My Story (at least in part)

I was born in Columbia, South Carolina, to Tom and Connie Fulbright – their first child, delivered to them while they were still very young. My father’s family is from South Carolina; my mother’s, from Louisiana. My upbringing was Southern, and I think that matters. There is something inescapable about “coming from” the South; a way it weaves itself into your very blood. Inlets flow in my veins – those musky wetlands where I lived as a child, and the smell still moves me  in ways I never seem to expect. Certain colors seem brighter; certain songs move me more deeply. The South has both mountains and sea, flatlands and foothills. It moves slowly, speaks softly, prizes civility and both subtle and gross cruelty. It is a place where one can grow up with easy good fortune or the sharper, more ignorant turns of the human heart. I have seen all these things. In the South, there is still a strong tradition of “belonging.” Who are your people? Where is your place? Where do you come from? From the South I have seen how the past and present collide, sometimes well, sometimes not. I have come to prize certain things. I believe in recognizing the value in tradition –  its role in comforting the human spirit. I believe in family ties (those of blood or choice), home-cooked meals, pleasant conversation. I have learned the hard lessons of racism and intolerance, how they limit potential and destroy ability, how they transcend the particularity of individuals and form the bedrock of the institutions of this country. Being surrounded at times by apathy and mindless adherence to dogma put a fire in my belly. I wouldn’t trade that for the world. And flowing through all of it is the beauty of the land itself, which has given me gifts of strength and well-being it would be impossible to estimate.

I was only the first of my parent’s children: in 1972, my brother, Trey, was born. That began the typical roller coaster of sibling squabble, but most of all, it meant I had a playmate, irritating as he might be most of the time. (I, of course, was pure joy all the time.) Trey patiently endured being dressed up in women’s clothing and being taught endless song-and-dance routines – at some point in our childhood, I obviously confused the two of us with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland (“c’mon, let’s turn the old barn into a musical theatre!!”). He paid me back by embarrassing me frequently in front of my friends when I became a teenager, so it all balanced out in the end. Besides, I’m sure it was because I forced him “onstage” so often as a child that he eventually became an incredibly talented drummer and performer. Witness the power of my influence! (It’s possible I exaggerate a little here.)

My high school years were wonderful. I was fortunate to live in the area of the state which had an extremely active voice for the arts in a woman named Virginia Uldrick. Therefore, long before “magnet schools” were on the radar, Greenville, SC had a Performing Arts high school – the Fine Arts Center. I was one of only three students in the history of the school (at the time) to be accepted into two disciplines: dance and drama. We also had a Governor’s School for the Arts, which I also attended in drama. Aside from the joy of being able to develop my gifts, what the Fine Arts Center gave to me was the opportunity to be surrounded by creative, free-thinking and spirited kids. At least half of us were gay/lesbian/bi (as for transgender, at that time none of us manifested that identity), and that was just normal. We were free of so many of the “boxes” to which kids in a more traditional high school environment were subjected. I was able to develop my leadership skills and begin to understand intimate connections made from the heart level. So I was powerfully blessed by the opportunity to develop in an environment that celebrated potential of all kinds.

My college experiences were rich, as well; I studied the philosophy of religion, lived abroad, found a home in psychology and began “working in the world” – tutoring kids in maximum security juvenile facilities, doing clinical assessments of people accused of violent crime, volunteering with a rape crisis center. It’s hard to encapsulate years of transformative experience, but I both enjoyed and appreciated the richness of these years.

It was while I was in college that the most transformative event of my life occurred. After returning from living in Wales for a year, I married my high school sweetheart and gave birth to our daughter, Ember. The marriage was not the right thing for any of us, and my husband, Eric, and I were able to recognize that early on and take action – because we wanted to spare Ember any hurt and hardship, and to be able to co-parent in a loving and healthy way. That has been our greatest accomplishment together; this child, and our commitment to working together for her wellbeing.

Being a mother is not a new thing, yet every time it happens, it is a first: the first time is has happened between this child and this mother. Because of her, the world was born anew for me, and I to it. I notice things now I never noticed before; I am called into action and service in ways I would never have expected before having children. Because I am mother, I want the world to be a better place for all children, and I have found reserves of courage and energy that I never knew before: courage to face injustice and speak out, energy to put forth the effort to see change happen. And finally, on top of being the source for so many existential gifts, it turns out that Ember is truly a delightful human being, a joy to be around. I am blessed. A cradle UU, she has created her own niche and influence in our faith – for a number of years now, she has been core staff at the Southeastern UU Summer Institute – SUUSI. Currently, she serves as their Young Adult director. It was here, many years ago, that she met the man who is now her husband – a second generation UU, a physics and chemistry high school teacher, Seth Berkeley.

