We continue our intermittent series of interviews with YCWs who blend art and ministry in ways that are nourishing and inspiring. The Rev. Mary Allison Cates is our subject this month.
Also, do you know fabulous YCWs with a story to tell about pursuing art and the creative life along with ministry? Let us know so we can contact her for a future column!
A little over a year ago, my husband and I made the decision to open our home to foster children. It had been something I always wanted to do, and it seemed the right time in our lives: we had no biological children, so we didn’t have to worry about this decision affecting them, we lived in a big house with three empty bedrooms, and we were working with schedules that made it possible. Added to this list came the organization that we decided to work with; they had an excellent staff, were on call 24/7 and did the training around our schedules. When we signed up to work with them we knew that we would be working with kids who required a higher level of care, but we also knew that we’d be getting the support we needed.
A few years ago, a couple came to me, because they had to make the difficult decision of what do with the leftover embryos that were created as part of the process of conceiving their twin children. They were so grateful for these embryos—and the beautiful children that had come from the two used embryos. They wanted a liturgy to honor those embryos and the potential life with in them. Together, we adapted the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer’s funeral service for a child and created the following liturgy:
In my ministry and personal life, I have noticed that there are three basic questions new (adult) acquaintances ask either to get to know me better or to kill time in polite conversation:
1. “Where are you from?” This inquiry is straightforward enough.
2. “What exactly do you do?” This is the question many clergy dread in social situations, as we see our conversation partner begin to roll up, vertebra by vertebra, into a straighter posture. But we must award points for degree of difficulty when said acquaintance is doing so while holding a stein of tasty beverage behind his/her back.
3. [And, when my wedding rings are noticed,] “Do you have children?” Often a “yet” is added to the end. When I reply no—sometimes a little too enthusiastically—the asker often tilts her head quizzically, pats my hand, and assures me that “you have time, dear.” This is when I paste on my polite, Southern-lady smile and repress the urge to point out that some people manage to lead a full life without the pitter-patter of little feet.
I cried…I cannot believe I cried. I absolutely cannot believe I did that. A month ago I met a cute guy. He was with a few of his buddies and someone apparently said to them/him that I was a priest. So they began to ask me questions. (Ladies, you know the questions, I won’t even bother going into them.) It was totally benign as these question answer sessions go and I stayed for a few minutes before excusing myself and going home. Two weeks ago, I saw this same fella in the neighborhood bar and we began to talk. A good bit later we were still talking and it was certainly time for us each to go home. He did the gentlemanly thing and walked me to my car and there asked for my number.
Today in church, I was thinking about fear. For the most part, I think of myself as a courageous person. I don't really have phobias, in what I would call a psychological sense. I'm not afraid of heights or flying or speaking in public or mice or spiders or the dark or even crime actually. I startle easily, but I'm not sure that's the same as fear. I don't do well with blood or with having my head under water, but that's honestly more of a physical reaction than a mental fear.
And then, in a moment of deeper honesty, I realized that there is one thing that I do fear, at least, if my behavior is any indication. (I think it's probably safe to assume it is.) I don't always like to admit it, but it's a pretty safe bet that I fear losing control. (And yes, I know that control is an illusion, but a lot of the time in my life it's a pretty complete and satisfying illusion, so that's not my point at the moment. Though the startling easily thing is probably related to this somehow.)
On the days when I feel “nobody understands” I remind myself of one of my favorite books about spiritual journeys, Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd. This book reminds me of what I loved about seminary – the imaginative and “out of the box” experiences of God. In the six years of my ordained ministry serving three different calls, I’ve had glimpses of those things.
My first call had a Caribbean liturgy and Blues liturgy as well as used expansive language for God, to some degree. In my second call, since Lent aligned with Black History month, I was able to write a midweek Lenten service lifting up the voices of African-American theologians and sing spirituals. In my current call, we have seven worship services on a weekend, as divergent as you can imagine seven worship services can be. There are parts of a service that might speak to my soul, but as a whole, in the words of Bono, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” I like the flow of Lutheran liturgy which in one sense makes me “traditional” but my college years were spent singing in a Black Gospel choir which had more “umpf” than say, oh your “traditional” Lutheran service. So, I really can’t check off which worship box might want to label me.
As many young clergy women begin to navigate the sometimes rough waters of the local congregation, we also realize that even rougher waters can be found in the politics and polity of our national denominations. How should a YCW handle these issues? Some of us feel strongly that we should keep our opinions private; some of us choose to affiliate with affinity groups which advocate a particular viewpoint. Not only does it seem that everyone has an opinion, it seems that everyone has an opinion on how to express that opinion.
Mihee Kim-Kort, a PCUSA pastor serving in Pennsylvania, writing back at the end of April, provides some wisdom on how young clergy women might come to understand and appreciate this process of discernment: