Worshippers at Holy Angel Roman Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side

I Take the Saints With Me

Worshippers at Holy Angel Roman Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side

Worshippers at Holy Angel Roman Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side

Growing up, church was… interminably slow. Not bad, just slow. Like the waving of a cardboard fan in the hands of a church mother, it was steady and sure, and time just sort of “hung” in church. So there was lots of time to people-watch. The people I especially loved were the old saints, these mahogany/ tan/ebony/cream-with-just-a-hint-of-coffee ladies and gentlemen who occupied the prime seats in the church, who nodded knowingly when the preacher was especially inspired, who sang in the senior choir, and whose hands lifted to the air meant church was going to last an extra five, ten, twenty-five minutes.

I was not a regular (my parents weren’t church goers), but I was a regular visitor to two churches in particular, because my extended family were every-Sunday church folks. Even before I had ever heard of the “communion of saints,” in which we profess our faith each week in my own Episcopal church, I believed in it because I witnessed and experienced it. When we sang the old hymns and spirituals, I felt myself lifted up, beyond. I would imagine Ida B. Wells-Barnett or Frederick Douglass sitting in a church just like that one, singing those very songs. Their pictures, and those of other “Heroes and Heroines of Our Faith and People” were hung along the church’s hallways and on the walls of its fellowship hall, and their solemn, noble faces told stories of faith in Jesus as my people have lived it, of sojourning and thriving in this harsh and wondrous America we call home.

This has been a bloody, bloody summer to be Black in America. In this wearying time, I take with me the saints of my beloved Black church. Read more

The Bricks and Mortar of Family

Dr. Martin Luther Church (ELCA) in Oconomowoc, WI

Dr. Martin Luther Church (ELCA), Oconomowoc, WI

I have seen various versions of this meme going around Facebook, and while I don’t necessarily disagree with the sentiment, I generally just glanced past the posts without much thought. That is, until a friend posted this one. This one hit me differently.

When I look at this image, I am instantly transported into that building. Many of my earliest memories are of that place – hearing the story of how I took my first steps in that kitchen with its yellow flecked linoleum floor and countertops, anxiously awaiting the Sunday School year when I would finally be in the coveted room that had the huge rainbow mural on one wall, crawling around on the shuffleboard-covered floor to pick up the yarn scraps left by the quilting ladies, sitting four pews from the front on the pulpit side and looking at the sky blue dome behind the altar, practicing the phone number (which I knew before my home phone number) for the rare times I was home alone so that I had a way to contact my mom–a key volunteer before she became a staff member. This building was just as much my home as the house I lived in. Read more

My Grandpa, Our Advocate

The Author’s Grandfather

The Author’s Grandfather

I don’t belong to the same faith tradition as my grandfather did. Our denominations are cousins (mine the liberal cousin) that emerged out of the Stone Campbell movement of the Second Great Awakening. His tradition was non-instrumental, led by non-ordained clergy, absolute in its congregational polity, and literalist in its interpretation of much of Scripture. Grandpa’s tradition didn’t allow women to read Scripture, pray in worship, or teach boys over the age of 12, let alone serve as pastors of congregations.

When I was in the second grade, my parents moved us out of my Grandfather’s tradition and into the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), mostly because of the institutional treatment of women. Raising two daughters made my parents keenly sensitive to the unjustness of their childhood church’s position. I, however, grew up blithely unaware of the sexism I’d been fortunate to avoid; I was unequivocally supported by my immediate family once I discerned a call to ministry (at the tender age of 14). But once I realized the difference between the tradition of my extended family and the tradition of my immediate family, I started to worry: would Grandpa approve? Grandpa had served as a pastor for many years, taught at a local seminary, had two PhD’s; his disapproval would be hard to combat. I should have remembered, though, that my Grandpa was a gentle, loving, intelligent, and kind man. I should have known my fears of rejection would be unfounded. He and my Grandmother participated in my ordination, and they never hesitated to support my ministry.

