Stepping into the great unknown

TRR publisher Laurie Stuart heads off to California


NARROWSBURG, NY AND BERKELY, CA — Three years ago, Laurie Stuart was given a pamphlet for the Starr King School of the Ministry in Berkeley, CA. She was immediately intrigued, and now she is finally able to pursue the dream. She has enrolled in a two-year masters program at Starr King, and she will continue her involvement with The River Reporter (TRR) from her new (dorm room) digs in Berkeley.

Stuart’s interest in religion and community has early roots. Both of her parents came to this country as children, her father (a Catholic) from Italy, and her mother from Germany at the start of WW II. Her mother, who is Jewish, “came over on a boat by herself in 1938.” Her parents met in high school. Both families were against the romance and at one point, said Stuart, “my grandmother put my mother’s suitcase in the middle of the room and said ‘choose.’ So, my mother packed it,” and the couple hitchhiked across the country to Seattle, WA. Stuart was born in Seattle, but the family returned east and settled in New Jersey, where Stuart was raised.

“Because my parents were from very diverse religious backgrounds, they chose Unitarianism. So, I was raised in the Unitarian church.

“The first Unitarians wrote the Declaration of Independence—Franklin, Jefferson, Adams. Their belief that everyone is created equal and that we all are entitled to liberty and happiness—that’s the foundation of our country.

“Unitarianism is non-creedal,” said Stuart. “There is not a particular way that you have to believe, which makes it very comfortable for people who come from all different kinds of backgrounds.” In Sunday school, said Stuart, “we studied all the religions, and were taught that all the religions have a certain validity.”

The Unitarian Universalist community was important in her family. “We went to church every Sunday. I had my first art show there; I performed there. It was a vibrant community center.”

Stuart attended college in studio art and moved to Narrowsburg in 1978. She got into the newspaper business when she visited the Delaware Valley Arts Alliance in Narrowsburg, NY, looking for opportunities to publish artist books and places to perform as a singer/songwriter. She met Tom DeGaetani, who founded TRR, and thus began her association with the paper. At that time, the paper came out every other week. In 1986, it went weekly, and her involvement and commitment increased.

During this time, Stuart became a charter member of the Upper Delaware Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, now in Beach Lake. When the church’s founding minister retired, Stuart was chosen by the fellowship to be the commissioned lay minister, with legal authority to conduct ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. She also prepares and conducts a sermon at the fellowship once a month.

Stuart sees her life’s journey as taking a turn toward a more conscious, informed and committed religious leadership: to be a “leader of souls, a person who, with presence, knowledge and skills, inspires others to be open hearted.”

How does her long association with TRR fit into this?

At first, said Stuart, “I never really knew why I worked on the newspaper. I like newspapering; I was the editor of my high school newspaper and literary magazine. I like printed things; I thought I wanted to be a printer. So it fit, kind of. But as the paper continued to grow and flourish, it became more of a community ministry to me. It does come out of my Unitarian background in that TRR tries to present a variety of different thought, to promote self esteem, thoughtful questioning and values that make community work better.” One example of this is the Upper Delaware Visioning Committee, which Stuart has facilitated for the past four years.

Stuart said, “From my first job as a YMCA camp counselor to my current position as publisher of TRR, my interest and energy seems to have been spent in helping situations and relationships between people and our world go better.”

And right now, Stuart is driven, she said, to pursue the idea of community ministry “a little more. A lot more.”

Earlier this month, she began Starr King and will perform her residency in Berkeley for the school term toward a masters in Religious Leadership for Social Change, a two-year program. “I need to know more,” she said. “I need some training and experiential knowledge. I need to immerse myself so I can have a deeper perspective.

“People tell me I won’t come back [from Berkeley]. But, I think the Upper Delaware is just the most fabulous place. It’s beautiful. The values are good. The communities are intact. It can be a challenge moving here and finding your way, finding a living. But it makes this place almost the epitome of the American Dream.”

All that is good here, she said, is also “exceedingly fragile. We live in a world where the priority of values is getting lost. The safeguards of our society are breaking down. We are being marketed too all the time. It’s all about money. It’s all about greed.

“What is interesting about the river valley,” said Stuart, “is that the environment is small enough, the scale is such that one particular person can make an amazing difference.”

Stuart wants to be a person who makes a difference. Bolstered by the new experience and knowledge she gains at Starr King, she will be back to do just that.

[This is part of a continuing series on women in the clergy.]

Laurie Stuart, publisher of The River Reporter, raises her arms to the river valley at Eagle Point in Tusten, NY, shortly before her journey to Berkeley, CA. Stuart, who serves as lay minister at the Upper Delaware Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Beach Lake, PA, begins a residency in Berkeley as part of a masters program at the Starr King School for the Ministry.
(Click for larger version)
TRR photo by Sandy Long
Setting out on a new road. (Click for larger version)
TRR photo by Stephen Stuart
Stuart walks along Euclid Street, just a block away from her dorm room at the Graduate Theological Union. (Click for larger version)
Contributed photo
Stuart conducts the wedding of Will Noonan and Elizabeth Kimmerle at The Hills Resort in Callicoon, NY on August 5, 2006. As a commissioned lay minister for the Unitarian Universalist Church, Stuart is legally empowered to perform wedding ceremonies. (Click for larger version)