Hearing the Voice Within, Answering the Call

by Rev. Karen Baldwin

March 2007

Rev. Karen Baldwin

When I was a little girl at St. Winifred’s Catholic School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I was very odd. Unlike my siblings and classmates who detested going to Mass every morning before class … I loved it. While they wrestled in the pews and fidgeted with the kneelers hoping to get sent out early … I would have loved for it to last all day. They poked fun at the ritual of communion … I adored it. They mocked the nuns in their tight head gear as they sang boring hymns that didn’t even begin to compare to the up and coming “Beatles” … I was sure I was hearing angels. They heard the drone of Latin … I heard the quiet voice whispering to my heart to lean in closer.

Yes, I was odd. At the ripe old age of 7 or 8, I was a terrible misfit. I couldn’t even pretend to enjoy their fun. I was terrified of damaging the magic that I felt so potently and had no words to explain. Somewhere, there at St. Winifred’s, rubbing my hands over the dark, polished wooden pews, my knobby little knees pressing the leather of the padded kneelers, my lacy veil pinned carefully to my hair, and clutching my prized rosary … I heard the call. I knew. My life belonged to God.

My only rational choice at the time was to become a nun. Yes, the wardrobe was limited, but the perks looked appealing. I would be an “insider” at Mass every morning for the rest of my life, I’d get to be a teacher, and I could wear a rosary around my neck without looking peculiar. It all sounded perfect.

But life moved on. My family left the East Coast a few years later for a new life in California . I went to public schools, got deeply involved with music, fell in love with science, explored the many different denominations of Christianity that my friends belonged to … and went to Mass every Sunday morning.

I was old enough by now to have serious internal conflict between what I knew in my heart to be true about the God I belonged to and the doctrine that I was taught. But I lacked the maturity to resolve my struggle. I didn’t have any awareness yet of Buddhism, or Hinduism, or even my closely related Judaism … but I knew for sure that those little pagan babies in China were not going to be punished just for being born in a non-Christian country. I silently protested against exclusivity.

And life moved on again. I left home to get married, moved around the world, had a baby, climbed the proverbial career ladder, and enjoyed raising my son. For a while I didn’t even hear the voice of the call. My life was extraordinarily busy, at times very complicated, and being a mom was wonderfully fulfilling. I concluded that all that business about having a “calling” must have been a terribly grandiose misunderstanding on my part.

And so there I was, right in the middle of accepting a rather ordinary existence when it happened. The voice of the call returned … louder and more persistent than ever.

It was annoying. By now I had all the skills of a seasoned negotiator, so I argued back. And I argued hard. But all the logic of my mind couldn’t overpower the longing in my heart. It didn’t seem to matter how much I accomplished in life in all the usual ways … I still hadn’t answered my call.

So here I am. And it is good to be here. It has been a long and arduous search to find the right place for me to answer my call … the place in the world that matches the place in my heart: The Chaplaincy Institute for Interfaith Ministry. I am proud to belong to a community that abandons no one.

We have laughed over the years at how many times in my career I filled the position of “official greeter” at work. You know … the person who trains the new employees … the one who welcomes the out-of-towners and shows them around … the one who smiles and says “What can I do to make you comfortable?” It always seemed odd and rubbed me wrong that this job should so frequently fall on me. Until now.

Now I see it as the perfect training ground for being a minister. Because, after all, isn’t that exactly what a minister is … God’s official greeter: The one who says, “Welcome to the realm of the Divine. Won’t you come in and let me share what I know? What can I do to make you comfortable in this experience of the ineffable mystery? How can I best accompany you on your journey?”

And as an interfaith minister, I am especially grateful to be able to say, “What language do you speak? I will meet you in your experience of the Divine and we can journey together however you are most comfortable.”

It’s been a 45-year journey from the pews of St. Winifred’s to today, and I have been humbled many, many times along the way. But today, I am proud to stand here before you, lifted by your love, your support, and your acceptance of me … to answer my call with a great … big … “YES”!