Two Women Clergy Members Speak from the Heart about Keeping the Faith
East Lansing clergy members Alice Townley (left) and Kit Carlson seated outside the All Saints Episcopal Church. (Photo by Ann Kammerer)
Clergy in university towns occupy a curious space between facts and faith, serving congregations that challenge the assumption that academics and religion don’t mix.
East Lansing spans religions, benefiting from the diverse populations and points-of-view in the city. Within East Lansing’s borders and immediate outlying areas, followers can find groups rooted in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Eastern faiths, as well as inter- and nondenominational churches that blend or follow autonomous doctrines.
Women also lead or serve as ordained clergy within many of East Lansing’s faith-based groups. Among those are the Rev. Dr. Katherine (Kit) Carlson, pastor of the All Saints Episcopal Church, and Rev. Alice Fleming Townley, assistant pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Okemos.
East Lansing Info recently sat down with Carlson and Townley to discuss their friendship, challenges, and perceptions of faith-based leadership in today’s politically charged, divided culture. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
ELi: Describe your initial path that led to the clergy and to East Lansing.
Carlson: When I look back on my family tree, I don’t see anyone who was particularly religious. My parents liked Episcopalian because they saw it as “fancy.” Our family moved from Detroit to Florida and I got involved in a youth group with the Episcopal church. I had a really powerful experience of God in that youth group. When I came back to Michigan and attended MSU, I was an acolyte at All Saints, but I got cold and moved back to Florida to attend the University of Florida. I met my husband at U.F. We moved to D.C. where I worked in corporate communications, and later as a freelancer. I got involved in the church, and was selected to attend Virginia Theological Seminary. I was ordained in 2000 and served the next six years in Maryland. When the opportunity at All Saints came up, I got beyond the weather. We moved back here in 2007.
Townley: I grew up in the church. My father was ordained in the Evangelical United Brethren Church and was a blueberry farmer. My mother was a Methodist minister. I thought about different careers like counseling, writing and nursing, but realized that ministry combined a lot of the same elements. As a youth, I became very active at the state level. I later attended MSU’s James Madison College and graduated in 1994. I went on to Duke University Divinity School and I lived on tobacco farms and served rural churches in North Carolina. I was ordained in 1997 and worked with churches in Southwest Michigan. I met my husband at MSU, and we moved to East Lansing in 2007. I’ve been with the Presbyterian Church for 10 years as a United Methodist pastor.
ELi: I understand the two of you are friends as well as colleagues. How would you describe your relationship?
Townley: We actually met after a woman I met at the bus stop said I should reach out to Kit.
Carlson: Yes. We decided to meet for coffee.
Townley: I was in a pickle at my church. Kit helped me step back and observe it. That was a turning point to me.
Carlson: We later went for a walk and had an idea that we should form a small colleague group.
Townley: So Kit and I are mentor friends. We both work as ministers. We’re both moms. We’re both mentors. We lean into each other and talk through sticky-prickly situations. That’s what we do for each other. And we’ve done it for years.
ELi: Tell us about your colleague group. It sounds like you do a lot of writing and contemplation.
Carlson: It’s a group for women clergy from all faiths. We get together about once every three weeks. We do a lot of collegial sharing and then we do free writing — after putting on baroque music and lighting a candle. We also read what we write to each other. So it’s a way we’re all connected. When things happen in each other’s lives we have that foundation where we can text and talk.
Townley: We keep the group to four members and we rotate. We can say anything about anything, and it helps us to find our own voice. We don’t publish any of the writings. It’s interior work and a way we find what’s underneath, what’s bothering us, and the core of our strength.
Carlson: It’s a place where we have permission to be where we’re at.
Townley: Yes. To be vulnerable and fragile, but recognize that we’re strong leaders, too. It bonds us, and readies us for when we’re all called upon to work together when crisis comes to the community.
Carlson: To the best of our knowledge, it might be the only clergy women group of its type in the state, or even the country.
ELi: Tell us more about how you partner with other faith communities in social justice issues.
Carlson: I think the intimacy and friendship among the interfaith clergy is so unique here. Originally, Alice and I were part of an interfaith group among East Lansing clergy, but it’s expanded to include Lansing members. Today, the Interfaith Clergy Association of Greater Lansing brings together faith communities from about 25 congregations — particularly during times of crisis. My congregation is also affiliated with Action of Greater Lansing — another interfaith community organizing group that works on social justice issues.
Townley: When there was a Koran burning in 2007, All Saints hosted a community reading of sections of the Koran.
