Pilgrims on the Wave

Hollins Magazine

By Pamela J. Podger

In an era of activism and unrest, three Hollins graduates felt the stirrings of social change during their college years in the early to mid-1970s. Those influences, during their formative years, have helped them chart new territory and alter the religious landscape of the Roanoke Valley.

Today, as ministers, they continue to propel social justice issues in their daily work:
    • The REV. DEBORAH HENTZ HUNLEY ’74 was the first woman ordained in the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia in 1991.
    •  The REV. KATHY O’KEEFFE ’71, M.A.L.S. ’95, who is pastor of the charismatic Kingdom Life Ministries, embarks on yearly missions with her parishioners to villages in Ghana.
    •  After the United Nations relocated some refugees to the Roanoke Valley, the REV. SUSAN EMMONS BENTLEY ’75 expanded the mission of St. James Episcopal Church to include her Sudanese neighbors in the city.

Each of these women found her journey shaped by the personalities and social milieu at Hollins. During these times of civil rights struggles, including Kent State and Vietnam War protests, student activism played a key role in bringing antiwar ideas and social change to the broader public. Institutions, including churches, also experienced upheaval during these turbulent years. These three women came into the ministry during this time of unrest when churches were re-examining the roles women would play, including serving in leadership positions.

Hunley, who came to her Anglican faith at Hollins and has been rector at Christ Episcopal Church since 1991, said she was active in politics and in social justice as a high school student. Then, a teenager living in Florida, she wrote a letter resigning from her Methodist church because she didn’t feel they were doing enough outreach. “With all the wisdom of a 15-year-old, I resigned. I was distressed that they wouldn’t do more to help people living in the migrant camps and the workers who lived there in abject poverty,” she said. “That really bothered me.”

As a teenager in the 1960s, Hunley was drawn to the peace movement and issues of compassion and equity. Active in protests and demonstrations, she was impressed when a classmate’s father, who was an Episcopal priest, attended antiwar demonstrations wearing his church collar. “I realized you could be involved in the church and also be a part of the world and part of the issues of the day,” she said.

At Hollins, she was swept up in these issues, including heading to Washington, D.C., to protest the second inauguration of President Richard Nixon. At college, she felt drawn to the liturgy and started attending Catholic Masses and the Episcopal Communion services. Eventually, she did some research and realized that the Roman Catholic Church’s position on women “didn’t meet my expectations of what a church should be.”

Hunley and her friends were involved in the Episcopal Peace Fellowship and went to national meetings, where she met female Episcopal deacons. “This got me thinking—this was a place where things were changing and change was possible,” Hunley said. “I loved the liturgy and the traditional features. I also saw this capacity for change that I found very attractive.”

During her time at Hollins, she was influenced by Rabbi Barry Silberg at Temple Emanuel, who lectured on Jewish studies, and by the Rev. Alvord Beardslee, the former Hollins chaplain and an ordained United Church of Christ minister, who taught philosophy and religion.

When Hunley completed her master’s degree at Yale Divinity School, her job choices in southeast Florida and Connecticut were where the bishops wouldn’t even consider women for interviews or for the ordination track. By contrast, the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia was welcoming. “They wanted to explore if I had a calling. I couldn’t ask for a better group of people to see me through the process,” she said. The diocese “is in the mountain region—those folks who moved down the valley were pretty independent in their thinking and self-reliant. Roanoke is a railroad town, so things could happen here.”

I realized you could be involved in the church and also be a part of the world and part of the issues of the day.
She said then-Bishop William Marmion was forward thinking, on the forefront of civil rights and supportive of women in the ministry. “He was very inclusive and was the best of traditional churchmanship. He was devoted to the church but had the perspective of being open to the movement of the Spirit in the present age. He saw things needed to change and open up.”

Following his retirement in the late 1970s, his successor, Bishop Heath Light, continued to expand opportunities for women in the diocese. Hunley, who retires in early March 2014, said the terrain for female ministers has changed considerably.

“There are many more women employed by the church all over the diocese; there are women in little churches and in big churches,” she said. “Today, there is more likelihood that you could find a position for what you were called to instead of [pastoring] at a tiny parish that couldn’t find anyone else.”

For Kathy O’Keeffe, a white preacher in a largely African-American church, building connections is akin to exhaling. She was mentored by Lorraine Alston, a powerful preacher who opened many doors, and who also helped O’Keeffe when she was a graduate student in Hollins’ Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program. “We were aware of the criticism that took place because of gender, and there certainly was persecution of women in the church elsewhere,” she said. “But the sensibility of ‘if God has called us, then God will make the way’ is what I was taught and groomed under.”

Faith was present in her family when she was growing up, and her father was a Sunday school teacher. But during her college years, she said she was more active in political thought than in religious thought. “When I went to college, it was turbulent times, with the Vietnam War, Kent State, campus unrest, and budding feminism.” She remembers Alvord Beardslee for his wonderful debates and thought-provoking discussions. “He would challenge what I would say, and I would challenge back. He inspired me to continue a deeper level of the journey.”

Her generation was one searching for truth. “College was an exploration for me. Religion wasn’t on my viewing screen at the time, but all those other issues were. When you go to college, there is an overwhelming flood of ideas. I think I was disappointed with the church’s response to the social questions of the time. I was really searching.”
At age 27, she posed a challenge: “God, if you’re real, show me.”

At age 27, she posed a challenge: “God, if you’re real, show me.” A few days later, she was listening to a radio show of pastors talking about their love of Christ. One of them was Alston. O’Keeffe decided to attend a service and found “the presence of God was startling. It was thick, like you could almost touch it.” The charismatic church was extremely different from the Methodist church she had attended as a child. Faith was part of her family’s fabric, but the charismatic church “brought the opportunity and joy of having an intense relationship with God. No longer was God outside and distant.”

