Pat Grace Conover: Spiritual Autobiography|
Last updated:February, 2008.
This is an edited, expanded, and updated version of the spiritual autobiography that I wrote in 1987 as part of meeting the requirements for becoming a Core Member, now called a Steward, of Seekers Church. I had written earlier versions, including one for a seminary class. It is a "spiritual" autobiography in that it is supposed to mention at least the major turning points in my spiritual journey. Since I think of my life as spirit driven from my early years it is mostly just an autobiography.
First a note about my name. My parents, Edward Arnel Conover and Margaretha Cornelia Friese Conover, named me Patrick William Conover. The William part is after mother's father. When I married for the second time, to Lois Stovall, Lois and I each took the name Grace as a third name and I became Patrick William Grace Conover. The full name of our only child is Samantha Lois Grace. The 1987 autobiography was written under that name. In 2002 I legally changed my name to Pat Grace Conover to be in keeping with my understanding that I am a bigender person. The name works whether I am in my masculine or feminine presentation of self.
I was born in 1940 at a young and tender age and have a brother, John, who is six years older than me. The first memory I have which has relevance to my spiritual development is from when I was about four years old and living in Washington, DC. My mother closed the long blackout curtains over the french windows that connected our dining room to a little terrace at our home on Alton Place, a modest new two-story white brick home. My family had moved to DC when my father took a civilian position in the Second World War effort. The memory seems foundational because I can still connect to the feeling that it was a moment that showed that something was terribly wrong. It seems as if I continue to carry such a feeling in my bones. A good part of me is defined as being against evil. The spiritual threat to me is that my eagerness to oppose evil draws me to it. In numerous instances I have embraced evil and lifted it to the light of transformation. For example, in the early 1980's, when I was very active on the peace agenda, I determined consciously to draw close to the insanity of those who live to fight nuclear Armageddon. I wanted to know the mind set from the inside of those who fashion the nuclear triggers and put their fingers upon them. So I read Aviation Weekly, the Armed Forces Journal, and other such publications until I could empathize with our generals and admirals. Later, in a variety of speeches and discussions, I found such empathy very helpful. "Hawk" generals need to be really heard too before transformation can occur. Prophecy is not just a churchy word for opposition.
A second theme from early in my life was family mobility and isolation. We moved when I was four, six, seven, nine, eleven, twelve, and thirteen. I've also moved many times as an adult. My parents were both Minnesotans and I grew up around the South and had almost no sense of being part of an extended family. In the South our family was rather culturally isolated, especially as racist frenzies rose. My father died when I was fourteen. He had been a crusading social worker prior to his death at 52 from a heart attack.
Mother was depressed and withdrawn after my father's death. I had very little relationship with my brother John. He was "saved" by a fundamentalist public high school band director>" He used to tell me, when I was a young kid, that if I was to die in a flaming automobile wreck I would wish to be so cool again when I went to hell.
I was involved in a lot of physical fighting in high school, earning me eleven trips to the principal's office in the Eleventh Grade. The principal was sympathetic because he knew I was not starting the fights. I prospered academically and played varsity baseball and varsity basketball at a mediocre level. To get me out of this difficult situation my principal, without consulting me, arranged for me to skip my senior year. I entered Florida State University without ever graduating from high school.
After one semester of college I served six months active duty in the Army at age seventeen. The deal at that time was that I could avoid the draft in exchange for the six months of active duty and six year of reserve duty, including three years of active reserve which was supposed to include monthly meetings with my reserve unit plus two weeks of summer camp. I avoided all but one meeting and summer camp by enrolling in ROTC upon returning to FSU. I was in a hurry and finished college in six semesters. I continued to live at home and walked to my classes. My undergraduate degree was in psychology and included two good semester classes in counseling.
At age twenty, two days after graduation from college, I married Joyce Nuckolls. We were married for seventeen years and divorced in 1977. My son Daniel was born when I was twenty-two in Chicago, Illinois and my daughter Dawn was born when I was twenty-four.
I was awarded a full fellowship to attend Chicago Theological Seminary and completed the four year program in religion and personality that was designed to produce pastoral counselors and chaplains in three years. I was able to stay so focused on my studies, in part, because I was awarded full fellowships for my second and then my third year. My strong interest in seminary turned out to be theology and I calculated that I spent roughly half of all my study time carefully reading the three volumes of Systematic Theology by Paul Tillich and learning to apply the philosophical methodology of Richard McKeon as taught by Widwick Schroeder. My son Daniel was born in 1963 when I was 22 and I was an actively involved parent.
While I was rushing through school, learning a lot and finding academic success, my inner journey was troubled, difficult. I did not fit in with my high school peers in general though I had one good friend named Bill Love. My family was pacifist, liberal, and pro-integration. My school mates were mostly racist. For example, one night after getting home late from an away basketball game I was surprised to be offered a ride home. That hadn't happened before and never happened again. The teammate drove us to the little ghetto called "Frenchtown" in Tallahassee. The game turned out to be drive down the street, see an African-American, (that was not the word used), stick out a pistol, demand his hat, laugh raucously, and drive away. After consultation with my parents I told the school authorities and nothing happened except that my teammate lost his driving privileges for awhile.
But my real emotional challenge was internal. I knew from ten years old that part of me wanted to be a woman, not a man. I dressed once. I was "cooking" in the kitchen when mother got home. She made it clear that this was not acceptable but did not humiliate me or force me to seek "help" from counseling. I learned I needed to suppress that side of myself and it was a good thing I learned that lesson. Common treatment for such behavior in those years was pre-frontal lobotomy where they stick a tool like an ice pick through your eye socket and turn the human part of your brain into mush.
