Kathy Davelaar with Dr. Barb
Born on a farm as one of 11 children, Kathy Davelaar taught elementary school for several years before raising her three children. Feeling a call to ministry, she attended Western Theological Seminary as a “nontraditional student.” She served as a hospital chaplain and then as pastor for a half-dozen churches, located in Michigan and New York. Retired from that form of ministry, she currently works part-time in an independent living facility for seniors, which she finds to be another form of ministry.
Dr. Barb: Welcome to the Fullness of Midlife, where we talk about health, love and meaning. I’m Dr Barb DePree of MiddlesexMD. Our guest today is Kathy Davelaar, a retired minister and teacher, both here in Michigan and in New York. She was one of the wise women who counseled us when we worked to respond to a reader’s question about the relationship between pleasure and sin. Welcome, Kathy! Thanks for being here today.
Kathy: So glad to be here.
Dr. Barb: So you and I were both drawn into professions that are traditionally seen as male roles. And I’ll just disclose a little bit that we’re both old enough that at the time we entered our professions, they were seen more generally as male roles. That may not be true so much today. But, I don’t know what compelled you to pursue the ministry.
Kathy: Well, it was a second career for me. Because my first career had been more traditionally accepted for women—an elementary school teacher. I got very active in our church—Christ Memorial Church in Holland. I was teaching adults. I was doing all that, and it just became clear to me, not only was I doing something I loved, but I felt like I was good at it. But, I still hadn’t had very many female role models as faith leaders in churches—at least not as pastors. But as time went on I saw a few, and I was encouraged by, actually people in our congregation sometimes dropping that little hint, that I should go on to seminary.
I remember being on vacation with my family, out West, and we were attending a worship service in a camp setting, National Parks-something. And the dear young man leading was doing the best he could, and I couldn’t help but think, “Oh, I could do that better.”
Dr. Barb: Oh interesting, yes!
Kathy: And it was just part of this sense that I wanted to do this. I think ministry, like so many jobs, has many parts to it. There’s the oratory part—of the preaching. There’s the ministry of presence part. And I recognized that no, I didn’t do all of them the best that they could be done. But I did enough of them quite well. And I also remember at the time there being just this fierce love for God, and God’s love back, and just how this strong desire to be part of helping so many people know that.
Dr. Barb: That’s great. So is it really in your core as educator that drew you into the field, or more the compassionate side of wanting to connect with other humans?
Kathy: That’s a really good question. I think initially that it was the educator part of me, because that’s what I was used to doing, both in my previous career as well as my role in the particular congregation that we were in. But then, the development of that became more recognizing this being “with people” like I call ministry of presence, that grew bigger.
Dr. Barb: So, once you recognized this passion and interest, were you able—the logistics of raising a family and being a teacher—were you able to enter into that, or did you have to postpone that dream for some time while you…
Kathy: I didn’t do much postponing, because by the time I was a homemaker with children, I was no longer teaching as a profession. Once I decided to attend seminary, I went at it. It was difficult, but I was younger, I had more energy to do those things. Making a home, being attentive to family needs and studying. It was hard.
Dr. Barb: It is hard. But when you’re passionate about it, and you’re in your place, so to speak, you...
Kathy: There’s energy in that.
Dr. Barb: Exactly. Yes. So as a woman, a mother, a daughter, a minister, I’m sure you’re very well aware of the messages our culture sends women about what makes us successful or attractive.
How do you respond to those both personally and as a faith leader? I think this is a really timely message now, and to all generations—for those who are trying to age well—we are both mothers of daughters, and now you have a granddaughter, so I’m really interested in how you feel we can most successfully incorporate our communication.
Kathy: Yes, both personally and as a society, I think, your meaning, and two words--successful and attractive—which certainly don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In an old way of thinking, they perhaps were. That successful women went straight for that, they didn’t care or take time to be attractive, whatever that word means. Because it means different things at different times and to different people.