O’Keeffe found this to be a transformational way of living, and it profoundly changed her life’s journey. “What I’ve come to see is God is wherever you are looking for God. For me, personally at that age, I was looking for a relationship. You can have amazing conversations and presence with God.”

She started at Kingdom Life Ministries International in 1977 and became an assistant pastor in 1985. “I’ve grown up in this church and it has grown me up.” She said the small, close congregation has been a wonderful experience. In a faith-based partnership with St. John’s Episcopal Church in Roanoke, O’Keeffe’s church sought a way to increase diversity, community interaction, and shared responsibility while crossing economic, cultural, and social boundaries. St. John’s then-rector, the Rev. Thomas O’Dell, had been to Ghana and was enthralled with the small village of Binaba. In 1996, members of both congregations went on a joint mission trip to Ghana. “We stayed the first time in thatched roof huts in a communal round setting with floors packed with cow dung,” she said. “There was a joy of life and joy of Spirit that was extremely powerful.”

The two churches cofounded Kimoyo, Ltd., a nonprofit organization that funded the building of two medical clinics, first in Binaba and then in Zebilla, and helped develop micro businesses in the area. Kimoyo, of which O’Keeffe was a founding member, also supports educational programs on African history, art, and culture in the Roanoke Valley.
O’Keeffe has returned to Ghana each year since 1996 with some 20 youth and adult members of her congregation. Their efforts have resulted in the establishment of four churches in the Binaba and Zebilla area. O’Keeffe has witnessed the effect of these missions on her congregation. “The participants realize how blessed they are in their own lives and [the experience] develops their desire to give back,” she said. “Certainly, for our young people, the visits to Africa have been the first time that they have ever been in an African society, and they gain a different view of how they are seen. There are side experiences that have been profound.”

Sue Bentley ’75 considers herself to be on the second wave of female ministers in the Roanoke Valley. At Hollins, she found herself growing personally as well as spiritually and was involved in campus leadership as a resident assistant, student government member, and officer in the Religious Life Association. “I was aware of the issues of the day but wasn’t on the forefront of being an activist,” she said. “I was taking it all in, but I wasn’t at a point of acting yet. I was integrating it all and it bore fruit later.”

She attended Bible study and Beardslee’s Sunday night services and listened to the chapel’s guest preachers, who came from many faiths and regions. “It was very enlightening and allowed us to think in a theological perspective and was important in the maturity of my faith.”

After graduation, she worked for three years with Hollins’ then dean of students, Baylies Hearon Brewster’57. One day, she accompanied the dean to worship at Christ Episcopal Church. “I was in love with the liturgy and felt really connected,” she said. “That started me on a journey, and I didn’t know where it was leading.”

After Hollins, she took several classes at Duke Divinity School and worked in Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches as the director of Christian education. In the 1980s she enrolled in Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Chicago and returned to the Roanoke Valley in 1996.

She said her ordination to become an Episcopalian priest went smoothly. “I was on the second wave of women in the Episcopal Church, and Deborah [Hunley] broke the glass ceiling,” Bentley said. “I started in ’83 and I have to say that I did not have any trouble or feel any discrimination. I had a lot of support from my sponsoring church, Christ Church, and from the bishop. Even in my ministry, I’ve only had a couple of incidents that stem from my being a woman.”
Eventually, she came to St. James Episcopal Church in Northwest Roanoke. She said Beardslee’s teachings came to fruition there with her jail visitations. “Alvord encouraged people to go visit the jail. All three of us [interviewed for this article] are saying what a significant mentor he was—he was the first voice I heard calling us forth for social justice,” Bentley said. “I’m hearing the echoes of his voice almost 35 years later.”

Opening her church to Roanoke’s growing South Sudanese population was only natural at St. James. She said the venture blends her interest in South Sudan with the church’s mission and parish work. In 2000, after the U.N. started relocating Sudanese to the Roanoke area, several of the refugees attended church because they had been baptized as Episcopalians in South Sudan. She heard one of them say they were seeking a place to hold a Sudanese worship.
In 2009, St. James began weekly hosting of the South Sudanese Christian fellowship services, conducted in Arabic and English. Bentley accepted the invitation to attend these services and serve as the preacher. “So I sing all the hymns in Arabic, but I don’t know what I’m singing,” she said, chuckling. “The way to build relationships is to be present. We have a partnership and it is a beautiful way of really using a church building.”

She said St. James isn’t trying to blend both groups; instead, the South Sudanese are considered a “nesting” congregation. Bentley said the experience has been “enriching” and encourages both congregations to connect personally. “When people ask me what the Sudanese need, I say, ‘They are not a project, they are a people.’”
Both local and Sudanese children attend the weekday Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Christian education program. The church is also helping Sudanese women learn sewing, a trade that was disrupted by the war. Virginia seamstresses from as far away as Floyd, Lexington, and Lynchburg travel to Roanoke to lend a hand. “They come for the relationships and passion they have for the Sudanese,” she said.

One of Bentley’s greatest joys as a minister is having a small community of about 210 people, plus the 25 to 30 Sudanese who attend church regularly. “What is most rewarding for me is being a church small enough to be a community,” she said. “I can be on a journey with people as they grow in their faith and journey through life. I can be a pilgrim on the wave, and that is most compelling and rewarding.”

Pamela J. Podger has been a staff reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, Wall Street Journal, Roanoke Times, and other daily newspapers for more than 25 years. In 1989 she was a Fulbright Scholar to Colombia, covering “solidarity” lending that aided small entrepreneurs. Her freelance writing has appeared in The New York Times, American Journalism Review, and other publications. As a reporter, she’s encountered angels and devils; she’s sung with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and, while covering California prisons, met Charles Manson.

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