But hiding out wasn't so easy. At fourteen I almost castrated myself with a butcher knife. Fortunately I fainted instead. Upon waking up I felt that I had a clear and simple message from God that dominated my mind. My revelation was that I needed to take stronger control of myself if I was going to survive. I did and it left me with a rigidly controlled personality that tended to shut down feelings, a style not out of keeping with a lot of men of that era. I knew I needed to do better and, particularly in college, I worked at self-acceptance and at relaxing. In college and in seminary, and for most of my years of marriage to Joyce, my bigender journey was completely internal with some emotional release through masturbation. The reasons for my divorce from Joyce had little or nothing to do with my bigender consciousness. Indeed, when I finally told Joyce that was a point of good connection. But it did not save the marriage.
As I worked on the bigender aspects of my inner journey my prayer life was very rich. I felt held and loved by God and came to view my bigender inner truth as a gift. I knew, for example, that my woundedness made me a better counselor. I knew that a lot of formal psychological theory was oppressive rather than liberating, aimed at forcing conformity despite lots of words about self-acceptance or self-actualization. Feeling loved and accepted by God gave me an inner groundedness that made the difficulties of one dimension of emotional isolation tolerable. I was healthy enough to give and receive love and caring with my family and a small group of friends in the several settings of my life. I understood the Christian story from the inside out and it was salvation for me.
At the same time I was hungry for deep Christian community and critical of institutional Christianity for several reasons: the lack of community, the lack of prophetic integrity on such issues as race relations, the hostility to sexual and gender variations, and a lot of boring worship in the churches I knew.
My hunger made me quickly pick up on the few stories I heard that suggested that the church, as I knew about it, was not the only paths of Christianity.
My ethnic background was Dutch and German. My mother's religion was Episcopalian and focused on her love of the language in the prayer book, a love even more deeply grounded in the language of Shakespeare. So far as I could tell she was a progressive thinker but she said very little and never struggled with co-workers or friends over religion or politics. She "attended" church but it always seemed to me like "the thing to do." My father was a Congregationalist by tradition with part of one year of seminary at Chicago Theological Seminary. His sympathies were Universalist, a kind of Christianity not to tightly bound to the historical Jesus and deeply grounded in liberal morality. His great heros were Gandhi and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was a crusading social worker and my small awareness of his great passions were a valued gift.
We moved to Tallahassee, Florida when I was 13 just after Dad got his Ph.D. in Social Welfare from Ohio State University. He didn't live long in his job as a professor at Florida State University and died when I was 14. Religion was an important category for my father and when my brother became a fundamentalist they had violent arguments. I didn't follow the details of the arguments but I knew my father was right and John was deeply wrong.
Our family joined First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee as the most progressive and intellectually presentable church in the town. The church had a self-consciousness of being one of the few progressive congregations in the Southern Presbyterian Church denomination before the denomination entered into the merger that became the Presbyterian Church USA. I liked Dub Martin, the first minister that I encountered there and also a later minister named George Telford. But I was critical of the church for not living up to its fine words as they applied to the then dominant issue of race relations. I was also aware of how restrictive the church was about all matters sexual and remember a big-to-me battle over whether our Senior High Fellowship would be allowed to have square dances. They changed their policy to allow square dancing but we never actually had such a dance at the church. Who wants to dance in a setting like that!
The big gift to me from First Church was that I heard a few stories about Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm (Koinonia Partners) just a couple of hundred miles North of us in Americus, Georgia. Jordan's confrontations with the Klan were of the sort that raced around the South. I was even more interested in the fact that instead of organizing a traditional church he created a community that was somewhat interracial, still a scandal in the 1950s, an economic cooperative, an economic development project for poor rural Georgians, and a place for free thinking about the Bible. Jordan was a then-modern agriculturalist and a Greek scholar who produced the Cotton Patch versions of parts of the New Testament, a transliteration into Southern English and Southern imagery. I also learned a little about the Austin Christian and Life Community, Reba Place Fellowship, and the Church of the Savior movement in Washington, DC. I followed up this interest in alternate Christian communities in college and seminary and worked at creating house churches in Tallahassee and in Chicago.
After graduating from seminary I worked for one year as an instructor at Gibbs Junior College, an historically African-American Junior College in St. Petersburg, Florida. It promptly closed. My daughter Dawn was born in St. Petersburg when in 1964 when I was 24 years old. We lived in a huge old pink house with Bill Love and his wife and had a happy family time. I went back to Chicago to work for two years in Essex Community Church, an integrated church in the South Side ghetto. I had volunteered as a student at Essex during my seminary years and that work included creating a house churches. Back at Essex and working full-time I rebuilt the first house church and started a second one. I also worked as a community organizer in the context of The Woodlawn Organization, then the most powerful black community organization in the United States. The focus on immediate community needs, on following paths of interest in the community, was very different from working on the cultural issues of racism that dominated the civil rights movement. Though these were difficult years financially, and difficult family years for raising two young children, I felt deeply confirmed in my callings around alternative Christian community and Christian grounded social justice activism. The house churches were beautiful with transformative small group worship and sharing, as well as Bible study matched to community and political activism.
Though my father died when I was fourteen, and though he was very busy with his work when he was alive and had little time for just playing with me, he still influenced me greatly. He was an honorable man and lived out of passionate convictions and caring about systemic injustice in the United States. He carried great hope that things could become better for low-income people, for African Americans, and for Jews. He was the emotional strength of the family and was kind and caring to me.
