A Twist of Faith 

From her small-town Baptist roots to her run for public office, Jeanette Mott Oxford has relied on her religious convictions to overcome fear and prejudice -- including her own.

God sat on his throne, and around him the floor shook, smoke filled the air and six-winged seraphim flew about the room, screaming, "Holy! Holy! Holy!" Isaiah, who stood there watching it all, nearly passed out.

The Old Testament passage drifted around inside Jeanette Mott Oxford's head like a vagabond looking for rest. That and the New Testament story about Nicodemus, who didn't understand that when Jesus said a person had to be born again to see the kingdom of God, he didn't mean it literally. These were two of the passages she was supposed to talk about in a week, when she would serve as guest pastor at Christ in the City, but patching them together into a coherent, spiritually uplifting message would take some time.

If she could simply focus on the third passage suggested by the United Church of Christ's lectionary, which outlined what its pastors should cover in their weekly sermons, she wouldn't have any trouble. That one covered Paul's message to the Romans that they didn't have to live in fear: "For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out 'Abba, Father.' The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God."

She could talk about that without studying, could go on for days and days.

It wasn't that she grew up in the 1950s with fear surrounding her. In Elizabethtown, a farming village of 500 people in Southern Illinois, about the only thing feared, more than eternal damnation and black people from the city, was the fact that when the town's youngsters went away to college, they never seemed to come back. Neither of Jeanette's parents even went to high school, but what Raymond and Marie Oxford lacked in textbook training, they made up with their knowledge of the Bible. For farmers who also ran the town's general store, that was enough. For their pampered only child, who spent her early years around the store's potbellied stove swapping pranks with the neighbors and singing bluegrass gospel, it was enough, too. For a while.

To say that the Oxfords "attended" the General Baptist Church was like saying recently returned U.S. soldiers had "attended" the Korean War. Family life began and ended every day with praying, Scripture reading and listening to the Southern-gospel songs of the Florida Boys, the Chuck Wagon Gang and old Paul Cook, a regular by the stove in the store. There were tent revivals, prayer meetings and celebratory baptisms that all centered on earned salvation and dedicated, fundamental adherence to the Ten Commandments.

Once, when her father gave money to Sam, the town drunk, Jeanette asked him why, if drinking was such a sin.

"It's between me and God what I do when Sam asks me for money," Raymond Oxford told his daughter. "It's between Sam and God what Sam does with the money."

When Jeanette was 5 years old, her father sold the store, and the family moved to a 120-acre farm on the outskirts of town. For the first year, Raymond Oxford didn't take outside work, because he wanted to spend time with his daughter before she went off to grade school. Marie Oxford grew and canned vegetables and fruit to make ends meet. After that, Raymond supplemented the family's income from Angus cattle and hay sales with a job in the fluorospar mines.

For two years, Jeanette lived insulated from the rest of the world, protected from its troubles by her parents' strong affection and the ever-watchful eyes of God. She learned that despite stern warnings against swearing and dancing and games like Monopoly played with dice, God loved her more than even her own father, loved her so much he took up residence in her soul, so that discerning right from wrong was a matter of listening to her sacred tenant. "Look inside," Raymond Oxford would say. "Look inside you."

The rest of the world burst into Jeanette's life in the early '60s, when the Oxfords bought their first television set. At first, her father didn't understand the visual language of TV, even asked Jeanette how the actors changed their clothes so fast, but eventually it became as much a part of their lives as memorizing Scripture, and the family settled into its luminescent routine. Jeanette was particularly mesmerized by the news, by Bobby Kennedy, the civil-rights movement and the escalating war in Vietnam. She was fascinated with the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and encouraged when her father, who always warned her that black men were dangerous, listened to his words saturated in Christian hope.

"Amen," Raymond Oxford said whenever the reverend spoke. "Bless him, Lord!" But Jeanette wondered whether her father's verbal applause meant he understood the message or that he simply respected ministers.

Her interest in current events continued throughout her adolescence, and though she never strayed from her parents' tutoring -- was even considered something of a religious freak by her peers at Cave-In-Rock High School -- she eventually found herself humming Joan Baez songs instead of "How Great Thou Art."

Harrisburg, with a population of 9,000 people, could have been New York City, for all the 18-year-old girl from Elizabethtown could tell. It was only a 30-minute commute from the farm to Southeastern Illinois Community College, but the city was full of traffic and chain stores and people who weren't white and fundamentally Christian. It was new spiritual stomping ground for Jeanette, who picked up hitchhikers on her daily drive so she could explain to them, trapped in her car, the importance of accepting Jesus as their personal savior. She also studied journalism, because she wanted to help change the world, and if she could spread the word of the Gospel through her writing, then her calling would be defined.

