Looking back at 2018, it was filled with several major transitions including my 70th birthday. To mark the occasion my three children put together a weekend that included: a Friday night sweat lodge where we sweated and burned away our toxins and negative energy causing blockages and burdens in our lives, a Saturday evening reception featuring great food, family and friends and Sunday morning worship service. The worship service was held at Abundant LUU in historic SW Atlanta. I reflected on elderhood and shared some of my spoken word pieces. I was surprised with a foot washing performed by my daughters, daughter-in-love and my granddaughter. Omelika Bynum, a long time friend and founder and director of Giwayen Mata, Atlanta’s premier female percussion and dance group, called us to worship with the ancient sounds of African drumming. Another friend, Imani Williams, serenaded everyone with a beautiful gospel hymn.
Four months earlier I had relocated stateside to Marietta, GA after residing in St. Croix, VI for six years. I had served as the minister with the small UU congregation and became heavily involved with non-profits such as the Women’s Coalition and the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Council’s Faith Based Committee, both addressing domestic violence and sexual assault. Another interest, interfaith dialogue, was channeled through St. Croix Interfaith Coalition. As I age I have grown more interested in issues of aging and elderhood as evidenced in my membership in the St. Croix Council of Elders. I would have been hard pressed to say which transition, turning 70 or relocating from STX was the most challenging in 2018.
Having sold or given away all my belongings except my car, clothes and a few personal and sentimental items, I was starting all over again. I had done this at least twice in my life time so this was not a big deal. However, it is always a challenge to make choices about our belongings and to make decisions about our attachments. At times it was almost overwhelming to sort through six years of possessions that I had acquired assuming at that time that I was going to be living in STX indefinitely.
I successfully relocated from one environment to another attending to all the details to make that happen. I accomplished turning seventy with great joy and celebration.
What has not happened and what is a source of consternation is being unprepared for the ageism I experienced in Atlanta. Since the time I relocated from St. Croix on June 1, 2018 to the time I returned on September 15, 2019 I had been unemployed. I had completed close to 100 applications for various positions that netted me only one interview. I lowered my expectations and applied for positions requiring a Bachelor’s in Social Work. I applied for several administrative assistant positions. I did not get any call backs from my efforts. Out of desperation I applied to teach ESL in Japan. When the recruiter called they informed me that the legal retirement age in Japan was 65 and that I was too old for the position.
I was a 70-year-old active woman still experiencing good health that wants to and needs to work. I had pursued social work positions with no success. So I thought, let me turn my attention to ministry, which I was sure there were opportunities for me in the Atlanta area where some six congregations exist. While not all of them were in search I pulled out my ministerial packet and updated it and completed paperwork online with the UUA. I was called and interviewed for two congregations. I decided that I was not going to leave it to chance. I made it known on my ministerial packet that I was looking for a congregation that was already doing work around anti-racism, anti-oppression and multiculturalism. And if they were not, they would be willing to make a serious commitment. I thought the two interviews went as well as could be expected. The final decisions were not in my favor and someone else was called. I then turned to the Interim Ministers Search process. I was the first District Executive to participate in the intensive and rigorous training years ago. Other Field Staff followed my suit. My rationale was that I wanted a deeper understanding of Interim Ministry to be able to assist and support the Interims in the then District, now Region. To that end I was successful.
During my job hunting stint in 2018-2019 I signed up for Interim Ministry and applied to a couple of congregations whose ministers had left. I was unsuccessful once again. At this point I had begun to rethink my whole reason for returning stateside. A few months later dialogue with my family made it clear that settling on our Ancestral Land as I anticipated was not an option.
Interspersed in between my job hunting I was fortunate to be able to spend time visiting family in Atlanta, Virginia and Detroit. These memories would become even more precious when I later decided to return to St. Croix in the face of opposition from some family members.
Reflections on Aging (and Ministry)
I had never thought about aging until my job hunting experience in Atlanta when I returned stateside. Previously, I have had the luxury of aging gracefully (and still do) and I was employed in positions and situations that did not penalize me for aging. That changed when I relocated to Atlanta. Technology has changed the entire job hunting process. The ministry search is very time-sensitive and since I thought I had plenty of time I focused on social work or human service positions. While it is illegal to ask an applicant’s age, the new question is, “When did you graduate from high school?” In the course of over one hundred applications I had one interview. Ironically, it was the one position I really wanted, a counseling position at the Pulaski State Women’s Correctional Institute. I really worked hard and contorted myself to convince them to hire me and to recognize what a gift I would be. It did not happen. I had all my friends and prayer warriors praying for me and I visualized myself working with the women and living in Hawkinsville, the same town that our family’s Ancestral Land was located. But it was not to be.
For a period of time I stopped job hunting. I recognized that the constant rejection would sooner or later take its toll on my self-esteem and confidence and I did not want to fall prey to these subtly destructive messages that I was no longer of value because of my age and that I had nothing to offer. I never believed that but it was clear that I was fighting a losing battle. At least one person said I was running when I made the decision to return to St. Croix. Others said I didn’t give it enough time. Still others insisted that I simply did not engage in the kind of networking that would have gotten my resume in front of the right folks.
In hindsight, none of this matters now. I am back in St. Croix, VI. While I am not doing parish ministry I was employed as a Disaster Case Manager helping individuals, mostly senior homeowners, who did not access resources two years ago to repair damages to their homes. In this second cycle we are stepping into the gap along with other non-profits to help individuals and families in their recovery. There is a lot of work to be done here. I did that work for a couple of years. I am now working part time as the Sexual Assault Response Team Coordinator for the Territory. As a survivor of early childhood violence and a survivor as a battered woman and sexual assault, this work has called me over the years and now I am resuming this work again.
Once again I feel needed and am engaged in my call, to serve the needy and marginalized of society. My employers did not care about my age. My reputation preceded me and I was hired and immediately put to work.
No matter what our age we want to feel our lives make a difference and that what we do adds value. In a capitalist society the profit margin is the bottom line. As a senior, I am not a lucrative investment. I want to live out the remainder of my years in a community where being an elder is not a deficit. I want to be valued for my competence and ability to contribute. For me, I would rather be in St. Croix among friends that see past my age, past my wrinkles, past my grey hair and take the time to review my resume and decide based on the merits of my experience and not my age.