Father grew up in a generation and sub-culture that was highly shaped by the social gospel movement initiated by Walter Rauschenbusch. He was a religious and political liberal and expressed his faith in social action. He was a community organizer in a social welfare sense, active for example in creating the Red Feather movement in Minnesota that was a major precursor to the United Way. He was an active social welfare reformer and, particularly through his leadership of a citizen's movement in North Carolina, made some major contributions to welfare reform. I imagine him as sympathetic to the work of H. Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr. I know he let his faith shape his life and that he was uncomfortable with the hypocrisy of the institutional church. I believe he would have been pleased to see what I have been about in my life.
I was encouraged to think for myself and did so from an early age. By my early teen years I was an ardent foe of biblical literalism and made a long list of literalist contradictions. When we lived in Columbia South Carolina my brother was "saved" by his High school band director. This led to violent arguments between John and my father and may have helped influence me to think that Christianity mattered. The first fruit of John's "salvation" was that he became estranged from our family and has remained estranged for many decades since.
I came out of childhood with a sense that was religion was important, some caring about the long story of Christianity, but no sense of spiritual grounding. I fought with First Presbyterian Church but still managed to be elected president of my youth group. I had a little sideline fantasy of inventing a new religion that I called Varnism (because I liked the sound of the name). Now I see it as a rudimentary exercise in generalizing my rudimentary Christianity.
One particular story bears repeating. When my father died, Rev. Stewart, a fundamentalist Presbyterian who was not attached to First Presbyterian Church, came to our house the day after Father had died. (Though we attended First Presbyterian some neighborhood boys had introduced me to Rev. Stewart in an attempt to save my soul.) He came by to tell me that my sin and my lack of repentance had killed my father and that I should repent of such sin. I threw him out of the house. It felt so good.
Adolescence was hard for me. I had suicidal feelings. I was struggling with my gender identity and, at one point, came close to castrating myself with a butcher knife. Instead I fainted. When I woke up on the floor I had a sense of having received a clear message from God to the effect that I needed to take responsibility for myself, to take care of myself, to become closely self-controlled to protect myself. I took that message as a great gift and set out to try to live up to it.
I also directed my hostility outwardly. Twice I tried to kill friends, once with a hatchet on a Boy Scout camping trip and once with a water sprinkler. Just how I was going to accomplish that murder was unclear because I couldn't catch my tormentor, but I am clear about my intention. Another time I threw Bill Love's crutches onto the roof of his house.
I was picked on a lot and I fought a lot. In the Ninth grade I was 6 foot 5 inches tall and weighed 165 pounds. I was weak and clumsy and had the size that invited aggression. It is always okay to pick on someone bigger than yourself. Fighting was common in all my all-white school and my principal told me that I would have to learn to fight or I would get my ass whipped regularly.
I learned to fight despite my pacifist upbringing and I'm pretty sure I didn't tell my mother about my fighting. I learned that you can get hit hard in the face and that isn't the end of the world. I learned the erotic shock of hitting someone else hard in the face and seeing him fall down. In the Eleventh Grade I went to office eleven times for fighting but was never punished. My principal understood that I was defending myself, not starting fights. Instead of punishing me he decided, without consulting me, to enroll me as a freshman in Florida State University instead of having me return to the Twelfth Grade.
After one semester in college I joined the Army Reserve at seventeen and went through six months of basic training. I remember basic training as more lessons in violence. Not only was the training itself pretty brutal but I contended with additional brutalities as well.
I was one of the nineteen recruits in my fifty-five man training platoon that had pneumonia during the two months of basic training. I was perhaps the only one of the 19 not recycled to start basic all over again because my 3 days in the hospital were about the only three days I could miss without being automatically recycled. They were the three days of preliminary rifle training. I was told that I had to qualify with my rifle to avoid recycling, a great motivator. Fortunately I was an excellent shot based on my recreational shooting as a younger teen and because of my first semester of shooting on my college ROTC rifle team. I was worried however, because I had not been able to adjust my rifle sights during preliminary training likely everyone else. I was extremely careful with my very first shot in the standing position firing at a very large target. My shot was outside the scoring circles and barely on the target. I made very large adjustments in the sights and shot a very high score. In fact my score were so high that it was given to another soldier that the company commander believed would compete for a base wide shooting trophy. I outshot the other soldier on the second day as well when we were firing at moving targets and neither of us qualified for the top trophy. I liked my M-1 rifle but I liked my civilian pump action .22 even better.
One basic training day we were marching across Fort Jackson. The Private marching in front of me was a kid from Mississippi who was taller than I and marching Right Front Guide. He was a little mentally limited but he had a strong ambition to be a truck driver in the Army. Unfortunately he was unable to keep step while marching. Our Sargeant harassed him regularly to try to get him to keep in step. On this day he came up beside him, started yelling at him, and then kicked him in the side of his knee and broke his leg. I instantly knew I should attack the Sargeant. Instead I stepped over the screaming boy and kept on marching. My guilt was huge but the moment was lost. The boy disappeared and we never learned anything about him. The Sargeant was not disciplined in any way we knew anything about.
