We arrived in Abilene after our van's air conditioner broke down halfway. Fortunately, my dad had the foresight to travel at night when it was considerably cooler. My mom cried as she hugged me goodbye, but I was too busy being mesmerized by the new college atmosphere to really acknowledge her pain and loss (I was the last to leave home and the am the youngest of six children.)
My first week at ACU included a freshman ritual called "Welcome Week," which eerily reminded me of summer camp at York College, except we didn't go home afterwards. There were similar "light a candle in a room and make teenagers cry" kinds of attempts to immediately evoke intimate stories. And then the culture shock started to sink in. Over and over again I kept hearing speaker's anecdotal jokes about the "M-r-s. Degree," opportunities for older guys to get naive freshmen girls' numbers and the staggering amount of spring weddings in the Bible chapel. Having just returned from a summer of mission work I was quite taken aback by this rhetoric. And in this context I was walking up the stairs of the Bible department and ran into a Bible professor (whose friendship I respect, treasure and continue to this day) who I'd met at an incoming Bible majors' function. He smiled at me and said,
"So, are you engaged yet?"
My eyes grew very wide and I decided I would take out my frustrations about the past few days on this unsuspecting person:
"I did NOT come here to get an M-R-S degree! I came to get an education and prepare to be a minister and I would like to be treated as such!"
Oblivious to his poor timing, the man immediately changed posture and profusely apologized to me, reassuring me that of course I had come to get my education and that he was merely repeating a bad joke he told his son. More than a year later I came to talk to him in his office and he remarked at how glad he was that we became friends after that first awkward encounter. I had no idea what he was talking about until he reminded me. I laughed, because he is a strong supporter of gender inclusion within Churches of Christ. But of course I did not know that then.
As the school year began, I started my Bible major courses with vigor. After attending a couple local Churches of Christ I settled on a smaller congregation with a consider amount of theology professors and Graduate School of Theology student members. Those grad students were hilarious, mysterious, often socially awkward, but nevertheless fascinating. I couldn't get enough of them. I sat down with a male classmate and friend one evening outside of the Bible department and we talked for hours about our dreams of grad school at ACU, our MDiv and Ph.D plans that included ministry, writing, publishing and homiletics. Nothing could stop us from achieving our dreams. Except maybe politics.
The spring semester I made very official arrangements to speak with the recruiter, Dean, and several prominent faculty members of the GST (all male), to show them just how serious I was about being an MDiv student in four years. They were kind, sometimes encouraging, and honest with me. One told me that Pepperdine would offer more opportunities for me as a woman in ministry. Another told me about his daughter who struggled with her role as an MDiv graduate with no job offers. Others told me that Churches of Christ were opening up and exploring women's roles in worship and that I should go for it. Yet another told me to talk to him in four years. It was a mixed bag but I didn't really care. I was going to do it! I changed my major to Christian Ministry, which was the most versatile mix of theology and ministry courses. I went back to Tomobe, Japan the next summer, leading a team and served as a conflict resolution mediator and curriculum developer that summer.
During the next year or so I developed a passion for social justice issues in the context of Biblical theology. I was not a stellar Greek student, but I adored my female professors. I beamed with pride when I heard that a male student was giving a severe speech about women staying in their places and was thoroughly admonished using comprehensive textual criticism by a male professor. I felt like I had the support of everyone: my church, friends, mentors and school.
In the spring of my Junior year something wonderful happened. All of the Junior Bible majors were required to do a summer internship in ministry or missions. I interviewed for a chaplain and church internship position. The latter was with the Stamford Church of Christ in Connecticut, a multi-ethnic, gender-inclusive church of Christ with a heart for social justice. Debbie, the church's involvement minister, told me that she was specifically looking at hiring of a female intern. By the grace of God and generosity of Debbie, I was offered the position the next day. The church members (including some very young adorable girls) started sending me encouragement cards later that spring. I couldn't wait to get to Stamford.
That summer was glorious. I was by no means a perfect intern. I had a lot to learn and messed up quite a bit. I was shown much grace by the ministers and friends I made along the way. I started learning about the nitty gritty, heartbreaking, exhausting work of a full-time minister. I spent a weekend with a congregation in New York that had two preaching ministers-male and female. I became a contributor for Gal328.org and participated in wonderful discussions there. I taught - not only VBS arts and crafts (because I wanted to), but the youth group and adult Bible studies. I led singing in front of men and women for the first time. I was nervous and they were all so wonderful and kind.
At the end of Youth Sunday, an annual tradition where the youth group takes responsibility of the Sunday worship service, I gave my first and only sermon from the pulpit. My mother came that weekend and read a passage from Luke before I spoke. It meant so much to me to have her there - the quiet, servant-hearted woman who led the man who would become my father to Christ over 30 years before. That Sunday was deeply personal for me on so many levels; I spoke from my heart about social justice and received a warm response from the congregation. I owe this church a lot for making me into the woman I am today.
As I stood in line at the airport waiting to say goodbye in New York I was handed a small envelope by the pulpit minister, Dale. He made me promise not to read it until I went past security. After I hugged him and Debbie I walked through security and, of course, ripped open the letter from him. It read,
Dear, dear Teresa. You have what it takes.
I couldn't stop the tears and I wanted to run back through security and tell them in incomprehensible babbling that I could believe those words because of what they taught me that summer. So, to the dear and wonderful people at the Stamford Church of Christ: thank you for letting me use my gifts and my voice. I will never forget it.