May 12, 2006

"A world where justice is real, and peace is the truth"

QA: The Rev. Pamela Shepherd

One of Ashland’s oldest churches is enjoying a surge of growth under the leadership of a new minister. The Reverend Pamela Shepherd began serving as pastor of the First Congregational United Church of Christ last September. Since then, attendance at Sunday services has doubled.

Shepherd received a master’s degree in divinity last year from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. Before that, she lived in Taos, N.M., where she directed a nonprofit organization and taught college classes in writing and film.

Ashland First Congregational UCC is located in a recently-renovated historic building at 717 Siskiyou Boulevard, across from Southern Oregon University.

Q. How does Ashland compare with Taos?

A. They’re both places of great beauty which have become really fun towns because of the creativity, passion, and originality of artists. And they’re both threatened with the growing divide between the people who have lots of money and the people who don’t.

Q. Where did you grow up? Are you from a church-going family?

A. I grew up in Palmyra, a small farm town in central Pennsylvania. I was raised in the Evangelical United Brethren church, which was the tradition of my dad’s family. My mom was a Southern Baptist from Georgia. What I learned in church as a kid was that God loves us and we should love each other. I’m still trying to grow into theology as simple and as true as that.

Q. How did religious service evolve from the life you had been living?

A. Ha! Well, I had an honest friend. What a gift that is. I was a struggling young writer trying to make a living from my art, and it was hard, and I was, you know…cranky about it. I wanted…what did I want? Fame, fortune. Something like that.

I was complaining about my life to this one good friend, and he stopped me and said, "You are never going to be happy until you start seeing how you can serve the world and stop thinking so much about yourself." I think it was a God-moment — a moment of grace — that I was able to really hear that.

I stopped trying to get whatever it was I’d been trying to get, and I started asking myself what in my community needed doing, that I knew something about, that might not get done if I didn’t do it. I worked with a group of friends to create a nonprofit that helped poor kids go to college. It was a spiritual practice for me, and from spiritual practice to ministry—it’s kind of a slippery slope at some point.

Q. After you entered the ministry, did friends and family treat you differently?

A. A lesbian in Christian ministry is just a head-snapper. A lot of my friends had to struggle with the thought that either the Christian faith tradition was not what they thought, or else their friend had just gone crazy. Or both.

Walking with old friends on this journey has been a gift in both directions. So many people have been wounded by the church. Especially GLBT people and women. Traditional Christianity has been devastating in codifying bigotry and unjust relations.

When I meet people who hate the church, I want to say I’m sorry for all the hatred nurtured in the name of God’s love, and then I want to ask them, "So when did the church first break your heart?" Because there’s always a story…and ministry is about hearing that story and being able to say, with the authority of the church, "That is not true about God, and not true about you."

Lately I’m starting to have an e-mail list of people who like to read my sermons. They say they’re never going to church again, but it turns out they sort of like to listen in.

Q. What do you like to do in your spare time?

A. Right now I’m enjoying hiking, bicycling, and exploring this beautiful new place I’ve landed. Concerts at SOU have been really wonderful. I’ve been missing having a writer’s group. I may try to get back to that. Oh, and theater. I’m in theater heaven here.

Q. Where and when have you been happiest in your life?

A. In a funny way, I guess, this is the happiest time in my life. This week I got to stand on the Plaza with Women in Black, and just...long for peace. To really feel it — my longing for a world where justice is real, and peace is the truth. And when I stand with those women on Fridays at noon, I feel God’s longing for that with us. And my tradition teaches me that what God longs for will come to pass. So Amen, then…Now I sound like a preacher.