I did manage to get into trouble in my seventh week of basic training. I was in the base Drum and Bugle Corps, a position that required my company commander to arrange daily transportation for me and got me out of some basic training activities. This did not help my popularity. A Major from base command visited our Drum and Bugle Corps and asked if we were having any trouble. I spoke up and said I had been denied dinner when I got back to Bivouac (camping in tents) after the Mess Tent had stopped serving. It turns out that refusing to feed a soldier was a big deal. The cooks and the Company Commander were brought up for a battalion level Courts Martial. I was still learning the basic rules of formal military procedure but still had to testify in the Courts Martial. The cooks and the Company Commander were found guilty and got a letter of reprimand placed in their personnel folders. They were not however removed from the Company. They did their best to break me and recycle me in the remaining eighth week of basic training. I was given every available kind of guard duty every night which meant I got almost no sleep. I learned how to sleep, or at least rest, while standing at attention. I also learned that when sufficiently removed from the emotional present by sleep deprivation I could ignore all the inventive provocations thrown at me to try to get me to react in a way that would justify recycling. I not only survived, I did very well on the tests of military skill on the next to the last day of basic training. I was one of the few soldiers to actually hit the target with a practice mortar round, instead of qualifying by coming reasonable close. My Platoon Sargent rewarded my survival by telling me that if our training company ever had to go away to fight together that he would make sure that I never made it across the ocean on a ship. He meant it. I survived. The strange thing is that I remember rather liking Sargent Jenkins. He was smarter, more competent, and more humorous than anyone else I met in the Army and part of me had learned to accept that the Army was supposed to be brutal and crazy. Much later I came to understand that my negative first impressions of the Army were based on a moment when the Army was at a very low ebb of professionalism.
Learning to deal with situations loaded with potentials for conflict and violence served me well during the time I worked in the South Side ghetto in Chicago. Three times I was on the wrong side of a gun and came through with no real threat. I was able to figure out how to move around at all hours in my neighborhood with minimal danger despite being surrounded by gang violence. The Essex Church Boy Scout leader was shot between the eyes by a Blackstone Ranger in a most unlikely scenario while I was in the Essex neighborhood. I was also able to be a cool and calm presence in several demonstrations in which violence was a distinct possibility. One time I was trailed as a way of "being given a message" by the mob. (Our community was breaking up a numbers operation because it was causing a significant traffic problem.) There was a lot of knife fighting across the street from my apartment and it took me awhile to figure out that no one ever got hurt very much and a lot of boys got marked with a facial scar that proved their toughness. There was enough random exuberant gun fire, particularly on Saturday nights, so that we had a standing rule of staying away from the front windows. The only violence that ever really got to me was when the mother of a child that my son Daniel played with was murdered. She was a prostitute and lived a few doors up the street from us. She was decapitated and stuffed in a garbage can.
In any case, I had a lot of early lessons in facing up to the reality of violence in myself and in the world. I paid attention to gaining self-control, to analyzing myself and potential violent situations, and to what I needed to do to transform violent feelings in myself into positive engagement and expression. Though I've lived in relative safety since my Chicago years, I still appreciate the positive grounding I have from working with questions of violence.
My conscious reason for enrolling in Chicago Theological Seminary was a desire to figure out my values as a counselor-to-be. I wanted to explore the goals of counseling, not just apply some memorized techniques. CTS had a good pastoral psychology training program in cooperation with the University of Chicago and the University of Chicago hospitals. I initially thought that I would stay in seminary for just a year to answer my question about counseling. But I fell in love with CTS and spent a third of my time taking clinical courses from the University of Chicago's Divinity School. I completed the training in clinical pastoral education, including a year of internships in the University of Chicago Hospitals and Elgin State Mental Hospital. But my interest quickly began to shift to theology, particularly the theology of Paul Tillich who was then teaching in the University of Chicago Divinity School. I never took a course from Tillich but I did have Dr. Tillich in one of the wards I was serving after he began experiencing heart troubles. I walked in to meet him one morning and brightly said, "Hi, I'm student chaplain Conover and I'm here to attend to your every spiritual need." He had a good laugh with me. I ended up spending about half of my total study time carefully working through the three volumes of his Systematic Theology.
My thesis for my Masters of Divinity degree provided an analysis of psychological theories based on the philosophical categories of Richard McKeon with a concluding constructive chapter that amounted to a theory of psychology in accord with the theology of Tillich. I later used the same logical structure for my doctoral dissertation that dealt with sociological theory. Forty years later I consider the grounding of my intellectual perspective in the Aristotelian analytic philosophical methodology of Richard McKeon and in the constructive theological position of Paul Tillich to be a distinctive and powerful approach to thinking. It underlies my book, Transgender Good News and the draft of my possible book on reintegrating the sciences that may be found in the Christian section of this website under Science and Theology.
My best completed effort in working with the integration of the sciences is to be found in my unpublished 1971 dissertation, Necessity and Conflict: A Systematic Theory of Sociology. After a brief introduction, the first three chapters offer a detailed analysis of the philosophical structure of three prominent sociological theorists as examples of three of McKeon's four philosophical families: Talcott Parsons (Democritean), Emile Durkheim (Aristotelian), and Max Weber (Sophistic). The fourth chapter reviews and discusses all the major theories of social class or social stratification written in English in terms ofthe McKeon model. The fifth chapter presents a detailed analysis of two hundred plus research articles that discuss the phenomena often described as mental illness as social deviance. The fifth chapter also includes a complex causal model of social deviance that integrates the research articles by combining four approaches to systems theory, demonstrating that the McKeon model can be applied at the basic empirical level as well as at the more general sociological theory level and at the meta-theory level of the integration of the sciences and of the larger intellectual perspectives that include the sciences. The sixth chapter is a constructive theory chapter in which I present a general approach to sociological theory based on three Platonic type dialectic polarities: dynamics and form, individuation and participation, freedom and destiny; representing primary dialectic categories employed in Tillich's theology.
