Experiences of Five Christians

Janet Donoghue opened with a “getting-to-know-you” activity. She said that one of our gifts to each other can be our willingness to open our minds and hearts as we honor, respect and support the differences among us. When we give this gift, we can experience wonderment and affirmation, thus creating an energy of peace.

Janet encouraged us to find one person in the room whom we did not know and to share a conversation with just that person as we considered these three questions: What is one life experience you would like to share? If you had a choice of spending one evening with anyone, who would it be? How do you de-stress?

Lively conversation ensued, and many women were not nearly finished talking as it came time to close these all-too-brief encounters!

Barbara Fought opened the program by explaining that our panelists represent varying views of Christianity, that the panel includes ordained ministers as well as laypersons, and that each woman would be speaking of her Christian tradition from her personal experiences. Barbara also stated that today’s format would be conversational rather than having each panelist make a presentation. Acting as moderator, Barbara posed various questions to our panelists.

Background Information on Our Guest Speakers

Judy Antoine, a semi-retired Spanish teacher, spent many years in South America. She is a member of the May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society and has lived in the Syracuse community for about 30 years.

Terry Culbertson was ordained in the Church of God in Anderson, Indiana. For several years, she was director of pastoral care at the InterReligious Council of Central New York, and she was the first chaplain of Hospice of Central New York. Terry now is head of spiritual care at Upstate Medical Center.

Velma Dippold is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon). She is a retired kindergarten teacher who volunteers at the zoo and in school. Along with her husband, she facilitates Internet support for families dealing with alcoholism.

Millie Moreland has been a member of St. Andrew’s Roman Catholic Church for about 40 years. She retired from Syracuse University’s Division of International Programs Abroad as director of summer programs abroad, has worked at Cornell University on the Family Matters Project, and has tutored homebound students in the Syracuse City School District.

Marilyn Wolfe is pastor of University United Methodist Church. She was a middle-school English teacher and is currently a college writing teacher. She co-chairs the Domestic Violence Coalition and is active in the faith-based Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse (ACTS).

“Tell us how you came to your faith tradition? Were you born into it, or was there some other way in which you found it?”

Millie responded that although she came from a Roman Catholic background, many members of her family, including her grandparents, had left the Church while they still lived in Belgium. Millie lived with her grandparents after they came to the United States, and as a young child she did not attend church. At the age of 11, she heard a girlfriend mention that she was going to church. Millie became curious and was encouraged to go by her grandparents. She attended several different churches with her young friends: Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Unitarian. In high school, she, along with two friends, began to explore the Catholic faith. Her own motivation was a desire to belong, and it felt like “home” to be there. She feels that the most significant gift in her life was her grandparents’ encouragement and openness to exploring all faiths. Their compassion and nonjudgmental attitudes were evident in the way they responded to immigrants from many faith traditions who were frequent guests in their home.

Marilyn responded to the same question by stating “yes” and “yes.” She said she was both born into it and adopted into it. She was born into the Presbyterian Church, but her mother had spent time in the Methodist tradition. Largely as a result of the negative influence of a youth pastor she had in high school, she left the faith of her childhood. At that time, although belief in Jesus made sense to her, God was a problem! She had great difficulty with the “hellfire and brimstone thing.” She then met her husband, who talked about grace: “… grace in the morning, grace at noontime, grace in the evening,” Marilyn said. “I realized I was starving for grace.” Her husband and his parents were Methodists. In time, she had to walk through her disbelief. At one point after her ordination, she found herself to be the pastor of both a Methodist church and a Presbyterian church. She calls it, “Methoderian”! Marilyn can readily identify with anyone who says they do not believe in God, and she feels this is largely the result of them having been wounded by their church.

Velma said she too can relate to those who say they do not believe in God. She has been a member of Al-Anon for 23 years. If someone attends a meeting and claims to not believe in God, the question she poses is, “What God don’t you believe in?” The answer is most often, “the God of hell and damnation.” She then tells them, “Neither do I.”

Velma is a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. She and her husband came from different faith traditions, something her father strongly disapproved of. But the young couple finally found a common faith that met their needs. Their new church placed a strong emphasis on family, and its members adhered to a health code prohibiting the use of alcohol. Her husband was battling an alcohol problem, however, and being in a faith community where alcohol use was expressly forbidden was sometimes even more difficult for them. After a long and challenging struggle, her husband had a spiritual experience that removed all desire for drink. Now, both he and Velma offer Internet help to families confronting alcohol addiction. Velma knows that their religion is a big part of their lives and is supplemented by the spirituality contained in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Al-Anon programs.

