Pastor Beth Purdum flies from island to island, delivering sermons about love, dignity and justice.
SO HERE SHE IS once more, standing before her flock in the full Lutheran plumage, bargaining with the Holy Spirit.
To be sure, for the Rev. Elizabeth Nancy Purdum, this particular negotiation qualifies as a minor one. It involves the gist of the Sunday sermon she planned to deliver to the Lutheran faithful — once, twice, then a third time — on Lopez, San Juan and Orcas islands.
To accomplish this trifecta and keep the “morning” in Sunday services, Beth Purdum will do some fancy island-hopping in the front seat of a small airplane — a necessity in tending her unusual flock, a single congregation, spread between three islands. But for now, what’s important is that at 9 a.m. on Sunday, the bargain has been struck.
Purdum, at this moment a single woman of 56, stands not at the raised pulpit, but on floor level, between the first two rows of Lopez Island’s Center Church, which honestly looks as if it is set in a painting. Before the congregation of about 35 souls can even get resettled after a hymn that asks the Lord to have mercy, mercy on us all, she cuts to the chase and offers a confession.
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“Last night, I thought about my sermon as I always do,” she says in the small sanctuary of the 128-year-old church seated atop a knoll, surrounded by lilacs, a far-flung view of the Olympic Mountains and pastures dotted by grazing sheep. “Then I thought about it again, and said: ‘Nah!’ ”
The congregation laughs, and any existing Sunday-morning tension evaporates and floats out the windows and into the spring sunshine. Her “replacement” sermon is more of a conversation.
She is talking about the day’s New Testament reading, John 10:22-30. The passage describes Jesus being sharply questioned, in Jerusalem, about his messianic claims. Jesus answered: “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they will follow me.”
Purdum, as she often does, shifts the focus from old texts to real life. She suggests that, like most Biblical passages, this one is prone to misinterpretation or even mistranslation. (For example: The Genesis account of God’s creation of woman from a “rib” of the first man, Adam, is a mistranslation, she argues; the original text referred to the creation of woman from one “side” of Adam, suggesting complementary/equal/opposite, not higher/lower.)
Purdum tells her flock: In the passage from John, Jesus and his doubters were having a normal, human argument. It just happened to be about the nature of God.
“They are just people,” she says. The underlying argument is, “Who is God as creator? This is why we have all this language about sheep and flocks.”
THE LANGUAGE, Purdum knows, is the key to a faith based largely upon a single, ancient book — and now interpreted by her and other non-fundamentalist Protestants as “living texts.”
A Seattle native and Roosevelt High grad with undergraduate training in anthropology, biology and archaeology, she did not come to the ministry wearing blinders. The faith upon which her life of service is based is an intricate mélange of ancient belief and modern rationality. She admits lifelong fascinations with both hominid evolution and human spirituality.
If the spiritual refuge of the church is to survive, she believes, it will evolve with society. The stakes are sufficient that she is willing to push those boundaries: “Truth be told, we have a lot of weighty history that could be shed, leaving us lighter and more responsive to places where the need for love, dignity and justice are very great.”
Notably, it is her style to discuss such topics with no hint of the haughty assuredness of a stern cleric, but more as a humble student of life and its mysteries — a person constantly questioning. This is important, because she knows those she serves carry on the same conversations, at various levels, in their own minds every day.
All of this creates an air of comforting approachability. This, in the eyes of her faithful, is what makes Purdum special.
“She opens up the Bible to me in ways that I never expected,” says Linda Brainerd, a longtime member of the Lopez church. A lifelong Lutheran, she embraces Purdum on first sight at the Saturday Lopez swap meet. “She’s also just a good friend.”
This is how Purdum views her church members. The finer points of theology, long ago absorbed at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, are at the ready if needed. But she would rather speak to congregants in the same calm voice she would use to discuss their problems over a croissant at Café Demeter in Friday Harbor.