Her growing passion for civil rights only increased when her father was caught in a cave-in at the mines. Because it was a low-wage, nonunion job, he carried no health insurance, and when he was rushed to the only hospital in all of Hardin County, he was told his crushed leg would be fine. Only it wasn't. Three days later it turned black, and big knots and clumps, formed from blood clots, would partially cripple him for the rest of his life. For his daughter, who had grown accustomed to her father's coming home every night in work clothes stiff with sweat and dust, the incident was heartbreaking. It didn't seem fair that poor folks in the country should not have access to union jobs and quality, affordable health care.

Meanwhile in Harrisburg, differences assaulted her from all sides. It was like swimming in a sea of change. For one thing, she met more and more people who didn't believe in Jesus Christ but who seemed just as upright and moral, be they Buddhist, Muslim or Jew. For another, she sensed unusual feelings rising within herself, feelings she couldn't define until suddenly they swelled up and breached the protective levy her parents had so carefully built up around her. Although she had never heard the word "lesbian," she fell in love with another woman. And the other woman loved her back.

For the first time in her life, there were no answers supplied by family, community or church. Not even prayer seemed to help. How, for instance, could God condemn all these new people around her just because they hadn't been baptized in the General Baptist Church, and why hadn't anyone told her that love came in more packages than one?

Because she didn't have any kind of map to follow, the anti-homosexual sentiment that began seeping from the pulpits of fundamental churches caused Jeanette to hide her sexual discovery like the sin she thought it might be. She and her new partner clung to each other like castaways in dangerous waters. Even when the relationship eventually turned abusive, with Jeanette on the receiving end, she still hung onto it like a waterlogged buoy, because she didn't want to drift alone. She soon stopped going to church, because she didn't feel welcome, and for the next five years, she prayed for help and guidance even though she wasn't quite sure to whom she prayed anymore.

After graduating from junior college in 1974, Jeanette moved to Marion, Ill., where she took a job as a reporter for a small daily newspaper. But, like everything else in her life, her purpose lost definition, and she soon dropped the idea of journalism and became a telephone operator instead. She continued hiding her "difference" and, consequently, the fact that she was being abused, and she found herself driving through the countryside each day, crying for God to get her out of the mess she was in. She was living a lie and, because of it, had nowhere to go for help.

Jeanette decided, eventually, to go home. Maybe if she explained to the people she loved most, she could then "come out" to the rest of the world. But her parents, with little comprehension of homosexuality, didn't seem to understand a word of what she said when she tried to explain. And she explained more than once. But even years later, her mother didn't quite get the message.

"I heard Denny was going to a gay church," Marie Oxford said one day to Jeanette about a former high-school classmate. "What does that mean?"

"It means that he's like me, Mom."

"No." Marie Oxford stared at her daughter in disbelief. "I thought he was a Methodist."

Jeanette often longed for the comfort of her childhood, for the unadulterated version of life where her parents and God had answers for everything. But her parents were simple people, unable to grasp the trouble that she saw, and God, well, God didn't seem to be anywhere she looked these days.

But eventually, across the years and distance, her father's words about looking inside herself for the difference between right and wrong drifted into her mind. She realized, as if she'd just found the road sign she was looking for, that she hadn't looked in the right place.

She thought about being a lesbian, about what the Holy Spirit living inside her thought about being a lesbian. It felt normal. It felt right. It wasn't guilt that drove her to hide it or to leave the church, it was fear -- fear of human retribution. Being lesbian wasn't a sin any more than being a Buddhist hitchhiker was, so although she had never really worried that her life was sinful, she had worried that her life would be perceived as sinful. That in itself was the real sin. It was denying what was real and was therefore like denying God.

Liberated by this realization, Jeanette soon left her partner. Being abused was no longer part of the plan. Neither was hiding out or worrying so much about other folks' salvation. Her purpose was now more clear -- she wanted to teach religion -- and she enrolled at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, where she finished her bachelor's degree in religious studies. Unforgiving with regard to what had happened to her father in the mines, she got a job during the summers for the Southern Counties Action Committee, which, among other things, worked on issues concerning the lack of quality health care in rural areas.

