MY LIFE JOURNEY (IN BRIEF) AND CALL TO MINISTRY

SEPTEMBER 27, 1998
RACHEL TEDESCO

"Spirituality is not to be learned by flight from the world, by running away from things, or by turning solitary and going apart from the world. Rather, we must learn an inner solitude wherever or with whomsoever we may be. We must learn to penetrate things and find God there." From the writings of Meister Eckhart, a mystic, prophet and theologian who lived at the turn of the 14th century." 1.

I must confess that my sermon topic this morning makes me a little self-conscious. But its fair to ask that I share something of myself with you since I'll be your student minister for the next two years. Our time this morning allows me to give you only a snapshot of myself. But over the next two years, many of you will get to know me a bit more-as I will doubtless get to know many of you. I hope and pray that it will be a harmonious, mutually supportive relationship-between me as the student minister and you as the teaching parish-and productive of "good things." I have heard from everyone that Rev. Richard Fewkes is a wonderful supervisor and mentor to aspiring ministers. I have heard wonderful things about First Parish in Norwell as a teaching parish, that you are caring, honest and fair. Being here at Norwell will help me decide if I am suited for this profession and I am very grateful for this opportunity.

First, some basic facts about me. I have been married to David Tedesco for 25 years and we live in East Bridgewater with our 17 year old daughter, Leah, and a young, male orange cat, named Riff. From 1974 to 1996, I worked in the field of public planning. I first worked for the Brockton City Planner's Office. My proudest accomplishment there was helping to start a battered women's shelter with federal Community Development Block Grant funds. I was laid off after nearly eight years when a new mayor decided to that cut the planning budget and get rid of us troublesome, left-wing planners. In 1982, I was hired by SRPEDD, the regional planning agency for southeastern Massachusetts, where I held several planning positions which were totally dependent on the vagaries of federal and state funding. In my latest reincarnation, I was the manager of the agency's data center. Although the job was convenient and flexible, I grew restless. I felt my work was increasingly irrelevant to my core values and desires, which was to serve people in a way that mattered to their lives and to work for progressive social reform.

I have been attending Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Centre part-time for the past two years and am about one-third through the Masters of Divinity program. My goal is to become a parish minister. Last year, I quit my part-time job as data center manager. I decided that I really was serious about pursuing a career in ministry and needed to make a major commitment of time, energy and money to this pursuit. I expect to graduate from Andover Newton at about the same time my daughter, Leah, is graduating from college.

Now a bit about my family of origin. My mother's parents came from Lithuania and my father's parents from Latvia around the turn of the century to escape the persecution of Jews under Russian domination of these countries. Both my parents were born in America-my dad in New Haven and my mother in the Dorchester section of Boston. In their youth, they were secular Jews, living in Jewish communities and speaking Yiddish, but not practicing any form of Judaism. Their lives were pretty typical of those of first generation Americans -working hard to "make it" in this country while not abandoning their ethnic identity and Old World values.

My parents are both deceased. My mother died at age 74 in 1982 and my father at age 87 in 1991, while living in Sarasota, Florida. I have two older siblings, a brother, who's an ophthalmologist in Brookline, and a sister who's a professor of computer science in the New York state college system. Both have grown children, who are all doing interesting things in the world. My sister was widowed suddenly and tragically three years ago.

My father, Elmer, was a "townie" who went to Yale University on a scholarship, while working in his family's bakery-deli. He attended that Sheffield School of Engineering at Yale and graduated in 1925, but then couldn't find a job as an engineer due to the anti-semitism of the time. He finally found a job in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, DC and attended George Washing-ton Law School at night, graduating in 1929. He was hired by the Raytheon Company as its first patent and contract lawyer and moved up to the Boston area. There he met my mother, Helen. They shared an interest in community theater and singing and were soon engaged. My mother was outgoing and pretty, the life of the party. My father was a gentle, somewhat shy man, who nevertheless was an excellent story and joke teller. My mother was a first grade teacher in a predominantly black elementary school in the South End of Boston. She had attended Girl's Latin School and Boston Normal School. Her father was a tailor who had his own shop in the Back Bay.

After my parents married, they moved first to an apartment in Brookline and then to a comfortable house in Newton, where I grew up. Newton resembles Norwell in many ways, with areas of large, beautiful homes. My parents' marriage was rather traditional. Mom stayed at home and ran the household; she was the disciplinarian in the family. As a former elementary school teacher, she was very good at that. Dad was busy with work and generally didn't interfere with Mom's decisions. I remember being very jealous of my brother because he seemed to get more praise and attention from the folks. I was resentful that boys in general somehow had it better. They could join Little League. They could dream of being doctors, lawyers or famous musicians or painters ... or rabbis. Girls had far fewer choices.