One of the happiest periods of my life was the 17 months that I had to write my dissertation. I went to my study with joy and I used every day of the 17 months. My unconscious was as helpful as my conscious mind. I routinely woke up in the morning with the answer to a question I had been struggling with the day before. I kept a notebook by the bed and wrote out the answer before setting my feet on the floor. I believe I could be happy in prison if I had my books and the chance to write.
After graduating with my Ph.D. our family moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, where I began work as an Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I lost a nasty tenure battle despite having an excellent publication record. I was making progress within the sociology profession, marked by twice chairing philosophy sections at annual meetings of the American Sociological Association. I was surprised by the tenure battle and surprised that I lost it. I had the support of the Chairman and a majority of the faculty members in my department, the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Education where I had been an outside advisor to some graduate students, and a special UNC-G program where I had volunteered to teach extra courses as part of an innovative effort for presenting the required courses for all first and second year students in an integrated format. I also had the modest expression of support from some students who liked me. Several senior professors in my department despised me and they had the ear of the Chancellor of UNC-G. I was despised for three reasons that I am aware of. UNC-G was under court order as part of the UNC system to move toward racial integration. I supported that court order and made radical suggestions, such as inviting faculty from North Carolina A and T State University, also located in Greensboro, to come to our twice a year invite-a-big-name-speaker programs. The second reason was that I supported a couple of lesbian students against a professor who exploited them and then tried to run them out of the department. I agreed to become their faculty advisor and offered a seniors honor tutorial which allowed them to complete their degree requirements and then graduate. The third reason was that some of my students really liked my approach to teaching sociological theory and began to ask questions in some of their classes that upset a couple of senior professors who couldn't answer the questions. In the same year that I was thrown out the senior professors also managed to force out the Department Chairman who had offended them by appointing committees to make departmental plans. They were used to dictating such things to the rest of us. (I was appointed to Chair the Undergraduate Committee, presumably because no one else would do it. The two senior members appointed to the Committee came to the first meeting. They told me I should disband the committee. When I resisted they informed me that they would not participate in the work of the committee and would be uninterested in any plans the committee might make.)
During my time at UNC-G I received five small research grants that I used to support my empirical research on the alternate culture and alternate institutions. The output from this research led to the majority of the journal articles, book chapters, and professional papers that I produced between 1971 and 1976. I also wrote a long manuscript dealing with alternate expressions of Christianity in relationship to the alternate culture and counter culture. It needed to be broken down into two, possibly three, books, but when I lost my tenure battle I never got back to doing that work. The professional papers and articles I did write were part of a project to demonstrate to myself that I could meet the criteria of editors of publications grounded in the three McKeon families of thought. My plan was that I would then proceed to follow up on my M.Div. thesis and Ph. D. dissertation and write An Integrated Theory of the Human Sciences.
I suppose I could have continued my sociological career despite losing my tenure battle. I did not try to do that for two reasons. On the one hand I was shocked and disgusted with academia. The more fundamental reason was that I was deeply committed to the lifetime covenant I had entered into as part of Shalom Community. I did not anticipate that I was going to end up in divorce with Joyce after 17 years of marriage in 1978. We had been working with several challenges in our marriage but had been working them out. It suddenly broke in on me that I was no longer willing to try to resolve the problems anymore. After she completed her Masters Degree in Education, I told her and we moved into the divorcing process.
Participating in the creation of Shalom Community was a great joy in my life. While pursuing my Ph. D. at Florida State University I took on a limited part-time job as Campus Minister for United Church of Christ college students for $100 dollars a month. I never found more than a couple such UCC students and don't remember any of them. I earned my money and more (in my mind) by initiating a process that led the Presbyterian campus center into expanding to serve the students of four denominations, including the UCC. I also started working with a struggling coffee house effort housed in the basement of the Presbyterian campus center.
With visions of the Potter's House coffee house that was part of the Church of the Savior firmly in my mind, I approached revitalizing the coffee house as the creation of a mission group. That effort was well received. The coffee house became popular. The music and conversation was lively. More students wanted to be part of the coffee house community. We started having weekend long retreats. Some students experienced deep transformations in their lives. Some of them initiated a project to lease and renovate a large rooming house and run it as a Christian cooperative. I was enthusiastically supportive and helped them think through organizational issues. The cooperative house was a great success for a season of several years and also served as a through the week gathering place for the coffee house community.
When we moved to Greensboro several coffee house community members came along to help with the transition. Soon three of them moved to Greensboro and we began to dream and plan toward the creation of Shalom Community. After a couple of years of planning and a long search for land we could afford, we bought forty-six acres of rolling woodlands and abandoned fields that included two decrepit small wooden houses, an even more decrepit house trailer, and several dilapidated farm out buildings, a couple of acres of cleared land, and a one acre lake fed from springs arising on our land. In the process Shalom Community grew to eight adults and eight children. My old friend, Bill Love, bought a piece of land across the road from Shalom Community. The eight children were part of three families and there were two single adults. At any one time there was a mixture of visitors and those exploring membership as well.
Shalom Community was legally organized as a congregation of the United Church of Christ with the separate incorporation of Pala Housing Cooperative so that we could appropriately pay taxes on the part of the land used for residential purposes. We worshiped together, did Christian education for our children, started offering retreats in our limited facilities, and put a lot of energy into reclaiming the land, restoring the two little houses and the trailer, and then building the first stage of Pala as a place to live together. We had a simple approach to economic equality. Everybody put in all the money they had and it pretty much took all our money to make it work. Our family and another family sold their houses to provide much of the capital and a small inheritance allowed us to buy a critically needed tractor and implements.