After graduating from SIUC in 1986, Jeanette applied to Eden Theological Seminary near St. Louis and was accepted. In the meantime, she met a woman named Dorothy, who would provide her the kind of support in her new life that her parents had provided in her old one. She was also listening to different music now too, music written and performed by women like Holly Near who were like her. It was music that, like the gospel and civil-rights songs she had listened to before, calmed her, assured her, helped bring focus into her life.

Then, in 1987, while enrolled at Eden, she got a call from Elizabethtown saying her mother had leukemia. For the previous year, doctors had told Marie Oxford that the symptoms she complained about were those of sinus infections. But one month after the leukemia diagnosis, Marie was dead.

After the funeral, indignation at a system that wouldn't take care of the health of its poor churned through Jeanette like water through a paddlewheel. As she sat in her family's living room and thought about the senseless reasons her mother had died, she watched the townsmen in their overalls sit with her crippled father and cry.

During her two years at Eden, Jeanette wrestled with what she wanted to do with her eventual ministry. She knew she wanted to fight injustice, perhaps work on behalf of poor, rural folks or gays and lesbians, but nothing seemed all that clear. Not yet.

Then she took an internship at a local church, where she coordinated programming for children. During Black History Month, she hung pictures on the wall depicting various forms of traditional African-American worship. One morning, as she looked at them with a 5-year-old girl, the youngster pointed to a dark woman in one of the pictures: "She's ugly."

Jeanette looked up at the woman in the picture. "Why do you think she's so ugly?"

The girl shrugged: "Because she's too dark."

Jeanette looked down at the child, who was the darkest person in the room. She thought about her own father's warning that black men were dangerous, and here was a little African-American girl who had been taught that her own dark skin was ugly. What did that mean for this young girl's life? That she was always going to be comparing her own skin to that of other people. Jeanette felt her heart pierced in a million little places.

For most of the two years she was at Eden, Jeanette kept her strengthening relationship with Dorothy to herself. Although she accepted who she was, and though the United Church of Christ had allowed the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers since 1971, each local conference made independent decisions about who could and could not be ordained.

As the time when she would approach the local Southern Illinois conference drew near, though, she couldn't stop thinking of the little black girl and what she would have to face throughout her life. She also thought a lot about her mother's death and about how bravely her mother had faced it. Jeanette herself was still living a lie.

She soon decided to tell the conference committee that she was a lesbian. She knew it jeopardized her chances of becoming an ordained minister, but she couldn't work for God living in a world of fear and deceit. As she prepared for her defense, some of the committee members told her in private that they felt gays and lesbians should be treated by the same standards as everyone else. Others told her that if it was up to them, she'd never be ordained.

When she formally stood before the 14-person panel, one member delivered the committee's general concern: Because she was a lesbian, no church would employ her, and because no church would employ her, she couldn't be ordained. Because being called by a church was a prerequisite for ordination, there wasn't much point in pursuing the matter, and the panel voted 8-6 to drop Jeanette. She, however, didn't have much time to absorb the consequences of her courage, because the news media picked up the story. Though she avoided interviews, the story got out anyway, and she realized she'd have to go home and tell her father before he saw it on the evening news.

The trip home was a hard one. The explanation to her father was harder still. She told him again that she was a lesbian and that because of it, her dream of becoming a pastor was dead. She also had to warn him that reporters would try to contact him and might even come to the house with an entire news crew. As she explained, as simply as she could, her father pulled her onto his lap as if she was 5 years old again.

"God," he prayed as she sat there, "I don't understand a lot of this. It's all over my head, but this is my little girl, and I want you to take care of her."

With the failed ordination, her father's accident, her mother's death and visions of the little African-American girl driving her, Jeanette left Eden determined to fight society's intolerance of gays, lesbians, poor people and people of color. But in 1991, when she accepted the position of executive director of the Reform Organization of Welfare (ROWEL), she learned of another form of prejudice, more insidious because she had never imagined it existed: her own.

Unlike Elizabethtown, where most of the poor people were white, St. Louis' poor were mostly African-American. Her new job at ROWEL, which fought poverty by empowering the people who lived in it, forced her to deal with people she'd so far spent very little time around. The goal was to teach poor people how to become politically active and, in doing so, change federal and state welfare systems that weren't working.

For Jeanette, taking on the job was like plunging into an ice-cold stream to wash off sweat. She began learning about urban poverty by going to public-housing projects, food pantries and the Salvation Army. She read books, attended conferences, studied the laws.

