Sunday, January 26, 2014

Just Jane: A Spiritual Odyssey



In the Beginning….


I was born on October 9 1950 at 5:12 a.m. in the Bulloch County Hospital in Statesboro, the second child of J.G. Altman and Christine Rogers Altman.

My parents were truly working class folks who were among those people in the post war years who strived hard to move up in the world.  They had both grown up relatively poor – and both were determined to work hard enough, smart enough, and long enough to BE somebody in town and reach that next level of folks whose children had it better than they did.  And, indeed, we did.

Not that there weren’t difficulties.  My very earliest memories were of the Bulloch County Hospital where I was taken after a tragic accident that left me with a critical head injury.  I was supposed to have died, but the doctors and “the good Lord” saved me.  I had lots of attention at the hospital – and gradually began to talk again and walk again.  The first book that I remember was one that I received in the hospital -- Digger Dan.  Digger Dan was a steam shovel and there was one just like him outside the hospital window, for they were building a new wing at the time.  Perhaps being able to connect that story of Digger Dan with the real life “goings on” at the hospital encouraged me to understand the importance that books could have in my life.  In any case, I did fall in love with books – and it’s been a lifelong love affair. 

When I was taken home, my parents were told that I could not hit my head and I should not get hot.  So we got window units for my bedroom and the main room that I would be in – and that MAIN room was my mom’s little home beauty shop. She moved my high chair in that shop and I remained there with her and all the ladies.  They held me in their laps and interacted with me and read books to me and, indeed, helped to raise me.  Our home with my mom’s shop was right across from the front gates of Georgia Teachers College – now Georgia Southern University.  All of the women whose husbands taught there and the women who  taught there were my mom's customers.   These were educated women who valued reading, writing, and good conversation.  And a once extremely shy toddler bloomed into a gregarious, talkative, curious little girl.  I thank these ladies – a few who are still living – for that experience, and my mom for sharing her work with me. 


When I was five, we moved across town, just one block away from First Baptist Church on Woodrow Avenue.  I loved that split level on Woodrow Avenue.  We lived upstairs and my mom’s bigger beauty shop was downstairs.  The shop was big enough for three or four operators and Mama became the most sought after beautician in town.  The shop provided a place for me to work after school and in the summer.  And I worked diligently, sweeping hair, handing rollers to the operators, booking appointments, and when I was older, doing the payroll. 

Even so—there was plenty of time to play with the neighbors.  My brother Johnny and I had the freedom to roam the neighborhood. When we were a little older, we roamed the town.  We walked or rode our bikes all over Statesboro.  When the Medical Center Pharmacy opened here on the corner of Granade and Grady, it stayed open on Sunday afternoons and welcomed all of us to hang out at the snack bar and read the comics.  Yeah, it was that kind of white middle class childhood like you see in Norman Rockwell paintings.  And for the most part, it was fun for me. 

Sunbeam Girl

Though the Medical Center Pharmacy became a Sunday afternoon hangout – my biggest hangout spot growing up was First Baptist Church.  Since I could easily walk to all the activities, I was there just about any time the doors opened. 

And even if they were not opened for religious activities, my friends and I would have fun exploring various parts generally off limits, which included some swim time in the baptistery and dangerous explorations to the steeple.  For the most part, though, I was a “good” little Baptist, attending Sunbeams (for preschoolers), then Girls’ Auxiliary, children’s choir, plus Sunday School every Sunday morning before church and Training Union in the evening before evening services. I had good Sunday School teachers, for the most part, and believed everything they told me – everything.  During a revival service when I was nine years old, I walked down the aisle to “take Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior” and join the church.  I was baptized later by long time minister J. Robert Smith.  I remember feeling a bit disappointed that all I felt after the baptism was WET – but nevertheless, I was a baptized believer – and vowed I would be a good Christian. 

Teen Troubles

When I was 12 years old, I walked down the aisle again and rededicated my life – as if a 12 year old needed to do that.  But I felt that need to make an even stronger commitment.  And that’s when I got into trouble.  For you see, I became so committed that I decided to really study the Bible – all of the Bible, not just what the Sunday School teachers shared with me.  And of course, there are lots of contradictions in the Bible and lots of really weird things that just didn’t seem too holy to me. 

Soon after – in the 8th grade, we started studying Norse mythology in Mrs. Roach’s English class.  So here I was reading the Bible – and wondering about lots of the strange things I was reading; then also studying Norse mythology – and realizing that these stories had some of the SAME strange happenings as those I found in the Bible; and my little brain cells lit up with the realization that perhaps they were all the same. 