We lived very simply in Shalom Community and paid a lot of attention to environmental concerns. Pala was a wonderful model of careful environmental planning that ended up involving three architects, a landscape architect, and a materials engineer. We built it with our own labor under the direction of Steven, a lead carpenter who used our job to transition out of being part of Twin Oaks, a behaviorist commune in Virginia. During the construction of Pala and related tasks I was blessed with one year of a very light work load at UNCG after I lost my tenure battle and another year of receiving unemployment insurance. I spent most of my energy on the construction and also spent a fair amount of energy in child care for community children. When the first phase of Pala was completed we had a much better space for offering retreats. We also had a road, a well and a plan for building a separated retreat meeting and residential building. I joined the North American Retreat Director's Association and had dreams of building a career operating the retreat center and offering retreats of various kinds.
One of the happy features of living in Shalom Community was that we ate dinner together. We formed into eight teams, each with one adult and one child. Each team cooked or cleaned up one evening a week and one team did the shopping. The work went smoothly. It was good interaction with the children. The food was good and inexpensive. The only problem for me was that I couldn't stand up straight in our dining room which was in the attic of one of the small houses.
I am thankful for my marriage with Joyce even though it came to and end. We were married very early and helped each other with growing up agendas. She chose to live in Chicago with me in difficult circumstances and chose into Shalom Community a different kind of challenging circumstance. It was sad to me when I realized that I deeply believed our marriage needed to end but I thought that choice would be good for me and ultimately good for Joyce and I am confident that has been the case.
Divorce, however, led to some huge emotional and practical problems for me. To begin with there was the distress of the divorcing process which did not go as smoothly as it should have because of a major misstatement by the lawyer we jointly employed to work out the details of the divorce settlement. Still, this was an obvious and anticipated difficulty from my point of view, something to be worked through.
When we divorced it became instantly clear to me that either Joyce or I would have to leave Shalom Community. I quickly became clear that I was the one who needed to leave because, in my mind, Joyce needed the support of Shalom Community for her transitions. The other members of Shalom Community were surprised by our divorce and did not like it one bit. Several had sacrificed a lot to come and be in community with me and I was abandoning them from their point of view. They were very angry and expressed their anger openly and repeatedly. I needed to move out quickly and it was not easy to visit Daniel and Dawn under the circumstances.
I was suddenly homeless and jobless and without the community in whom I had invested so much heart. Joyce and I owned two cars but both were important to the Shalom Community car pool and both remained with the community. Just as all this part of my life was breaking down my mother had a major stroke in Tallahassee, nearly died, and remained institutionalized for the remaining eleven years of her life in a succession of nursing homes.
I flew down to Tallahassee and, over one long weekend, sold her house, a lot of the furniture, distributed furniture and keepsakes to my brother and myself, took charge of her finances which were in total disarray, took charge of her medical insurance which was also confused, and followed up on her treatment concerns. An old high school friend gave me a fair price for the house and furniture I was selling for her. I borrowed mother's car and she later gave it to me after she had recovered sufficiently to make choices about her life. Thankfully she agreed with the decisions I had made so abruptly. Despite the emotional difficulty in our relationship my brother John apparently felt fairly well treated in the settlement and apparently glad that I was taking care of things. He was never difficult when he could have been totally disruptive.
So I drove back to Greensboro. At least I had the use of a car. I scrambled around and was lucky to land a one year fill-in sociology teaching job at North Carolina A and T State University. This allowed me to rent a small apartment, which I got at a reduced rate because the ceiling of one of the bedrooms had fallen in.
I wasn't counting on the impact of poverty. I had lived frugally with mother in Tallahassee. We were quite poor when we lived in Chicago. But I came out of Shalom Community with my clothes and a record collection. I didn't have a good situation for keeping Daniel and Dawn, no television or games for entertaining them, and no money to go out to events. My emotional bottom point came when I tried to sell blood to raise a few dollars and I passed out. They couldn't get much blood from me but were kind enough to pay me anyhow.
It was a tough year, and so was the next one when I took a one year fill-in job teaching sociology at Wake Forest University. My financial situation stabilized but it was still very tough sustaining a relationship with Daniel and Dawn. They felt abandoned and lived with a mother and a community that were not happy with me. Paying child support wasn't much of an emotional compensation.
The good news in this period was that I fell in love with Lois Stovall and we married. I met her when I joined a small group that was modeling itself on the Church of the Savior. Turning my attention to Lois did not improve my relationship with Daniel and Dawn. After my employment with Wake Forest ended I had another year of unemployment while Lois and I rented a house together in downtown Greensboro. Then we moved to Charlotte, North Carolina when I took a job as Minister of First United Church of Christ. Lois took a job as a Legal Aid lawyer. Then it was even harder to connect to Daniel and Dawn. Daniel was 15 and Dawn was 14 when Joyce and I divorced. It still pains me that our divorce created more pain that I anticipated for Daniel and Dawn.
Coming together with Lois, and then getting married, was good for me. She helped see me through the dark days of losing community, being poor, and grieving about the loss of relationship with my children. Her independent commitment to alternative Christianity, based on her earlier experience with Seekers Church while she was in law school, was a significant source of bonding for me. Samantha Grace was born to us in Charlotte.