While she immersed herself in understanding how the system operated, she worked to get more low-income people involved in ROWEL, which, up until then, had been run mainly by middle- and upper-income folks. She began recruiting new board members, new public speakers and new organizers who were poor. Jeanette also began lobbying in Jefferson City, where she quickly learned that legislation aimed at helping poor people was looked on with ever-increasing disdain. When she explained, for instance, that in order for people to leave welfare and survive, they needed jobs that paid a living wage, the response was usually a let-them-eat-cake shrug.

As the workings of the world opened up to Jeanette, so too did the meaning of the Bible. Now when she read about the pharaoh requiring the slaves to make bricks out of straw, the story seemed fresh and relevant. It was no different than the current system of welfare. Soon Jeanette and Dorothy joined Epiphany United Church of Christ in Benton Park. Formerly made up of working-class Germans who had moved one by one to the suburbs, the thinning congregation of 50 was now striving to become more racially and economically diverse.

But as her professional and spiritual life came together, Jeanette sensed a growing distance between herself and the people she was trying to help, a span of emotional space filled with questions about whether a white girl from the country could really understand what it meant to be black and to live on an income not high enough to survive on. But the more she tried to close the gap with studying, lobbying and recruiting, the greater the distance seemed to grow.

When she learned the reason, it nearly knocked the spiritual wind out of her. Jeanette organized a ROWEL lobbying day in Jefferson City, and she and a group of African-American women started off for the state Capitol in a rented church van. As the trip progressed from St. Louis to the rural interior of the state, Jeanette noticed that the early-morning enthusiasm of the group was sliding into silence.

"Hey, what's wrong with everybody?" Jeanette asked, assuming the women were nervous about meeting and talking to state legislators.

One of the women, watching the countryside pass by the window, shook her head and frowned: "Whoooeee. There's farmers out here with trucks and guns, and they'll kill you dead."

Jeanette's eyes followed the woman's gaze out the window to the cornfields and the livestock barns and the narrow gravel roads so familiar to her from childhood. What represented security and comfort to her symbolized trouble and danger to these women. And just as she had been told by her family and community that black people in the city were a threat, these women had been taught to stay away from wide open spaces where white people lived.

Discovering the problem was like looking through a long-hidden scrapbook. Every school text she'd ever read was filled with pictures of white explorers, white scientists, white kids just like herself. Even her Sunday School books depicted Jesus as coming from white stock. Her parents told her to stay away from black men and to never bring a black friend home with her from college, because the neighbors would throw a fit.

Then she looked at the women in the van around her. She couldn't remember a lot of their names, because she realized that, out of fear, she never looked them in the eye. Whenever they tried to take on the responsibilities of running the organization, she always jumped in and did things for them, because she figured they weren't capable. It wasn't lack of experience that kept her emotionally distant from these people. It was her own racism.

Then, in 1994, Jeanette got another call from Elizabethtown. Her father had been in a car accident and was in a coma. Soon she and Dorothy found themselves sitting by his bedside, singing old Southern-gospel songs. Four days after the accident, Raymond Oxford died.

Later, when Jeanette went through his personal papers, she found unpaid credit slips from the old general store. She stumbled back into her childhood, where everyone had been treated with dignity and respect, and just because someone couldn't pay their bill or couldn't overcome alcoholism or didn't fall in love with a member of the opposite sex didn't mean they were less worthy in the eyes of God. How then, Jeanette wondered, could her father teach her to be prejudiced against black people?

It was fear born of ignorance. Raymond Oxford wasn't around black people, so he was afraid they might hurt his daughter: Just as politicians who had never experienced poverty were afraid poor people would take advantage of them. Just as people who didn't understand homosexuality were afraid gays and lesbians would corrupt their churches, their children and their chain of command.

It was a vicious inbred circle of fear, and for the following nine years that she led ROWEL, Jeanette's battle against prejudice was as much against her own as it was against society's.

By 1998, ROWEL's membership ballooned from 550 to 1,500 and its annual income increased from $70,000 to more than $300,000. In Jefferson City, the group successfully worked to cut the state's 3-cent sales tax on food, to ensure that welfare-to-work participants were covered by the same health and safety laws as other workers and to make sure the state provided medically necessary transportation for Medicaid patients.

But ROWEL's success turned Jeanette's hands-on job into that of a distant bureaucrat. There were more employees to deal with, more grant proposals to write; there was more paperwork to fill out. In addition, Jeanette's nine years of lobbying in Jefferson City taught her that the more disadvantaged people were, the less they were represented in the political process. Although some urban lawmakers tried to help, the vast majority turned their legislative attentions toward those constituents who best funded their campaigns.