How did I become a Unitarian-Universalist? This is not a story that is very unique. There are elements that may speak to your own experience. I think I was evolving into a Unitarian Universalist all of my life without realizing it. Just as I was a budding feminist when I though it unfair that my brother got more praise and attention. Just as I was developing my own form of earth-based spirituality when I found more inspiration contemplating the beauty of God's creation in the woods or on the beach than praying in a man-made sanctuary. At an early age I developed an appreciation and compassion towards people of different backgrounds, a deep respect for the inherent worth and dignity for all human beings... the first of our UU principles. My mother suffered from her own prejudices and bitterness against Gentiles. She felt they couldn't be trusted... and that only Jewish men made good husbands. I could understand her fears considering her experiences with anti-semitism, but I didn't agree with her.

My parents joined Temple Israel in Boston after they were married to learn about Judaism and rediscover their Jewish roots. Temple Israel was (and still is) a Reform Jewish temple - where the rabbis were theologically and politically liberal, where learning Hebrew and being Bar or Bat Mitzvahed was not required. In my teens, I heard several eloquent pro-civil rights and anti-war sermons from Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn, our chief rabbi and a famous author. The assistant rabbi, Harvey Fields, went on the March to Selma, Alabama. Questioning and discussion was encouraged in Sunday school classes, particularly in junior high and high school. I recall being one of the more aggressive questioners, although I don't recall what I asked. Looking back, I realize that Reform Judaism is theologically not very different from Unitarian Universalism. In fact, there is a lot about Judaism I still hold dear, particularly its commitment to social justice and the value it places on learning, family and community.

My parents tried hard to make their children feel deep ties to Judaism. Besides bringing us to Friday night and holiday services and sending us to Sunday school, we were sent to Zionist camps in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. My folks even offered to pay my way to Israel after college, knowing that I was pulling away from the "faith of the fathers." I turned them down and traveled across the U.S. instead. I wanted to see America first!

Even in this liberal religion, I felt confined and unhappy. I wondered why there were no women rabbis. (There are women rabbis now in Reform Judaism.) And I felt alienated from a theology which did not emphasize nature's holiness. But most of all, it was the lack of a universal humanism which eventually led me away from Judaism. I was taught both at home and in the temple that Jews were special and different, bearing the extra burdens of a hostile world since the time of the Hebrew Bible.. We needed to live by a higher moral standards than everyone else. Jews had to work extra hard to "make it" in the world The latter part was true, I believed, although I felt it was becoming less true by the 1960s.

My childhood was different from hers and Dad's. I had, after all, grown up in Newton, a community of many ethnic and religious groups (although few African Americans). These groups, for the most part, got along well with each other. My friends were of varying backgrounds. My first "best friend," when I was three, was my neighbor, Sarah, a blue-eyed, blond girl who was Protestant and whose family probably could be traced back to the Pilgrims. I loved her because she was daring, a lot of fun and funny. I mourned that fact that she moved away when we were in grade school. My best friend in high school was Jean, an Irish Catholic girl, whose mother had a charming Irish brogue and whose sister was a nun. I liked her because she was the only other girl in my physics class, was very smart, yet unaffected and had a wonderful sense of humor. She introduced me to the music of the Clancy Brothers.

Another high school friend, Merrilly, was the president of a local Congregational youth group. In our junior year, she urge me to join the youth group on a weekend work project at a black church in Boston. I went along and met African-American teens for the first time. (The only other black person I had known was our cleaning lady, who came in weekly from Roxbury by bus.) Together black and white teenagers cleaned up a residential back alley, where trash was not picked up regularly by the city trucks. And we painted the inside of some elderly people's apartments. I had a great time and came home with a totally different attitude toward poor, black people living in the ghetto.

My parents' aspiration for me was to go to a good liberal arts college, maybe work for a while afterwards, and then marry a Jewish professional, preferably a doctor, lawyer or professor and to live a safe, comfortable life. I was a hardworking student, a good, obedient daughter and dutifully went to Wellesley College, like my sister had. I had an interest in social work, but ended up majoring in political science.

As a young person in the 1960s, I was very influenced by the radicalism of the times. I was moved to the left of my already liberal, Democratic parents. I was a part of the civil rights and anti-war movements. I stood with the Quakers on a common in Wellesley Hills in silent vigil to protest the war. I was part of the campus SDS chapter. We were genteel, of course, as befits Wellesley women, and didn't take over any buildings. We did, however, hold a one-day anti-war moratorium and teach-in. I helped organize a cooperative tutoring program with the South End Settlement House in Roxbury, renting buses to bring Wellesley students to the center to tutor black students in basic subjects. I later joined the American Friends Service Committee for the summer of 1967 to live and work in an all-black township north of Detroit.

In the 1960s, "The Movement" was my religion - meaning the peace and civil rights movements. My heroes were civil rights workers in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (known as SNCC), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the Berringer brothers ... you get the picture. I rode on a bus with other Wellesley women to an anti-war demonstration in front of the Pentagon, which was described in Norman Mailer's book Armies of the Night. I marched right behind Dr. Benjamin Spock ... and I could have died of hero worship.

