- Cathlin Baker
- 37 years old
- Grew up in North Plainfield, NJ; lives in Morningside Heights “the hotbed of spiritual and intellectual pursuit”
- Special Assistant to the President of Union Theological Seminary; Minister in the United Church of Christ
You are an ordained minister. What’s the reaction that you typically get when people find that out? Especially in NYC, or around people our age? Curiosity? Suspicion? Requests to conduct weddings?
A little of all that. Mostly people become sincere and want to discuss the meaning of life or a life crisis, which is a great privilege. When I am meeting people for the first time in those kind of social situations, I worry that they won't understand my ministry. So I usually find myself explaining -- I didn't grow up going to church so I was able to follow this path without any baggage. I have found a denomination that totally inspires me -- the United Church of Christ. And as much as I appreciate a variety of faith traditions, I have embraced Christianity for its message of love, forgiveness, and justice and kindness for the excluded. I feel called to create communities of faith that are open, inclusive, diverse, and passionate about all people living just and full lives.
Conversely, with an older, or more “traditional” age group, are they confounded by women in the clergy or your more progressive leanings?
Funny you should ask that question because I recently was a hospice chaplain down South. I would worry that my elderly Southern Baptist patients would have trouble receiving me. But because my ministry was one of love and forgiveness, I quickly found a special place in their hearts and in their lives.
We know a lot of liberal arts grads that study religion, but never turn it into practice. What led you into the direction that you took?
I had no idea I would become a minister. When I first went to seminary I was in a master’s program, looking at it more academically, like an extension of college. For years I came up with excuses for why I couldn’t be ordained. I grew up in a family that meditated. But my seminary experience and work with churches showed me that the religious life is full of surprises and that there was a role even, and especially for people like me.
You’re at Union Theological Seminary as special assistant to the president. It all sounds very West Wing. What is it that you do? Is it more administrative, or do you still get to do good in the field?
Sure there is some administration, but mostly related to putting together really interesting programs. In a little over a month, I’ve worked on several great events: Bill and Judith Moyers talking about the dangers of religious extremism, a meeting of interfaith peacemakers including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and Elaine Pagels talking about those Christian texts that never made it into the canon, what we call the Bible. The other great piece of my job is working with students on understanding and exploring their spiritual formation. By accompanying them on their spiritual path, I stay connected to mine.
What was it like hosting the Dalai Lama last month?
The security details involved in hosting His Holiness the Dalai Lama are pretty overwhelming. But it was all worth it to be near him. He is present in every step that he takes and he exudes joy. I had to attend an organizing meeting at the Office of Tibet which is sort of like where the Tibetan government in exile is housed. His Holiness also travels with an entourage . I thought of them as a wandering cabinet of governmental officials. Union organized a very moving interfaith public service which included incredible puppets, some on stilts. When the Dalai Lama saw them, he roared with laughter and ran towards him. It was an incredible sight.
What’s the student body at Union -- your alma mater -- like? Is the typical student someone who has planned to enter the ministry for sometime, or someone newly discovering this field?
Some students have a strong sense of calling, and that call can take many forms. Some arrive very clear about their call to parish ministry, others to the chaplaincy, worship and the arts, or to social justice organizations. Union is also ideal for the searcher. For those who have felt pulled along a spiritual path, believe they are being called, but not sure to what. Union helps them figure it out. Mostly the people who are attracted to Union are attracted to a hopeful and inclusive Christian message, committed to working for justice and welcoming of a diversity of faith perspectives.
You’ve been active in poverty and economic justice causes for years (e.g., The Poverty Initiative). Can you discuss some of the projects you’ve been engaged in?
I’ve spent almost 15 years working with a movement, the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, which is committed to ending poverty not managing it. This movement is led by poor and homeless people with support from a variety of constituencies. I’ve focused on increasing support from the religious community. I’ve organized marches, public policy strategy meetings and written extensively all with the goal of moving people to believe that poverty does not need to exist in the richest country in the world.
What sort of political involvement have you encountered? Do you find that government – either local or national -- helps or gets in the way?
Largely the federal government has failed poor people in this country, but I’ve also encountered wonderful people working in all different arenas.
You’ve been affiliated with the Judson Memorial Church and helped organize public events and celebrations there as well. Do people beyond the regular congregation come to enjoy the events, or does participation tend to be more in house?
Judson is my home church, and it is well-known for welcoming many people into its space. Non-church groups use the space all the time. Our big public events in the arts or social justice also attract lots of people. I love Judson for its firm commitment to freedom of expression, because it is a community that loves questions more than answers, and because everyone is welcome in the pulpit and all aspects of church life.
You also live on the grounds of UTS. In a city full of skyscrapers and high rises, what’s it like to live in such Gothic surroundings?
Absolutely dreamy. I don’t want to share too much or my Narnia might be discovered.
Things to know about Cathlin:
What's the best thing you've ever purchased/salvaged off the street?
Fresh tacos at Mexican soccer matches in Inwood Park.
Which city establishment sees more of your paycheck than you do?
Liberty House in the Columbia neighborhood where I live. I can’t stop buying these Brazilian felt hand puppets of figures like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass. They are my new favorite baby present.
Personality Problem Solving: Would you consider your personality more hysterical or more obsessive, and have you changed since living in New York; has "New York" become a part of you?
I thought I had lost my NY side living in Florida the past two years. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up. But I am still sufficiently hysterical enough to get my job done and be a mom. I guess you can take the girl out of NY, but not the NY out of the girl.
NYC Confessional: Do you have a local guilty pleasure?
Murray’s Cheese Shop.
When you just need to get away from it all, where is your favorite place in NYC to be alone, relish in solitude and find your earthly happiness? (We promise not to intrude.)
I just have to go to my “backyard” -- Union’s courtyard -- the largest private outdoor space in NYC.
There are 8 Million stories in The Naked City. Tell us one, but try to keep it to a New York Minute.
For about six months, my husband and I sublet a Washington Heights apartment from a Romanian woman, named Olga, a former geologist turned skin care technician/ acid peel specialist. We took care of her enormous Philodendron, admired her many jars of pickled mushrooms and smelled embalming fluid drifting up from the funeral home below our window. It was perfect.
-- Interview by Lily Oei and Aaron Dobbs