Terry shared that the members of her church begin services with a testimony giving praise and glory to God. Terry’s grandmother was a Roman Catholic from Poland, but Terry herself was born and raised in the Church of God, which her grandparents had joined in the Baltimore area. People become members by being “born again” into Christianity. The church originally began in the 1800s and was known as the “Come-Outers,” encouraging people to come out of various denominations into a unified Christianity. Its members traveled about and sang of the unity of Christianity, often from the backs of wagons. She stated that as a child, she knew of no other church than this “singing church.”

Judy, the child and grandchild of missionaries, was raised Methodist and spent many of her growing-up years in Chile. Life revolved around the church. By college, however, she felt she had “had it with God and wanted to experience something different.” She was eventually drawn to the Unitarian Church, where she could respect Jesus Christ as a prophet. Unitarians rely not only on the Bible but on many other sacred texts as well. Judy feels that she has finally gained a sense of the Spirit of God.

“What spiritual practices do you follow within your tradition? What powerful memory do you have of your tradition? What helps you celebrate?”

Terry was quick to respond. In her church, they have a foot-washing tradition. “We don’t have sacraments, but we do the Lord’s supper and baptism by immersion.” One of her greatest memories is of an “upper room” experience when her own grandmother washed Terry’s feet. The men and women are separated for this practice; there is singing and candlelight during this profoundly moving ceremony, which is considered an “ordinance of equality.” The symbolism is that we must all humble ourselves in order to be of service to God.

Millie referred back to Judy’s negative experience as a young person concerning her faith. She stated that her experience was quite different and that, as a young person, she was seeking to know, “Who and what is God?”

Judy said it was fascinating how many of the younger generation choose a different faith path than their parents’ path. She left the religion of her childhood to find more openness in a Unitarian connection, and her own daughter has embraced the Islamic tradition because she did not like the openness of the Unitarian tradition!

Marilyn shared her experience of participating in a 30-minute Bible study which her husband used in his church in Moravia, New York. During this practice, which comes from Communities of Liberation in Africa, everyone reads the same verse while sitting in a circle. Then each person speaks for only a minute. Once everyone has spoken, the process is repeated for a second and then a third time. This practice invites each person to look at something new in his or her life. Marilyn hopes to open this practice to a group within her own church and has even begun using it during her morning devotions. She knows that sometimes she feels anxiety or tension when reading a particular verse, and the text draws out her true beliefs. Marilyn has found this process to be particularly helpful as she has worked through some racism issues within the African-American male clergy. Through this study, each of them has been enabled to speak and to hear the others speak. Without even realizing it, their communication has been enhanced through this process.

Millie related a one-time experience she had in 1964 when her husband was undergoing surgery for cancer. The surgeon came out to meet her and sadly told her there was nothing more he could do for her husband. “I shut down,” she said. “My mind kept going in all directions, and at each end there was nothing. I realized that this was devastation. I lost all hope. I remember feeling total devastation, nothingness. What finally came to me as hope was the presence of God in my life and in all our lives. This experience gave me so much and became so much a part of who I am, and I am deeply thankful for it now.”

Judy responded by telling about the celebration held in her Unitarian church on the Sunday closest to November 2, although she is not sure all Unitarian congregations have a similar celebration. They celebrate the Day of the Dead by having each member place on a community tree within the church the name of a person or a pet that has died. Children as well as adults participate in this ceremony, which is called “The Leafing of the Tree.” She is especially fond of this custom because of her background in South America, where this is known as a time to feel the love of the deceased. She feels that in the US, we tend to be more reluctant to visit cemeteries and commemorate the dead.

Terry recalled “watch-night services” held in her church on New Year’s Eve. The congregation gathers for Holy Communion and “watches” in the new year by joining in community and prayer.

Velma mentioned that every Monday evening is set aside to be with family. She and her husband serve in their temple, and they feel close to their sons and to their parents who have gone before them. She stated that in their tradition, family is all-important; family is everything. There is continuity to family. She feels strongly that children should remember to be a family and also to honor the idea of service.

Millie explained that in her community, a meditation group was started four years ago. This has had a tremendous impact on her life. She is reminded that, “What matters is trying to live each moment in appreciation of that moment.”