This technique is on display during her brief sermon at Center Church. Glancing at a 3×5 notecard, Purdum steers the congregation from the Jerusalem temple to her prior pastoral experience in “extreme western Colorado” — fittingly, sheep country. She recalls a horrific highway accident in which a semitrailer barreled into a large flock of sheep. Paradoxically, the flock’s owner, a man making a living off the processing of sheep, was heartbroken.
Why? The sheep, at that moment, were in his charge; he was their shepherd.
“As sheep are to the shepherd, so are we to God,” she says. The parable does not suggest God’s followers are sheep. What’s important is the relationship between flock and protector.
“We don’t often give ourselves credit for how precious we are to God,” she says. “Or how precious we should then be to each other.” Humans, with their propensity to screw things up for themselves, are at their best in communities, she says. “We are much better together.”
The congregation nods approvingly, rising to sing another hymn. Communion is served — the body and blood of Christ, symbolized by gluten-free bread and grape juice. The Apostles’ Creed is recited, and the service is complete.
“Go in peace,” Purdum intones with a warm smile. “Serve the Lord.”
THIRTY MINUTES later, Purdum is serving the Lord in a car zipping down a country lane, on a tight deadline to meet a plane at Lopez Airport, elevation 209. Surrounded by firs, the landing strip can be a harrowing point of embarkation, particularly on windy winter days.
For many years, the men who preceded Purdum flew the San Juan Lutherans’ own small plane between the islands for Sunday services; the church sold the plane and now charters flights with Island Air. On this day, one of its pilots is waiting for Purdum, who emerges from the car with her sermon notes in one hand, her flight headset in the other.
Although it was no longer a job requirement when she was hired in 2014, Purdum is a licensed pilot, a skill she picked up with a Whatcom County flying club in the 1980s while attending Western Washington University. Her airworthiness was a bonus to the hiring committee, she says. “What it mostly did is made them confident that I wouldn’t have any fears. There are risks that you just accept, even though the pilots here are just wonderful.”
The fact that she is at home in the cockpit makes her Sunday schedule, daunting even without the flights, less stressful. After the 9 a.m. Center Church service, Purdum slips the bonds of Lopez and flies — estimated flight time: six minutes — to Friday Harbor for an 11 a.m. service at St. David’s. This is followed by a 12:30 p.m. flight to Orcas for a 1:15 service at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Eastsound. At 3 p.m., she flies from Orcas back to Lopez.
On heavy-wind days, the flight routine is replaced by an even-more complicated ferry/car shuffle (don’t even ask). Her sermons at each stop follow the same theme but are tailored somewhat for each branch.
On weekdays, Purdum serves on various community committees, and works as a volunteer (a favorite: the “Take it or Leave It” swap meet at the Lopez Recycling Center). At every step, she is beholden to the decidedly non-sympathetic interisland ferry schedule.
The boats run so infrequently that it’s difficult to get people from three islands to a meeting anywhere, at any time, all at once. The island Lutherans long ago devised a solution: They hold church council meetings on the ferry, picking up members on two islands and then conducting their business on the longest leg, before people have to start getting off. It does enforce the need to get to the point.
Bottom line: Forget about any assumption that life as a pastor in the bucolic San Juans is a retirement gig. “It’s more like a variety show,” Purdum says of her life as an island shepherd. “You handle it with humor.”
THIS KNACK for laughing at her own predicament has served Purdum well. After seminary, she found herself in the late 1980s as a budding Lutheran minister in Colorado. There, a church-assigned organizing meeting with a prospective congregation in the town of Craig shook her from her comfort zone.
A group of about three dozen townspeople met with Purdum over dinner. Many of the men in the group in this mining-and-ranching region were less than thrilled that the Lutheran hierarchy had sent them a woman. (Note: This was not unusual; the church began ordaining female ministers in the early 1970s, but pockets of resistance endure.)
And here is where her affinity for bargaining with her higher power really began.
