Tuesday, September 4, 2007

My Journey Since High School

This is an account of my life since graduating from Mooresville (Indiana) High School in 1980. I write it for my friends from all through my life who probably know bits and pieces of this, but have gaps where we weren’t in close touch. Even my cousins and I have some years to make up for. I am grateful for email and Internet social circles like MySpace and Facebook, Classmates and Reunion, that allow us to find each other again! Sorry for the length, but it does cover 27 years, after all!

Although my friends and family probably didn’t realize it, I was really depressed high school, especially my senior year, following the death of my little brother, Alan. He came in contact with a live electrical wire when he was near a railroad trestle and was electrocuted. It was just prior to Halloween, 1979, and I still miss him.

So, after high school, I waited two years before going back to school. I worked at this terrible place in Indianapolis that takes bids from salvage dealers on cars that have been totaled by insurance companies. The only saving grace was my good friend, Paula, worked there with me.

I also babysat and sold Mary Kay cosmetics for a short time. The rest of the time, I slept, ate and became more and more depressed. When Paula said she was going back to school, I said, “Well I’m not staying here by myself!” I immediately applied to Eureka College (EC) in Illinois, which is affiliated with my church, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (DOC).

I thrived there and really found my unique writing and speaking voice. (Although I had written for the newspaper and was on speech team in high school, I didn’t think of myself as particularly gifted in either area.) I was the newspaper editor for three years at EC and did an internship my senior year with the Pantagraph, a daily paper in Bloomington, Illinois. My friends from Jones Hall moved me in Roxanne’s VW and another car to a dingy apartment in the top floor of a house near a great park. I walked about ten blocks to the newspaper office and the church I attended. I was the first intern to get an A from the curmudgeon-y features editor. That was a great job.

After I graduated, I did a summer internship with the Christian Homes of Kentucky (CHC) in the chaplain’s office. I got to room with Paula that summer, as I worked in Louisville, KY, and she finished school across the river. That summer was pretty intense, and I learned a lot about myself from my mentor, Rev. Chuck Lewis. Dr. Dan Gilbert, who had been the President of EC, was then the President of the CHK and arranged for that internship.

After Eureka, I went to Claremont School of Theology in 1986 with the intention of getting an MDiv (Masters in Divinity) and becoming a minister in a non-traditional setting (like a college campus, nursing home, or para-church organization). But the more I got into the MDiv program, the more I felt trapped into a direct line to congregational ministry, which I was not interested in at the time. So I switched programs to the MA in Religion and took a lot of women’s studies courses with Dr. Ann Taves and Dr. Karen Torjeson. Once again I thrived and grew. My voice on socio-political views grew stronger, as did my confidence in myself.

But when I graduated in 1989, I really didn’t have a direction. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I went ‘home’ to Indiana. I stayed with my Mom and got depressed again. It’s not my mom’s fault, I just felt small and insignificant again. (One bright spot was that my nephew, Michael was born in 1989.) I worked for a group home for developmentally disabled adults in Danville, but it was for-profit, and I didn’t like the way they did things. So I got a job with Damar Homes in Mooresville and managed a group home for young men with developmental delays.

In some ways, I loved this job. I was helping people, the ‘boys’ were great and I worked with some good people. It’s a very impressive organization with integrity and dedication to what they are doing. But I tended to take all the emotions of the job home with me, which wasn’t good for my mental health.

One of my mentors—I believe it was one of my English professors at EC, Dr. Sheila Bartle, encouraged me to go back to writing and contact the Pantagraph where I did my internship. Long story short, I did and got a job, moved back to Eureka in 1990 and stayed for 7 years.

I was the editor of the Woodford County Journal and a correspondent for the Pantagraph—they are sister papers owned by the same company. That was a great experience on many levels. I honed my writing and interview skills, for one. I made a lot of friends and deepened many friendships that had begun at EC. I learned tolerance and patience and a better appreciation for the human condition. I also developed on the socio-political front and deepened my commitment to the church. (Another bright spot, my niece, Elizabeth was born in 1992.)

