community, reflecting, remembering

On the Journey

I was searching, it felt as if I was always searching, had been searching for a long time. Searching implies an object – what was I searching for? I had the idea that I could go into the ministry – but I had no church experience of a community of faith. I had only a history that included a family distrust of “Church,” and three years of study in a fundamentalist denomination. After confirmation, I had abruptly left what I knew as “Church.” I thought the social movements of the 70’s were more about Jesus and what he taught than what I had known of Church. In particular, I had noticed and admired the work of Father James Groppi in Milwaukee, a Civil Rights leader in my hometown and adjoining ‘hood.

After college, I embarked on a career with the Social Security Administration, and after three months of intense training as a Claims Representative in Minneapolis, I was assigned to the District Office in Green Bay, Wisconsin. At the time, I was happy to have been assigned to Green Bay, which was a couple of hours north of Milwaukee. I didn’t know at the time how lonely I would be, how lost as I began my professional life as an adult.

And part of me was still searching. I was always searching. For what? For love? For meaning? For connection? For depth? For community? All of these were to be answered, although I didn’t know it when I was searching. And part of me is searching, even now, which has given my life and faith a depth and richness I would not have had otherwise. I’ve always been open to new understandings, to new learnings. I’m grateful for that.

After a couple of years, as the Social Security Administration took on the administration of SSI – Supplemental Security Income – the staff in the SSA office at Green Bay grew. From my first days, when I was the first woman CR, staff numbers grew. My first colleagues – who ruled the roost as only white men in power can do – were challenged to accept women who were at least as good at what they did than the men had been.

I was still searching. One of my colleagues was a woman named Joan, who was a bit overwhelmed by the work as a Claims Representative, but whose life I noticed. She was a white woman from Wisconsin, married to a disabled African American man from the South. Joan always wanted to go deeper, and I sensed a depth in how she wanted to relate to others. She didn’t engage in the politics of the office, often spending her breaks reading a Holy Book – the Holy Book of those people who are called Ba’hai, the teachings of their prophet. In a way, Joan was difficult to relate to, but I liked her depth, the way she looked at others as she spoke to them. Joan and Nat invited me to dinner at their house, and there, after the meal, we talked.

Joan and Nat were the first people I knew who took the faith they professed seriously. They allowed my questions. They didn’t expect rigid answers, the answers of a “right faith.” They wanted to talk, to learn where I was going with my questions. They took me seriously, as well as the faith they professed. When I asked about becoming a Bahai’, they didn’t surround me with evangelical fervor – they encouraged me to explore my journey, to see how my journey unfolded.

And my journey unfolded in another direction – in a way. I’ve written about returning to Milwaukee, still working for the Social Security Administration, and following my heart and questions to the people called Methodists, to my friend and guide Harvey Stower, and into the ministry.

I’m grateful for the journey, and for the questions, which still arise, will continue to arise. I’m grateful for all those whose path has lit my way. I’m grateful for the ongoing quest of faith, of trust in life as life offers itself. And I’m always grateful for the beacons of light who have lit my way – for Jesus, for Joan, for Nat, for Harvey – for all the others.

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul - View by Mary Elyn Bahlert, 5/2023
community, nostalgia, remembering, Uncategorized

Meeting Joanne

2023 marks fifty years since Joanne sat down across from me at my desk in the Social Security office in Green Bay, Wisconsin, smiled warmly at me, and said: “Do you golf?”

I answered: “I haven’t, but I could try.” I have never tried, in 50 years. But Joanne is still a good friend, to me, and to my husband, Jeff.

We were both Claims Representatives at the Social Security office in Green Bay, Wisconsin. I’d arrived at the office in June of 1973, after three months of training in the Minneapolis office. In March, I’d driven my red VW bug to Minneapolis while I received training, and now I was permanently assigned to Green Bay. When I came to the office, I was the first woman to work as a Claims Representative in that District, helping folks who were about to retire to complete their claim for benefits. Joanne would follow, a couple of months later. She’d been promoted from her job as a Service Representative. As a Service Representative, she’d helped folks with issues they had after they had begun to receive benefits: Retirement, Disability, Child’s Benefits. In the time I worked at Social Security, in the Green Bay office, at the office on the South Side of Milwaukee, and later, as a Field Representative out of the Waukesha office, I never ran into a person who performed the job better than Joanne. She read each of the papers that came across our desk each week, filing them in the proper place in her copy of the Social Security Manuel, the working details of implementing the Social Security Law. She was smart and competent, the hardest worker I knew.

We traveled together, driving to the Northeast, to Florida, to Washington, D.C., to Montreal and Quebec on our vacation times. We met one another’s friends. We lamented our lack of dates. We shared recipes. We took rides together on warm summer nights, ending up on the Eastern Shore of Green Bay, watching the sun set over the Bay. When I was able, I moved back to Milwaukee, and Joanne followed, not long after. She bought a little house and she spent her weekends and evenings working hard on that house. Joanne can do anything, in my estimation.