Now I still WANTED to be a good Christian and have that Christian GLOW on my face when I sang in the choir.  (Demonstrate)  My heart wanted to believe. But my mind was pushing back.  Add to that mix the hormones that come at this age, and first love, and first real heartbreak – with no help from prayers to Jesus who was supposed to be my savior.  I cried almost every night my ninth grade year.  

But then I started hanging out with Sammy Johnson and the motorcycle boys and felt a little better.  If you knew me in high school you would have described me as an outgoing, fun-loving, motorcycle riding, boy-loving, kind of wild girl who was also extremely dedicated to her church and her faith.  And all of that was very confusing.  I could not decide whether I was better suited to becoming a Hell’s Angel or a nun.  Seriously, that’s how confused I was.  After a while, I decided that the Hells Angel or Nunnery possibilities weren’t realistic but I was determined that I was going to leave Statesboro.  My senior English teacher had convinced me that I was a good writer, so I decided to apply to UGA’s Henry Grady School of Journalism and have a good time at that party school, then head to Atlanta to work for the Atlanta Journal.  I was going to be "Brenda Starr." 

Then along came Fred.

An Education for Fred and Me

The Page boys (Fred, Vick, and Will) were also active in First Baptist Church.  Fred had finished high school in 1965, and had attended a couple of other schools for post secondary work before being accepted into Georgia Southern College.  I was a senior at Statesboro High and that fall Fred asked me to go with him to the “Starlight Ball” at Georgia Southern.  To get the chance to go to a college ball with a handsome guy was too good to pass up.  I went.  He charmed me, and that was that. 

My acceptance to the Journalism School at UGA arrived in the mail – but by that time, I was too much in love to consider leaving and decided that I would remain in Statesboro and attend Georgia Southern with Fred.  He asked me to marry him and I accepted – thinking that it would still be years away.  We kept moving the date up and up – and “sort of” eloped on June 12, 1968, just days after my high school graduation and the day before I registered for Georgia Southern.  I say “sort of” because I took my parents with us.  After all, I was just 17 – too young to marry even in South Carolina without my parents' signature.   

Fred and I both majored in Elementary Education and took almost all of our classes together. He went from being a poor student to being a good one – and I became not only a better student, but an excellent tutor as well.   We continued our journey together through three degrees at Georgia Southern and our doctorate degrees at Mississippi State.



The Total Woman – NOT!

Fred and I remained active in First Baptist and with the College Student Union while we were students.  Actually that’s when I got my first opportunity to preach in a little chapel that looked kind of like this. 
Shhhhh.   No one was supposed to know.  At that time the Baptist Student Union conducted Sunday Services at the Bulloch County prison camp.  During the summer most of the students left, and Fred and I volunteered to continue the services.  The plan was for him to preach and for me to play the piano.  But he gladly turned the pulpit over to me; and I gladly took it.  We knew this was a special situation and it was not something we could even tell anyone about.  The guys in prison didn’t mind though – and that’s what counted to us. 

Fred was actually pretty open to me being a little different; but he was more concerned about what folks THOUGHT.  We had to at least SEEM to be a traditional couple – and LORD I TRIED!!  I stayed home with our two boys when they were little and I even took a workshop at First Baptist called “The Total Woman.”  Needless to say, I was not their model student.  It just didn’t take with me – and Fred seemed okay with that, as long as we looked traditional enough to others.  They must have approved because they invited Fred to be ordained as a deacon when he was just 27.

My own spiritual growth and development was complicated.  On the outside, it looked terrific.  When in my 20’s, I was President of Baptist Young Women, a regular in the church choir, the pianist for one of the children’s choirs, a teacher of  “Mission Friends” and a Sunday School teacher of 8th grade girls.  But I was secretly continuing the journey I had started as a young teenager of reading, studying, and thinking for myself.  And I was changing.  I was becoming more liberal socially, politically, and of course, theologically.  I would share just enough of my new ideas with folks at church to remain in good standing – but they suspected I was falling out of line.  And my husband knew it. 

Are we there yet?

As young parents, we heard that call from the backseat of the car from our two boys, Fred and John, often when we traveled to Valdosta to visit my husband’s great Aunt or when we traveled to ballgames or for family vacations.  But this refrain is also a good header for this period of my life because I was always moving, working, hurrying, and scurrying. 

