Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Spiritual Journey of Pastor Kathleen Ross

Dear Friends and Family,

As Easter approaches, I can't help thinking of the person who had the greatest influence on my spiritual life--the one who taught me how to live as a Christian, how to love as a Christian, and how to face life-threatening illness and death as a Christian. I mean, of course, my beloved wife Kathleen of blessed memory.

This year, as I sorted through our "memorabilia," as she liked to call it, I found an audio-cassette with one of Kathleen's most moving and memorable sermons--her spiritual journey, which she shared at the Orange United Methodist Church twenty years ago. This is the church in which she grew up and which always held a special place in her heart. She gave this sermon in 1989, not long after we were married, when she was 37 years old. She had already served five churches by this time and had found her voice as well as her vocation as a preacher as well as a practitioner of the Word. She speaks from the heart about how the church helped her to grow and mature in her faith, enabling her to become all that God intended her to be. For Kathleen, the church--the community of believers bound to each other and to God through unselfish love--is what our Christian faith is all about.

Kathleen’s Life in Her Own Words

[Kathleen wrote the following account of her life in the year before she died, with the intention that it be read at her memorial.]

I was born July 20, 1953, in Santa Monica, California, the first child of Gwendolyn Irene Fenwick and James Arthur Ross. From the beginning my two brothers, Jim and David, and I learned to “travel light”, moving to from Hollywood to Sherman Oaks, San Fernando, and Orange before settling in our parents’ custom-built dream home in Villa Park in Orange County.

My parents Jim and Gwen put a high value on education: I was given lessons in ballet, flute, piano, sewing, raising rabbits and cooking and sang weekly in the children’s choir at First United Methodist Church in Orange, where I was confirmed at age 13. I learned to dance The Lord’s Prayer in one of the first liturgical choirs in the United Methodist Church. My soul was nurtured by the experience of God in nature, church family camp at Wrightwood and powerful experiences of the personal presence of Christ.

My family experienced a major crisis in 1967 when our home burned to fine ash in a major brush fire, which burned 20 miles from Corona. Only family pictures were saved along with my silver flute and 3rd grade Bible and a few other precious belongings. But this was a powerful lesson in Christian love, for the members of Orange First Methodist Church held a housewarming to restock a rental home they helped my family to find so that we could start again.

My family moved to La Jolla where my brothers could find relief from severe asthma. My flute and piccolo got a good workout when I was accepted by the San Diego Youth Symphony which traveled throughout Europe as part of the first International Youth Festival, held in Saint Moritz, Switzerland. I was President of the youth group at La Jolla United Methodist Church.

I graduated from the Bishop’s School in 1971, and attended the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington for one year and spent the summer in Provence in southern France to become more fluent in French. My dream was to become an English teacher in France. I transferred to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, where I changed my major to comparative religion and graduated in 1975.

Jobs for religion majors were hard to find that year when I moved to Philadelphia, but after nine months searching for work, I garnered a job for two years as secretary to the Chief of Hematology-Oncology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

At this point the pull toward seminary could no longer be resisted. However, I firmly told the admission director at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina that I had no intention of being ordained. It wasn’t until my last year of seminary, spent at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, that I finally gave in to God’s call to full time ministry.

But where to serve? Clergywomen in the South in the 1980s were sent to serve 4-point charges –one pastor for four rural churches. So I headed back West. I had an intern “learning experience” at First United Methodist church in Phoenix, holding three full-time associate pastoral positions at the same time for one year, and then was delighted to be hired by Community United Methodist Church in Huntington Beach to be mentored by Revs. Dick Burdine and Virginia Fifield.

Finally I was given a church of my own at Pomona Westmont United Methodist Church, which took a step in faith to host a new Chinese Methodist Fellowship. I lured Rev. Kathleen Puntar to join me for six years as co-dean of the Riverside District Elementary Camp at, of course, Wrightwood. My experience with the Walk to Emmaus Weekends resulted in an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, transformed my prayer life and focus of ministry.