The rhetoric, especially since the introduction in 1996 of a federal welfare-reform bill, pushed by the new Republican Congress and later signed by President Bill Clinton, was that the welfare system was making poor people dependent on it. That it made them lazy. That it made them drug addicts and child abusers and thieves. What Jeanette learned in her nine years at ROWEL was that generational poverty stemmed, for the most part, from the constant need to survive.

She learned that the government only provided about 15 percent of the true cost of living to people on welfare, yet if they found work and thus lost their public assistance, they usually still couldn't pay their bills. She learned that in 30 percent of all utility disconnections, the families ended up moving, because they couldn't pay the bill, and because so few people had cars or trucks with which to move, they ended up leaving most of their belongings behind. She also learned that each move usually took the family to cheaper and cheaper housing until, eventually, they ended up in substandard housing where, for a good part of the year, there was no electricity or heat. How could children become well educated when they were forced to study in the cold by candlelight?

And the rhetoric was bought by Democrats and Republicans alike. To Jeanette, who grew up on the speeches of Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy, there wasn't much difference between the two parties anymore.

When the state representative from her district, Ron Auer, announced he was retiring, it didn't take long for Jeanette to decide to run. The district, which includes parts of Benton Park, Soulard, Tower Grove and Compton Heights, is heavily Democratic. In the previous election, in 1998, it didn't even attract a Republican candidate. It was about as ethnically, racially and economically diverse as a district in St. Louis could be, and there was a significant gay and lesbian population as well.

After Jeanette made her decision privately in the summer of '99, she quietly started putting together her platform. She would work to reform the state tax system so that it was based on a sliding scale and on the ability to pay. She would work to lower health-care costs and increase the minimum wage. She would seek to provide higher-quality childcare, better public transportation, better-equipped schools. She would live up to the standards of her childhood Democratic idols and represent everyone (even the smattering of white, straight, upper-income Republicans) who lived in her district. She would also leave her position at ROWEL, because she didn't believe lawmaking was the part-time job so many other state legislators seemed to think it was. Becoming an elected official was the social activist's dream come true. Instead of cajoling and pleading and arguing with legislators to change the laws, she could change the laws herself.

But Jeanette's private ambition was paralyzed when another Democratic candidate, Russ Carnahan, the son of Gov. Mel Carnahan, announced that he, too, would run for the district's House seat. How could she possibly win the August 2000 primary against the governor's son? And did she even want to win against the governor's son? Russ Carnahan was a progressive, and she was a strong supporter of his father, who was challenging the Republican incumbent, U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft, in the November 2000 election. Maybe, she realized with horror, God didn't even want her to run. She hadn't, after all, really asked him.

A few weeks later, in September, Jeanette sat down with her spiritual adviser, a Methodist woman whose words echoed those of her father's so many years before. She told Jeanette to take some time off and listen to God, listen to him speak through prayer, talk through other people and communicate his wishes by what felt right inside. Jeanette then set a date -- the weekend of Nov. 7 -- to make a decision.

During the next several weeks, Jeanette's mind changed daily. She prayed, she listened, she talked, but nothing stayed firm in her heart. As the final weekend approached, she attended a legislative workshop hosted by the United Way. During one of the panel discussions, state Sen. Steve Ehlmann, a conservative Republican from St. Charles, told the audience that a state earned-income tax credit would encourage people to live together rather than marry, because a second income might make the married couple ineligible for the tax credit. That, he said, was like most public assistance which, among other things, led to an increase in the number of "illegitimate children" being born.

Jeanette, fuming in the audience, stood up to ask the senator a question. Only it wasn't a question.

"The sooner the phrase 'illegitimate children' passes out of this society's vocabulary, the better," she said to audience applause. "There are no illegitimate children."

Was her interaction with Ehlmann a sign? Perhaps part of her mission, even if it wasn't to run for office, was to keep people like him engaged in dialogue. Public dialogue.

The next morning, she attended a conference held by the Living Wage Coalition. She was one of the only white people in the room, and as one speaker after another rose to blame white people for the economic conditions of so many people of color, Jeanette found herself nodding her head in agreement. Ten years ago, she realized, she would have felt defensive, would have argued that only some white people were supremacists, but her years at ROWEL had taught her that most white folks were raised to be racists, even if they didn't want to be, and it was a lesson all white people needed to learn. Again the decision wavered in her mind: Even if she didn't decide to run, here was another plank for her mission's platform. "Amen," she heard herself murmur over and over again. "Amen."

