November 3, 2003

Religious life

By Eric Rangus

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 were stillborn.

"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.