As a going-away gift from the parishioners of
a church where she once preached, Judy Shema was given a Bible.
"To Judy," the inscription read, "The Crying Preacher."
"I just figure," said Shema, recalling the gift, "my
tears give other people permission to have theirs."
Don’t get the impression that Shema, who was named chaplain
at Oxford College on July 1, is only about doom and gloom, sadness
and repentance. While Shema’s empathy can take on a tone of
deep seriousness and she without question has faced—and overcome—life-changing
struggles, she radiates gregariousness, the magnitude of which Oxford
students are just beginning to see.
Shortly after the start of the semester, Oxford held a "foam
dance" for students. The setting involved a large, plastic
swimming pool and a lot of sudsy foam. Shema jumped right into the
middle of it.
"I thought I’d be all wet, but I really just got slightly
damp," said Shema, who is relentlessly upbeat in conversation.
Shema has no problem walking into the Oxford dining hall and sitting
down with a group of students she doesn’t know, just to talk.
She attends meetings of student organizations, goes to Oxford sporting
events and concerts, and sings in the chorale. Recently she organized
a knitting and crocheting group on campus, and its members are making
hats for the homeless for Thanksgiving.
"You’re the new chaplain, aren’t you?" a student
asked Shema one afternoon in the Oxford dining hall. "We were
talking about you yesterday," she said, indicating the friends
she sat with.
"Really?" Shema responded.
"I think it’s cool," the student said. "We
see you everywhere."
A chaplain’s first year in a new community is one of transition,
said Shema, who spent the last seven years at Tulane University
as chaplain of its United Methodist Campus Center. The only way
she can get to know the people around her is to immerse herself
in their activities, she said.
"It’s kind of a scary thing when young people trust part
of themselves with you," Shema said. "You have a great
deal of influence on their lives, but that can be frightening, too,
because I don’t have all the answers. All I can do is just
share my experience and offer perspective. Students often say that
I’m a funny combination of mother, friend and pastor. I take
that as a compliment."
Shema graduated from the Candler School of Theology in 1997, and
while she did not visit Oxford as a student, she heard uniformly
amazing stories from friends who had gone to school there.
"This is just a wonderful community," said Shema, who
is a member in more ways than one—she lives less than two
blocks from her office in the student center. "There is a high
level of attachment to this school by alumni. You have more of a
chance to connect with people."
Opining about why she decided to attend seminary more than 20 years
after she graduated from college, Shema said she did so in response
to a midlife crisis. In the mid-1990s, she had been living on a
farm near Lubbock, Texas, raising her children and working for an
educational toy company. It was a cushy job, but something was lacking.
"I think I got caught up in the materialistic, ‘I’m
gonna make it’ game," she said. "I realized at one
point, what’s ‘making it?’ No matter which plateau
you get to, there is always another one. I just kept thinking, ‘Is
this all there is?’ There had to be more meaning to life than
what I felt like I was experiencing at the time, and I thought seminary
might be a good place to check that out."
Shema’s time in the Texas panhandle was actually a bit atypical
from other points in her life. For much of it she has lived in a
minority context—sometimes by choice, sometimes not. In grade
school, she lived among Japanese migrant workers in southern California.
In the 1960s, she lived near Watts, Calif., where the 1968 riots
in Los Angeles were centered.
But she lists time living in one of the poorest parts of India following
her sophomore year at Pepperdine University as something that changed
her outlook on life. At the time her father was working for the
state department teaching residents of the state of Bihar about
irrigation and drainage. The cultural differences Shema experienced
there have stayed with her to this day.
"What I learned there was that human beings are the same. We’re
like eggs," Shema said. "There are big and small; there
are rough and smooth; speckled and striped; blue, white and brown
eggs, but what is every egg inside? Exactly the same.
"We all want to be loved. We all want to have relationships.
We are angry, we’re sad, we want peace. All those internal
things are the same the world over. We all just live in different
shells. What makes me very sad is that we go to war over the shell,
and we kill people over the kinds of shells we live in."
After college, where she earned a theater degree, Shema didn’t
shy away from challenges. She lived for two years in a Brooklyn,
N.Y., tenement, where she started a food co-op so poor mothers could
get fresh groceries. She also taught after-school programs, like
remedial English and mathematics, out of her apartment.
Shema taught in an inner-city school in Kansas City, Kan., where
she was named Teacher of the Year. She was the first non-African
American faculty member so honored.
As part of an internship at Candler, Shema lived with a Jamaican
family in one of Kingston’s city’s poorer neighborhoods.
"I wondered, as a middle-aged person who has lived a life of
white privilege, if I still had it in me to live in a minority context."
She did, describing her summer there as a wonderful experience.
As a bonus, she learned how to ride a motorcycle (Shema owned one
when living in New Orleans but sold it when she moved to Oxford.
She’s contemplating buying another one.)
Shema has had her share of triumph. But when students talk to her
about pain or struggle, she can relate. While pregnant with her
youngest child, Natalie, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
At the risk of her own life—beginning cancer treatment would
have required she terminate the pregnancy—Shema brought her
child to term. And then beat the disease.
"If it’s the last thing I ever do, I’m going to
give life to this child," Shema recalled thinking. "I
did, we’re both still here, and she is a phenomenal person."
Natalie, along with eldest sister Janelle, are students at Texas
Tech. Middle child Deborah is a senior at Agnes Scott College and
will be graduating in the spring.
A happy ending like she experienced with Natalie, however, is not
something Shema has always been fortunate to have. While three of
her children are in college, Shema has given birth to five. Two
"People can say the worst things to try and explain what happened,
and you just live with this cold fury," Shema said. "You
want to strike out at them. You’re mad your child died. Oftentimes
it’s better to just cry with someone. It’s informed
my practice of ministry for sure.
"It made life so incredibly precious," Shema said about
losing children. "I became a very passionate mother and passionate
about people in general."
And that passion about people, again, is something the Oxford community
is just beginning to learn.