First United Church of Christ in Charlotte was in considerable distress when I arrived. At one level church members acknowledged that substantial changes were needed and, at other levels, there was substantial resistance to change. They wanted to sell their then current building and move to a new location. But they hadn't done their homework and were not happy to learn what an orderly procedure would require. They knew they needed new members but, when my efforts at recruiting were successful, they felt threatened about losing control. After a couple of years, a powerful member of the church told me bluntly that I would have to go because he was afraid that I would soon have more votes in the congregation than he would have. This member was upset by my progressive preaching and because I took Samantha with me on some pastoral visits. The old people I was visiting loved seeing Samantha but he thought it was highly unprofessional behavior on my part. After almost three years it was proved that I didn't have enough votes and I was jobless once again. Truth to tell, I didn't really have the patience required to be a local church minister. I wished I would have been able to leave on my own time table in an orderly fashion.
It was humbling and costly to lose my pastorate. Even though I knew the odds were greatly against me when I took the job, I was long on self-confidence and was looking for a miracle. At the end I had only the satisfaction of knowing I had been faithful and that I had positively touched some lives and witnessed to others. I learned later that the congregation did a better job of facing up to its problems after I left and the next minister had more leverage to help them make the right moves. The church relocated out near the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the obvious right location, and began to grow again.
We moved out of the church parsonage and bought a huge old wooden house that had been only partly rehabilitated from a fire. We lived inexpensively on Lois's income while I set out to repair the house. I began the creation of Shalom Homes, an independent, not-for-profit, sweat equity based, low income housing program. Our niche was to take an old wooden mill house, repair it, and sell it with subsidized financing to a low income family. At that time there was an abundance of such houses in Charlotte. After a year I had created a strong Board of Directors, had established a good relationship with City Council and the County Commission and recruited the participation of several church congregations. The deal was that a church would provide about $3000 to buy needed materials and would supply volunteers for three successive weekends of rebuilding. I was paired in the creation of Shalom Homes with Robert Morgan, a Presbyterian Minister with even more construction skills than I had. He managed the volunteers and other aspects of the reconstruction work. Bob and I made a happy team and it felt very good when a child care worker, with a low salary, moved into her own nicely refurbished home with a mortgage that was lower than her previous rent. The design flaw in Shalom Homes was that we were competing, so to speak, with Habitat for Humanity, that had big bucks and big prestige. While we were getting Shalom Homes underway Jimmy Carter came to town for the high profile launch of a Habitat project. Habitat recipients got a shiny new home. Shalom recipients got a refurbished old mill house, albeit at a tenth or less of the construction costs.
I was surprised in 1986 when I got a call from an old seminary classmate and friend, Jay Lintner, who inquired if I would be willing to apply for a job as Policy Advocate with the Washington Office of the Office for Church in Society of the United Church of Christ. I laughed because I figured the chances of me winning such a job competition were between slim and none because of an intense UCC commitment to affirmative action in racial terms. Jay allowed as how that might be true but urged me to come for an interview anyhow.
I came to the attention of OCIS during my time with First UCC in Charlotte because I had also been active as a creator, and then Co-Coordinator, of North Carolina Peace PAC, a coalition of 14 state or regional peace groups in North Carolina, including a committee of the North Carolina Council of Churches. I had also taken the initiative to create a peace curriculum for churches in the Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ that was an alternative to the national UCC peace curriculum and was intended for use by more traditional or conservative churches, and was written in Southern English. During this time, the Office for Church in Society supported a trip to Washington, DC, so that I could present a paper and speak to a congressional committee on waste in military spending.
My entry into my new job as Policy Advocate was rough. Several of my new colleagues were outraged that I had been chosen after they had lobbied to reject my application and to have the search reopened. I'm not sure what counted against me the most in their eyes: that I was white, that I was male, that I had a Ph.D., or that I was from the South. In any case I was chosen by Yvonne Delk, a charismatic African-American preacher who grew up in the Southern Conference and apparently respected my work in that context. She not only chose me, she stood by me when I was heavily criticized by some colleagues and when some constituencies of the United Church of Christ rallied to oppose me, following the lead of some staff colleagues. I hung in and eventually won some acceptance from all my colleagues, or at least those colleagues who stayed with OCIS.
I loved my work of advocating for low-income and other oppressed and marginalized people. My primary assignment was to work toward eliminating poverty. I initially gave greatest attention to child care and low-income housing issues that were important at the time. In the mid-1990s I focused on advocacy for universal health care. OCIS decided to give this issue high priority and I had access to significant program funds for the first time. I set out to organize an ecumenical effort to promote universal health care and ended up working through five national conferences to create the Interreligious Health Care Access Campaign (IHCAC). It had a terrific Board of Directors that was diverse in just about every dimension imaginable, but also able to work together. We became organized and active in about 30 states and something going in another 10 states. We were a significant player in larger secular and religious coalitions. Within the UCC we worked not only with concern for those needing health care, but also with UCC health care providers (doctors, nurses, nursing homes, hospitals, and chaplains) and with the UCC Pension Boards that had the responsibility of paying for the health care offered to UCC ministers and national staff.
Lois Stovall and I divorced after being married for eleven years. Overall, I felt that my marriage to Lois was a good thing, just time limited. From my point of view the marriage was ended by Lois. We were careful and thoughtful in our ending process with appropriate counseling and careful negotiation of economic arrangements. Lois's legal experience was a benefit to us both and I retained a competent attorney as well. We paid close attention to arranging that Samantha would have good access to both parents and I was no longer in poverty. It wasn't easy for Samantha but she did retain access to two caring parents.
