Living a life in between cultures and careers

Her life has been filled with times and experiences that can only be described as "in between." She has lived in between two cultures, walked a fine line in between law and conscience, and right now, finds herself in another of those "in-between" times.

Laura Merrill, assistant to the dean in the School of Theology, graduated last spring with a Master of Divinity degree. A candidate for ordination in the United Methodist Church, she was not eligible to complete ordination for another year. "I wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to do," she said. "I was very interested in staying at Candler -- the opportunity to have a different perspective on the life of the school, to see it from a different angle. It has been a good experience to move out of the student role into an administrative role."

Living on the borders

When Merrill begins to talk about the experiences that brought her to the School of Theology and to this point in her life, some of the passions that drive her life become evident.

The daughter of a United Methodist minister who was involved in the Civil Rights movement, Merrill grew up aware of social and political issues. She had finished college with a degree in international relations, and found herself unsure of what direction she should take. After being a church secretary and a waitress, she signed on with the Mission Intern Program of the United Methodist Church, a three-year program in which participants spend half their time abroad, then return to an agency in the United States.

"The goal is that you draw correlations between what you see abroad and here -- the suffering of people and how economic and political structures affect people's lives," she said. She was assigned to Chile, then to the Desert Southwest Border Ministry in Tucson, Ariz.

Merrill saw first hand the effects of poverty and politics on the lives of the people with whom she worked, both in Chile and in the United States. The Desert Southwest Border Ministry, said Merrill, was involved in the Sanctuary movement, which provides a "safe haven" for refugees fleeing from political oppression. "One of my predecessors," she said, "was convicted as a felon for conspiracy against the U.S. government," which she calls ludicrous. "My work was more on the end of social services for refugees in town -- giving them food, shelter, a ride to the doctor. But those things were still illegal."

"We [the U.S. government] were funding the Salvadoran government at $1.5 million per day to fight a civil war, yet our government was unwilling to recognize any political oppression, and was giving asylum to no one," she said. "At this same time, refugees from Cuba, Afghanistan and Eastern Europe were getting asylum immediately -- anyone from countries considered communist. We had signed an international treaty saying we would give safe haven to people -- we were breaking our own law. That was the rationale behind the Sanctuary movement."

Merrill stayed two additional years with the Border Ministry, then came to the School of Theology. "It's one thing to support a political agenda; it's another thing to put yourself in a position where your life will bump up against poor people, people in need. It changed my perspective of myself, of what's important."

In between two cultures

The assignment to Tucson was fortuitous for Merrill. Her father had been born in Tucson to Mexican-American parents. Her grandmother had gotten a divorce when Merrill's father was five, left the area and remarried.

"The placement in Tucson gave me an opportunity to redevelop ties with family," she said. "It was not my first contact; we had visited there. But I was able to form a relationship with that part of my heritage. I became able to claim part of that heritage for myself."

While in Tucson, she also became involved with a new initiative in the United Methodist Church to develop a strategy for ministries with Hispanic people, in which she currently remains involved. "It was a real formative influence in my life," she said. "That committee, made up of Hispanics and non-Hispanics, has helped to shape me vocationally as well, in terms of putting me in touch with role models -- leaders in the Hispanic community and the Hispanic church -- who are committed to the well being of the Hispanic community, and to the effect of church in the Hispanic community."

Their acceptance of her as Hispanic was an affirmation. "Their attitude was, `There's a lot of room here in terms of what it means to be Hispanic, and you are welcome.'"

The committee's goal is the involvement of Hispanic people at a much more integral level than previously achieved. "There is the understanding that we have become a white middle class church," she said. "There are exceptions to that, but that's what the models are based upon. To do ministry with people who don't fit that description means you have to do things differently. It means taking what we profess to be a message about hope and good news to people who aren't hearing it and coming to them as partners and participants."

Spanning the in-between

Merrill's current situation also is a time in-between, waiting for the arrival of her first child this fall, waiting for ordination in June, waiting for what the future may bring. What she does know is that she works well as "a bridge person." But her attitude about the future is a relaxed one. "Right now," she said, "let's wait and see what comes up."

-- Nancy M. Spitler

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