Some students find seminary disorienting, especially if they grew up in homogeneous congregations in which every question seemed to have an answer. To their shock, they discover that their theology professors themselves ask seemingly unanswerable questions instead of giving them pat talking points. The lack of black and white answers creates an ambiguity which can feel spiritually threatening.
Rev. Stephanie Escher, the new pastor of Cornerstone United Methodist Church, 171 N. Cuyler Ave., found the ambiguity liberating rather than disquieting. “I think people are generally not comfortable with gray areas,” said Escher who graduated from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in May and started at Cornerstone on July 1. “Some people feel that if you begin questioning your faith, it’s like you’re opening the door to uncertainty a crack. And that crack can lead to your world falling apart. For me, much of my life has been the crack.”
Living in the crack, the ambiguity, began for Escher soon after she was born in 1969 on the Turtle Mountain Ojibway reservation in North Dakota right near the border with Manitoba. In the days prior to the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 which helped keep American Indian children with their tribes, the federal government, religious organizations and social service agencies conspired to put up for adoption many Native American babies born to mothers “who couldn’t take care of them.”
That’s why an Ojibway has the last name of Escher. She was raised by German American parents in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin just northeast of Madison. She was nurtured by loving parents and well intentioned nuns in the local parish school. Because, in those days the standard advice given to parents was to help their adopted child assimilate to the culture around them, a part of her identity is Midwestern European American.
But this “native white girl” knew that something was missing. “I always thought there was something wrong with my spirit because of the assimilation efforts,” Escher said. “The nurture was loving, but the assimilation effort served to smother my nature.” She wanted to find her birth mother and thereby connect with the native part of who she was. The problem was that social service agencies were forbidden by law to reveal any information about the parents of adopted children.
Until, that is, in 1994 while studying at the University of Colorado, she received a check from the federal government for $2,400 with a letter explaining that a settlement had been made with a group of Native Americans which included the Turtle Mountain tribe and that she was one of 25,000 to receive money. The settlement was from a peace treaty which had never been honored.
“All I’ve ever wanted is to be a part of something,” said Escher. She was grateful for her adoptive parents, but at last a door had been opened through which she might connect with the people from which she had come. “When I got this letter, I felt like I belonged to something.”
She cashed the check and used the money to finance the trip from the Rocky Mountains to the Great Plains, a journey on which she hoped to connect with that missing piece in her sense of who she was. “I made a plane reservation for a week,” she said. “I thought I’d find my family, discover my roots, find my identity and go back to Boulder all in a week.”
What she discovered on the res, however, didn’t fit her Hollywood inspired fantasies of a dramatic reunion with her mother thereby filling in the one big spiritual crack in her life. What struck Escher first was the grinding poverty at Turtle Mountain and a self-effacing if not self-degrading humor. A barber shop was named You Scalp ‘Em and a motel was called The Sleepy Teepee.
She went to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) office on the reservation and received the same answer she had gotten back in Sun Prairie: “We can’t disclose information about your mother. By law it’s confidential.”
At the same time, the tribe took her in. One of their own had come home. Because the reservation was like a small town, the gossip mill began working with the result that people would introduce themselves to her and speculate that they might be cousins. After six weeks of living at Turtle Mountain, the day finally came when someone had the answer she was looking for.
A tribal judge took Stephanie into her office and said, “I know the identity of your mother.” The judge proceeded to say that her mother came from a good family and that she had studied at the Native American Art Institute in Santa Fe. As the judge continued to relate her mother’s history, Escher heard a knock on the door. A crowd flooded through the door and with hugs told her that her mother was at the BIA office at that very moment.
They all piled into a minivan and drove to what this native white girl hoped would be the moment she had been waiting for her whole life. As she was about to get out of the van, someone threw a crumpled up paper at her. Puzzled as to what that could mean, she unfolded the paper. It was an obituary with a picture of someone who looked very much like her. The people on the res just didn’t know how to break the news to her any other way.
She went to the grave of her mother, still unmarked because she had died only a few months earlier. As she sat there alone, she felt that she had finally found what she had been looking for. “I felt an amazing sense of connection. This was the one place I belonged without question. I didn’t have to do anything. I didn’t have to be anything I was not in order to fit in. I was finally home.”
At the same time, as the twilight turned into evening it occurred to her that she couldn’t hang on to that feeling, partly because she didn’t really belong on the reservation either. Although those Ojibways were her people, she could not relate to the “impoverished spirit” she felt in many of them.