“I looked at the town and said, ‘Yeah, I’m not going to live here,’ ” she recalls. “I’ll have dinner, I’ll talk to these nice people — and I’ll go back to Fort Collins.”
They talked for three hours. One of the group’s oldest male members then spoke up, throwing out the novel idea that having a female pastor in their Carhartt world might make their new church … well, stand out, in a special way.
“I was like, ‘No. No. No. No. No. No. NO,’ ” Purdum recalls, chuckling. “You’re supposed to be led by the Holy Spirit, right? So I said to the Holy Spirit, ‘Look, I do not want to stay here.’ But I made a deal with the Holy Spirit: If they were to all ask me to come, I would stay. They took a vote right there, and they all put their hands up.”
She promised herself, the Holy Spirit and the church that she would give it two years. She stayed for eight. She left behind a congregation of 125 souls, and took with her a new wisdom. She spent the next 11 years as senior pastor at a Lutheran church in Albuquerque. Then the islands came calling, offering a chance to come home.
Comparatively, her new ministry “is like gravy,” Purdum says. Not easy, but unique.
The biggest challenge in her new life is familiar to other non-trust-funders living in the islands: It’s tough to live there on an average salary.
The only other problem, Purdum notes, with her usual good humor, has followed her throughout her career — the tricky task, for a female minister, to find a suitable male companion. Think about it, she says: You’re starting out by telling guys that weekends are pretty much shot. And then there is the whole religion thing, which some people are not comfortable with.
Matchmaking services in the past sent her on a series of terribly awkward first dates with fundamentalist Evangelical men — they of the women being barefoot and pregnant mindset.
She laughs. “And I’ve been looking, too. My mistake was in not getting married before I graduated from seminary.” It’s the best way to couple up for ministers, she believes: You make the lifetime commitment before the realities of the ministerial life sink in.
The problem was only exacerbated by moving to the San Juans, where, when it comes to dating life, “The pool is very small,” Purdum laments. “But I’m never giving up!”
THOSE LAMENTATIONS were uttered by Purdum last October, when the notion of this story first took root. The very next month, at a Friday Harbor Kiwanis meeting, a tall man with kind eyes shuffled up to her and asked if she’d like to meet up sometime. David Eden, a marriage and family therapist, had noticed her before, but never got up the nerve.
She agreed and, being so out of practice, didn’t clue in at their first outing — now known as their first date: a drink at the local American Legion Hall — that Eden was interested in her in that way. When this finally sunk in, she cautiously reciprocated.
Eden, 70, who has adult children from a long-ago marriage, jumped in with both feet once he learned that Purdum was at least a decade older than his daughter, who had threatened serious repercussions should he ever date someone anywhere near her own age. They fell fast in love, and on Christmas Eve last, David Eden took the knee and asked Elizabeth Purdum if she might ever consider becoming his wife.
Their wedding announcement was written in the good humor they now share, with a headline that read: “A minister and a therapist walk into a bar …” They were married at the end of April at St. David’s and celebrated at a reception that became a true interisland event, with music provided by the group in which Eden normally plays trumpet, the One More Time Swing Band. The story to follow the invitation’s headline, they will write together.
The three branches of the San Juan Lutherans — 60 to 100 in total on a given Sunday — mostly embraced the marriage. Some of them, Purdum now knows, secretly worried that the minister they feel lucky to have landed would get lonely in the islands and wander off toward taller steeples.
Getting hitched also brought its own surprises — island people she assumed were mere casual acquaintances revealed how much they have always had her best interests at heart. One of the pilots who zips her between services, learning of her engagement, vowed to check the guy out for suitability — and then gave his blessing.
As someone known to bargain with higher powers, that unexpected touch of earthly love was a profound, and welcome, experience, Purdum says — an indication of the value of having friends in places both high, low and right at the slack tide line.
“You just never know who is rooting for you until something like this happens.”