I have never been one to say things like “God wants me to do this” or “God told me…” or “it’s the Lord’s will.” I don’t criticize those who do; some are certainly legitimate and others use God to condone their own desires. What was happening to me in 1989-90 was certainly not typical of my interactions with God either before or after. I didn’t tell a lot of people what was going on at the time, lest they lock me up. It was also far too precious, leaving me feeling incredibly vulnerable to share with just anybody.
When I got back from my weekend with Carolyn, having decided to go into pastoral ministry, I decided I could take some time to breathe. I planned to look at as many of the 13 United Methodist seminaries in the country as I could that coming year and plan on going in 1990. Silly me.
Soon after coming back I went to see “Field of Dreams” with a friend. I was looking forward to having some fun, settling in to my life with my future plans on the board. As the movie started, however, I couldn’t concentrate. I was agitated and distracted and the thought let the dead bury the dead kept rolling over and over in my mind. Huh? I knew it was a biblical thing and it was something that Jesus had said, but I wasn’t such a scholar that I knew the context or the meaning of it. After a while, a bit annoyed, I found a piece of paper in my purse and wrote it down, let the dead bury the dead. Only then could I relax and enjoy the movie.
Later, as I got ready for bed, I looked up the verse (oh, where were you, Google?) It’s in the story of Jesus calling people to follow him and one young man said that he had to go bury his father first. (A reasonable request, I thought) But Jesus said to him, “let the dead bury their own dead, as for you, go and proclaim the gospel.”
Living alone has its privileges, one of which being that you can talk out loud to yourself or to God without causing a disturbance. I paced my apartment and railed at God a little bit, feeling, nonetheless, a bit foolish. “So. Does this mean you want me to go to seminary now?? And where??” Silence. Which is what I expected of course.
The next day I came home from work and picked the mail up off the floor. Amidst the stack of bills was an application form for Drew University Theological School. Subtle. I stood there for a while with my hands shaking. Ken, I knew, had requested that Drew send me a catalog, as it was his own alma mater. I’d already received that. I called Drew right away and asked if it was too late to apply for the fall semester, being as it was already late July and the semester started in August. According to the application, I needed to take the GRE.
“Oh no,” said the admissions secretary, “that’s an old form. You don’t have to take the GRE. Just go ahead and apply, it’s not too late.”
Holy Burning Bush, Batman.
I filled out the application, wrote all the essays that were required and sent it on. I asked my friend Doug to go up to Drew with me to visit. Doug was a leader in the Lay Witness Mission; a lay ministry that I’d become involved with recently. He and June took me in and allowed me to hang out at their house any time I wanted. Which was a lot.
Doug and I drove up to Drew in my car and met with Mr. Hand, the admissions director. Randall Hand was a kind, gentle soul who immediately put me at ease. He let me know that I was accepted to the M.Div program, and happily added that they were very impressed with my materials and my writing. That felt good. I did confess that I didn’t have any money. I was living from paycheck to paycheck in my own apartment and had no savings.
Randall shrugged. “I know it sounds simple, Peggy, but if God wants you here, I believe God will get you here somehow.” At the time, that sentiment didn’t inspire me. I knew once my father found out, he’d want a full explanation. How are you going to do this? This doesn’t make any sense! Who’s going to pay for this? I anticipated all the explaining I’d have to do.
Drew was very intimidating to me then. It was where my own father had received his D.Min degree in the ’70s and always espoused it to be a difficult, prestigious institution. The main reason I didn’t want him to go visit with me was because he’d already said, “You know, it’s a very difficult school. You may not get accepted.” Thanks, Dad.
In our Southern New Jersey UM Conference, some dismissed it as “much too liberal.” Many of the buildings on campus were made of stone, carved and made to remind one, I suspect, of the likes of Cambridge or Oxford. All of the buildings were surrounded by a forest of trees that provided a beautiful natural ceiling to it all. It all loomed above me as I got into my car with a sense of foreboding. It felt like God was a part of all this, but where was I going to get any money to do it?
I had a large collection of mixed cassette tapes in my car, all assembled to inspire me and encourage me in my travels. One was in the cassette player in my car. When I started up the car, the tape resumed on a song by David Meece that said, “You can go, now, you can go… you’ve got the power of God, let it flow…” Doug chuckled.
“Well, there you go!” I smiled. At the moment, I was still skeptical.
I was right, my father thought I was crazy.