What I would want my daughters and granddaughter to know, and I think they see them beginning or knowing this, is that they matter. That their abilities, not just the way they look; those things matter in a world that desperately needs the kinds of gifts that they have for the people around them.
Attraction is an interesting thing and I see good signs of society recognizing that it doesn’t mean just one thing. I have been so taken with an HBO series called “Girls.” It just ended, but the main character played by Lena Dunham--Hannah Horvath--is just this remarkable character, who knows she doesn’t have a perfect 10 body, whatever that is, but she—for the purpose of the show—showing what 20- to 30-year-olds deal with, living in New York City… is naked—appropriately—for scene in many shots. And it’s like, “we aren’t used to seeing a body like that.” And it just encourages me so much. Yeah, Hannah’s my hero.
Dr. Barb: So, it’s your opinion that we’re making progress in this message? Do you honestly feel that there’s a concerted effort to…
Dr. Barb: ...try to promote a more healthy message to young girls?
Kathy: Well, I’m afraid I see… well no. I’m afraid I see too many instances of the opposite of that. The “Girls” show is kind of like a shining star in the midst of not so many. No, I see it already in my granddaughter in what it means to be pretty. There’s just so many messages right now. We have a leader in the country who promotes that kind of need for women to look a certain way. And no. It's not… better.
Dr. Barb: And in your current day-to-day activities, which you’re spending some time with the elderly, I’m interested, do you have a perception of where they are in their lives, and what this message might continue to be or has meant to them?
Kathy: Oh, it's so clear. Where I work is a residence for seniors who are living fairly independently. It's mostly women but there are men present, too. It's the older, over 70, actually over 80, demographic. It’s clear to me that the women—many of the women—are just as varied as any swath of the population. Some of them really care about what they look like, how they’re dressed and put on make-up. And some have come to the blessed place: it can be seen as a blessed place or can be a feeling of, “Oh, she’s let herself go.” You know, that’s the dilemma. Which is it? Is it the blessed place of ”Hey, I don’t have to worry about this anymore,” or is it “Now people are going to think I’ve let myself go.”
Dr. Barb: I assume it’s probably—I’m hoping—their individual expression, finally being accepted for who they are. For those who want to continue to wear makeup and dress smartly, that’s probably to the core who they’ve always been. Being true to who they want to be.
Kathy: That’s right, that’s a good point, Barb. I think that people, from what I’ve seen, pretty much stay the way they are. I think we die the way we live pretty much. To see the women who want to have their hair done and put on make up, that’s a continuation of what they’ve always been like. That’s a positive thing. And then there’s others… No, I guess they all wear make-up, come to think of it. It's just different stages of…
But I do hear this sometimes, things like, oh, they were talking about getting a piece of cake from the coffee room. And one woman who is really rather petite said, “Oh, I really don’t need it” and this larger woman says, “Well, look at me, I don’t either. But I’m going to go have a piece of cake.” And I thought, yay…
Dr. Barb: That’s right, she can go ahead and celebrate.
Kathy: That’s right, that’s right.
Dr. Barb: And advertise that she’s doing it.
In the past you have been helpful in my understanding of some of the women’s sexual journeys that we come into. And one of the areas of women’s sexual health that’s been intriguing to me, and maybe you can speak into this is: How we take along our family values, the messages we’ve heard, maybe through a church-related message or just culture. And how that translates to action and function and relationships later in life. I speak to women of a variety of ages and they share, many different stories. But I’m always struck at how some of their decision making, even in their 50s and 60s, really is a reflection of messages they heard when they were ten or twelve or six. And I’m just curious. Do you have any insight into that? Maybe… from being in ministry?
Kathy: I don’t know if it’s insight; it’s not so much insight as observations, and maybe that turns into insight. Personally, I relate to that. There was a shaming culture in which I grew up about things physical—and especially the female body, unfortunately. When I got to this stage of my life I was already married, I already had children. So clearly, I knew how all this works.
