “None of us are getting out of here alive,” he laughed. “What kind of impact can I have when I’m alive that will have a positive influence on people?”
This is an underlying theme throughout Shannon’s actions and artistic tendencies. Creating art out of nature, using art as a distraction to the darker shades of life.
“I do a lot of communicating with community members and parishioners on Facebook,” he said.
“I try to counteract the hatred and division and bitterness by giving something nice to look at. Take them out of the world we live in and give them something they can look at and say ‘Oh, isn’t that neat.’”
Some examples of this include extreme close-ups of snowflakes, documentation of tadpoles – which Shannon saved from the wild and then re-released – evolving into frogs, footage of a snail eating an oyster “through the sand like a monster,” as well as videos of his dramatic reenactments of sermons.
“When I was in high school I won state awards in acting. … (I) won gold for Death of a Salesman,” Shannon said. “I love to act.”
Acting is one of Shannon’s many artistic talents that lend themselves to story-telling, another outlet of “bringing joy to people’s lives,” he said. “My grandson, he and I have a thing going. He’s 12, and whenever he visits he’ll say, ‘Tell me a Virginia story’—Virginia was my grandmother’s name—and I’ll tell him a story about her life,” Shannon said.
“Or he’d ask for an Eileen story—my mother. Now he knows these people; their names and their lives. And, you know, I embellish a little bit.
“It’s a legacy thing. Will my grandson tell stories to his kids? His grandkids? Well, he’s already a storyteller.”
The legacy and power of storytelling is something that Shannon accounts for in not only his family and hopes of spreading joy, but also into his ideals of faith as a pastor.
“The storytelling aspect is part of the faith. (Scriptures) weren’t recorded—they were told,” he said.
“It’s not about the minute details of every word, it’s the story. This is the story, this is who we are. … It’s part of the human condition: sitting around a campfire telling the story of how Great Grandpa Olaf got that bear.” A pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church for seven years, faith and its connection to the human condition is important to Shannon and the grounding platform for his religious ideals.
“God sent his son and not a committee because God wanted a relationship, not a committee,” Shannon laughed. “Institutionalized religion is the dark. … (I teach) it’s about relating and feeling comfortable with God.”
Shannon’s beliefs are reinforced by his upbringing as a pastor. He described the social climate of his origins 46 years ago, when he was a 20-year-old, self-proclaimed “hippy-ish Jesus freak. In 1968, people weren’t trusting institutions,” he recalled. “Boundaries were starting to be crossed.”
Shannon set the scene for an anecdote from his youth, calling a girl to ask her on a date only to be rejected by her father for his Irish last name. Their family Methodist, they assumed “Shannon” to be Roman Catholic. This was not considered acceptable at the time.
“These boundaries are being erased, and that’s a good thing,” he said. Insight into this perspective comes from Shannon’s experience in travel. He’s been all around the world, including notably much of Europe and the Middle East. He cited his love of people as a significant contributing factor as to why he enjoys it so much, describing his youngest son’s own life changing with other-worldly perspective gained through their travels together.
“He said ‘Dad, they’ve got the same hopes and dreams I do,’ and they do,” he said. “The very next day we were in the store and there was this beautiful little 16-year-old, and she’s all excited and filled with enthusiasm because she got her license that day and her dad got her a VW Beetle.
“This was in Downtown Jerusalem and I said to my son, ‘What were you like when you got your driver’s license?
“It’s human condition to have hopes and dreams. It doesn’t matter where you’re from.”
When traveling, Shannon likes to talk with the “everyday people” and get to know them better; “sit down with them, break the language barrier. I know enough Hebrew to be dangerous. … I’m in love with people.”
He recalled a specific memory of a friend he met and was invited to have dinner with in Bethlehem.
“I had dinner with him in April (and we discussed) growing up in Bethlehem, (what it was like) to live in Bethlehem,” he recalled. “When I was there in the fall I was walking down the street and this car speeds by and (a man) starts yelling ‘Bill! Bill! Bill!’ and it was this guy I had supper with. If you make a friend, you have a friend for life.”
Aside from acting and storytelling, some of Shannon’s other hobbies are bird watching and spelunking, among other naturalistic hobbies that lend themselves to “exploring nature and how it works. I’m a naturalist. I want to know more about where I am.”
He loves birds, recreating them in beautiful paintings. His favorite a Carolina Wren known for being “just like a clown.”
As for spelunking, Shannon is enamored with the idea of exploring somewhere that has the potential of being untouched. He directed a caving camp for 10 years to “help give kids an adventure” and enjoys taking his own kids.
“(My oldest son and I) explored a cave we had never been to before. … I sent him up what’s called a chimney. … He’s small so I sent him, you know. Sacrificial kid,” Shannon laughed. “(He called to me), so I slithered up, and at the top of this crevasse was a pool of calcite as white as paper and the water in it was clear as crystal, and it was full of salamander babies.”
Describing the scene, Shannon encapsulates the true nature of his artistry and wonder, seguing with a connective thread his love of people and nature alike. “What a thrill it is, a gift. It’s for the adventure, and that adventure goes outside of nature to people, too.”