I began work as an assistant professor at Georgia Southern in 1979, shortly before my 29th birthday, and resolved to be a full professor by the time I was 40.  No time to waste.  Our children were enrolled in the laboratory school next door, which was awesome for us.  Fred also worked in the College of Education and we continued the partnership we had as students by doing all our research together.  Our primary research was related to the teacher shortage that was growing at that time.  As we “milked our data” for other presentation and publication opportunities, we reported on subgroups according to various categories – teaching disciplines, age, gender, and race.  And that’s when I really began to receive what was a higher calling, because I became committed to working through my research to publicize what had become a devious method for re-segregating the schools; the academic tracking of children from as early as kindergarten. 

By my late thirties, qualitative methods became more acceptable in educational research and I began to interview African American teachers as part of my research.  As I interviewed one teacher who shared her experiences of not only students being tracked but teachers as well, tears came to her eyes and I thought, “I cannot just research this stuff and present and publish this stuff.  That is not enough.  I must actively and openly work to help change the system here at home and beyond.” 

So I came out as an activist for change and haven’t stopped since.  And this, I believe, is where my partnership with my husband became strained.  He was openly supportive of me, but he questioned me on my ideas when we were at home.  He too believed in equality, he said.  But did I also think it was okay for blacks and whites to marry?  “Of course,” I said.  And I added same-gender couples to my approval list as well. 

Fred wasn’t there yet – and he did not like that I “thought differently” than he did.  He said, “We are married, we should think alike if we are going to have a strong marriage.”

I replied, “Well, I don’t see it that way.  Maybe we are like Ying and Yang.  Maybe our differing views complement each other.”  It had been okay in the past with him, but now my differing views were being made more and more public.  The next thing you know, I may be pushing for changes at church.  And YES, I did!   

On August 9, 1992, our pastor preached a sermon indicating that the Bible was an authority and was inerrant. In my Couples Sunday School class the following Sunday I presented information which challenged his message.  I included lists of things in the Bible that it would have been difficult for this moderate group to believe – and I added verses related to women’s subservience to that ridiculous list as well.   I was calling out my pastor from my little Sunday School pulpit.  My public witness door was opened now in the church as well, and I wasn’t going back in.  For I felt that my work with others WAS making a difference! 

Meanwhile, I was being promoted at work and had become the chair of a department that would change as well.  The Department grew from a small group of mostly old men who did no research to a vibrant, diverse group of free-thinking guys and gals who developed a doctoral program that leaned even further to the left than I did.  And I was becoming known at the University for not only being a hard working woman, but as someone who would stand up for faculty and students, for folks in education, and for the oppressed.  Yes, that would later get me in trouble – but for now, I felt like I could fly with those Eagles winning those championships.  I was even back on a motorcycle.  Like Helen Reddy, I was woman – strong and invincible – at least at work.  There was a perfume advertisement that was popular back then with a woman I tried to identify with who sang:  “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan, and never, ever let him forget he’s a man. – Cause I’m a woman!”  Well, I could bring home the bacon – but obviously fell short in other areas. 

Frustrating Forties

Indeed, I was bringing home the bacon but became less and less interested in frying it up in the pan.  We ate a lot of bad fast food – and my younger son blames me for feeding him all those growth hormones via the food we ate.  He says that’s why he and his brother are so big now and it takes more food (and therefore more money) to feed them.  And in terms of keeping my husband happy – boy, did I try!  I shall not share what lengths I went to … but I did try.  However, the failure of me and our boys to fit his idea of that traditional Baptist family drove him into depression.  His only relief seemed to be in running away to Brunswick, where he could always arrange for night classes – with days on the beach and evenings after class receiving warm fuzzies from graduate students enamored with his charm.  That’s how he kept his sanity.  I begged him to see a marriage counselor with me – knowing that his extracurricular activities were not the cause of the problem – but the result.  He refused.  I have often wondered what would have been the result of some good counseling at that time in our lives.  Would it have made a difference?

I kept my sanity through working and through reading.  Although I did read theology, philosophy, and psychology – my biggest revelations came through radical fiction – especially writings of the likes of Tom Robbins.  This was also the phase in my life where I discovered Unitarian Universalism and sent off for the materials – hoping they would come in a plain brown wrapper.  I hid them in a bathroom drawer under the feminine sanitary supplies with my other reading contraband. 

Eventually things at First Baptist got too difficult.  Because of my social justice activities in the community and my push for equality for women and more openness to African Americans in church, I was literally shunned by many.  After one study group meeting in which I encouraged the study of the role of women in the church – “Just study it” I asked, I was confronted by the chairman of the Board of Deacons and by the pastor who demanded that I withdraw the recommendation.  And the pastor basically let me know that he had to follow the power – and that was not me.   I decided to move on – not from my marriage; but from my church which had been such a meaningful part of my life.  But I knew I couldn’t go to UU.  That WOULD have meant the end of my marriage.