“There’s no way you can go to Drew next month! Where are you going to get the money? And how are you going to pay for it? And what about your apartment?” It was all what I expected. I was asked to justify it all and I couldn’t. Nothing was ever simple. I always had to have a really good explanation for the things I did, and they always fell short. I had no rational explanation for him. And I couldn’t tell him about the crazy things that had been happening. He didn’t believe in that kind of stuff. In fact, I confess, I never knew what my father believed.
I was able to get my security deposit back on my apartment with no penalties, and the local church where I attended gave me $500. It was very much appreciated, but it was a mere drop in the bucket of what I needed. Nonetheless, on August 25th, 1989, my parents and I drove north on the Garden State Parkway with two carloads full of my stuff. My father, I learned later, complained to my mother the entire two hours, assuring her that we’d all just have to turn right around once we got there and I’d have to live with them. There was no way I’d be able to stay with my $500 check.
At a rest stop where we stopped for lunch, we saw the headlines of the local paper. The oldest building on Drew’s campus, Mead Hall… was on fire. The fire had started that morning and was still burning.
“I think we better go home,” my father said. I refused. Sure enough, when we pulled onto the campus, there were firetrucks and emergency vehicles everywhere. The area around Mead Hall–where I’d met with Randall Hand a month prior–was all sectioned off. There were still visible flames and smoke. We were redirected to an area where there were trailers and temporary buildings set up to continue the business of the first day of the Fall semester. We found the trailer that temporarily housed the financial aid office. Of course, all their computers were down. The man behind the desk in Financial Aid shook his head.
“I’m sorry, but there is no way you can attend class if you don’t have any means to pay. We can’t process your student aid or scholarship applications without computers. Seriously, you may want to think about coming back in the Spring.” He looked tired.
I didn’t want to cry. I was already a nervous wreck. I was angry that I wasn’t getting any support from my father, and my mother was silent. Normally, I would have tucked my shy little tail between my legs and skulked away; gone back home with my parents to live, and suffered the consequences. But there was much too much at stake.
“I’m not leaving,” I heard my quiet little voice say.
“What? I told you…”
“No. I have come too far, and Randall Hand told me it was possible. (Talk about dropping names!) I’m not going home. I filled out the applications just like I was supposed to, I did everything I was supposed to do. I’m not going anywhere.” My hands pushed down on my lap, trying to keep my legs from visibly trembling. I thought I was going to be sick.
“Fine,” the man sighed and walked away for a while. My father didn’t say anything while we sat there. When the man returned, he said he was able to push my applications through and get me some scholarship money, with the rest covered by a loan. He sent me to the housing office. There were two rooms left.
We moved my stuff into a house for grad students just off campus and then went to a local diner for supper. My father had been very quiet the whole time we unloaded my things. At supper he finally said, “I get the feeling you’re supposed to be here.”
I got that feeling too.
Growing up in a pastor’s family my whole life left me pretty sheltered and unaware of a lot of things. I had romantic notions of what seminary would be like, and of living with four other women. I envisioned that we’d all get along well, we’d have dinner together every night, have little get-togethers and be a cozy little community. Actually, three of the other women were PhD students and I was quickly told they simply didn’t have time for anything but study. The other M.Div. student downstairs regularly entertained married pastors who came to Drew for “seminars” occasionally.
We weren’t in Kansas anymore.
They all caught on early that I was just a babe in the woods compared to them, very naive and “innocent.” Some were kinder than others. I did get to be friends with one woman named Darcie, a young PhD candidate, who seemed to have compassion on me in my naivete. She and I spent a lot of time that first year going out for coffee and became each others’ confidante in various dramas. Early in the first semester I came home to her and another woman student making out in her room. I tried really hard not to appear shocked or alarmed, but nonetheless Darcie felt the need to explain. She was very heterosexual, she informed me (not that I would have judged her otherwise), but she and her friend were what one might call “political lesbians.” They enjoyed men, but the very act of sexual intercourse was to them oppressive. (I had no data to offer in my opinion on that subject) I liked Darcie, so I was willing to listen and try to understand her perspective. I knew I’d landed on an entirely different planet from what I was used to.
A senior in the M.Div program once said to me that seminary “was like a nuclear war on your insides.” I came to understand what she meant right away. At least at Drew, we were put through so much self-analysis and scrutiny of our beliefs. Drew was big on therapy, which was part of the culture of Northern New Jersey. It was a status thing at that time to admit you were in therapy. People actually said things like, “I was telling my therapist the other day…” or “Well, my therapist says…”
One of our first courses was Pastoral Formation, led by a pastoral psychotherapist. We were to examine ourselves and our lives thoroughly and share deeply in small groups. It was harrowing and nerve-wracking. What I didn’t realize until later was that going to Drew for me was like going to an institution created by my father. My experience at Drew was sometimes a nightmare of being picked apart and splayed open like a dissected frog, and at other times it was a triumph that I was able to endure and even succeed the spiritual and mental boot camp of “my father’s school.”
