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