I began feeling a pull toward the vocation of ministry while I was there. I was heavily involved in the local church and the regional church, as well. I started preaching at local churches and I led the youth at Eureka Christian Church for some years. When it began to be more and more evident that my values were being compromised by my work as writer and editor*, I decided to look for something that would blend my vocation with my faith. (*Mostly, this had to do with writing stories about good people doing bad things and covering the ‘bad’ news, like courts and local government fights. I also lost a great mentor when Rev. Dr. Marvin Cheney died of cancer in 1995 or ‘96. That was also about the time I learned I had adult-onset diabetes.)

So in 1997 I went to a General Assembly of my church and found a job announcement at the National Benevolent Association, the social and health services division of the DOC. I got the job and moved to St. Louis. Oh, and I had adopted a cat, chip, in Eureka and brought him with me. (That will figure into the story later.)

Another wonderful job, with Rev. Dr. Ben Bohren as my boss, and now friend, it was a new office at the NBA, and we were charged with helping the church know the NBA better and helping the NBA know the church better. We did workshops, newsletters, worship services, information booths, and curriculum for worship and Sunday school, among other things. Ben developed a program called Miracle Day, in which we helped churches all over the country put together a day of remodeling, renovating and renewing, which was designed to transform the church through improving the buiding and getting people from multiple churches together to do it. We also oversaw the NBA Leadership Grant Program for DOC college students attending DOC schools. At NBA I honed my speaking and presentation skills and was able to write a lot of liturgy. I also preached once a month at a little church in Illinois. (And yet another bright spot—my nephew, Randy, was born in 1998.)

In about 1999, I decided to go back to seminary to finish an MDiv, which is the degree toward ordination. I began taking one class at a time at Eden Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, a sister denomination. I had decided that I wanted to be ordained, and I was feeling more pulled toward congregational ministry. The classes and field assignments there were wonderful, and again I made many friends and had several mentors.

My first field education was with an NBA unit called Olive Branch, which was a residential program for pregnant and parenting homeless teens. I did workshops on spiritual development, using arts and crafts as a way to get the young women to open up about themselves and their spiritual lives. I wrote a couple of pieces about this experience and posted one on this blog. It was a powerful experience, which culminated in my doing the funeral service for the baby girl of one of the moms.

In about 2001, things were really changing at NBA. There were financial problems and some infighting. People were being laid off, and church folks from outside the agency were beginning to question how things were run. On a Monday morning in April, the day after Palm Sunday, I was called into a small conference room and informed by human resources that I was one of nine whose jobs were being eliminated immediately because of budget cuts. I barely got to say goodbye to Ben, who had not been informed this was going to happen, before I was ushered out of the building carrying my boxes of stuff from my cubicle.

They said it's "nothing personal" and "If it's any comfort, you're not the only one."

I said, through gritted teeth, "That is no comfort!"

Since this is a public forum, I will not go into further details. (I signed something saying I couldn’t talk negatively about the NBA or I would forfeit my severance pay. I doubt it matters much now, as many things have come to light since then, but I did sign it, so I will keep my word).

I spent a few days being devastated and allowing people in my local congregation (Union Avenue Christian Church) to take care of me. Rev. Dr. Mike Simpson, the pastor at the time, made sure I stayed busy and not in bed with the covers pulled over my head by asking me to participate in the Holy Week services—reading scripture, offering prayers, etc. (Smart move, Mike!) Fortunately, I had been on Zoloft, in therapy and part of a wonderful group of sprited women known as Sarah's Circle,, so the depression didn’t go too deep this time.

Instead, I got angry and got going. I arranged to move on campus at Eden and go full time in the fall. The bad part was, I had to find a new home for Chip, my cat. There was an older gentleman at the church who took him in. Chip died a few years later of some kind of kitty disease. He was a great cat.

While at school, I got a job doing before and after school childcare with the YMCA. I got more involved with campus life and enjoyed my classes, making friends and getting involved with socio-political issues from a religious point of view. (This in my case is from a very liberal perspective.)

I also was just starting to deal with the beginning stages of diabetic retinopathy, the eye disease associated with diabetes. I had several laser surgeries to correct the leaking vessels in my eyes and sustained a small vision loss in my right eye. I wrote about that, here. I still have vision problems today.

I graduated in May 2003 and was ordained at the end of that month in St. Louis at Union Avenue. It was wonderful to have most of my family together for such an event. From there, I entered a two-year program at National City Christian Church in Washington, DC. It was a Lily Endowment-funded program called Transition into Ministry. I was one of three ‘original resident pastors’ at NCCC (eventually, there were two others). We were one of several sites around the country in different denominations. I was attracted to NCCC, because I was interested in urban ministry.

But about month before I arrived (fall 2003), the story broke that the senior pastor had ‘borrowed heavily’ from other people’s sermons without proper credit to the original source. Some called it plagiarism and were ready to ride him out of town on a rail. Others said it was common in the African-American tradition to quote from preachers you admire. I say it was a mistake and a cry for help by a flawed man. He’s a good preacher, a good person and now a good friend. I learned a lot from him about humility and overcoming great obstacles.

He was there for about half my time there. And I mostly worked on communications and worship there. But I was also able to do outreach and advocacy. (While there, I became certified in pre-marrital counseling. So far, I've counselled one couple! Back in St. Louis, I married two couples, so I think I'm doing it backwards!)

Again, it was a great learning experience and I gained more friends. However, in 2005, when my position ended there, I found myself at another standstill in my life, not sure where to go next. The trauma and controversy at NCCC had taken its toll on me. I was asked if I could stay another year, but I declined. I needed time to heal.

I became a chaplain-in-residence at Georgetown University, living in one of the freshmen dorms and working with the students there. The position only provided housing, not a salary, so I supplemented my income by doing temp work—data entry, retail, etc.,--and freelance writing , research, retreat leadership, whatever I could get.

Although I again developed many lasting friendships at Georgetown, and loved the students, this was a dark period for me personally. I began to doubt everything about my self and my life, my vocation, my abilities. Depression reared its ugly head again. I was able to do some therapy, and I was on and off the Zoloft, but I sank and rose back and forth over the two years I was there.

Georgetown chaplaincy was good work, and important work. However, my personality is such that I am perceived by the students as remote unless I am presenting a program or interacting one on one. When I walked between buildings, or even in the halls, they didn’t think I was present or chatty enough.

In 2007, I decided that the best thing for me to do was to let go of Georgetown. It really held me captive to a particular place, and I needed to be able to move wherever and whenever necessary. It also held me to a goal I couldn’t reach. I am an introvert to the extreme, so I could never be the outgoing, talkative chaplain they wanted me to be.

I was packing and making arrangements to put my stuff in storage when the regional minister in the DC area called and asked what my plans were. I told him I was moving out of Georgetown and moving in with a friend in Maryland. I was going to do freelance writing and church communication and get a part-time job at a hotline. If nothing came up job-wise by fall, I’d move back to Indiana or Illinois, maybe even St. Louis.

He told me about the manger position at the camp and conference center in Bethany Beach, DE…would I be interested in taking it at least for the summer? I didn’t think about it long, and neither did the management committee. Instead of moving to Roxanne’s (Yes, the same Roxanne from college), I moved to the beach. And talk about deja vu, Roxanne moved me here in her truck, with her daughter Emma, 5, in tow.

We are currently talking about what to do with me for the winter. The options are keeping one house on the grounds open over the winter or housing me in DC. There are budgetary concerns, of course, and logistics, but we all seem to be agreed that I will be here next year. In the meantime, I have increased the amount of freelance writing and church communications consulting I am doing. And I try to get to the beach at least once a day. And, believe it or not, I’m pretty happy with my life.

Blessings,
Arlene

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Message to Myself

I don't know about you, but I need this message today...