It was while I was doing theological and biblical study that I moved into a growing space for embracing the physical human body—male and female. I came to see it as a part of a design that God, in God’s great love, has given us—those complementary personalities and physical features. And that really changed the way I looked at sex and sexual activity and meaningful love. Oh, the word I come to is mutuality. And that affects not just the physical relationship, but the emotional as well.
It’s… I hate to use this, because it’s almost a hackneyed phrase, but this “meeting of equals.” Equal doesn’t mean same. But, there isn’t an “over”—one above the other. And that is so important for healthy sex. So, yeah, my faith journey and the biblical journey I’d even say, the Bible is strong; we just misinterpret it, and get stuck in the New Testament; in a sort of Greek dualism of a misunderstanding of the creation that God has been, and is still, creating. No, it's really too bad that we miss that, because when we step into that joy, we really get, I think, what God intends and what ...
Dr. Barb: Well, that’s really a beautiful way of communicating it. Because, I would say, having been brought up in a faith-based Christian home, I don’t know if shaming was really a part of it. But I’m not sure that the loveliness and joy and mutuality, as you say, was probably the main message either. It was only in your studies that you made this discovery, it sounds.
Kathy: Yeah, it’s not that everyone who was studying the same things I was would necessarily come to that conclusion. What we study and what we learn is always a combination of what is in front of us that we are learning as well as bringing our own self to it and mixing it together and interpreting it. But… I’m telling you, I used to tell people: study is one of the most spiritual things I’ve been doing. And that’s saying something about me as much as about the reality of that for everybody.
Dr. Barb: And as you ministered to a number of churches over the years, did you feel that that was something you could share and was received? Or, I can imagine that there might have been some criticism over being openly expressive about that.
Kathy: You are so right. It varied from place to place, congregation to congregation and individuals within those congregations. I was pretty attentive to when that message that we’ve just spoken of would be too upsetting or do more harm than good. It was more in one-on-one relationships that I was able to… voice or give expression of that.
And as a result, people who sensed that in me—I’m thinking especially of gender identity and orientation difference. I’ve had a number of parishioners who, when they sensed that I was someone safe, as far as not judging or even celebrating who they were as a person—those folks came all the time. That was really a satisfying part of my ministry.
Dr. Barb: I can imagine that your walk with some of those individuals was probably critical in their journey through that as well, to have a respected minister of the Word acknowledge their frustrations or…
Kathy: And their “okay-ness.” You don’t always get to hear back from people, and that’s okay. But years after, there was this one young man who was fighting and fighting his orientation, I didn’t even know this. He finally accepted it and moved into it with gusto. And he ran into two of my parishioners—two gay men. They were at some meeting and talking about something, and this was like five years after the fact, he looks at them and said, “and it was your minister who helped me.” And it was so satisfying to hear that...
Dr. Barb: That’s great. That’s great. So, where do you find richness at this space in your life now, Kathy?
Kathy: Oh, I find a lot of richness. I count myself as a really fortunate individual. I find richness in relationship. With family members, friends, and also certainly with the people with whom I work at this residence for seniors. It is so rich to interact with them at the stage of life that they are at. I find great meaning in talking with them about all the things that make up their daily lives and their history. I find that so enjoyable. And my children and grandchildren.
I also find great richness in embracing who I have always been, the person I’ve always been, who is a person who relishes time alone. I like to knit, and I like to just sit and knit, because it is meditation for me. I’ve never even studied how to meditate; I don’t even know if I’m doing it right, so to speak. But I know when I’m quiet and moving my hands, I have these wonderful inner conversations with myself, and I think God sits in there too.
Dr. Barb: Well, that’s a beautiful picture to imagine. I just wish more of us put intention into activities that are life-giving, and allowed the quieting, because I think generally speaking, we engage in things that aren't particularly quieting. The image of being in a comfortable place and doing something you enjoy, and conversing with yourself and with God, sounds like a wonderful place to be right now.
Kathy: Thanks, it is. I think it is!
Dr. Barb: I hope we can do this again! Thanks Kathy.
Kathy: Thank you.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.
A great read, Kathy!