The Rev. Pearlena Woolridge is pastor of the all-black Christ United Methodist Church in Aquasco, a swatch of flat fields and tiny houses in southern Prince George's County.
The daughter of ministers of an independent church, Woolridge says, "I'm now more conservative than I used to be, maybe. I don't know whether it's because as you grow older, you grow closer to God, or whether you just grow closer to the time when you need Him." She's in her 50s.
She says she sees education and hard work--more than political activism--as the answer to social injustice, is "completely against abortion," and won't publicly baptize children born out of wedlock. "I don't think an unwed mother should be held the same as a girl who's kept herself chaste."
The parish, 400 strong, is her fourth rural appointment in the last dozen years, and a far cry from her former life as an affluent doctor's wife. After Dr. Thomas J. Woolridge died suddenly of leukemia, she got rid of their live-in maid, cabin cruiser and Baltimore townhouse, and squandered a substantial inheritance.
"I threw myself on the mercy of the Lord and fasted and prayed for nine days and nights," she says. "I felt the Lord was cleansing me, and that I was divinely called." MANSFIELD KASEMAN
The Rev. Mansfield Kaseman, pastor of Rockville United Church, has lately started his days by "going beyond my mind and tapping into the universal spirit that unites and transforms life." That is, he meditates--in bed, at his desk and, when the spirit moves, while sitting on the floor.
Every few weeks, he visits his "spiritual guide," another clergyman who "identifies fresh techniques to help me grow." It's a program of Washington's Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, which some clergy have labeled a retreat from social action. Kaseman, also executive director of the United Church Center for Community Ministries, says, "Every day I'm facing impossible tasks: trying to provide food and shelter, counseling families, the problems of drug addiction. So I need this corrective of meditation, lest I become frustated or angry or preoccupied."
He has long pursued such causes as civil rights, the peace movement and community organizing. In 1979, he came to the Rockville church, which is affiliated with both the Presbyterians and the United Church of Christ.
"Around the age of 40," says Kaseman, 42, "you become a little less concerned with outside influences and rewards, and become more interested in your own internal worth. And you start taking a little bit better care of yourself." ALISON CHEEK
The Rev. Alison Cheek sometimes thinks of leaving the Episcopal Church, a group often at odds, she says, with "women's spirtuality."
But, "It would be like trying to pull myself up by my roots," says the former Washington cleric, now a pastoral counselor at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.
"I used to love the church in a somewhat romantic fashion," says the Australian-born widow of a World Bank executive. "I don't think I love the church now, certainly not the way I once did. A lot of my task has been to relinquish my illusions."
One of the "Philadelphia Eleven" --the ground-breaking group of women ordained as Episcopal priests in 1974 without the approval of church hierarchy--Cheek wasn't officially recognized until 1977. She says the struggle made her "realize for the first time that the church was capable of confusion and almost deception."
She held part-time jobs in several Washington area parishes and left for Philadelphia in 1980 to run the Well Woman Center, an "experimental outreach program for women who were alienated from the church."
Says Cheek, 55, "I have spent a lot of time with other women, seeking ways to express spirituality that feel authentic to them--developing women's rituals and lifting up feminine imagery in the liturgy." ERNEST GIBSON
"It may be that God's African people and God's sons and daughters of Africans (are) the only ones who can really have compassionate rule in the world," preaches the Rev. Ernest R. Gibson, political leader and activist.
Head of both the Council of Churches of Greater Washington and First Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church, Gibson says he's come to this view "from my expanded understanding of God's use of people."
Gibson says biblical and historical studies have given him new insight into God's use of black people, among whom he numbers Aesop, Abraham, St. Augustine and three Catholic popes. He says Anwar Sadat visiting Jerusalem and Andrew Young talking to the PLO are contemporary examples of God at work through black men. "We were the first ones to deal with international affairs," he maintains.
Gibson, 62, entered the ministry about 40 years ago, after "a voice said to me, just like you and me sitting here, 'Go and preach.'" In 1952, he took over First Rising, then a storefront church.
"My focus in the beginning was individual salvation and redemption. That expanded to my trying to understand God's redemptive work in this nation. Now it has expanded to God's work in history, His working among the nations to bring peace in the world."