Then a call came from God to explore retreat center ministry. My parents sacrificially traveled with me for one month across the US and Canada visiting 35 retreat centers. Then I began a nine month program as a student at Pendle Hill Retreat Center, a Quaker community outside of Philadelphia. I had thought God’s call was to help the California-Pacific Annual Conference to build a retreat center, but it seemed that what God really had in mind was for me to meet fellow student Anthony Manousos.

When the program was completed, Anthony followed me back to California, and on December 31, 1988, we were married at Claremont Quaker Meeting with a reception at Torrance First United Methodist Church, where I was serving as associate pastor.
That was a year of other great changes. My mother Gwen died of cancer at age 57, and my dream for a Conference Retreat Center had to be abandoned. On the plus side, my fascinating new husband’s peace work resulted in a breakfast at Norman Cousin’s home, and a dinner at a conference in Washington, DC where I conversed with notable Soviet writers, “Superman’s” father, Frank Reeves, and Garrison Keilor! The day the Berlin Wall fell, a delegation of Soviet young adults were hosted for dinner in the Social hall of Torrance First United Methodist Church!

Rich years of ministry followed at Del Rosa United Methodist Church in San Bernardino, during which time I accompanied Anthony to the former Soviet Union as part of a Quaker youth project. We returned to the US just a few days before the revolution in Moscow which ended the Soviet Union.

Del Rosa was a nurturing place for ministry to youth and children. In addition to my pastoral duties of worship and visitation, I began another Kid’s Club and started weekly chapel for the church’s preschool children, as well as helping to plan the excellent annual Church Family Camp (again at Wrightwood!). A strong fellowship of clergy had began the first Interfaith Clergy Association, of which I became the first woman President. Interfaith work became my passion ever since. On days off Anthony and I enjoyed many hikes and kayaking afternoon at Lake Silverwood, and Lake Gregory, and began to make frequent trips to visit our nieces, Adriana and Capri daughters of brother David and his wife Katherine.

Over the next few years I served a variety of churches as I sought to discern God’s will for my next focus in ministry. Bellflower UMC, Whittier First UMC and Montclair UMC helped clarify the changing ministry in the 1990s. Each appointment brought new challenges, blessings and learning opportunities as I worked to establish children’s chapels and Kids Clubs. My ability to serve low income families expanded as I wrote grants and dug out new financial resources for those in need as a member of the Foundation of the California-Pacific Annual Conference. I enjoyed serving as a mentor for several candidates for ordained ministry, including Alena Uhamaka and Lee Carlile.

At home, Anthony and I became American “parents” for 17 Asian students over a period of five years. They came to Whittier College to learn English, and often asked me how to find a good husband, as they were impressed by the strong marriage Anthony and I enjoyed. Two of these students, Anna Kee and Hye-Jeong Ahn, became “honorary daughters”, and after their marriages produced “honorary grandsons”, Brandon Wong and Max Lee. My family expanded with the birth of my nephew to brother Jim and his wife in 2000.

When I was appointed to Walteria United Methodist Church in Torrance in 2002 the church experienced a spiritual revival and growth, thanks to a restarted Vacation Bible School, a new Kids club, the Alpha program and an expanded volunteer base for the monthly Community Hot Meal. The church formed a partnership with Presbyterian, Antiochan Orthodox, and non-denominational churches, as well as local high school service clubs to feed low income and homeless individuals who became good friends. Torrance Korean United Methodist Church started sharing the facilities for its brand new ministry in 2003 to become an important partner in a multicultural outreach to the community. Walteria UMC also won the award three times for the highest per capita mission giving in the Long Beach District.

When I was called by God to a sabbatical in June 2008 I was surprised when the “sabbatical” became a “disability leave” after being diagnosed with lymphoma cancer in July. I was grateful that my loving husband graciously abandoned our previous sabbatical plans to spend a 20th anniversary year at Pendle Hill in order to nurse me back to health. We were supported beautifully in prayer by family and friends, by Santa Monica Quaker Meeting and countless Methodist churches and interfaith congregations, as well as by Dr. Eric McGary and the excellent and caring oncology teams at Kaiser West LA, Kaiser Sunset, and the City of Hope in Duarte.