Grandpa may be in my Cloud of Witnesses, but I am convinced he stands also in the Cloud of Witnesses of countless women in the Church of Christ. You see, Grandpa taught his church that women could be deacons; he never failed to praise my preaching to every Sunday school he had, subversively asserting the validity of women’s proclamation of the gospel. In and out of the pulpit, throughout his career, Grandpa was always working to normalize the ministry of women in his own context. In his retirement, he continued this support, personally encouraging and championing women who pursued ministry within his tradition. After his funeral, which was held on Holy Saturday, an older woman took me aside to tell me the story of how Grandpa always asked after her daughter who was serving as a minister. Grandpa not only continued to encourage her daughter, but also encouraged this woman whenever she was asked to read scripture or lead prayers.

Women I will never meet know they are supported in their calls because my Grandfather dared to speak up for them. People who would never have challenged the status quo of their tradition were presented with solid interpretive possibilities because my Grandfather wasn’t afraid to teach them. And I? The story of his call and faithful submission to God is a bright beacon that keeps me strong as I follow my calling. His gracious love, steadfast commitment to teaching, and joyful celebration of my ministry in a context that was occasionally hostile to female ministers reminds me that I, too can have an incredible impact on the churches and members that I serve. I can be brave, like he was; I can push the church, like he did; but I can only do those things if I am committed to deeply loving my flock, just as he did.

I know there are many men like my Grandpa, who stay within their traditions and remain steadfastly committed to the inclusion of women in ministry. Praise God! But today, I’m thankful just for him. Whenever I affirm the call of another woman, I like to think I’m carrying on his legacy.

On Catherine of Siena: An Interview with Shelley Emling, Author of Setting the World on Fire

setting the world on fireYou’re not a Roman Catholic, but you just wrote a book on one of the church’s most beloved saints. Why did you choose to write about a saint, and why Catherine of Siena?

I’ve made a habit of writing about strong, interesting women. I wrote a book about Mary Anning, a fossil hunter in the 1700s. I also wrote a book about Marie Curie after meeting with her granddaughter. My publisher and I were talking about the popularity of the current pope and she asked if I’d ever be interested in writing a contemporary, secular book about a Roman Catholic saint. She recommended Catherine of Siena. To be honest, I had barely heard of her and wasn’t too keen on the idea initially. But then some bizarre things happened. I got lost one day in my car and found myself in the parking lot of the St. Catherine of Siena school in a town near my own hometown – a school I had never noticed before. Anyway, I thought maybe someone was trying to tell me something and so I decided to delve in and write the book. And I’m glad I did. In addition, I have a lot of Roman Catholic friends but had never really had a conversation with any of them before about saints. When I started asking around, many of them told me that Catherine of Siena was their favorite saint. My respect for their opinion also inspired me to write about her.

Read more

A New Home In A New Land

Immigrants on deck of steamer

Immigrants on deck of steamer

Fifty-one years ago my maternal grandmother was sitting on a suitcase in Grand Central Station, crowds pressing in, sounds swirling around, smells lingering. Her new husband had gone off in search of some food for the final leg of their journey to their new home in Holland, MI. My grandpa clutched their one lone American coin, a quarter, and selected large navel oranges and some dark chocolates to share with his new bride – luxuries they did not have the opportunity to possess in a post-war Germany with limited opportunity, limited promise, limited security.

My grandparents’ family could not understand why they would want to leave their home, why they would want to start over. Starting over as an immigrant is humbling. Grandpa headed off to a third shift job at Krampton’s Factory each day. His advanced degree in agriculture was not of much use without his own farm. Grandma went to work at Lemmon Fresh Dry Cleaner and spent her days listening to English on the radio and from the customers, as she steamed, pressed, and pleated clothing.  Her degree in home economics was not of much use without her own home.  Read more

The author's family

It Mattered: A Lesson in Gender and Ministry

The author's family

The author’s “trinity” of support

Most of 2009 is an ugly blur to me, but one weekend in October stands out in my memory. My mother, godmother, and aunt drove up from North Carolina to Kentucky, where I had recently moved, to help me. My husband and I had moved in January for his new position as a seminary professor. I had become a mother, a resident of Kentucky, a seminary graduate, and a stay-at-home mom all in the month of January 2009. As my son turned 9 months old, I had been invited to preach for the first time since arriving in Kentucky on the same weekend my husband would be out of town. I do not feel as though I made the transition from seminary student and hospice chaplain to stay-at-home mom very gracefully. I had all kinds of needs, some of which I didn’t even know. It was obvious to my mother and her two besties that with my husband out of town, someone needed to care for my son while I wrote and delivered my sermon.

