Ministry is Receiving the Grace of God
I work as a per diem hospice chaplain—seeking full-time employment in this field. I applied for this position as I was finishing a year long residency in Clinical Pastoral Education at John Muir Hospital in Concord. In that year I found, and it continues to be affirmed, that I feel called to be a chaplain, to bring spiritual care to people in some of the most difficult times of their lives. Though perhaps I should phrase this differently. I don’t bring spiritual care. I show up and make myself ready for spiritual care to emerge out of the encounter between me and patients and families. Jesus offered that where two or three are gathered in His Name, Jesus is present. And I find that this is my work when I embark on it, when I open myself to it, when I allow God to emerge. It is this profound feeling that brings me to seek ordination, the feeling that I am serving God in this work, that I seek to do so intentionally and in community.
Ministry is, first of all, receiving God’s blessing from those to whom we minister. What is the blessing? It is the glimpse of the face of God. Seeing God is what heaven is all about! We can see God in the face of Jesus, and we see the face of Jesus in all those who need our care.
There are several reasons why I am considering ordination. Let me list some here.
- I express a willingness to affirm that I feel God’s call for my life, to serve the people in some of the most difficult times of their lives and let them know that God’s love never leaves them.
- As an ordained minister/chaplain, I’d like to raise my hand and let it be known that, yes, I am available as a spiritual servant for a variety of spiritual circumstances.
- As an ordained minister/chaplain within the UCC I enter a covenantal relationship of accountability. In ministry one sometimes makes decisions that have the potential to deeply impact peoples lives. Accountability is always in order.
- As an ordained minister/chaplain within the UCC I also acknowledge that I am in need of a community of support. The work of chaplaincy can be demanding and is unsustainable without a support network. Ordination is one way to keep me aware of the need for support—indeed, I struggle with the tendency to go at it alone.
Why the UCC
The UCC fills me with hope, because as a denomination it dares and continues to dare to place Jesus at the center where he belongs. It is and continues to be a radical choice in this world and one that is so desperately needed. Without the church, who would speak about forgiveness when it is not desired, who holds out hope for redemption when the world couldn’t care less. Where can we even begin to learn to love one another as Jesus loved us in a world that pursues consumer satisfaction. And where can this witness to Jesus be an instrument for change in the world, not easy, but out of hard wrought discernment with the conflicts it presents. Where can we find a stance that says that God loves everybody unconditionally, even those we may not choose to associate with. And where else can we find hope in that love. Where can we wrestle together with the important spiritual questions of our times in a community where we choose to wrestle, where we choose to listen to each other and hold out that God may have different places in his work for each of us.
This is the UCC for me. A church that celebrates covenant, a mutual agreement and understanding that our coming together is the most imporant and life changing act choice we can make. And we exclude no one for any reason. I grow so used to an inclusive church some times. And then there are reminders out there of individuals and denominations that I cannot take for granted the courageous choices and journeys of so many people that made this time possible. The church of my father’s father excluded just about everybody. The church of my mother’s mother excluded a fair number of people too. I am still learning the signficance of joining together in convenant, with respect for all as reflections of God’s love.
Family of Origin
I was born in the Netherlands. My father was raised in the Dutch Reformed tradition. His father was a minister. His mother was the daughter and sister of ministers. In fact, she hailed from a line of ministers, dating back to at least 1621. My father broke with this lineas a result of irreconcilable differences in world view. Splitting families for reasons of belief is also a tradition within the church. My grandfather was leader in one such split. Others had occured before, and these splits also separated my grandmother from her parents and grandparents.
My mother was raised as a Catholic. She also moved away from the church. I have far less historical information about her family. My mother felt deeply lonely with her family, and her confidence was often betrayed. She assigned some of the blame for this to the Catholic Church. Later in life she returned to the church, choosing to worship in a liberal protestant church, not unlike the UCC—a bit more formal and traditional perhaps.
I other words, I was raised an atheist. Nevertheless, I never felt myself to be an atheist. Anti-religious, yes. Agnostic, sure. But never atheist. I have felt myself to be a spiritual person for most of life.