God is so good – all the time!

[These were the last words that Kathleen wrote. She died at the City of Hope in Duarte, CA, on May 24, 2009, after complications from her chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant. Her "spiritual journey" sermon is in three parts, in the video clips below.]

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Brahms' Requiem and a New Life in Christ

Ten months have passed since Kathleen transitioned to her new life with God, and I am still trying to learn how to live a single life here on earth that is faithful to her memory, and inspired by her spirit. Mostly I am enjoying my new life, and the freedom I’ve been given to work full-time for peace and justice and the interfaith movement.

I now serve on the board of four local interfaith organizations: the South Coast Interfaith Council, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Interfaith Communities for Justice and Peace, and the Unity and Diversity Council. I also serve on the board of a national Quaker organization, Quaker Universalist Fellowship (QUF), a group that publishes books and pamphlets. (You'll never guess who their new publication coordinator is!)

Here are some of the upcoming activities I am helping to organize:

• A peace booth at the EarthDay celebration at the Santa Monica promenade (Sat. April 17). This booth is being sponsored by the LA Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament. My contribution was to design a poster for this event, showing a large sunflower with a kid’s face in the center, and the caption: “Smile if you want nuclear disarmament.”
• “Peace Jam,” an intergenerational peace fair at USC, with music, crafts, speakers and a march calling for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan (Sat. April 24, from noon to 5:00). Our main speakers will be Mike Farrell (the actor from MASH), Jake Diliberto (a former Marine corporal turned peace activist), and Eisha Mason (AFSC assoc. regional director and KPFK commentator).
• An Interfaith Awards Banquet on behalf of the Parliament of the World’s Religions (May 16, 2010). Our keynote speaker will be Rosemary Radford Ruether, professor of Feminist Theology at Claremont and author of Gaia and God: An Eco-feminist Theology of Earth Healing.

You can read details about these events at sccpwr.org.

I am also making progress on the Brinton book and have contacted major Quaker scholars about taking part in a symposium on the Brinton legacy. The scholars are eager to participate. I now need to convince Pendle Hill to let me write the grant proposal on their behalf.

I continue to clerk the Pastoral Care as well as Peace Committee of my Meeting and am enjoying my new role as a “pastor.” When people have problems or conflicts, I am the go-to person—needless to say, it’s not always easy! One reason I enjoy this role so much is that I feel I am carrying on Kathleen’s mission. For twenty years, she was my teacher and now I am putting what I have learned into practice. Thanks be to God!

Finally, I am looking forward to spending Easter with my dear nephew Edward and my brother and sister-in-law in Palo Alto.

Despite this abundantly full life, I still sorely Kathleen. There is a Kathleen-shaped hole in my life that nothing can fill.

This week I celebrated the 10th month of Kathleen’s passing by going to hear Brahm’s Requiem, performed magnificently by the choir and orchestra at the Westwood Presbyterian Church. Nine months ago I went to hear this same group perform Mozart’s Requiem, just before Kathleen’s memorial service at Santa Monica Friends Meeting. The first time I went with Friends who gave me comfort and support. This time I went alone, though not entirely. My dear friend Ruth (who was also married to a minister) was singing in the choir.

I was deeply moved by Brahm’s Requiem, which conveys a feeling of peace and acceptance that is hard earned. It was written in 1866, not long after the death of his beloved mother, and also of his best friend and colleague, Robert Schumann, who died tragically in a mental institution after a suicide attempt. Braham wrote this Requiem in German, rather than in the more customary Latin, so that it could speak directly to the heart. It begins with the beautiful words from the Beatitudes and Psalm 126:

Blessed are they that mourn
For they shall be comforted….
They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.
They that go forth and weep, bearing precious seed,
Shall come again with rejoicing,
Bringing their sheaves with them.