I joined Pittman Park United Methodist Church after finding that they had a liberal Sunday School class.  I also joined their choir and began training as a Methodist lay minister.  After getting that certification, I began preaching at some evening services.  This was a good transition for me, my "half-way" house. But the doctrine was still stifling.  Shari Barr was also going to that class but would leave a little early to go to the UU church.  I envied her.  But I had my family to consider.

And we continued for a while to have that “happy family” appearance to the community, while we all struggled at home.  My sons had especially problematic teen and young adult years.  I was constantly in a “fix it” mode for them.  My in-laws were also very sick during this time.  And our lives were getting more depressing.  I told NO ONE about any of this – and instead screamed at the trees at night when I needed an outlet. 

My Awakening!

My religious reading included Buddhism.  But I never thought that I would have the kind of enlightening experience that the Buddha did.  Perhaps mine is not comparable, but I tell you – I did WAKE UP on Christmas day, 1997!

I remember the spot where I was standing. I was holding grandson JD who was almost a year old on my hip.  It was his very first Christmas. But his grandfather wasn’t there.  Fred had left the night before saying he was just too severely depressed to be with us.    And it was Christmas.  And we were all depressed.  Then...it just fell on me.  I woke up.  And for the first time in my life I realized that we didn’t have to live that way.  And I said it out loud. 

“You know what?  We don’t have to live this way.  We are going to get a divorce.” 

My life changed after that.  I changed everything.   I colored my hair, I re-modeled my house, and I – at last – became a Unitarian Universalist!

I LOVED Unitarian Universalism.  Indeed, I’ve described this religion as my salvation. I was not born with the gift of unquestioning faith like some.  But I was born with the need for religious community.  I found a home here.  Here was a place that I could ask questions, share my doubts, and affirm my commitments to those values that had become so important to me.  I also met Greg here, and what a support he has been on this journey.  And HERE was a place where my gay friends could come and be OUT – Hallelujah!  To use one of my dad’s phrases, I was “in HOG HEAVEN.” 

My Ministerial Journey

Because I had been a lay minister at the Methodist church, I sought to continue some kind of lay ministry at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro.  And folks here were glad to have me fill their pulpit for free and take on other responsibilities.  It wasn’t long before I realized that these activities were becoming more important to me than my job at Georgia Southern.  So I made an appointment with the nice lady at Human Resources to see when it would be possible to retire with full benefits.  And I learned that I could retire in 2005.  So I began to look at the possibility of going to seminary and becoming a REAL minister.  It would not be easy.  But it was possible.  The congregation agreed to be my sponsor and I was accepted by into the modified residency program of Meadville Lombard Theological School – a Unitarian Universalist seminary in Chicago.  With careful planning and an earned sabbatical from Georgia Southern, I would be able to complete most of my coursework and my clinical pastoral counseling unit by the time I retired.  Then I would have only a one year internship remaining.  That was the plan – and it became my reality. 

I jumped through all of UUA’s hoops for preliminary fellowship in March of 2006 and immediately let the folks here at UUFS know.  They had a meeting of the congregation and called me as their minister.  I began on July 1, 2006 – and I’m still here, now in my eighth year.  I’m enjoying the fact that our ministry has become a shared ministry with participation from many of our members and friends.  And last year, I joyfully welcomed that little child who had been on my hip at my awakening – as a full member of this fellowship.   

I have not been without struggles.  We have not been without struggles.  Yet – all in all—I still feel like I’m in a spiritual HOG HEAVEN!

The Building Your Own Theology Course that I’m sharing with others asks for us to consider theological values that have informed our journeys.  I’ll have to think some more on that…, but for now I would probably say “continuous revelation.”    

Perhaps I’ll reveal more later.  But for now --  as fellow Hog Heaven inhabitant Porky Pig says, “That’s All Folks!”




2 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing your story Rev Jane. I enjoyed reading this. I'm trying not to tear up in the office this morning. You have lived and continue to live a great life full of meaning and you have touched many lives. I hope you never stop writing. :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for you story, it has many parallels to mine. It makes me proud of my standing up in spite of family and friends for my rights. I too have found a home in the UU church. First in Deleware, Sarasota, Brunswick and now in Niagara Falls.

    ReplyDelete