Before my spiritual journey took shape in any kind of explicit way, I was an activist and an academic. I studied anthropology first at the University of Amsterdam and then at Northwestern University, where I received my doctorate for my work in Mali.
My activist work had started at a very young age. I help mobilize against the neutron bomb (thank you Jimmy Carter) in 1977/78. This developed into a broader peace movement that I participate in which such fervor that I became the singlest most successful fundraiser for the movement at age 15, in my hometown of Utrecht. I also supported the Anti-Apartheid movement as of 1979 to protest the execution of Solomon Mahlangu, a student activist just a few years older than me. I remained active in that movement throughout college and the highlight was seeing Nelson Mandela in Amsterdam on June 16, 1991 a few months after his release.
I was also a student union organizer, board member and student delegate to the university council. All these activities connected me with national leaders in progressive movements and political parties. For some time I thought that I might make politics into a career and I had support for that choice. I decided to stick with academics though, and pursue my doctorate. The reason was that I encountered too much behavior that I felt was abusive towards hardworking people I had met. I began to feel that I needed to trust that the people who wanted to change the world also could exhibit the behavior that makes that future worlds worthwhile to live in. I didn’t have much support for this idea at the time. It would take me many years more before I read Alfred North Whitehead who put my instinct about world change into a philosophical frame when he said that “How something becomes determines what it becomes.” By this time I was in seminary.
How something becomes determines what it becomes.
—Alfred North Whitehead
Islam Saved My Mind
My academic work brought me to Africa. First to Senegal, in 1990, where I studied homosexuality. Later I worked in Mali (1996-1997). It was there that I first felt the need for a sustained spiritual life. The time I arrived in a small town in Western Mali was a difficult one. The rain season had just ended, the crops were still on the field and last year’s harvest was gone by now. Moisture was in the air and fed bacteria to which the underfed and hard working farmers had insufficient resistance. In other words, people died. Not a day would go by that I would not see a family bring someone to the cemetery.
It was clear very soon that I was not prepared for this experience. And I realized that I needed to find something to help me through or otherwise I would have to leave to save my mental health. It was at that point that I looked around and realized that everybody there needed something. They were burrying their loved ones after all. And what they did was pray together. Neighbors would come by during and after the funerals and share food, comfort, presence, and prayer. I wanted that. I needed that. And so I joined. I learned to pray, to do the ablutions and to particpate in the religious life of the community. I am sure that my advisor (a scholar of Islam) was taken aback my my choice, but without the support of prayer and community I would not have been able to continue the work I was there to do.
As much gratitude I have for Islam and what it taught me about the sustaining presence of God, I did not maintain a Muslim faith after I left. It’s hard to explain why, but outside of the Malian context, back in my own routines, I returned to my known ways of handling life’s demands.
I came back to the US, started writing my dissertation and began teaching sexuality studies and Anthropology. A few years later, having completed my dissertation I started a permanent position as a faculty member at San Francisco State University. The aim of my research was to understand the operation of racism in the gay male community of San Francisco. I had obtained a small research grant. I was faced with a difficult conundrum. If I pursued the research in the manner that I had been taught and that my colleagues were using, I felt I could not see how I made a difference in lessening the sting of racism. All I could predict was that I would gain a career and that would lead to a further widening of the privilege gap, not a decrease. I therefore choose to develop a new methodology which used theater as the basis of inquiry. It had several advantages. The participants spoke their own words and owned their own experiences. It also brought men together in space, thereby highlighting the real lived experience of race and racism which I see most of all as one of bodies in space, more than about ideology. The work was a social success and an academic failure and was also personally difficult to sustain.
In the course of the work I had begun to visit various churches to gain a broader insight in the way in which the LGBT community came together than was usually done in scholarship at the time—it focussed strongly on the bar scene, economic issues and political mobilizing. A friend from out of town brought me to City of Refuge and I found that I kept coming back there week after week. This was 2002. I joined the church formally at the end of that year and was baptized the following year.
I soon became actively involved in the life of the church. I joined the usher board and later, in 2005, the board of the Ark of Refuge, the nonprofit organization house within the church. I served there as vice-president for 5 years. I also became part of the lay ministry team, and participated in the weekly prayer gatherings.
This was the second time I was pursuing a relationship with God in my life and in some way I was again dealing with a kind of death, this time an anticipated social death with I felt when I left academic life in 2007.
It’s hard to sum up or even to clarify in words what this time at Refuge meant for me spiritually. I joined when I heard God telling me that I need not change and simply show up. That was trick of course; I did change. Some of the most important experiences during my years at Refuge that I keep returning to, all involve coming in close with people and offering them prayer and presence and support. Yes, I was active in the organization and wrote some significant grants. But that’s not what I think of that much. I more think about the woman who wanted to commit suicide and still lives. I think of the one who lost a cousin to gun violence and didn’t want to come to church because she couldn’t bear hearing that God is good all the time; she and I spoke on the phone many times in those days. I think of the homeless man who came to our weekly prayer meetings. At the end of one of these, as we were about to leave, I suddenly turned to him and out of nowhere said “Housing breakthrough for you by the end of this week.” And I never saw him again, because he found a new place to live before Sunday came along. I had the privilege to pray in public and to preach on a couple of occasions and found that I could bring God’s word as well. But mostly it was the close in, one-on-one work that moved me. Don’t ask me why I didn’t opt to become a chaplain at that time. I think I mostly didn’t realize what the work of the chaplain really is—it was only a few years before that I had joined the church after all.
Call to Ministry
And so, in those years I slowly came to discern a call to ministry. At times others spoke to me about it as if they knew something more than me, and they probably did. Pastors spoke to me in person, fellow parishioners brought me to the altar. And I felt that I could bring in the work of ministry the totality of my being. I like to work in teams, in organizations, pray with people, support people individually, act in the political arena.
To learn to do all these things, I attended seminary, Pacific School of Religion. Attending PSR was a wonderful experience for me. It was the first place, since I arrived in the US where I felt that the place welcomed me whole. Here, I didn’t have to adjust myself awkwardly to a new institution. Instead I felt that the school was exuding to me a sense of welcome that I had not felt before. I embraced this wholeheartedly and even though my personal life was rocky at the time, and my financial situation so dire that I didn’t know I could last one semester once I had started, I persisted and felt a sense of purpose to this time of my life that was genuine and deep. When I graduated three years later, 2013, I received the Koinonia award for signiﬁcantly improving the spiritual, social and community life at PSR. I never cared for prices, but it felt like a great bookend experience to complement the sense of welcome I had felt when I began.
The day after I graduated I got married. My previous marriage had not survived the choices I made to follow my call. My spouse had a child and I took on my own parenting role in my new family. My spouse had been trained in and taught a style of parenting that puts listening to the child first and teaches parents how to listen when things get hairy. When I learned this way of parenting, I quickly saw how this dramatically impacted my relationship with my stepchild—for which I had not received a lot of encouraging or hopegiving feedback. My spouse also taught parenting and I joined in this work.
I learned to teach myself and over the space of a few years I taught parents, fathers in particular and supported various children in all kinds of ways. I organized an after school camp called After School Adventures for Energetic Boys. And I coaching individual parents. To us, this work answered the question of how to show our love to those we love the most when times are really hard and challenging. As parents know, we don’t always show our love for our children in the way that we want to. This work helped parents love their children better and we felt that that was one important way of sharing God’s love in the world. This work is ministry, even when we often didn’t name it as such when serving a mostly secular population in Berkeley.
And it proved very difficult to serve parents in a way that also provided for our livelihood. So one day we sat down to talk about options and it dawned on us that chaplaincy seemed so well suited for me. I don’t even remember who said it first. All I remember was that feeling of duh. I looked around and found two places that were still accepting applications for their CPE program. I applied, was asked for an interview and was accepted. This all took two weeks. It was one of those times when I felt that everything fell into place as it should. It was the Spring of 2017. I started the program at John Muir Health in Concord in September of that year. It was a year of very hard work, deep discovery and affirmation of my path.