Lois chose to leave Seekers Church and some members missed her greatly. Samantha and I stayed on in Seekers. That transition point was a difficult one for me but I persevered and things got better over time.
The careful ending work I had done with Lois, plus the value of the counseling I did separately, left me ready fairly quickly to find another life partner. An important feature of the counseling was that I became more committed than ever before to claiming my bigender orientation and to putting energy into integrating bigender experience into my life. I began attending a local transgender support group, the Transgender Education Association (TGEA), and also began to attend national transgender conferences.
Though both Joyce and Lois knew about my bigender orientation it had little presence in our common life. I was determined that I would be fully out in my woman self, as well as in my man self, in any relationship with another life partner.
Patricia Nemore and I were married in December, 1994 after dating for about a year. Trish was able to accept me as a bigender person and I felt very fortunate to have a life partner who was part of Seekers Church. We are still in a very happy relationship.
When I first came to Seeker, after a period of preparation taking classes in the School of Christian Living, I joined the Capitol Hill Mission Group. The group went through several permutations and I particularly prized relationships with Bob Bayer and Kate Cudlipp. Later I helped to found the Spirit and Sexuality Mission Group. After a sort of leave of absence to create the Homemakers Mission Group that focused on finding a new location for Seekers Church, I returned to the Spirit and Sexuality Mission Group.
The Spirit and Sexuality Mission Group was a good context for me as I worked with coming out as a bigender person within Seekers. After sharing individually with about a dozen Seekers over a year or so, I preached a coming out sermon in March of 1997 Coming Out Christian. The sermon was received calmly enough, but when I started showing up at Seekers in my feminine presentation of self relationships became difficult. Most Seekers did not know how to respond. Some did not like it at all and were quite public in their dislike. I was told, for example, that I would kill the church because no visitors would ever want to join; and I was told that if I was accepted it would damage the children of Seekers. People expressed a lot of concern for Samantha and it was true that Samantha initially had difficulty in coming to a reformed relationship with her father who was presenting himself as a woman and wanted to be accepted and to interact as a woman within Seekers. After a few years I retreated from the tensions in Seekers and went back to presenting myself in Seekers only as a man.
It should be noted that visitors did not respond negatively to me in my feminine presentation of self and one volunteered that she knew that if there was room for me in Seekers then there was room for her. Seekers children did not have trouble with me either. I answered the questions they asked and we continued to get along well. Then and now I have been one of the most active Seekers in teaching Sunday School and generally relating to the children.
After the Spirit and Sexuality Mission Group disbanded, and after some transition time, I helped to call and create the Seeds of Hope Mission Group. Our goal was to share some of the perspectives and organizing questions of Seekers with other congregation in an effort to help them transform themselves into a congregation of people with more active engagement of a fully Christian life and with more creativity and joy in their congregations. We did some good thinking and sharing, but ended up closing the mission group when we couldn't get past the hurdle of needing to market ourselves so that others could ask for our help. We had a big marketing problem. We were determined not to offer more models, recipes, and programs so that people and congregations could copy Seekers. Our secret isn't about design, though we have some excellent design aspects. Our secret is about fully engaging the living questions we carry, fully engaging each other and living into our solutions. We really do believe in trusting the Holy Spirit. We move with excitement, but little sense of magic, about how to relate to the Holy Spirit. It's about the simple virtues of paying attention, caring, and sustaining humility.
I developed an active form of prostate cancer and had my prostate surgically removed in 1997 at Johns Hopkins University. There has been a better than 90 percent cure rate for people with my markers going into surgery but my PSA scores started to rise again and by 2006 had risen enough so that I began a two month program of external beam radiation to try to cure myself of the cancer. This treatment also did not work. With the utilization of several delaying strategies I expect to have many more symptom free years of life.
In 2004 I began to have signs that I had cardiovascular disease and I had two stents put in my heart before I had a heart attack. Looking at the final pictures of my heart it became clear to me how much I needed those stents. The stents were inserted October and I retired from the United Church of Christ in November 2004.
I am thankful that I live at a time when modern medicine can do so much to help people who have the physiological challenges I have. With retirement I got serious about regathering my bodily health. It took me a full twenty-four months to shed most of the distress I was carrying in body and spirit. It Has been such a blessing to be able to have the time and attention to focus on recovering my health. I follow a strong exercise program and pay attention to food shopping, cooking, and eating. I have lost thirty pounds and regained a lot of strength and vitality. Now I get more fun into my exercise routine by playing seniors basketball and softball.
In 2006 I joined the Koinonia Mission Group which focuses on providing hospitality and welcome at Seekers. Part of the way I contribute to Koinonia'a ministry is to come to church early on Sunday with Trish to clean up the sidewalk and front of the church, and to set up and prepare the downstairs level of the church for Sunday School and for the gathering time part of Sunday worship. I like thinking of myself as a "doorkeeper in the House of the Lord" in the language of the Psalms.
I continue to preach about four times a year which seems about the right amount and I have recently taught a courses in the Gospel of Mark and in theology in the School of Christian Living. I've also enjoyed having time for more lunches and visits with other Seekers individuals.
In 2007 I came out of retirement for about seven months to take a nearly full time as the Interim Head of Office of the Washington Office of Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ. It was pretty stright forward interim work and I was glad to re-retire and get back to focusing on staying healthy and attending to my numerous callings, including this website.
For any readers who have stuck with autobiography to the end I wish you God's blessings and I hope you haven't found the writing too pompous or self-serving.