I didn't know that there was a religious alternative for me. I had never heard of Universalism. (This was pre-merger with the Unitarians.) And Unitarians were, I had heard from people of my parents' generation, really Christians at heart. After all, they went to churches, a word that implied Christianity. As Christians, they must surely believe in all that miracle stuff about Jesus being the Son of God and the Resurrection. I didn't understand that Unitarian meant not being Trinitarian. I didn't know anything about the history of Unitarianism and the split with the Congregationalists in the last century. I didn't know that many present day Unitarians didn't consider themselves Christian at all, but were Buddhist, Jewish, Humanist, and pagan... and that diversity was welcome in the denomination.

After graduating from college, I met David Tedesco at a movement rally. I liked him immediately; he was so earnest and sincere. As you may have guessed from his name, he is of Italian descent. He was nominally raised Roman Catholic, but hadn't considered himself Catholic since high school. We soon fell in love and eventually got married - as I was finishing graduate school in 1974. It was through him that I learned about Unitarian Universalism, since he knew a little about the denomination through his friendship with Rev. Anderson of All Souls Church in Braintree, his home town. But that was later. After a year of working for the Americans for Democratic Action as their executive secretary in Boston, I was accepted at the School of Social Work at Wayne State University in Detroit. There I pursued a master's degree, majoring in community organizing and social planning. I planned to be an "agent for social change" after graduation... and save the world. Ah, youthful idealism! After graduate school and marriage-and a couple of moves around the around the South Shore area, we eventually settled in Brockton. We moved there because I was working in the City Planner's Office in Brockton and housing was very affordable in the city. Our daughter, Leah, was born in 1981 and we joined the Brockton UU Church. This was as much to find a community of like-minded people for David and myself as to provide Leah with a Sunday school experience. At first I was a little reluctant, not knowing how "Christian" this church would be and how I would be received, but found very congenial people there. It didn't hurt that the membership chair who greeted me at coffee hour was herself the Jewish partner of a mixed marriage. It didn't hurt that the symbols of all the worlds' religious were embroidered onto the altar cloth. As I learned more about the theology, I found it was one I could readily accept. There were also many folks, including some older than me, who were political activists. It was very refreshing to be there and I felt at home.

Here I took part in the life of the church. I taught Sunday School and sat on the Religious Education committee, sang in the choir, baked muffins and knit hats for Holiday Hall, and served as Clerk for one year. Here I delivered my first sermon and prepared lay-led summer services. I also co-led a Passover seder with two other church-members of Jewish background. About 40 members and friends of the church attended. I enjoyed it all and felt like I was growing and deepening in my spirituality.

At Brockton, David was church president, then a member of the Ballou Channing District Board, then Trustee from the district to the UUA for one term. He is presently chairman of the UUA's Compensation Committee. For his paid work, he's the Vice President of Human Resources at New England Sinai Hospital in Stoughton.

In 1988, I became involved with the formation of a new women's group in the district, Womensphere. The second half of the name is often heard as "fear," but it is meant to signify a sphere or circle of women. It was a name derived originally from a phrase used by Lydia Maria Child, a prominent Unitarian journalist in the 19th Century. I became the chairwoman of Womensphere in 1989 and served in that capacity for eight years. We held many retreats, conferences and workshops over the years. Funding support from the district enabled us to publish an occasional newsletter, which linked UU women and women's groups throughout the district. When I entered Andover Newton, I resigned from that position and handed over the leadership to other capable women. Through my experience with Womensphere, I gained a new insight into how lay ministry could make a difference in people's lives. I also was able to meet and work with some terrific women ministers, such as the Revs. Elizabeth Tarbox and Laurel Sheridan. I dreamed of entering the professional ministry myself, but initially lacked the courage.

In the spring of 1992, I switched my church membership to Unity Church in North Easton, where Rev. Holly Bell is minister. I wanted to experience having a woman minister. I was also attracted by the young, actively-feminist group in the Easton church. I was pleased to find that Easton also had a large and growing gay and lesbian community in the church. It often amazes me at how diverse our churches our, even within the same region of the country and even the same district! And I am fortunate that the people at Unity Church agreed to be the sponsoring congregation in my pursuit of ministry.

Gradually, over the years, as I met more and more women in positions of church leadership, as ordained ministers, Directors of Religious Education and lay ministers, I began to feel that I could do ministry myself... if I worked hard enough and long enough to prepare. I knew if I didn't grow, didn't challenge myself, the passion would die. The Spirit called and I answered "Maybe... Well, yes, I'd like to..." This, I think, is the best sort of mid-life crisis. Thank you, Mom. Thank you, Dad. And thank you, God, for the many gifts and zest for life you have given me. Amen.

 

1 Matthew Fox, Meditations with Meister Eckhart (Sante Fe: Bear & Co., Inc., 1983 ), 90.