First United Church of Oak Park has a reputation for taking stands on social issues and fomenting change. In a history of the congregation posted on its website, First United chose to describe its two predecessor churches as "pivotal forces in the community for social welfare and for justice. Whether it was advocating for civil rights during the 1960s and open housing in the 1970s, both congregations were in the forefront of change."
When First Presbyterian Church and First Congregational Church merged to form First United in 1975, they used the money gained from the sale of one of their buildings to fund what they refer to as the Special Mission Endowment Fund.
Whereas many congregations would understand the purpose of a Mission Fund to be primarily that of supporting missionaries who seek to bring the Christian faith to other people, First United chose to use the endowment money to support "many start-up organizations and ongoing advocacy and justice efforts in Oak Park, the Chicago metropolitan area, and around the world."
It is interesting, therefore, to learn that the person this congregation, which prides itself on taking stands, chose as their associate pastor for mission is a woman who describes herself as a builder of bridges.
"My vocation in life is to walk with people," said Mamie Broadhurst who has been on the job at First United since July 11. "What's important to me is who you are and what your story is because I think we are all created in the image of God. We all reflect God's image. I can't learn something from another person in the same way that I can learn it from you. We may disagree significantly, but I have to deal with you as a human being, as a person who has a reason for believing the way you do, the same as I do."
Broadhurst confessed one thing that irritates her are people who are so certain of what they think and believe that they have no room for entertaining alternative ideas.
"My flaws come in very heavily," she said, "when I meet someone?#34;whether they believe the way I do or not?#34;who has no room for questions, who is certain in a way that allows no one to touch you."
Pastor Broadhurst has had several experiences that encouraged and nurtured her bridge-building instinct. Six years ago, she spent a year in Guatemala as a mission volunteer in a program sponsored by the Presbyterian Church, USA.
"It was one of those moments," she remembered, "that I knew I was in the right place. It was a time when I was walking with people, and they were walking with me. What impressed me in my time in Guatemala was that we are interconnected, brothers and sisters across boundaries."
A big part of her work that year was helping visiting groups from the United States to have that same experience.
In her work with the Parliament of World Religions, Broadhurst bumped up against people from the whole spectrum of beliefs and pieties. In that encounter, she learned a great deal about her own beliefs and values. "I think that the people who are best involved in ecumenical work," she said, "are people who feel they are grounded themselves. I'm a better Christian because I was involved in the Parliament. Going in with confusion and trying to find answers is much more difficult than going in with some sense of settlement. Then you reflect with people with all their traditions and their settlement. That's the most valuable part of it to me, the honing of your own faith. The engagement then is mutually strengthening in your own tradition."
Broadhurst understands that labels are necessary but believes that they are often destructive. In her candidating sermon to First United she said, "So much of our understanding of life is about perspective. We get that my being a white, female, middle-class, educated, Southerner allows me to see things in a particular way but also keeps me from seeing a great deal as well. Academically, we understand this, but the theory we accept doesn't always jive with the way we live out our lives."
She said that because we each see life from the perspective of our own reality, we tend to think we know what a person is like because their behavior recalls something in our experience. The reason she resists using labels for herself or others is because "they become whatever the labels mean in that other person's head."
A midwife of faith
That is why Pastor Broadhurst puts so much emphasis on conversation, on walking with people and getting to know them. "My sense of pastors is that they engage in the incredibly sacred activity of talking with people about what they believe in some of the deepest places of their heart. My job is to get to know the people here and what matters to them and why."
She described her style of leadership as servant leadership?#34;to the church, the community and God. For her, leadership is a mix of being a teacher who has something to give people and a midwife who helps draw out what is living and growing inside people. "My job is to help you discern where your deepest joys meet the world's deepest needs," she said, quoting theologian Frederick Buechner.
Mamie Broadhurst comes to First United with impressive credentials. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Carolina in 1995 and received a Master of Divinity degree this spring from McCormick Seminary in Chicago. In addition to her year in Guatemala and her work with the Parliament of World Religions, she has been a high school teacher, helped homeless people get their GEDs and worked in the National Volunteer Office of the Presbyterian Church USA. She is fluent in Spanish. She was chosen from a field of 160 seminary graduates who inquired about the position.
Sherlynn Reid, the Church Council moderator at First United, wrote in a letter to the congregation, "The search committee recommends Mamie Broadhurst with overwhelming enthusiasm. She has a depth of faith and a breadth of experience which fits well with First United's ministry needs. ... As one member of the search committee said: 'Mamie's intelligence, her humor, and her ease with people draw people in. She does not just talk about things or learn about things?#34;she has a track record of doing things.'"
Mamie's husband, Richard, is ordained and serving a pastoral residency at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Mamie joins pastors Mark Ramsey and Diane Wendorf on the staff at First United.