“They never asked me about my life off the reservation,” she said. “I thought I would have this perfect situation where someone would perfectly understand me. This was not the connection I yearned for. I didn’t fit there either. Part of this had to do with unrealistic expectations of a perfect mother/daughter relationship. The death of my mother was the cause of my grief-the loss of this expectation of a perfect connection in the world.”
Once again, Stephanie Escher was face-to-face with extreme ambiguity. On the one hand she had found her people. She had what she called an abstract connection with the Native American part of her. There was, after all, nothing wrong with her spirit. On the other hand, the concrete reality was that her own people couldn’t understand the white girl that was also a part of who she was.
“It made me realize,” she said, “that I had to deal with my quest in a different way. I think for the first time in my life I started sitting still with myself. I think that’s the first time I felt safe and comfortable doing that. It was a quieting down, a calming down.” She hadn’t reached the goal in her upward spiritual journey, but for awhile she felt like she at least was on a plateau.
After careers in banking, IT and social services, playing keyboard in a rhythm and blues band out of Atlanta and serving as a minister of music in a Methodist church in Madison, Escher, now in her mid-thirties, enrolled as a seminary student at Garrett. Looking back at her motivation for yet another career change, Escher said, “The reason I went to seminary was that I was angry – angry at God, angry at the native people for not fighting harder for me when I was put up for adoption, angry at my parents and the church for denying a part of who I was.”
What she found at Garrett was Dr. Larry Murphy, an African American professor who gently made her deal with her anger. “He had to be gentle,” she said, “or I wouldn’t have listened to him.
“He helped me release a lot of my anger through teaching me that people who perform bad acts are not all bad. Human nature is a mix of good and not so good. He told me that I have to embrace the ambiguity, the gray area, the tension, because that’s not only what is; it is also what hope is.”
Being permitted to look for God in the ambiguities of life opened the door for Escher to embrace a paradox-that the answers to her questions were in the questions, that what she was looking for was at the same time nowhere and everywhere.
“My fear on entering seminary,” she said, “was that I would go in, learn a bunch of doctrine and come out all weird. Instead I was helped to realize that we are created in the image of God. It is just as important that I seek out that image in another and lift it up as it is to work to live into that image. Once I understood that, I sort of rediscovered my faith. I found a way -I’m still finding a way – to connect the Creator God that I know inside of me with the God of the church.
“I had to go through the struggle,” she said. “I had to question God. I had to be angry at God. I had to yell. And then I had to realize that God was bigger than all the people who had represented God. Home isn’t a place at all. It’s an integration of self with God, other people, the earth and your own self. Then, wherever you are is home.”
That is the approach to nurturing faith that Escher wants to bring to her congregation. She used the metaphor of conducting the choir in her former role as a minister of music to illustrate her understanding of being a pastor. “I love that feeling,” she said, “of standing in front of a group of people and assisting in lifting the potential of the place through a communal connection to the music and each other in a way that is beyond words and beyond ourselves and our daily existence. We experience God.”
That approach is, of course, profoundly informed by her life experience. “I am of two worlds,” she said. “I live in the tension between them. That is both my home and my identity. That is also where I can find God. I don’t know if that is a comfort, but I know it is necessary. One has to make peace with the tension, because that’s where the holy is.
“I want to help my congregation free up enough so they can experience God, so they can know mystery and be comfortable in mystery, so they can have some courage when things aren’t clear.”
Rev. Marti Scott-pastor of Euclid United Methodist Church, professor at Garrett and Stephanie’s mentor here in Oak Park-thinks Cornerstone has found a person who is “fully loaded to take on the ‘Jayne of All Trades’ role which is demanded of pastors in church settings today.”
“Stephanie has an eye for the holy in our midst,” Scott said. “I suspect that standing in more than one cultural story at a time creates the opening for the light of that vision. This view of God in the world and her outrageous sense of humor make for creative preaching and engaging worship.”
Escher acknowledges that helping a small congregation grow – about 20 people turn out for Sunday services — will be a challenge. But she believes Cornerstone has the potential to grow if they follow the spirit of a campaign going on presently in the United Methodist Church which urges its members to Rethink Church. For now, the newly ordained Rev. Escher is working part time at Cornerstone and is looking for another job to supplement her income.
The uncertainty that goes with her present situation doesn’t seem to bother the new pastor. On the contrary, she sees it as a source of creativity. “I want church to be a place where it’s safe to say I don’t get it, I don’t understand,” she said as she laid out her vision of thinking outside the box about God, “but journey together with the questions.”