BEFORE: The female ministers of the UUMA in the PNWD
Seattle, always ahead of the curve, welcomed female ministers because the men were smart, energetic, hard to threaten and fond of women both as a category and as individuals. Then everything changed. Look at this collection in about 1985: mostly young, pretty, and very funny with our bubble gum cigars and real brandy. I have no photo of "after" because I left. The new women in the smaller congregations are hefty, older, and into social justice. SO entitled.
I made my own robe from 9 yards of blue taffeta.
I was going for a kind of 19th century look,
except that in those days women wore hats in the pulpit.
Conventional clergy robes cost hundreds of dollars. The black silk robe I borrowed from my supervising minister while doing my internship was old and fragile, so that the breaks in the fabric revealed how much lining and tailoring there was inside: very much like a high-end suit: layers, padding, basting. At the time a lot of UU clergy were wearing unbleached cotton monk's cassocks with a rope belt. Their stoles went for an ethnic look, maybe Mexican except not American Indian because that would be stealing their income and mocking their heritage.
Women since have gone for a Supreme Court look: black robes with white ruffles at the bosom, fishus instead of dog collars or full-out ruffs. The stole I finally made was black velvet with silver moon, crystal stars, and a blue metallic Earth. Too theatrical, actually, but little kids liked it. Little kids like me in general because I'm soft, rosy and wear glasses, which they try to snatch off. (My glasses have sometimes cost $400. Now I've found direct from China sources: $35.) But I could not be less prepared to be a Sunday School teacher -- or "Full-Span Religious Education Minister" as the job is now styled. Professionals are out; moms are in.
My previous life strategy for protection, which was appearing funny and non-threatening, now came back to bite me. People saw the Vicar of Dibley. There was a female minister in Saskatoon who was like that: overweight, complaining that she never got laid anymore, that people wouldn't invite her for dinner -- but she wasn't funny. (I do NOT like BBC comedy anyway.) I dislike the Vicar of Dibley.
The Vicar of Dibley -- note truncated cross.
I had in mind something more like this. Irish. Socially conscious. It would help if I could sing. Or lose weight. About equally possible. Anyway, I don't accept the idea of a deity as a lover. It's only a step to "who's that huzzy in the pulpit?" Anyway, no one in any congregation would accept a shaved head on a woman.
It took me even longer to realize what was under this fixation on child-like women clergy. People want their female clergy to look prosperous, successful, in the pulpit because they are winners -- not losers. They don't want to feel as though they're going to have to pull them along, take care of them. It's supposed to go the other direction. It's okay for a male clergy to be threadbare -- it means his mind is on higher things. But a woman who is threadbare is an embarrassment, exp. since most of the congregation are usually female.
A minister is supposed to have power -- power trumps love, unless love IS power. (It's not.) The denomination "sold" female ministers -- suddenly there were a lot of late-life women who needed jobs because the seminaries had needed their tuition money -- by assuring the congregations that a minister could make the group grow and get richer.
UU's are generally prosperous. This is because they tend to be in the denomination because they are educated, liberal, used to thinking and leading-- but don't like the ritual of Episcopalians. Mostly this results in higher income. They are the values of our culture. The idea of making very little money means you're trying to be a nun. So the idea of circuit-riding, living in a van, was not a contribution to the movement, a gift to the people -- it meant to them I couldn't do any better, couldn't get a proper church. Only a few professors in Missoula actually said that. I accused myself of it.
Public school kids who struggle are always given the worst teachers and the kids who already excel get the really inspired people. This makes no sense, but it is a pattern that surfaces over and over. The other end of the spectrum might be the ghetto storefront congregations who turn their clergy out in splendid bespoke suits and plenty of bling.
In UU circles there is another element and that is persecution. Not by UU clergy, but retaliatory for conservative and punitive clergy and priests of the past. In one workshop experiment, a small group was asked to design and deliver a conventional Christian service. In spite of cautionings not to indulge in mockery, it was soon full of vengeance -- pay-back. So a non-threatening minister seems good. But the suspicion doesn't go away.
The joke witch -- they provided the costume at Halloween.
Not a cougar -- a ridiculous tiger.
I turned forty in seminary. There were two men who understood that by that time I was almost desperate to get back to Blackfeet Country. One was Emil Gudmundson and the other was Russell Lockwood, both powerful prairie people. David Pohl, Director of Ministry, had been a gear jammer in Glacier Park. He understood. Alan Deale had been my own original church minister and he was at that point a powerful man, chair of the Fellowship Committee, a strong believer in whatever would grow the denomination.
They did NOT think living in a van and circuit-riding was frivolous or a hair shirt. They wouldn't have minded doing it themselves -- well, with a proper RV. That's how the fellowship movement began in the first place. Monroe Husbands went across the country and even up into Alaska barn-storming Unitarianism. But these senior men worried that my social skills weren't up to it. They were right. On the other hand, that's why I could do it. I didn't mind the solitude.
I DID think it would sort of challenge some of the men who walked into cushy jobs and stayed there, all comfy. They WERE non-threatening, not inclined to rock the boat. They dressed well, but always in good taste. In 1982 when I graduated -- or at least left -- he grip of American stereotypes ("The Man Called Peter") was still strong.
The Role Model
I had several strategies for sleeping out in the van. Sometimes I parked at someone's curb so I could use their facilities. Sometimes I had no choice, like the time my radiator hose broke late at night on the main street of Great Falls. I just went to bed right there -- the only problem was waking up early enough to feed the meter until I could find a mechanic. Sometimes I went into wilderness. The scariest time there was when I had a can of Spaghetti O's for supper and left the window cracked enough for a flying squirrel to squeeze in. It badly wanted to take the Spaghetti O can back out with it and its efforts made a tremendous clatter.
The best times were when it wasn't too cold because I couldn't afford a true winter sleeping bag and so just piled on comforters. I had a little heater and ran an extension cord out the wing window. Most Montana businesses have an outdoor electrical connection so they can plug in their head-bolt heaters in winter.
I'd lie there flat -- I just fit over the axle, side to side, and feel the planet turning. There was a little pattern of holes by my pillow where there had been bolts for some kind of antenna. If there were any wind, it played a chord. (That guy on the motorcycle in the photo above sold me the van and got into trouble for it because he gave me a big break while the boss was out of town.)
Solitude is not being alone. It's more like merging with something enormous and symphonic. No one ever asked me about it. In fact, they've mostly forgotten about that crazy idea. A new member from one of the fellowships I had served contacted me not long ago to ask if I could remember the name of that woman who used to drive around Montana preaching. No one around there knew what it was.