Rob Eller Isaacs

1976 Starr King Graduate

My experience at Starr King was incredibly important to me. When I first interviewed with Bob Kimball at the Washington Athletic Club in Seattle during General Assembly, he said to me, "What are you actually looking for?" I replied "stability in flux," and he said, "Be very careful, you could end up a theologian!"

That was 1969, and the world was in turmoil. It was a radical and volatile period when old institutions and old ways of moving through life made little sense to me. When Starr King originally said yes to Deborah Mendelsson and I, we were offered the option of becoming "special students" - people who were too young to logically be at a theological graduate school, but people who showed a willingness to enter into a process of reflection and discernment in order to decide on a path. The person who first approached us with the offer that SKSM might be a place for such discovery was faculty member George Johnson, a brilliant preacher and poet. After being at Starr King for six months, I knew that I wanted to pursue a path in parish ministry and was accepted into the program for the following fall.

One of the highlights I remember during my time at Starr King was being a student representative to the SKSM board of directors. I was one of the people who really pushed to have Til Evans join the Starr King faculty. We needed her - there was no Religious Education expert and there were no women on the faculty. I also remember there was a crisis involving a student while I was at Starr King. An all-school meeting was called to decide how to respond as a community. After some hours of deliberating on what should be done, I had to take action. I got up and called the police in to help. This was an important moment for me in finding and using my own voice and capacity as a leader.

I did my internship at Arlington Street Church in 1973-74 during the time that Mwalimu Imara, a leader of the Black Affairs Council, was the minister there. It was a very difficult ministry. The church had made a gesture that went way beyond their capacity to integrate, and it was an atmosphere fraught with threats of violence and crisis. I was vested with responsibilities that went far beyond the expectations of a usual internship. This was during the time of the Boston school riots, and I felt that I was called to be a symbol of reconciliation during tortured times.

I came back to SKSM aware for the first time of the central importance of having a coherent personal theology one could share, and that I needed to be at least basically conversant in Jewish and Christian scripture. My intern experience in the Arlington congregation had brought me face to face with the assumptions I had that Unitarian Universalism was and needed to be disconnected from any previous religious traditions it had sprung from. I had bought into the rebelliousness that is still one of the hallmarks of who we are today.

Oh, and, of course, I remember Jeremy Taylor. I took his community-organizing course called, "Cosmic Crisis," and was the first to tell him that he could make a living doing dream work. He and I have been friends for many years.

I was called to the Unitarian Society of Whittier, Calif., where colleagues urged me to come. People like Ernie Pipes and Steve Fritchman, graduates of Starr King and skilled ministers already in the field, promised to teach me how to become a minister if I took this position. It was really heartening to be welcomed into the ministry by people who had great love and respect for the work they were doing.

The Unitarian Society of Whittier was a mess. It had been blown to pieces and deeply divided by the Vietnam War. I stayed for six years and tried to rebuild it, gathering a congregation of 100 or so, but I was not able to inspire the kind of infrastructure that would reconcile their past and help them become a church again.

From there, I was first called to be the first Unitarian Universalist Urban Extension minister. In 1982, the UUA gave $5,000 to First Unitarian Church of Oakland to place me as their minister. Three years later the church called me, and a year after that Jan joined me as co-minister, after graduating from Starr King. She and I were co-ministers of the Oakland Church for 18 years. Our signature work there was to create avenues for shared ministry through establishing associates programs that give real depth and meaning to the ministry of the laity.

It was this work that drew the attention of Unity Church of St. Paul, which had made an institutional commitment to move toward shared ministry and was seeing ministerial leadership in that direction. We have been there as co-ministers for four years, through a time of transition and into new initiatives and transformation.

Our three children -- Jonah, age 24; Jessie, age 22; and Hannah, age 15 -- are a major part of who we are and part of the "ministry" that Jan and I are committed to.

Jan and I are very committed to providing a teaching congregation culture and had 15 interns during our time at the Oakland church. Our co-ministry has been fraught with difficulty in terms of carving out our personal life, but, at that same time, has provided a richness and depth for our congregations and our relationship. It has offered plenty of opportunities for self-reflection and has been incredibly rich.

Daniel Kanter

Doug Kraft

Molly Brown

Ronald Gehrmann

Mary Ann Maggiore

Sheri Prudhomme

Judith Brown Osgood

 


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