Berry St. Essay Response
The Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt UUMA Ministry Days
June 20, 2018

Thank you, Meg, for inviting me to respond. The whole time I was thinking about how I wanted to respond, the words of the old hymn kept going through my head: forward through the ages/ in unbroken line/move the faithful spirits/at the call divine. It's not a hymn we sing very much in Unitarian Universalism anymore but it's a hymn that I love. I love it because of its sense of continuity because it reminds us that we are people who rely on others who rely on us. When I think of mentoring, I think of that hymn and take seriously what it represents.

I live and move and have my being in ministry because of those who saw in me what I could not yet see for myself, or believed things about me I was not ready to believe. With one notable exception, my intern supervisor, Charlie Ortman, it has always been women who have helped me find my way, Women who whose strong and steady voices guided me and guide me still. This reflection is for them.

I begin with my mother, Mary Bray, the finest theologian I ever knew, who died earlier this year. She was the first Universalist I ever knew: she believed no one was outside God’s love, and nothing was larger than God’s power to redeem and transform. though my God was not the God of her understanding, still it was God and that was good enough for her. A woman with no formal education, she lived long enough to see her oldest girl president of a graduate theological school, an especially joyful circumstance for a woman who always wanted to be a teacher. She was the first person truly to see me, The first to remind me," I taught you to bend, not to stoop," the first to tell me, “Ro, you’re a minister now, girl, you can’t be yelling at people.” My Mama mentored me into life.

I wish I could tell you when I first met Marjorie Bowens Wheatley, but I can't remember to save my life, and she couldn't either. It didn't really matter. Both of us were young black laywomen immersed in Unitarian Universalism and trying to figure out whether we would stay and whether we would become ministers. I remember writing her MFC recommendation as a personal friend, in which I articulated our mutual discernment, and said that we had come to the right conclusions—she had answered yes, and I had answered no. Marjorie however was insistent though, relentless as the call of God. I was having breakfast with her my husband, and my months-old son, Allen, it was a good bye lunch because we were relocating to Detroit, where Bob had his first newspaper job. We were reminiscing about her ordination when she said I should have been up there having an ordination service of my own. I placated her by telling her they had a seminary there, and that as soon as I got settled, I’d take a class to try things out, and then I’d see. She knew once I started, I would surrender.

Marjorie was my fashion mentor as well as my theology mentor; we understood the need to get your nails done before GA and other important church events, and the importance of catching sales if we were determined to wear Talbot’s clothes. We called each other about things we were writing, or encouraging each other to write; in fact my essay in SoulWork about the importance of theology in the work of anti-racism came about because Marjorie would not leave me alone until I wrote something for it based on one of our phone conversations. She especially called when she was trying to figure out titles for her essays. She even involved my husband, because he was so much better at titles than I was. So while Marjorie's brilliant and prescient article on cultural appropriation was hers alone, its title, “Kwanzaa, Cornrows and Confusion” was written by my husband as the three of us discussed possibilities on speakerphone.

One of the reasons I waffled on Marjorie trying to mentor me into the ministry was that by the time my oldest son was born, I was already doing my part for ministerial formation; I was a new member of the board at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley California. I was excited to introduce my third generation Unitarian Universalist baby to advanced theological education; he was coming with me to my first board meeting.

Now, I hadn’t figured out how I would take care of a nursing infant in a hotel room by myself but I was adventurous; I’d figure it out. But one of the school’s student trustees had heard of my arrival and my unique circumstances, and asked Rebecca Parker, “Wouldn’t it be easier if she stayed with me and my family? We have room, and I have lots of baby things, and we could drive back and forth to the meetings every day.” I accepted with pleasure, and that is how I met Mary Harrington, and her husband Marty Teitel, and their daughter Julia and their son Sam. Mary and I learned that my baby hated riding in cars, and would stop screaming only when we played Ladysmith Black Mombazo, which we kept on the whole time we traveled together from Freestone to Berkeley, talking all the way. By the time the board meeting was over Mary and I were friends.

In the years in which I transitioned from a book review editor to a freelance writer to a seminary student and into ministry, both Mary and Marjorie were mentors as well as friends. They had opinions about everything; neither of them were any good at biting their tongues, which suited me just fine. They were both part of my ordination; both present at my installation in my first settled ministry. We were friends for life.

How could I know that Marjorie and Mary had one last holy assignment—how to mentor me through their deaths. It never occurred to any of us that life would be so short for them; each of them was diagnosed with terminal illness within two months of each other. The cancer Marjorie had was relentless in its wicked march through her life. I spent five days with her in Florida toward the end of her life, getting her ready for a medical flight to be with her family in New Jersey. We talked a lot in those last days of hers, and she was not afraid of dying, only sorry that there wasn’t more time to do more things. Still funny, still bossy, she made me her literary executor, told me what her memorial service should be like, complete with hymn selections, asked me to preach one of two eulogies at the service.

ALS is an insidious disease that robbed Mary of everything except her sense of humor and enormous heart, and so we had more time together. It was Mary who helped me manage my grief enough to write Marjorie’s eulogy. The two of us made up slogans for t-shirts she could wear to GA, especially for ministers who walked up to us and spoke to her in reverent whispers—my favorite was “I’m Not Dead Yet.” At a time when I was being urged to think about running for UUA president, it was Mary who discouraged me, telling me the work and travel would ruin the happy family that she knew was the foundation of my life. She had every right to tell me that, for by then we were godmothers to each other’s children, a commitment we’d made to each other one summer in Maine when my sons and I were visiting. It’s one of those commitments you’ll never think you’ll need—until you do.

One of the last promises I made to Mary was that I look out for her children, especially Sam. I’ve done my best to keep that promise. Like his mother before him, Sam is now Rev. Sam; as his mother did for me, I attended his ordination and installation; as his mother did for me, I charged Rev. Sam at his new church.

My life has come full circle from my days on the Starr King board; I serve now as the school’s president, and some part of every day is spent mentoring people who want to become ministers, helping them to know what to resist and when to surrender and how to listen to the call.

My mother and Marjorie and Mary are gone/not gone. Some days, I like to think of them cruising around heaven, directing Jesus to get some things taken care of down here. Mostly, though, I hear them whispering in my ear as I try to live my life with my mother’s love and Marjorie’s intellectual insight and Mary’s dogged courage. In death, as in life, they mentor me.