In the afternoon, Jeanette went to Pilgrim Congregational Church for the installation of its first African-American senior pastor, the Rev. Dale Susan Edmonds. Giving the sermon was a minister named Yvonne Delk, who at one point described a stagecoach sign she saw once in a museum: "If the coach is stuck in the mud, first-class passengers stay seated, second-class passengers get out, third-class passengers get out and push."

"As we move into the new millennium," Delk said, "our world is stuck in the mud. There's no place for any passenger to stay seated. We've all got to get out and push."

As the reverend sat down, the choir stood and sang "Now Is the Time."

On her way home that night in the car, Jeanette made her decision as the song's last verse swam in her head: "Spirit of faith, rise above our doubting. Spirit of truth, save us from our lies. Spirit of God, walk among your people. Make us your own. Now is the time."

She would run against the governor's son.

The next several weeks were spent in a flurry of activity. She planned intimate fundraisers, called potential supporters and made as many public appearances as her energy could support. Then, late in November, someone handed her a flier announcing Russ Carnahan's kickoff dinner, scheduled for Dec. 7. What struck Jeanette first was that "Gold Sponsors" would pay $500 per couple to get in. Next she noticed that the honorary-host committee list, which took up one whole side of the invitation, included such names as Congressman Dick Gephardt, Mayor Clarence Harmon and Aldermanic President Francis Slay. It was hard to read down the list of names so precisely lined up: St. Louis County Executive George Westfall; the chair of the Missouri House Democratic Caucus, May Scheve; St. Louis Ald. Phyllis Young. There was even a committeeperson named from each of the four wards that made up the district. Although she understood loyalty -- it was an important virtue -- each name on the list represented more clout, more money and more vote appeal than she could ever hope to gain in this election. It was like reading the guest list for her own funeral.

But she couldn't expect Democratic loyalists to turn their backs on their governor's son or suddenly decide he was somehow unqualified or unclean or unproved when he wasn't. Even she liked the idea of Russ Carnahan in the statehouse, so it wasn't as if she didn't understand party sentiments going into this thing.

But she knew there was more than one way to win. If, as a result of running, she could cause some agitation, get candidates talking about workers in poverty, about the unfair tax system, about affordable health care and quality child care, if her potlucks and picnics and lack-of-PAC fundraisers made it any easier for gays, lesbians, single parents, people of color or the physically impaired to step up and demand their fair share, then she would win on their behalf, no matter what the votes said.

She thought about Frederick Douglass' remark that people who want change without agitation are like people who want a crop without plowing.

The congregation moved their folding chairs around their guest pastor in a circle, because she said she couldn't preach about overcoming fear when she stood towering above them in a pulpit in the spotlight.

"One of my favorite things about the Bible is that it is full of reluctant and weak disciples, a lot like me," Jeanette began, then jumped into the story of Isaiah's and Nicodemus' face-to-face with God.

"They each felt pulled toward the mysterious and holy world of spirit. They both had a sense that God had work for them to do. Yet both were full of excuses about why they couldn't say yes to God's call."

Jeanette then said that when Isaiah met God, he felt guilty and ashamed to do what God asked him to do. "Woe is me!" Isaiah said. "I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people with unclean lips." But the seraphim flew around God and Isaiah, proclaiming that God was "holy" -- which, Jeanette explained, is a derivative of the word "whole."

"I think the basic message is that everything is in God, and God is in everything. Where God is, there is wholeness, health and beauty. The whole Earth reflects God's glory. We have no right to deny God's presence in any person or anything. To do so is to lie about God's nature and the nature of creation."

She then told Nicodemus' story in which the Pharisee, afraid to let people know he was talking to Jesus, goes to great lengths to hide their initial meeting. He asks Jesus how one can best serve God, and Jesus tells him that he must be born again. Nicodemus balks -- he can't be reborn from his mother's womb, he replies -- so Jesus has to spell it out slowly for the man. Later, when Jesus stands before his accusers, it is Nicodemus who steps forward and demands a fair trial. Once Jesus has been crucified, Nicodemus openly goes to the graveyard with embalming spices.

"He was no longer willing to deny that he was a follower of Jesus," Jeanette said. "What does it take to get past our own fears? Whatever it takes, God's spirit is there, encouraging us to get beyond our fears, to remember that we do not have to be slaves to our fear but instead can live our primary identity as children of God.... Even when we don't feel able to answer the call to do our own work, our spirit still calls out longingly to God as a dear parent, and God grants us the strength to meet our challenges if we'll just believe this promise: You are God's child, and nothing can change that."

A chorus of "Amens" was heard all around.

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