These comforting words begin a deeply personal reflection on the meaning of life and of death, drawn from passages that Brahms selected himself from his well-worn German Bible. In the haunting second part, we are reminded that “all flesh is as grass” and the works or man are mostly “vain show,” yet the Word of the Lord endures and those that work in the ways of the Lord will find eternal peace.

The climax of the piece is the section entitled “How lovely are thy tabernacles, O Lord…” The choir sings these moving lines with heart-breaking beauty:

My soul longs, yea, even faints
for the courts of the Lord:
my heart and my flesh cries out
for the living God.
Blessed are they that dwell in thy house:
they will always be praising thee. Psalm 84:1,2,4

The Requiem ends with words from the Book of Revelation:

Blessed are the dead, which die in the Lord, from henceforth,
yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors,
and their works follow them.

You can hear the entire Requiem, with commentary, and the text in English and German, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_German_Requiem_(Brahms). You will be definitely be blessed by listening to it!

Dear friends and family, I feel so grateful to be alive, and to be able to experience the mystery of Jesus’ life and resurrection. Losing Kathleen was like dying, but now I know that those who die in the Lord are blessed, and so are those who live in the Lord. We are all united in one body that will never die.

As Easter approaches, my prayer is that each of you will experience the joy of Christ’s resurrection, feel the power of God’s infinite love, be guided by your Inward Light, and find peace as you work for justice!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Travels in the Ministry in the Spirit of John Woolman

I hope to travel extensively in the ministry this summer in order to attend Intermountain Yearly Meeting in June, the FGC Gathering in July, and then Pacific Yearly Meeting in late July and early August. At each of these gatherings I will be speaking about the interfaith movement and the Parliament of the World's Religions. I expect to travel for around six or seven weeks, visiting Friends along the way. This is an old Quaker practice which I describe in this article, "Travels in the Ministry in the Spirit of John Woolman."

“Having been some time under a religious concern to prepare for crossing the seas in order to visit Friends in the northern parts of England, and more particularly in Yorkshire, after weighty consideration I thought it expedient to inform Friends at our monthly meeting at Burlington of it, who, having unity with me therein, gave me a certificate. And I afterwards communicated the same to our quarterly meeting, and they likewise certified their concurrence. Some time after, at the General Spring Meeting of Ministers and Elders, I thought it my duty to acquaint them with the religious exercise which attended my mind, with which they likewise signified their unity by a certificate, dated the 24th of third month, 1772, directed to Friends in Great Britain.”—John Woolman.

According to Friends General Conference’s traveling ministries website, “Traveling ministry was an intrinsic part of the Religious Society of Friends from early times until recent history.” It has long been a custom of Friends to seek a travel minute (what Woolman calls a “certificate”) from their Meeting when they feel a leading to travel in the ministry under the weight of a religious concern.

I followed this custom when I felt led to go to Australia to attend the Parliament of the World’s Religions and Australia Yearly Meeting in December, 2009. I first went to my monthly meeting to seek their discernment. After prayerful discussion, Santa Monica Friends united with my concern, and our clerk wrote a travel minute affirming my call to this ministry. I then brought my concern to Southern California Quarterly Meeting (SCQM) where it was considered and another traveling minute approved. SCQM’s minute read: “We support Anthony’s effort to encourage Quaker involvement in the interfaith movement to promote peace, justice, and deeper spiritual understanding—what Douglas Steere called ‘mutual irradiation.’”

It’s nice to have such certification, but it also takes a lot of time and trouble. So the question arises: why bother? Why seek the support of Meeting when you have a concern?