I have written and rewritten over time about my long theological journey. I hope that will be the source of a lifetime of conversation. Since childhood, I have been drawn to not only the life of the spirit, but the experience of the religious. I have moved through an unquestioned, undifferentiated Christianity; childishly explored Judaism and Roman Catholicism; engaged agnosticism and existentialism (this was my avowedly humanist period); passionately experiential earth-centered tradition (Wicca); philosophically integrated Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism; and even fell in love again with my “home” tradition, Christianity. Or better said, the message of Jesus. There have been so many things that influenced me on this path, it is difficult to even begin to comment. But there is no question that two things stand out in particular: the first, Gandhi’s words on conversion to another religious tradition. Gandhi believed one should not convert, but rather, look deeper into one’s own religious tradition while understanding that all religions hold some portion of the truth, and that there is benefit from exploring and appreciating the beauty and truth each offers. This opened me up to re-examining my own religious heritage in a different way. The second is the presence of Unitarian Universalism in the world. I require a creedless faith. I require it. And the only tradition that can truly hold my spiritual growing is one which affirms and promotes “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” which draws from “the wisdom of the world’s religions.” Until I discovered Unitarian Universalism in 1990, I had no true religious home. My faith is Unitarian Universalism.

When I acknowledged my call to ministry and entered Starr King School for the Ministry, I had no way of knowing how transformative the experience would be. I call the years of study my “crucible” or “Redeemer’s Fire” time. I grew more in those five years of seminary than in all the years prior, it sometimes seems. My time at Starr King put me in a class with Peter Morales, oour UUA President; Rob Hardies, well-known for his writing and his leadership at All Souls, DC, among others, and we were blessed that the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker was our leading light.

My internship at the UU Church of Asheville, NC, was a wonderful time. It was my honor to be called to serve as their summer minister, as well, and assume solo pastorate responsibility for this 600+ member church. After that, I served in another large congregation as an RE teacher in Walnut Creek, and as a short-term interim for another church in Asheville, NC (Science of Mind). After this, I worked for a time as a community minister, serving as Executive Director for an interfaith non-profit whose mission was to engage religious communities deeply in environmental justice work. In this, I spent the majority of my time leading workshops and presenting materials and team-building/coaching so that faith communities could engage the work deeply.

I accepted my first call to parish ministry at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Roanoke, where I served for 11 years – their longest serving minister. UUCR,  a mid-size congregation, accomplished a number of ministry goals during my tenure: a transition from a giving pattern that included a handful of high level givers to a broadly generous congregational giving pattern; they developed into  a genuinely multigenerational community, where children, youth, adults and elders all took an active role in church life; we had an expansion of family programming such as our Spiritual Parenting groups and the “FLUUSIEs” – Fun-Loving UUs Seeking Interesting Entertainment! This program, with its funny title, represented programming which brought in and engaged a wide swath of young adults, 24 – 35. We also accomplished social justice work such as Alternatives to War (begun in the run-up to the Iraq war), and the community Roundtable on Race, among others.

Because UUCR has had a history of troubled ministerial relationships, I learned a great deal about how to handle the stresses of a conflicted system. Although I don’t enjoy conflict, my years in ministry have helped me to see the patterns and systems work that lead to congregational health, or define where a system is unhealthy. I’ve had many, many opportunities to use this insight in consultation with ministers as a Good Officer, or congregations just as a resource in my years in ministry.

But let’s not neglect the central wonder that in 2004, I married the love of my life, Rob Fulson, and in 2007, when Ember was 17 years old, I gave birth to my second daughter, Ani (named after the feminist rocker and icon, Ani DiFranco). I sometimes wonder how I did ministry before I married Rob. He is my rock, a sounding board, (almost) infinitely patient, forgiving beyond measure, and the in-house tech guru no minister should be without. Ani, now a tweenish 9 year old, is an artist, an active UU, and our pride and joy.

Currently, I am in my fifth year at the UU Church of Cheyenne. Coming to Cheyenne is a story in itself. I would never have considered them (due to location) except their former, now-retired ministers were colleagues of mine in Virginia. They highly recommended Cheyenne, as a healthy and vibrant congregation, so I gave them a look. That year of search, I was very fortunate – four congregations invited me to be their candidate. Some were larger and paid much better, but I chose Cheyenne because it had that special “something” – health, the influence of a congregation in a capital city, it had just done some important social justice work, and it was dreaming big. It had also had a tough six years of transition.

My time with UUCC has been not only joyful, but it’s yielded a different fruit than I expected. Learning more about them, their growth potential (and limits) and gifts, I began conversations in my third year with UUA leadership about what the best future – a future that would be a continuation of progress, with hopefully no slowdowns – might look like. As a result, UUCC is now a pilot congregation for a new form of search and settlement that the UUA is holding for particularly healthy congregations, with special gifts, who might otherwise face challenges to settlement having nothing to do with the congregation itself. I’m very excited for what this will mean for their future, and have a great deal of hope and investment in their success.

In truth, it has meant that some of the work I expected to do – certain forms of justice work and congregational development – have had to take a back seat. I’ve been working on transitional efforts and visioning for the last two years, in many ways. On the other hand, it has not affected my commitment to our larger movement, as I have been deeply invested in cluster involvement, and have served as a Good Officer to my colleagues and on the Living into Covenant team for ministerial formation, where I hold the Discernment portfolio. I am also teaching a congregational polity class at Iliff Seminary this year.

The autobiography of a life leaves out so much more than it contains. I know from reading this, you don’t yet know my dreams or further aspirations, what inspires me or gives me hope, what my worst faults and failings are (I have them) – you don’t know how much I love animals, children, trees, the world, or – perhaps – you. These are the things that only relationship can reveal. It is also why I seem unable to escape my Unitarian Universalism – our theology has always been based on the faith we have in the human relationships that sustain and encourage us. I hope that there may be many more discoveries of one another in the days to come.