Forever Friends: Reclaiming the Middle of My Life
I have begun to see my life in times and places, roles and functions,and relationships, in periods of time- as the beginning, the middle and the end. The beginning was my first 43 years in New York. A time of firsts, first loves, first jobs, first careers. A time of family and relationships that remain strong. The middle was my fourteen years in Connecticut, a time of productivity, changes, and great learning and special relationships. I wrote my first major text The Empowerment Approach to Social Work Practice while there and revised it in Florida adding “Building the Beloved Community” to the title. It is still going fairly strong in the field. And now, I am in Florida, and have been for 17 years. It is a time of amazing growth and consolidation, of new and old callings fulfilled and of pulling it all together, if that is possible. And in that spirit I realized that I need to reclaim the middle most of all at this time.
When I was a Masters of Social Work student at Columbia University, in the beginning and not the middle of my life, I had a most gifted teacher, William Schwartz, Bill, as he preferred to be known was a brilliant thinker, writer and teacher. Students hung on his every word. One of the things he asked us to do was to pay attention to the beginnings and end of encounters with people in groups or as individuals. He said the middle was not as important. When we wrote Process Recordings for his class, he wanted a verbatim account of all of it, but focused more on the skills of contracting at the beginning and where it stood as the encounter ended, how we wound it up. I have kept up with some of my Columbia friends , but most are gone now, along with Bill. My dear friend Dr. Alex Gitterman, whom I met at Colombia in the early 70’s, and I have kept up over the years. and he is still teaching at UConn and carrying on and developing the tradition we learned and elaborated on so long ago with Bill as our mentor. I am so thankful that he is a part of my beginnings and the middle and the now.
But now, as I look back and continue to move forward with my life, I will do what I did respectfully several times with Bill, say that I think he was wrong. This was never easy to do as he was so brilliant everything sounded right and he certainly was sure about it. But as I grew older in life and in the profession I developed my own wisdom and tested it out. Middles are important, dear Bill. They are the heart of the “work phase” and though quite messy very often, they are filled with what you call “real” emotions and events. They are worth staying with in practice and in life. I know that Bill would agree with that, despite his emphasis on beginnings and ends. But I guess I learned his lessons too well because I recently took stock of my life and the relationships that were important to me and also my self identity and I saw that I worked hard at maintaining early relationships and held on tight to what is here for me now, in what i call an ending phase of life, although I expect it has a while to go. And somehow, unintentionally, I let the middle drop out of my grasp. Yet, I am blessed because I did not let go completely and neither did my beloved friends of those middle years, many of whom were connected to the University of Connecticut School of Social Work where I was a Professor of Social Work for fourteen years.
I did take my “middles” with me of course as Judy Beaumont and I met while we both served the homeless community in Hartford in 1987 and we have been living and serving together for 25 years now. Both Judy and I had things to leave behind in our professional worlds, we were each ready to move on and so the move to Florida in 1998 opened new doors for us. But the goodness we left behind in our work and in our relationships were put on a “back burner” as we coped and adapted in Fort Myers.
I realize now that I was in a process of laying one profession down to pick up another. In the end I have kept both as being a priest and a pastor demands all of the social work and counseling skills I ever taught or used. Both professions demand your all although “pastoring” is truly more 24-7. Yes, I got up at 2 AM the other day to comfort a woman who was in the hospital and quite scared of a blood transfusion. And of those dear people from the middle of my life, when I was ordained in Boston in 2008, I was delighted to look up in that beautiful liturgical ceremony and see Ruth Martin,her daughter, also my student, Valerie Martin, and Jean Low and her mother,Ruth Low, and Nelly Rojas Schwan and others from my St. Michael parish in Hartford, reaching out to bless me in the laying on of hands. Thanks be to God that we were able to pick up our special relationships from there. It was Nelly who helped me in my role as Program Coordinator for those candidates coming to the Roman Catholic Women Priests from South America, Colombia in particular. She helped with support and also translation and was there beside me as I preached my first sermon in Spanish in Bogota, Colombia.Since then all of us and dear Virginia Starkie who facilitated my work as a Professor in so many ways and Gail Bourdon, then a religious Sister and my student and friend and then co-worker in work with the homeless women and children at My Sister’s Place have kept in touch, but not very well, alas- not as well as we would have liked but we held on to one another as we each scaled life’s vicissitudes. I was there to “MC” and to read a poem I wrote for Ruth at her retirement as Associate Dean of the School of Social Work. We also visited when she still had a home in Tampa, but I had not seen her since she established a magnificent home in Hartford’s Historical District with her daughters, Valerie, Sonia and Maxine all talented and accomplished women. Ruth, or Dr. Ruth as we call her, wrote a wonderful review of my book 1185 St. Mark’s in its original version. (It is now expanded and called The House on Sunny Street….). Jean and her Mom exchanged happy visits with us in Connecticut and Florida. The loss of Ruth Low was a very hard one indeed. When Jean started “RV-ing” she made it here as well. I was delighted when she and her cousin Bob Low came in March of this year and stayed for a good while as the RV was repaired. I knew then that the middles were also in the now. I purposed to get back to Connecticut to see all of our friends there as soon as possible. Nelly’s loss of her beloved husband Hubert quite suddenly in July, prompted me to find a way to do this.
I realize now that I was too eager to put the political struggles of Academia behind me-to get away from the unpleasant difficulties that develop when everyone is right about something and no one is right about all of it, but some see only one path and believe all should walk on it. While at UConn Carel Germain, a gentle and elegant human being and thinker and theoretician of the best quality, was my motivating force. She “brought me aboard” and we stood side by side and loved our time together. She was my dearest friend and a mentor. I could tolerate the political fray while she was there. When she retired then passed on, I think I just gave up the struggle. I developed no patience with this process that repeated itself in every institution. ( I was also at Colombia and NYU and later at Florida Gulf Coast University. My academic career was a good one, productive and exciting for the most part and it spanned 27 years. I loved the students and teaching and writing, but hated the “politics”.). And so, I know now, that I precipitously laid down Social Work education with a loud thud when I ran out of energy for “academia” when I was 55 ! I wanted to continue my social work practice as I had always done, I wanted to expand it, and I was drawn to a spiritual level of being and working with,ministering to and with people that was pastoral. I first felt this call to being a pastor as a child, and I never could leave God and faith out of helping others as i was originally taught in social work. (It is a bit better now on that score with the work of Edward Canda and others). It was in 1982 while I taught at NYU that I also began my “voluntary” work in the NYC Shelters for women. I put voluntary in quotes as I strongly felt called by God to work with the homeless on any level possible. I found myself praying with women who clutched worn Bibles and rosaries in their shelter beds as well as offering all of the social work services possible. This has continued to the present time and it is no wonder to me that now I include the Sacramental level of serving as a Roman Catholic validly ordained, and excommunicated, priest. Our Good Shepherd Ministry where Judy Beaumont and I are both ordained co-pastors has roots that go way back to the beginnings and middles of both of our lives.
I have been in Florida for seventeen years now and somehow despite the varied directions we have moved in those dear ones from “the middle” have come through for me and stuck with me over the time and distance. My recent visit to Connecticut on my way to the Priestly Retreat in Stony Point, New York was a very important one for me as it helped me to put the middles back in my life. I was truly warmed by the rekindled flames of relationships and the chance to put my time at UConn into perspective. It was very good to meet with Dr. Nina Heller now the Dean at UConn. We talked about issues then that are non issues now. We laughed about a good deal and she reminded me that it was I who “brought her abroad”. I said that was indeed one of the best things I had done while there. As I talked with Nina and Alex and walked through the halls where I taught for 14 years meeting some of my old colleagues and the new Doctoral students I had the same feeling of remembering who I am that I had at the IASWG (Group Work) Conference in 2013. Then I gave a keynote honoring the life of Dr. Katy Papell, my first in many years, while i used to give the keynote frequently, especially to tell about Jane Addams and her influence on the profession and on me. In that time some like joe Lassner of Chicago and Jim Garland of Boston, called me “Our Jane Addams in modern times”-but these are post-modern times now. I was so happy to be able to do that for Katy who passed over a year later. And I was thoroughly moved by the reception I had as “one of the greats” according to introductions and the many that greeted me afterward. I had not thought of myself that way. One doesn’t in the midst of things. But with grace I accepted that my time and leadership in IASWG had been good. And, I missed the group, many of whom were now gone. Alex stood with me then too and we missed our colleagues and friends together. Alex has been a friend from the beginnings until now and I am so grateful for this continuity and love. Here are the pictures of reclaiming my “middles”, my place in the profession of Social Work, and a part of myself laid aside and now taken up again with this visit to Connecticut. .
We loved visiting with Jean and her Bonnie
Judy Beaumont and her friend,peace activist colleague and former Co-Worker at My Sister’s Place, Jackie Allen, meet outside of the Catholic Worker House in Hartford. This House is a cross between a Dorothy Day Worker House and a Settlement House. Jackie and her family live there and so do others and some of the poor folks who have knocked on the door. Our sister Priest from Colombia, Marina Teresa Sanchez Mejia was especially happy to visit the Worker House and see St. Michael Parish in the North End where Father Al Jaenicke, of truly blessed memory especially on All Saints Day, inspired our ministry with the poor and African Americans. Marina Teresa who is dedicated to the Afro-Clombiano Community in Cali was also happy to meet with Dr. Ruth Martin, leader and elder in the black community in Hartford.
Here is Virginia Starkie with Dr. Ruth. Virginia , our wonderful support staff, was one we could not have done without. She just retired two years ago and is now 88. We met for dinner at the home of Dr. Nelly Rojas Schwan (standing next to Rvda. Marina Teresa with Judy B., Dr. Gail Bourdon, Virginia and Dr. Ruth and Jean seated).
We are blessed to be at the table together in a eucharistic moment, one of thanksgiving and praise to God who brought us all together again after many years. I was honored to bless the food for the strength of our bodies and our friendships for the strength of our souls. I believe that we all left there with a renewed spirit of love, compassion and service.
Rev. Dr. Judy Lee, RCWP