They made a road trip of it, and on a Thursday night in October 2009, these three women who were so important to me and to one another arrived at my house: Marjorie (my mom), Nancy (my godmother and the wife of my childhood youth minister), and Cheryl (my aunt and childhood music minister). A trinity of love and spiritual nurture from the days before I was an ordained minister. Read more

My Friend, the Mortician

cross in graveyard small

I met Rob Pecht, owner of Bordentown Home for Funerals, in a hearse. At least that’s how I remember it. Our first conversation on a long drive to a cemetery centered around my being relatively new to the area and our mutual love of the HBO show Six Feet Under. I vaguely remembering asking him, “Is it really like that?” We have been friends ever since. I have celebrated with him and his wife the birth of their children, and I’ve even attended birthday parties in the funeral home, which is much cooler than it sounds. Rob is more than a friend, though; he is also a cherished colleague. Through Rob, I learned a lot about what happens behind the scenes for a funeral to come together. I recognized that a funeral director’s calling is similar to ours – always on duty, always connected to a phone. They too have to leave family dinners and plan the long weekend trips around needing to be back for a service. He understood the life of a pastor, and I understood his life as a funeral director. Read more

child's hand taking communion bread

Wonder Bread

child's hand taking communion bread

Taking Communion

In seminary, I learned all about the right and proper celebrating of the Lord’s Supper. Like any good Presbyterian, I could quote the appropriate passages in our Book of Order and Book of Confessions —not to mention that I had memorized the standard liturgy from our Book of Common Worship. Whether communion was to be served in the pews or by intinction, I was confident that the meal would be properly celebrated with everything done “decently and in order.”

I knew what to say. I knew what to do. But somewhere along the way, I had lost touch with the wonder and deep joy that is found in the sacrament.

That is, until I met a 7-year-old named Zoe.

Read more

Woman's hands opening prayer book

Boundary-Breaking Witness

Woman's hands opening prayer bookIt may seem strange that a group of women opposed to my calling as a priest would be an inspiration to me, but picturing those Armenian nuns, especially when I celebrate the Eucharist, motivates me to be the best priest I can be.

I was raised in the Armenian Church – the most ancient of Christian traditions. Armenia was the first nation to convert to Christianity, in 301 C.E. Armenians have been proud followers of Christ ever since, and the Armenian Church has survived over 1700 years relatively intact and unchanged despite centuries of war, displacement, outside occupation, and most recently, the Armenian Genocide of 1915 followed by nearly 70 years of Soviet rule, which did its best to erase much of the Christianity and Armenian culture from Armenia. Suffice it to say that Armenians have a deeply embedded impulse to cling to tradition and prioritize the preservation of the Armenian faith and culture.

While my family attended church almost every Sunday and were very active in our local Armenian church, my most profound learning about faith was absorbed at the Armenian Sisters Academy, a private day school run by the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, an Armenian Catholic order of nuns. I would notice that the sisters had great joy, and that their joy came from something other than the work they were doing. It came from their daily discipline of prayer and connection to the God who called them to this life. I knew that the nuns prayed a lot. They prayed with the assembled student body at the beginning and end of each school day, and they prayed as a community both in the morning and at nighttime. I also could tell that the prayers we learned in school were not only important for me to know as an Armenian, but deeply personal and meaningful to the nuns who prayed them daily. It was clear to me that their vocation – not just to run a school, but to commit themselves to the discipline of daily prayer and ever-deepening love of God – was something that brought them a deep joy that I’d never seen in anyone else. Furthermore, I could see that the structure and tradition of the church, with its prayers and liturgies and hymns that had been passed down from generation to generation, gave them a profound connection to God. The witness of these nuns, and they way their faith clearly fueled their very existence, gave me the first sense of my own vocation. Whatever I did with my life, I wanted it to be with the vigor and the joy that they possessed.