Nonetheless, it was exhausting.
On my first day of Introduction to Theology, Dr. Delores Williams closed the door to the classroom and leaned up against it as if to make sure we didn’t escape. She narrowed her eyes and looked around at all of us.
“Nobody in here believes in the Virgin Birth anymore, do they?” she said mockingly.
What? No one had ever told me the Virgin Birth was a problem. I kept my mouth shut and my hand down. She laughed. “I thought not,” and proceeded to go into all the reasons why the Virgin birth was a problem.
We didn’t learn any of what came to be known as “White Guy Theology”– no Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Bonhoeffer, etc. My Introduction to Theology class was an introduction to Liberation Theology, theologies done by minority peoples. I didn’t even know this stuff existed, and despite my anxiety and defensiveness, I found it fascinating. I never considered that anyone’s theology was affected by where they were born, the color of their skin or even their gender. Therefore I didn’t realize until then that the psychology that my father espoused as gospel was also written by men who studied men, and applied it universally to all people. Suddenly there was a hole torn into my father’s sacred robes…
My favorite class was with Dr. Bull. Christian History. He lectured without notes about early Christianity and how the Bible was put together. Again, it was news to me that there were so many different gospels written down by many different people. A committee of bishops voted on what to keep and put into the canon, and what to discard. Therefore the Gospel of Mary Magdeline was lost… until the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. The editing of the Bible was a political act, I learned.
Holes were being torn into everything.
But Dr. Bull was a passionate older man who really got excited about Christian History. He talked as if he were close personal friends with Augustine (pronounced Au-GUS-tine, not like the Florida town) and was there at the Council of Nicae. I was enraptured by his lectures. Dr. Bull was one of the few professors, too, who exhibited a personal faith, oddly enough. When the Berlin Wall came down that Fall, Dr. Bull started class on his knees, saying a prayer.
Everywhere else, one didn’t want to talk about their faith with just anyone, lest they laugh at you. It was a community that highly valued intellect above all else. Most of my classmates had no interest in serving a church, but were on their way to PhDs to teach. The local church, to them, was a place for non-intellectuals.
I spent a lot of time in Randall Hand’s office, lamenting my anxieties, and needing some spiritual connection. Randall was different than a lot of people. He wasn’t a professor, so he had the luxury of being a regular guy. He had a deep and sincere faith, and was very understanding of my struggles. I came to rely on him quite a bit that year.
Fortunately, I did make some friends that I could relate to and with whom I could share my struggles. Debbie was a pastor’s wife and nurse from my own Conference and we found a lot of common ground. I was one of the youngest seminarians on campus, as the majority of them were on their second or third careers.
I found solace on my walks through the campus, getting lost among the trees and sitting and watching the hundreds of squirrels in their antics. Drew intimidated the hell out of me. They wanted to, of course. The school reeked of superiority. At the time, I didn’t make the connection to my father and my lifelong struggles to prove myself to him. Drew was very similar to my father and his values, and in my relentless anxiety, I worked very, very hard to prove myself at Drew. To prove that was I worthy to be among them and that I wasn’t just some naive kid from Southern Jersey with a blind faith. I never felt very smart. I always thought I was rather stupid, in fact. I didn’t get excellent grades in college. I didn’t try harder because I thought I just wasn’t able. But my anger and defensiveness at having landed in The Forest without a map to negotiate my way compelled me to work my butt off. That first semester I got horribly ill with bronchitis and was down for two weeks. The remaining weeks in the semester I had to push even harder to catch up. On my Introduction to Theology final exam, I got an “A,” and my professor was so impressed with my argument against the Virgin Birth (which I still believed in) that she wrote “You are going to be a theologian.” I’d made it. I got straight A’s that semester for the first time in my life.
But even with all the accolades of my professors and my classmates, with the straight A’s and Randall Hand even suggesting I would be a bishop one day, I felt empty and lost. None of it made me feel worthy. None of it proved to me that I could actually be a pastor.
None of it impressed my father. So during January break, I decided not to go home, but signed up to go on the seminary choir tour down through the southern states. I had no idea that my life was about to change.