I learned many lessons. Let me name two. One personal lesson was that I can show up in a group context in a vulnerable way and that everything gets better when I do that. I learned this the hard way some times, when working with my fellow CPE’ers, my supervisors, patients and other staff members of the hospital. Whereas I very much had a go at it alone attitude, I learned not just the value, but more so the how of sharing in a group, with a group in particular when things are hard.
And the other thing I learned is about the way in which I experience God. God showed up for me in between me and the people I served. God showed up in prayer most explicitly, but also in deep listening. I felt led when I sat with patients. Not always, but often. I felt led in particular when I prayed with people in the most difficult of circumstances, those where words really fail. Often I felt guided to utter prayer that showed forth the presence of God when all hope seemed lost.
It was at these that I felt guided by the story of Jesus, God becoming flesh and choosing to know our suffering from experience. I also felt connected to Marie Magdelene, whom I adopted as my personal patron saint of chaplaincy. She had witnessed the crucifixion, had chosen to stay close to Jesus when his disciples had fled. She also witnessed the resurrection. And though I pray to her for my own witness of the resurrection, I seek her support to witness suffering as she witnesses suffering before she even had a though about resurrection. She chose to stay. And so do I choose to stay, with her help, with Jesus’ help, with God’s help and all those God so wisely sends my way to teach me, and sustain me.
During my years in seminary I felt that I was a good fit for ministry, that the work of ministry brought together the various talents, skills, and interests I hold. In some way, looking back a few years later, I see how my sense of ministry was still very much centered around me. I experience my call differently now. I feel that I respond to God’s presence in the world. Where two are three are gathered in his name, he will be there. I show up to make the one into a two, or the two into a three so that God can be there.
Previous Ordination Experience
When I started seminary in 2010 I also began a process of discernment. I aborted that process after the third time I met with Committee A. I’d like to take a little time to review what happened.
I was part of a church, New Spirit Community Church where the pastor accused me of false motives and attempts to take over the church. He did this behind my back. He also taught me more about pastoring a church than I can thank him for, he lifted up my gifts in ministry in part by naming my challenges and also qualities I had not yet understood. And in his failing he also taught me much about the humaneness of our work. He has done some of the most difficult ministry one can possibly imagine, pastoring a gay church in the depths of the AIDS crisis. And it has left him broken. I have witnessed that brokenness and it was also passed on to me.
To a large extent, his failing was the failing of the church, and its lack of accountability and support. New Spirit Community Church was affiliated with the United Church of Christ, The Disciples of Christ, the Metropolitan Community Church, and the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries. And none of these were able to see his brokenness, its effect on him and the congregation he served. And I found it very difficult to find support from within the denomination at the time. I spoke with the then acting Conference Minister which only turned me away further. I felt lonely and abandoned and I left my path of discernment.
I have since come to understand several ways in which I needed to learn important lessons in this period, lessons that I am now taking with me in my ministry. Most of all, I have come to realize that I don’t have a natural inclination or skill to seek help. Yes, I went to speak with the Conference Minister. But today I would choose a wider number of people to seek support from before I would step to a representative, in particular when I have misgivings about the lack of support from the church. I have learned that I need to and that I can seek support for myself first and foremost.
Help is available. Who knew!
This learning has informed by path towards ordination in a profound way. For instance, I did not know how to receive the care and attention from Committee A as a supportive partner in discernment. I say this with some shame and gladness to have recognized this possibility now. I met recently with the Ministry in Discernment Committee of my local congregation and there too, I felt awed by their willingness to spend time and energy to support my ministry.
And in fact, awe is the word that stays with me after my time in CPE and as I continue to serve as a chaplain. That God chooses to show up and heal at the most desperate times is awe inspiring to me and to be a vessel, an instruments in moments like that is literally unbelievable.
So I thank God for you as you read this, that you have chosen to be a partner in this work, in this journey moves me deeply.