The nuns remained an important part of my spiritual journey long after I left the Armenian Sisters Academy. In college, I learned about churches other than my own, including churches that ordained women. This was new and exciting information for me, and I immediately took it to the nuns to try and make sense of it. I had so many questions about one basic quandary: Why couldn’t the Armenian Church ordain women? Many years of intense conversation and discernment followed. It took twelve years from the time I first felt called to the priesthood to formally join the Episcopal Church. It wasn’t easy to leave my church of origin behind, and it cost me many friendships. Most of those broken relationships were ones I had to accept would never be mended; to many people, I was a bad Armenian, a traitor, a heretic. But my relationships with these nuns, whose faith nurtured me from the time I was a child, were ones I cherished so much that the thought of losing them was heartbreaking. And so, after my ordination to the priesthood, I reached out and met Sister Emma, who had been my Kindergarten teacher, for coffee on a cold winter afternoon.

She was the same old Sister Emma. Warm, kind, with a hint of strictness you wouldn’t want to mess with. I reminded her of the time she punished me for refusing to put on a coat to go outside for recess, and she reminded me of the time I noticed she had gotten braces and seemed to be in pain. We talked for hours, and yes, it was uncomfortable at times when our theological differences were apparent. Mostly, though, it was like coming home to an old friend. We sat there and talked about our own spiritual journeys – the challenges of maintaining a life of prayer, dry times when God feels far away, the joys of our respective vocations. We talked about all the similarities between the Episcopal Church and the Armenian Church. We also acknowledged our many differences. She will never understand why I left the Armenian people behind to serve in an American church, or why I feel called to the priesthood, or how I can be a Christian and support LGBTQ equality, or how I can be married but not want children. But – and I still am brought to tears every time I think about this – she intentionally searched for what we had in common, rather than allowing our differences to divide us. This woman of ardent, abiding faith, whose very life inspired me to want to give my own life to God, was still a witness to me about the power of God’s enormous love: love that reaches beyond boundaries and differences, and that connects human beings, heart to heart.

A few months ago, I was celebrating Eucharist and found my mind wandering, getting lost in the same words I say week after week. It’s one of the dangers of a highly liturgical tradition, that prayer can easily become rote. Suddenly, I thought, what if Sister Emma or Sister Arousiag or Sister Louisa were sitting in those pews? The thought of these nuns in the pews in front of me, women of deep devotion and piety, reminded me of my responsibility to say every word of this prayer with all of my heart and with utter dedication to God. Immediately, I focused on the Eucharistic prayer in a way I never had before. I dedicated the Eucharist to all the Armenian Sisters in my heart that day. Maybe none of them will ever be able to sit in the pews of my church, but in a world that seems to thrive on polarizing differences, these women continue to witness to me the victory of the God of love, the power of faith to break down boundaries, and the joy that comes with a life dedicated to God’s service.

Tamara Nichols Rodenberg

An Interview with Tamara Nichols Rodenberg

Tamara Nichols Rodenberg

Rodenberg

The Rev. Dr. Tamara Nichols Rodenberg was recently named as the 20th president of Bethany College, a private liberal arts college of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Bethany, West Virginia. Tamara and her husband John, Vice President of Philanthropy and Mission Implementation at Christian Church Homes, have two children, Heather and Matthew.

Can you give us a short summary of your career?

My career in ministry has led me through several manifestations of church including youth ministry, campus ministry, co-ministry (rural congregation/sub-urban congregation), and overseas ministry as a Common Global Mission’s Board missionary in Swaziland. In Swaziland, serving Kukhany’Okusha Zion Church in rural development and theological education, I realized that I needed to go back to school. I attended the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, in order to complete a Ph.D. in Ethics & Social Theory with an emphasis on economic development. Toward the end of this time, the Disciples Seminary Foundation contacted me to consider applying for Dean of the Southern California program, a decision that made sense for myself, my husband John, and our two children under the age of four. As fate would have it, my predecessor (and truly excellent leader) Mary Anne Parrot soon chose to retire as president, and I was asked to consider becoming the interim president. I served as the DSF interim president until a new permanent president could be named. At this stage, we began the search process. Dr. D. Newell Williams of Brite Divinity School contacted me to see if I would consider serving in the role of Vice President for Advancement. This was a whole new world for me, and one I thought worth pursuing. We moved to Texas where I began learning the art of fundraising. This led me to the invitation to consider becoming a college president. Read more