The Rev. Cathlin Baker begins historic West Tisbury ministry
The First Congregational Church of West Tisbury welcomes a new minister this fall, the first woman ever to occupy that more than 300-year-old post. Despite that historic distinction, the Rev. Cathlin Baker had many more immediate matters on her mind during a recent interview: writing a sermon, performing her first marriage ceremony, caring for a baby and a toddler, and moving into the parsonage after living out of suitcases since arriving on Martha's Vineyard in August.
"It's been a whirlwind six weeks," laughed Ms. Baker, of the busy time since she, her husband, and two young children began making the move from New York City to Martha's Vineyard.
Even with the chaos of moving, the challenges of balancing work and motherhood, and the potentially daunting prospect of filling clerical shoes once occupied by Thomas Mayhew Sr., Ms. Baker is delighted to be here and is looking forward to her ministry with enthusiasm and excitement. She brings an orientation both pastoral and prophetic, a dedication to social justice, and a vision of the church as a welcoming haven for all.
"My hope is that any church I serve feels like a home to its members, a place where personal joys and struggles can be shared," she wrote in her statement on ministry. "Church should also feel like a home to anyone who enters," she continued, calling inclusiveness and hospitality "essential aspects of Jesus' ministry."
"I was drawn by my attraction to Martha's Vineyard and the community, and all the possibilities that came to mind when I thought of being a minister there," Ms. Baker says. "The social fabric, the diversity is very interesting, and the challenges of economy, environment, sustainability questions. I was looking forward to having a church in a community I could get close to. I was ready for all that."
Journey to ministry
A slender, delicate woman with a thoughtful yet youthful air and engaging smile, Ms. Baker, 40, recounted the journey that brought her to the ministry and to the little church in the center of West Tisbury village.
Growing up in New York City, Ms. Baker and her two siblings learned an appreciation for matters of the spirit, but not in Sunday school. Although her parents had left the Catholic Church, their home was filled with art, literature, and music that provided a rich spiritual education. Inspired by this background and by liberal theology, a movement that combines spiritual work with service to and empowerment of the poor, Ms. Baker became a religion major at Hamilton College.
Photo by Lynn Christoffers
After she graduated in 1990, Ms. Baker worked in Philadelphia with Dignity Housing, an organization whose leaders were among the people being served. Spirituality and social action continued to be her paramount interests.
"I wondered would I be centered mostly in a religious community or a social service agency," she remembers. "Where would my work play out?"
At 26, she enrolled at Union Theological Seminary (UTS) in New York City. She had not settled on parish ministry, but says, "I wanted to deepen my understanding of how theology can relate to social action." Receiving her master's degree in 1996, she returned to working with the poor and needy.
At last she received a vocational call, an epiphany that she wanted to enter the ministry. The clarity was dramatic. Having recently lost her mother, she moved from grief to a feeling that "anything is possible," even the ministry. She felt somehow the message came from both God and her mother. "It was my life going from black and white to Technicolor, a real opening," she says.
Ms. Baker returned to UTS, this time to pursue her Master of Divinity degree, doing a field placement as associate pastor at Judson Memorial Church, a place attuned to her interests with its embrace of the arts and social justice. She also served as co-director of The Employment Project.
In 2001, Ms. Baker married Bill Eville, a writer whose family had a longstanding connection to the Vineyard. The couple moved here in 2002. While Mr. Eville worked at several jobs, including being a freelance writer for The Martha's Vineyard Times, Ms. Baker consulted for the National Council of Churches, developing curriculum for congregations on integrating spirituality and social justice.
When her husband was accepted to graduate school at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Ms. Baker found a new ministry as chaplain for Big Bend Hospice. She traveled widely, working with families in all walks of life from many denominations. Having been with her own mother and Bill's grandmother during their dying process, she knew the importance of that time and was gratified to be able to help others. Pregnant with her first child, she was struck by the intimate juxtaposition of life and death in her daily life.
Back again in New York, Ms. Baker took the demanding job of Special Assistant to the President of UTS. Along with handling administrative duties and communications, she developed a curriculum for students on spiritual formation, ways of practicing religious belief in everyday life. She looks forward to exploring this with her congregation here.
By then she was actively looking for a parish of her own. When she learned that the West Tisbury church was seeking a pastor, she felt she had to apply.
"It unfolded really beautifully," Ms. Baker says about the stringent application process. Very pregnant, she traveled to Martha's Vineyard in January for an interview with the search committee and delivered a sermon at the Federated Church in Edgartown so they could assess her qualifications. "The search committee was so lovely, they were wonderful to us," she recalls, but nonetheless she had doubts. "The church has always had men. They're not going to pick me."
But pick her they did. Ms. Baker came to preach on June 15 and after the sermon the entire congregation voted to support her hiring.
Ms. Baker says she does not find the prospect of being the church's first woman minister worrisome, nor is she concerned about doing her job while caring for two little ones, six-month-old Eirene and Hardy, four. She believes that the fact she and Bill have children may draw other young parents to the church.
"Kids are a joy," she says. "It's not hard, it's all worth it."
Ms. Baker says she is grateful for the welcome she has received and brings no agenda, but wants to be led by the wishes of the congregation.
"As long as we're vital, caring, making an impact on people who are suffering, improving people's lives in a wonderful way, making social change so people can change. That's what matters."