The contractor that helped her with one of her house projects told her that there was a nice, young, divorced man who lived in a house around the corner. He wanted them to meet. Sure enough, Rich and Joanne began to date, and after a couple of years, they married, in the spring of 1983. They moved into his little house in the neighborhood, and later, a larger house. In 2014, they moved into a home they’d built on a small lake in the county to the west of Milwaukee County. Joanne had accomplished her life long dream to live on the water.

I was in seminary when Joanne and Rich were married, and she stood up with me in my wedding to Jeff in Milwaukee in March of 1984. In later years, after I’d moved to California, she and my mother became good friends, baking and cooking together, enjoying one another. When my mother’s memory became bad and she needed help, Joanne visited her and answered her frantic phone calls, until we knew she had to move to be closer to me in California.

A few years ago – 2016 – I answered the phone in the kitchen on Labor Day, in the evening, when Jeff and I were about to go to bed. I heard Joanne’s voice then, and I heard something in it I hadn’t heard before. “Joanne?” I asked. And then again: “Joanne?” She told me that she and Rich had spent the day in Emergency at a local hospital. Rich had been diagnosed with Glioblastoma, an aggressive cancer that originates in the brain. By October 15 of that year, Rich was gone. Jeff and I made sure we cleared our calendars and made the trip to be at his Memorial. There, Joanne was surrounded by so many friends that she and Rich had made over the years, both Rich and Joanne folks who were important to the community in which they lived.

Joanne came to visit us in Oakland this past winter. She’d arrived from Wisconsin, hoping for some nice, sunny weather. Winter can be long and gray in the Midwest, and sadly, winter here was long and gray, also, one rain storm following another for days. But the conversation that started so long ago in Green Bay continued, and since Joanne was visiting, we explored some interesting places in the Bay Area.

Next week, Jeff and I will be flying to O’Hare Field in Chicago, where we’ll rent a car and drive to spend the first night of our trip with Joanne in her house on the water. We won’t run out of things to talk about, the three of us, and together, we’ll make sure we remember Rich, how he made us laugh, how he made Joanne laugh.

beauty, community, reflecting

Christmas to Me

On the Saturday evening of the weekend before Christmas, my husband and I spend the evening with a group of people together in the sanctuary of a small, aging church building in Albany, California, north of Berkeley. In an area of the country where more folks are “unchurched” than in areas where hundreds of people – young and old – gather in large auditoriums to hear loud, drum-backed music while strobe lights flash overhead – we sit together for two hours in old wooden pews, taking in Christmas.

A Tongan woman dances to a song from her people as a two year old, born in the United States to parents whose native language is Tamil, born and raised in the South of India, runs behind the dancing woman, up the stairs to the chancel, where a Christmas tree stands at the center, its lights changing from white to multi-colored, and the little one dances in front of the tree as the rest of us smile and giggle at her antics.

A line of Filipinos, the women all wearing the same plaid winter shirt, sing a song from their country. A Korean choir proudly sings “He is Everything to Me,” standing in a line. A five year old girl – the oldest in the group of children who stand before us – sings all the verses of “Feliz Navidad,” the smaller children fidgeting, not sure where to look, as the mother of a two year old walks her little girl up to sit with the other children, all dressed in their Christmas best. A Tamil couple who spent most of the past year in India with family sing a song in their native language.

All the while during the concert unfolding before us, toddlers meet in the center aisle of the church, looking into each others’ faces, holding hands and swaying to the music they hear. Their parents smile as they watch their children, at the same time, their heads nodding to the Christmas music, the other entertainment of the evening.

A well dressed, handsome young man – accustomed to being in the spotlight – walks to the front of the sanctuary, where he reads “Mood of Christmas” by Howard Thurman, (November 18, 1899 – April 10, 1981; American author, philosopher, theologian, mystic, educator, and civil rights leader). The young man graces us with the African American Gospel song, “Jesus, What a Wonderful Child,” and as he leaves the front of the sanctuary, he is followed by a couple from India, singing the Malayalam Song, “Christmas Raavananja Neram.” Their daughter, 2 months old – a child they had waited many years to welcome into their lives – sleeps in the infant seat her mother had carried with her to the front of the church.

We are grateful when the Pastor, a native of Korea and a professor of preaching, uses his time at the pulpit to offer a few words of Christmas blessing, and then sits again among the rest of us in the pews. Not much needs to said when we see Christmas unfolding here, right before our eyes.

Over the course of the evening, we hear Christmas songs and carols in 10 languages.

And then – as the music quiets – Korean women, all dressed in red for the occasion, pass out little white candles, and we sing, “Silent Night, Holy Night…” The lights are darkened as the candles are held high, sparkling.

Soon, we crowd into the center aisle of the small sanctuary, greeting one another, many with elbow-bumps – in honor of Covid – and we are filled with joy, gratitude, for being together to bring Christmas to one another, a gift.

Christmas Lights on View Place, December, 2022, photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert