I consider it a lucky thing, a useful thing, a benefit to have been born and raised in a Baptist preacher's family, growing up with the stories of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets, thinking how I could best fulfill my own desire to have a church-related vocation short of going to a mission field where there were snakes and big bugs.
I consider it an advantage to have grown up in small communities where small town philosophy and religion shaped politics and culture, communities which still pretty much cling to conservative values and precepts.
I feel that my upbringing and early values have given me an understanding of how geography and small town community life are connected to the commitment to conservative values and ideals. I have a great sympathy for those ideals, even though they are not necessarily my own.
I am pretty sure that if I had stayed in Washington state instead of going off to Colorado to work in the inner city my own values might be more conservative, my religion might be American Baptist, not Unitarian Universalist.
But I did go off to Colorado as a consequence of my desire to have a church-related vocation, to work as a program leader in an American Baptist community center, the Denver Christian Center. I taught preschoolers in a pre-Head Start program, met with elementary school kids after school to sing songs, play games, and give "project kids" a place to go after school, and helped with a Teen Canteen Saturday nights in the Christian Center. And I saw first-hand the devastating effects of poverty, racism, and violence. It changed me.
Every year, I go back to my small town roots, visit family members and friends who still live in those communities, and experience again the values and ideals of conservative America. It is a pleasure, on the one hand, to see all my family members again and, on the other, a struggle to listen without arguing, look for the common ground we share, and remind myself that "conservative" doesn't mean stupid, doesn't mean un-caring, doesn't mean disregard for others' needs.
I love them dearly....and it's hard. I don't know whether, if they had shared my experiences, they would understand where my liberal values come from. But my exposure to the inner city world I'd never before visited was the turning point for me. It made me hungry to find ways to help, beyond the bandaids of welfare and subsidized housing.
My life was diverted from community center work into public school teaching and counseling when I married, but my desire to help at a deeper level followed me into that profession as well. I wanted to know why kids did drugs, why teenage girls got pregnant and why they chose the solutions they did. And I still want to know. As a minister in a small congregation, I'm interested in why people behave as they do and what I can do to help.
I don't think I could go back to a small community to live. I got pretty worn out this past weekend by the need to bite my tongue, not react, and just listen. I don't have to do that very much here on South Whidbey. But I have the ability to move back and forth between more conservative folks who live in the community and the more progressive folks in my congregation. I like having that skill and I'm grateful for the oasis of liberal thought my congregation provides.