In the beginning of aspiring to the ministry, I knew that my mentors and exemplars, the PNWD ministers, were institution-centered. That is, their point of attachment to their role was to the denomination itself, which constantly declared that it was NOT a denomination, but merely an association of like-minded people. The ministers were theoretically free-thinkers, individuals with principled attachment to the highest principles. Soon I ran into the power hierarchy.
Partly it was invisible because I had a powerful minister whose control came from chairing the Fellowship Committee, the gatekeeper for the role as it related to the UUA. Basic criteria, job placement, system roles. I was probably admitted to M/L because I was from his church and, once admitted, I got the best bedroom in the recycled big houses we used. It had been designed as a suite for a mother-in-law. As soon as my minister left the Fellowship Committee and I had used up my scholarship money, I was reassigned to the worst bedroom — in the front looking out at M/L itself.
The seminary’s value was sustained mostly by its historic agreement with the U of Chicago Div School which was required by its charter to include a percentage of actual parish ministers. In fact, it was centered on Ph.D’s working on comparative religion, which allowed it to include non-Christian academics. This was fine with me. This was a high-status place in intellectual terms. I didn’t think I could get admitted without going through the M/L admission, though my GRE scores were high.
Our M/L admitted classes were very small — maybe half a dozen people. Though to some extent we had to meet U of C standards, like high test scores on the GRE, things were more elastic when it came to atypical people. For instance, I turned 40 while I was there, a retread coming from animal control. Another student in the year after me had been a lawyer working to defend people on death row in Florida. This impressed our 3-person faculty. He was not particularly appealing otherwise.
We each had a key to the building and a key to the library, so we often went there at night. On the night in question, I was working in the common reading room which included the entrance to the stacks. This other student was also there and not happy. He had a box of wooden kitchen matches and was lighting them, then throwing them into a big glass ashtray. It was 1982 and anti-smoking was not so strong.
I argued with him a bit, but then went back to my room across the street. I had just kicked off my shoes when the revolving red light on a fire engine flashed. It was in front of the school and they were headed there with a big ax to get in. Rushing barefoot, I ran with my keys and got there in time to open the main door and then to open the door to the stacks, which is where the fire was. It was on the lowest floor where historic newspapers were kept. Water would have been ruinous.
From working in the foundry in Browning, I knew that if edges of paper were burning and you hit them hard and fast, you could knock the fire out without getting burned. So I did that. The firemen were with me with extinguishers but it was not a big fire. It had been caught early.
I suspected the morose student with the matches. The firemen had their own ideas. It was known from studies that firebugs often present themselves as witnesses and heroes so as to participate in the commotion they caused. Particularly considering my bare feet and the fact that I was an atypical old woman in a man setting, they suspected I set the fire.
The unhappy student was formally accused and left for Florida but was brought back for a hearing. By this time we had a new academically outstanding mild-mannered dean who was presented with the problem of what to do. First, keep publicity out. Second, figure out what to do with the unhappy student. Third, somehow keep me out of it.
When the other student was brought back for the hearing, he was assigned a bedroom in the same old house as myself. While in Browning in the Sixties when the fire response was simply “all hands on deck”, I had fought fires myself in a peripheral way, maybe carrying out furniture. I was well aware that a man under suspicion and knowing I had accused him would simply set another fire outside my bedroom door.
The dean couldn’t realize that this was real until I wept and finally threatened to bring in a lawyer. I named a local lawyer known for taking on problematic causes. It worked. The student was reassigned to a different builidng, not M/L housing. The hearing was inconclusive and the student never returned. I was never interviewed formally by anyone. All student keys were collected.
The suspect’s defense was that he would never do such a thing because as a youngster he had been trapped under his bed by a house fire and therefore was terrified by the very idea. To my psych-reading mind this was an argument FOR trying to set a fire, to repeat a trauma in a new setting in hopes of resolving it. It’s hard to shake the idea that a seminary was all-knowing and could intervene.
In 1982 I left, not quite graduated until the new dean got tired of thinking about the half-dozen students stuck in limbo and gave us all MDiv degrees. Since then M/L has sold the building, greatly diminished its ties with the Div School, and lost the dean, who is deceased after a successful academic life in Japan. The UUA has changed dramatically, becoming friendly to women and the disadvantaged, taking a more therapeutic approach than a theological one. Those stalwart clergy heroes of the PNWD are mostly dead. It has been reorganized to eliminate the Canadian component.
It’s hard to think of institutions apart from their reputations, even as they suppress whatever representation they don’t like. Harder to see is the relationships between elements inside the institution or between other relevant or irrelevant groups. Too narrow and they can’t see what they’re doing. Too broad and the relevance leaks away. Too small and it’s easy to get stuck.
Now — looking at our most vital institution, the US Congress — we are almost overwhelmed. The lawyers are busy, but the real work is self-definition and relationships, roles and motivations. Giving up illusions. This incident of the fire was only one of repeated blows on the way through congregational ministry. Being pig-headed about driving to the goal kept me going. After a decade I could only wonder what I’d done. By that time the DMin I had originally aimed for had been dropped as unmanageable. Can we manage democracy? The United States of America? I’m guarded.