Becky Zartman, 29, is assistant rector at St. Thomas’ Parish, an Episcopal church near Dupont Circle in Washington. She lives in Southeast Washington. This is an edited transcript of her interview with writer Laura Sessions Stepp.
I was born in central Pennsylvania, a sixth-generation Episcopalian. My parents went to church every week; it’s just what you did. I was an acolyte before I could read, and in Sunday school, I would ask so many questions that my priest would finally say, “Does anyone else besides Becky have a question?”
I had always known I wanted to be a priest, and in early 2005, two years before graduating from Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa., I approached the priest in my home town – who had replaced my childhood priest – for his backing. In the Episcopal Church, you need your local priest’s support to enter seminary and start the process of becoming ordained. This man didn’t think women should be priests. So I started the process at a church in Gettysburg and halfway through that process, the priest in Gettysburg left.
I asked God, “Are you serious? If you don’t want me to do this I will stop. I’m perfectly capable of doing something else.”
This began a period when I couldn’t feel God. I felt God obviously was in the world — in the creation, in people loving each other, in the sacraments — but God’s presence was not palpable in my life. For the first time ever, I felt very lonely.
Intellectually I knew that just because your friend moves away doesn’t mean she doesn’t exist. She just lives halfway across the country. I eventually realized I was getting church confused with God. Church is a human institution; God is God. The church is the best shot we have to figure out worship and serve God together. God is there, but sometimes human interactions preclude you from seeing God.
I had graduated from Gettysburg and was running my grandmother’s storage company, taking care of a new puppy and living with my parents. Almost all of my friends, including my boyfriend, were moving to D.C., so I moved too, in 2007.
I went to work for the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition (TASSC) at Catholic University, in the basement of Capuchin College. Many of the torture survivors came from Africa — Ethiopia, Somalia, Rwanda. Some of them had been political dissidents and had escaped their countries using other people’s passports. We had locks on all the doors. I worked with the refugees looking for asylum. Some received it in six weeks. For others, it took years.
One man from Burundi had been a political dissident, and his Christian faith was unshakable. He returned to Burundi in order to start a mission planting trees. Within two years, he passed away. He had a cancer that couldn’t be cured there but could have been cured here. He used his witness to effect change, and it ultimately killed him.
The stories the survivors told made me question my faith in people but not in God. People can be horrific to other people. At the same time, the people who came to us were in the middle of a resurrection story. They had made it to America. For them, God was a given.
I left the torture coalition in 2008 and took a job fundraising for the American Red Cross. It was like going to finishing school — 25 women under 35, all articulate and well dressed. Then the Haiti earthquake happened. We did exhausting work with long hours. It made me realize that if you really want to effect change, you need money in order to find the tools and resources, and well-trained people who have connections to other people who can help.
While I was working at the Red Cross, the bishop in my home diocese in Pennsylvania, who was new, talked with my home parish and then called me to extend an offer to start seminary again. I started seminary in August2010.
Before I left the Red Cross, I worried because it was hurricane season and one of the Red Cross’s busiest times. My boss told me: “It’s okay. You’re leaving us for God.”
Laura Sessions Stepp is a former Post staff writer.
Beliefs is an occasional feature in which we examine how people’s beliefs inform the way they live.