That morning dawned clear and bright, a beautiful autumn day. At my home church, South Congregational Church of Springfield, I was invited to witness in service that morning what it meant to me to be going forward to my Ecclesiastical Council in the afternoon. I thanked the church, who had accompanied me the whole distance, from first enrollment in seminary to now. I told them, “Today is the culmination of so many years of preparation. You have walked this whole way with me! Although people don’t usually get recommended for this final step unless it is believed they can pass, still there is the possibility that today the Council could vote not to put me forward for ordination. Yet, I tell you, whatever the outcome, the victory is already mine. For I have worked these 8 years through part-time seminary, CPE, field education and so much more, increasingly putting myself in God’s hands, preparing myself to do the work God intends for me, and I am ready to step forward with my whole self! That is not something I ever felt equipped for, much less brave enough for, in the past. So rejoice with me! No matter what happens today, I am in God’s hands.”
Later, when I stepped in to the sanctuary, introduced to the Council for examination, I saw a palette of people there that spanned a startling range of color. There were many who were delegates and clergy from Hampden Association churches, some of whom I knew. There were members and friends of mine from South Congregational Church, my home church, some delegates and more as witnesses. I lit a candle for my father Arthur, who had died in 1990. My mother Diana, my husband Peter, and my best friend David were there. Arrayed behind them were 13 members of the Community of St. Joseph, a community of faith that emerged from lay and vowed members of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Springfield, a community I have been a lay member of since 1992.
The moderator stepped forward and introduced me, then asked, “Marisa, would you like to introduce to us your guests?” I introduced my family and then explained the presence of this supportive group from the Community of St. Joseph. “You know from my ordination paper that the first 30 years of my life, I was a practicing Roman Catholic. During my time of discernment, it was the Sisters of St. Joseph who companioned me and continued to invite me to be with them even as I moved further away from Catholicism to answer my sense of call to God.” The Associate and Agrégée members of this community are lay women and men rooted in the Gospel who are drawn to the Sisters of St. Joseph charism, “That all may be one,” and who desire to live their lives “uniting neighbor with neighbor, and neighbor with God.”
The Moderator further surprised us all by informing the gathering that if my friends and family were willing to give their names, they could be given voice at the Council, though not vote. We all took in a breath, as we realized what that meant. In that moment, everyone moved closer together past the boundaries of denomination, united in my Council. Such an honor, such a privilege for all of us! And so resonant with themes of my ordination paper, in which my passion for ecumenical and interfaith ministry played a strong part.
I went on to give my ordination message, a shortened oral version of my lengthy ordination paper, which significantly told the story of my early life shaping by Roman Catholicism, and the lifelong places where I stood in dissent of historic church doctrine. I traced the history of the more significant barriers for me that grew as the Vatican and its leaders took very specific stands about homosexuality, women’s ordination, ecumenism and dissent in general. I explained my journey into other religious communities, both ecumenical and interfaith, which helped me clarify the theology I embody today about the nature of God, humanity, evil and sin, Jesus’ gospel message to the world, and so much more. Most especially, I spoke about why I’ve come to find my spiritual home joyfully in the United Church of Christ.
Questions began to be asked of me, some that you might expect for any council, and some you might not. One delegate said, “Can you explain how it might be possible for you to be ordained in the United Church of Christ and be a member of this Community of St. Joseph?” I took a deep breath: “That remains part of the miracle of my path. Across the years as I moved away from worshipping as a Catholic and expanded my path into Hindu and Buddhist practices, and other Christian denominations, I kept coming back to the Community and saying, ‘Is it time for me to leave?’ and each time, they said, ‘Don’t go – you are a part of us and we want you to stay.’ Their hospitality and spacious Gospel faith has continued to hold me fast. And 20 years later, we are still connected. You know, among these amazing women of faith, I find a rare source of dynamic female mentoring and companionship in the Gospel, something there still isn’t a lot of in the United Church of Christ, or the greater Christian church anywhere for women who are stepping forward into leadership.” A ripple of smiles and nodding heads moved across the Community of St. Joseph, across the whole congregation.
Later, a man stood up and asked me how I might pastor a wounded Roman Catholic family who had found their way to my UCC church. I told him, “What matters to me is helping them find healing in their relationship with God – not which church they worship in. After time with me, they might just as well find peace to return to Roman Catholic worship as to become members at my church.” Another person asked me what I miss about my Roman Catholic faith. I told her, “You know, the statistics show that about 40% of UCC pews are filled with Roman Catholics, so actually, I don’t feel too lonely at all. I think there are many beautiful facets of Roman Catholic tradition and faith that continue to live in me, and the others who join me here. Surely there is space to share my love for Mary the mother of Jesus, or the women mystics and saints of the church who have so much to tell us about the gifts of women’s embodiment of Gospel teaching, for example. Or the powerful ancient monastic practices of prayer and silence. Great expressions of the Gospel shine throughout the diverse parts of the Christian church throughout history and today– and I believe they belong to all of us, not just one denomination.”
Members of the Community of St. Joseph were invited to speak, and some gave witness to our relationship. As I was questioned and I answered, I felt a swelling of power and love fill the church, surrounding all of us with a holy presence. There was warmth, and mirth, and joy.
When we were asked to recess for the discussion and vote, the Community of St. Joseph members, my family and friends surrounded me in a flurry of excitement. Later, a participant would tell me that the voting body had been silent after we left, clearly moved by the energy and spirit of the group that had been assembled and its process. My friends had not finished greeting me when we were called to return to the sanctuary.
As we came back to our places, the moderator announced that the vote had been unanimous: I was confirmed to move forward to ordination in the United Church of Christ, pending call. The applause was deafening, and the sense of the Sacred rushed over me. In that moment, I felt ordained already, as palpably as if there were hands stretched out anointing me as I stood. I walked into the reception shaken, deeply moved, joyous and so relieved!
The final cap on the afternoon was the animated connections being made all through the reception between the delegates and my community friends and family. So many questions each had for the other! Such caring and welcome, such openness and discovery was shared. From conversations I’ve had since, it seems that the ecumenical spirit was felt by everyone there – a hospitality and a respect that was mutual and visceral. May it truly be the blessing theme of my ministry. What an auspicious beginning! May I truly embody that kind of union in the Gospel Way of Jesus Christ as I move forward into ordained ministry with all of who I am. Amen.
The Rev. Ms. Marisa Brown-Ludwig is Chair of the MACUCC Task Force on Ecumenism & Interfaith Relations and Interim Associate Pastor of First Church of Christ in Longmeadow.