Pamela Shepherd and the United Church of Christ are passionate about social justice.
Pamela Shepherd and the United Church of Christ are passionate about social justice. The 55-year-old pastor has led her small congregation in working for peace, immigrant rights, gay and lesbian rights, and justice for people in need.
For Shepherd, who came to Ashland to work at UCC six years ago, social action is deeply rooted in Christian teachings.
"I've tried to help people understand that our commitments in the world really do come out of Jesus' teachings," she says. "And that might sound odd because the religious right is so loud today. But the religious right is not the tradition. The tradition has always been to be active for the poor and those on the margins. It has been hijacked in America in the last 50 or 100 years."
Shepherd spoke with the Daily Tidings about her feisty congregation and the necessity of social activism.
DT: What brought you to Ashland?
PS: I was called to serve this church in 2005. I had just graduated from seminary school in Berkeley (Calif.), and I met a minister for this area. I told him I was looking for a church to work for. He said, "We have this funny little church in Ashland. It's really odd, I think you would be a fit." The congregation was feisty, independent, creative, socially active. And it fit.
DT: Talk about your ministry at UCC.
PS: The congregation has always been really active in the world. In the '80s, they were really active in the sanctuary movement, helping refugees from El Salvador get through this country and into Canada to safety. They have always had a passion for justice and a sense that ministry is what happens in the world, and the church is where we rest and regroup and sing together, and then we go out into the world.
DT: How has UCC changed since you took over six years ago?
PS: I think what I've tried to do is ground our social action in a deep and living spirituality. So we're not just out in the world being active to be active, but that it really is formed by our religious faith and our experience of the sacred in our lives and bodies. We've added a Taize-style meditation service on Wednesday nights, which is a candlelight meditation and prayer service. We offer breakfast on Mondays for anyone who wants to come. A lot of the people who share Monday breakfasts are homeless.
DT: Are visitors or new members sometimes surprised by UCC's activities?
PS: I think we see ourselves as a church on the edge. Some people who come in have often given up on Christianity and they are surprised to find themselves coming back; they feel there is something here they want spiritually. And yet, I think we're old-fashioned here. I think we're trying to do and teach what Jesus did and taught. That's as old-fashioned as you could get as a Christian.
DT: Did you always plan to go into the ministry?
PS: Never. I didn't even like church. I'd been living in Taos, New Mexico. I was a fiction writer, and I ran a nonprofit to help low-income kids go to college. That was my life, and I loved it. But I felt called to go to seminary. I feel like I sort of got drawn back into Christianity against my will.
DT: What are your plans for the near future?
PS: We're starting to organize something called Peace Village, which we hope to offer in the summer as an interfaith peacemaking day camp for children that will be offered by people from different communities of faith, sharing the best from our own faith traditions and practices that lead to peacemaking.
DT: Is your church involved in any of the protests connected with the Occupy Wall Street movement?
PS: We're just beginning to talk about that and what the church might have to say in this moment. I've been watching it and thinking, "Well, as soon as they clarify what they stand for, maybe I'm in." But then I thought, I know what I stand for. I want these wars to end, I want economic justice for my country, I want the poor to be bailed out like the banks got bailed out. I can name a half dozen things I want, so why wait for the Wall Street protesters to clarify?
DT: Name someone who inspires you.
PS: The name that comes to mind is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and Lutheran pastor. At the time of the Nazi rise to power in Germany, when the German church aligned itself with the Nazis, this man led a small, splinter group of Christians who stood up against the church. People saw in him what I hope people would see in us when they look at someone who is a Christian. It is the total opposite of so much of what we see in our country.
DT: What do you like to do in your spare time?
PS: I like to hike, I'm a skier, I like to bicycle. I love theater, which is one of the reasons I love Ashland. The quality of theater here has been such a gift. I say I like to garden, but really I like to just sit on my porch and watch things grow.
Angela Decker is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.