Judy followed this stream of thought by stating that her church also has a meditation group that has made a drastic change in her life. She began to meditate when she was diagnosed with cancer. She explained, “If I lived my life over again, I would not cut out cancer because it forced me to do things I otherwise would not have done.” Barbara inquired about her method for meditating, and Judy suggested one might begin with her friend Glennette’s method of closing her eyes and tossing a tennis ball up, catching it first in one hand and then in the other. This can be done when one is truly focused. Judy eventually graduated to counting breaths. Now she has a mantra that she uses in her meditation practice.

Terry mentioned that the richness of music, such a large part of her tradition, is a wonderful way to pray and meditate. She feels inspired by both the words and the sounds.

Marilyn shared some of her experiences in ACTS. “We have just come through a very difficult time that brought out our experiences with racism. There were some African-American male pastors who had certain ideas about female clergy, and I, in turn, had certain ideas about African-American male pastors who had certain ideas about female clergy.”

She mentioned two other groups, the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and the Citywide Coalition, each of which was setting up meetings with the mayoral candidates. “Without talking about it,” Marilyn said, “we realized that we were not working together. We finally decided to commit to two meetings, one with the candidates and another with the winner. God intervened in a wonderful way, and we decided to begin a process of one-on-one conversations among ourselves. We talked about our families and our faith. This process literally transformed us as our mutual vulnerabilities, frustrations, doubts, fatigue, and hurts surfaced. We have recently gone through a process of affirmation and appreciation that has been very powerful. Now, knowing that we can address problems through building relationships, our goal is to bring congregations together.”

What about challenges with gender issues in each of your faith traditions?

Velma answered first, saying that their clergy are not paid. Theirs is primarily a patriarchal tradition in that men alone have the priesthood. The upside of that is, it gets the men out to church! It is common to see entire families attending together. Velma wryly commented that “men run the church, but it’s the women who do the work!” On rare occasions, there have been situations when men have felt threatened by powerful women. However, Velma feels that within the Mormon tradition, women are not downtrodden. In Utah, women for many years have been elected to public office. She stated that Mormons believe that mothers and fathers each have particular jobs to do, and that she has never felt inferior being a female within this tradition. Abuse is not tolerated, and teenage boys are taught to be very respectful of women. Her daughter is studying to become a hospital chaplain, and Velma knows it would be easier for her to obtain a chaplain’s position if she could be ordained.

Millie added that in Roman Catholicism, there is some turmoil as a result of women wanting to be ordained.

Judy added that she became interested in the Unitarian tradition because it is liberal and considers women’s roles as important as men’s. The tradition is careful to use inclusive language. “I am interested in the nurturing of the soul,” she said. “Women speak from the heart and from the soul.”

Terry explained that her tradition has always ordained women. In fact, her aunt, Sister Esther, founded four churches in the Washington, DC, area. She observed, “I never knew that churches did not ordain women until I got to seminary!”

“What aspects of faith do you want your children to hold onto?”

Marilyn stated, “Neither Jew nor Gentile expounds on the property rights of females. Women must ‘scan for privilege.’ Consider the situation when the parents of Jesus had to leave to go to Egypt. They had to leave quietly, without telling the neighbors. Both of my daughters have been moving away, in a sense, scanning for privilege and being critical of the Text. My children believe in Spirit as being neither male nor female. Whatever they decide to call themselves is all good to me.”


At this point, Barbara welcomed questions from the audience. The first question concerned what it is like to be a single person within the Church of Latter Day Saints. Velma conceded that within their tradition, it is much easier if one is married, although special activities are held for singles within the church. Everyone theoretically has a calling within the church, but she admitted that she might feel somewhat left out if she were single.

In response to the next question, Terry explained that the Church of God is not considered a faith tradition; it is a movement. “Ours is a holiness church, rather than a Pentecostal one.”

Ensuing comments centered on appreciation for the stories of how each of these women came to their various faith communities and for their openness in sharing about their personal perspectives as well as their children’s journeys. There seemed to be a consensus among them that it was important to allow their children to make their own faith decisions. Marilyn stated that she and her husband let their children know it was expected that they attend church until they left home. Millie ended our discussion by again expressing gratitude that her grandparents were willing and open to have her seek her faith, and that they provided her with that model for a spirit of compassion and openness.