My Last 50th Reunion

20 Dec

Who Would I Meet at My 50th Reunion?

I attended my fourth 50th reunion in October 2016.  I had long since been to my high school 50th, my college 50th from the University of Pennsylvania, and my Princeton Theological Seminary 50th reunion, where I studied for the ministry.

This was my graduate school, Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, where I received a graduate theological degree, Master of Sacred Theology (STM) cum laude, in 1966,  in their Program in Psychiatry and Religion.

I wondered who I would meet at the reunion after five decades.  There was one person I most wanted to see.  Tilda had finished her three year seminary degree at the same time I completed my graduate program, and we headed off to Europe for four months that summer.

We picked up our Volkswagen beetle in London, bought a small tent, and with our sleeping bags, we traveled and camped in 15 countries north to Norway and Finland, south to France and Italy, east to the border of Poland and all the way to Moscow in the Soviet Union.   At Taize in France, I discovered George and brought him to meet Tilda.  They’ve been happily married for 48 years.  We would have so much to talk about.

But the first evening at dinner in the President’s home, I realized that Tilda had many other people to see from her three years studying with them.  Our “Camping through Europe” trip could not compete with seeing so many of her old friends.

So I settled in to the discussions we alums held in the next two days, sharing where our lives had taken us and how Union Seminary had impacted the directions we took.  I heard the stories of pioneering work and social action that the graduates had accomplished.  Much to my surprise and delight, the person I met at this reunion was myself.

The sixties had been a turbulent time in this country.  The Viet Nam War was ramping up, young men were going to war and not coming back, students were protesting and turning in their draft cards or burning them, and some were going to Canada to keep out of a war they believed was wrong.  Civil Rights marches, integrated bus trips to the South, voter registration drives in segregated states, doing ministry in East Harlem and other poverty areas in the city, boycotting banks who did business in apartheid South Africa – these were the issues that stirred activism among these students who held strong beliefs about their Christian faith and social justice.

The modern women’s movement was also just beginning.  “Women’s liberation” was about to affect my life in ways I could not have imagined.  I had been the 12th woman ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1958 and had already served several years on the staff of two large congregations, before Betty Friedan wrote “The Feminine Mystique” and women began gathering in “consciousness raising” groups.  One particular question that a Union professor raised for us in 1965 brought a change of heart that would be a guiding force in my life – that the scourge of illegal back-alley abortions could and must be ended by making abortion safe and legal and supporting women’s right to make reproductive health choices for themselves.  I became very pro-active in that cause, and worked with other clergy to provide all-options counseling and helped women secure safe abortions even before abortion was legalized in New York State in 1970, three years before Roe v Wade.  That was my civil disobedience, for which I would have even gone to jail if necessary.

Tilda and I had discovered and participated in life-changing experiences that summer following graduation.   Exciting ecumenical work stirred our spirits in the Iona Community in Scotland, the Taize Community in France, the Ladies of Bethany – a Dutch Roman Catholic order in Rome, Russian Orthodox churches and the Moscow Baptist Church who operated under vigorous hostility in the officially atheist Soviet Union.

I returned from Europe knowing that I was ready to become a pastor of a congregation, believing that God had work for me to do.  For the next two and a half years, I could not get an interview with a pastoral nominating committee.  I turned down some 40 jobs that were offered to me as an assistant pastor (been there, done that), and visited eleven male minister presbytery executives who were both reluctant and afraid to suggest a woman pastor to their congregations seeking pastors.

I had come back to New York City from Europe homeless and unemployed.  I centered my life around the Union Seminary community, where I sought help to find employment.  I worked part-time and temporary jobs, in the Seminary library, preaching in a small church in Brooklyn, teaching confirmation classes for a couple churches, doing pastoral work for a congregation in between pastors, filling in as a secretary in a Japanese ship-building company for 7 weeks, sleeping on the sofa in the apartments of friends who took me in, including several months in a roach-infested slum apartment.

But I knew that it would surely be easier for me with great experience under my belt in those two large congregations I had served and my graduate degree cum laude from Union – surely easier for me to open up the pastorate to women, than it would be for any woman just graduating from seminary with her basic ministry degree.

This belief I had in the mid-sixties was confirmed for me at the 50th reunion.  I listened to women alums tell how they were unable to make any progress at all in getting a ministerial position in a church, and how they had to give up their plans to become a pastor and instead seek different work.  Even Tilda told how this happened to her.  I knew she had become a therapist and had developed and taught “gestalt pastoral care” over a wide area of eastern states.  I did not know that she got into this work because no pastoral position was open to her.

As sad as the situation was for these other women, it helped me to see how I had indeed been the “waypaver” that people have named me.  I did some of the hard work of opening the pastorate to women.

Those years also taught me a lot.  The Union Seminary community provided me some stability during a time of great uncertainty and the temptation to lose hope. I was there through the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the  cities burning, with the war worsening in Viet Nam and soldiers coming home in coffins, during the student uprising and police riot at Columbia University that preceded the police riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  I had my head split open by a plain clothes policeman’s blackjack at the Columbia police riot, while trying to help keep the peace.  And the ongoing civil rights struggle inspired me to persevere for advancing women’s opportunities in church and society.

The first congregation that interviewed me called me to be their pastor.  I had “paid my dues” in the women’s struggle in the church.  Those two and a half years of unemployment were not easy ones, but I am thankful to God for giving me the strength and faith to continue, even through the times of despair that threatened my belief in myself.  I became the first Presbyterian woman to be the pastor of a congregation of over 200 members.  I was installed as Pastor of the Woodside Presbyterian Church in Troy, New York on January 12, 1969.

I had two other pastorates in New York over the next 30 years, and served in many leadership positions in the denomination. Alongside my paid positions, my volunteer work concentrated in causes on behalf of women, and working for peace and justice in the world.

The crucible of those three years in the Union Seminary community focused and shaped my ministry and the paths I took in the decades following.  Listening to my sister and brother alums at the 50th reunion brought me back in touch with how my life had been changed and affected by the Union experience.  Searching together with these men and women committed to following Jesus had helped me find my own path in a time of great social upheaval and movements that stirred and shook our nation and world through the sixties and seventies.

Peggy Howland


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