As I understand it, the goal of our work and our life together as Friends is twofold: first, to empower each of us to follow the way or the will of the Divine (as we understand it, to the best of our limited ability); and second, to build a community of faith based on mutual love and respect. By going to our Meeting for its discernment, we show respect by seeking its advice and wisdom. By sharing out concern with our Meeting, we also give it an opportunity to provide its loving support and to be part of this Divine leading. This can be a great blessing for all concerned.
Sometimes it becomes clear, however, that our concern is not shared by the Meeting, at least not at first. This can be a painful experience, but it can also be very helpful. It may mean we need to reconsider (or as we Friends say, “season”) our concern, or pursue it as an individual matter, apart from our Meeting. It might also mean we need to reflect more deeply on what is motivating us, and what is causing others to feel a reluctance to offer support. Are we too pushy, too self-righteous? Is there an element of ego or insensitivity in our pursuit of this concern? Is the time not yet ripe for moving forward? Resistance can be very instructive and can help us to see our concern in a new light, from another’s viewpoint.

On the other hand, Meetings can be enthusiastic about a leading and can offer support either in the form of prayer or of funding. My Meeting has a fund for sojourning Friends that has been enormously helpful when members of our Meeting have felt led to travel in the ministry.
When Friends travel with a minute of support, the nature of the travel changes. We can’t help being aware that we are representing not only ourselves, but also those who have blessed us with their support. In my case, I had the blessing not only of my Monthly and Quarterly Meeting, but also of the Christian Interfaith Relations Committee of Friends General Conference and Quaker Earthcare Witness, the Quaker environmental organization. All of these groups had minuted their support for my travels, so I felt obliged to do my best to represent them as best as I could. This was not as burdensome as it might seem. Their support reminded me that I was not alone, that I was surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses” who cared about me and the concern I was carrying. Remembering this helped me in difficult times when I felt lonely or just plain tired.

It was customary for Friends traveling in the ministry to have a companion or elder travel with them. I can appreciate the wisdom and value of this custom after traveling for six weeks in a country with a culture and history quite different from what I am accustomed to. Not having a travel companion, I am grateful to Skype (the internet equivalent of the Holy Spirit) and to Friends in the United States who served as my elders and helped me through some challenging times.

While traveling in Australia, I gave presentations at monthly meetings in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, and Adelaide, where I attended Australia Yearly Meeting. Everywhere I went, I presented my travel minute and it was signed by a clerk. When I returned to the States, I shared these letters with Friends so that they could feel connected with Friends in Australia.
Those who would like to learn more about my travels to Australia and the Parliament of the World’s Religions can read my article “Hearing Each Other, Healing the Earth” at the Quaker Universalist website: http://www.universalistfriends.org/uf051.html#Manousos. Suffice to say, it was a profound and life-changing experience to go to the Parliament and spend a week among 6,500 spiritual leaders from every religion imaginable, and from around the world, many of whom share our Quaker values and concerns about peace, justice, and the environment. It was energizing to see that the interfaith movement is a global phenomenon with the potential for changing the religious culture of the world in significant ways.

One of the crucial lessons of the 21st century is that if we don’t want the world to be dominated by religious fanatics and militarists, we must stand in solidarity with other people of faith concerned with justice and peace. That’s why I was pleased by FCNL’s recent epistle “Encouraging Quaker Engagement with American Muslims” (Nov. 2009, published in the Jan/Feb 2010 Newsletter). I would urge Friends to go further than this epistle recommends, however. We need to “stand together to practice equality and justice” not only with Muslims, but also with Bahais, Jews, Buddhists, Sihks, and others. This is what the interfaith movement is all about!

I continue to feel led to travel in the ministry to share my concern about the interfaith movement. This summer I plan to go to various Yearly Meetings and to the Friends General Conference Gathering to give presentations. Because this concern is ongoing, I am bringing this concern to Pacific Yearly Meeting and asking for its support.
Traveling in the ministry can be a deeply enriching experience for all concerned. I am indebted to Australian Friends for sharing their wisdom and insight with me as I did my best to share my concern with them. I resonate with the words of John Woolman who understood that when we travel in the ministry, we learn as well as teach:

“A concern arose. that I might feel and understand their life and the Spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of Truth amongst them.”

It is my hope that I will continue to travel in the spirit of John Wooman, and that other Friends will feel led to do likewise.

Friends General Conference has a traveling ministry program. Those who would like to learn more should check out: http://www.fgcquaker.org/traveling/home