Carlson: We also had a diversity festival here at All Saints when white nationalist Richard Spencer came to East Lansing. About 700 to 800 people came to the event sponsored by the city and many area groups. We had a potluck, literally pounds of cookies, and an outdoor stage with performances. We painted a peace banner. We had a prayer room. There were political leaders giving speeches on diversity. When it was all over, we learned that very few people had gone to see Spencer. It was a change event that made Spencer decide to stop coming here or to other college campuses.
Townley: When (President) Trump instituted his travel ban, we helped organize a prayer vigil for our refugee neighbors. More than 300 people gathered outside on a winter’s day. Refugee agencies and the interfaith clergy also banded together when Governor Snyder halted Syrian resettlement. That was the start of the All Faith Alliance for Refugees, a group that welcomes refugees to Greater Lansing through support, advocacy and events.
Carlson: We’ve declared ourselves a sanctuary church. We’re also working to build a statewide network across denominational boundaries for the sanctuary movement and immigration reform.
Townley: When it feels like we’re standing in the midst of so much destruction, it’s tempting to feel powerless. But we know what to do. We help our congregations go deep within themselves to find the word. We give people tools for those times of exile, which is what we feel like we’re in right now. And we help all our churches collaborate within the interfaith community.
ELi: What else is unique about the faith community here in mid-Michigan?
Carlson: The size and location of this community — where it’s not lumped in with Grand Rapids and Detroit — make us have to cling to each other more closely. The combination of the state government, university, and manufacturing community makes Greater Lansing an interesting place to live and a rich place to do faith-based justice work.
Townley: Our congregations are full of people who think through their faiths, and they are action-oriented. My church members teach me to do advocacy.
Carlson: Not all clergy and faith groups work together like they do in Greater Lansing. The boundaries are permeable, and friendships extend across the line. We’re more concerned about doing God’s work in the world than about having more members than someone else.
ELi: What ideas would you like to dispel about women in the clergy?
Carlson: I stand in my role as a human being who happens to be a woman. I experience the effects of patriarchy and the effects of discrimination, but that has nothing to do with my ability to exercise this vocation. There are many women clergy in this town who are tremendous leaders. We bring life and strength and our gifts to better this community.
Townley: I’m second generation women clergy. The first generation, like my mother, could not even take maternity leave. Many first generation women clergy didn’t have kids. I have the benefit but also the challenge of balancing marriage and motherhood with my work.
Carlson: That first generation were ice-breakers. They didn’t get to have rich careers. They got a load of grief and trouble and made the path for us.
ELi: Is it hard to lead in such divided times?
Townley: It’s scary and hard being a faith leader right now. I have church members who are leading initiatives and are getting hate mail and death threats because of the stances they’ve taken. Everyone’s anxiety is higher. That’s why we do our interior work: so we can find that voice, hear that voice, and then proclaim it.
Carlson: We’re an academic community, which helps, and a lot of my members were already doing social justice work when the heat turned up. But it’s not just that. My community is intentionally anti-racist, open and affirming. We believe in a God of love who wants to love the world back to health. We do not judge. We believe in using your reason. My challenge is to get people to go down into their hearts because they want to stay up in their heads and think it all through. You can’t think through God.
Townley: I like to share this story from John Lewis. He said that when he was growing up and the wind came and shook and lifted his house from the foundation, that he and his family would hold hands and run to the side of the house to weigh it down. That’s what we do here. We hold hands when the wind comes and blows so hard and we’re so scared. We run to each other and hold hands.
ELi: What do you offer those who are skeptical or hesitant of faith communities?
Carlson: I would encourage anyone who thinks Christians are haters and bigots or heteronormative to visit most any progressive denomination in this area. There are flavors and styles of Christianity and other faiths that are not like what you see portrayed in the news.
Townley: You can find fellowship, too, after most any service — often with tea and cookies. We’re open and inviting to everyone.
Carlson: When people think there is no point to religion and faith, they have no idea of what kind of work goes into the sinews and ligaments and network we’ve built.
Townley: We respond to more than crisis. We collaborate with the community. And our congregations are a place to pass the peace to one another.
Carlson: Church can be a place of restoration.
Townley: People come. And some feel hungry, thirsty and broken.
Carlson: Right now, people are depressed, angry and fearful across the board. We offer a place where you can take moment to breathe and celebrate making it through another week.
Those wishing to learn more about Greater Lansing’s faith community or to participate in a holiday service are welcome to attend the Interfaith Thanksgiving Service sponsored by the Interfaith Clergy Association of Greater Lansing. The service will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Monday, Nov. 25, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing, 5509 S. Pennsylvania Ave., Lansing.
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