Photo of Julianne Lepp

The illusion of separateness is a finite declaration in the sand.
-- Julianne Lepp

UU Chalice by Laurie Bieze, UU Congregation, Eau Claire, WI

 

Julianne Lepp - a journey of ministry

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Seeds of Ministry

Early on I realized that it was not within me to “simply get along.” The drive to question, to chafe at the status quo, and to fight for what I thought was fair and right was too strong for me to neglect or ignore. I remember in my 5th grade Social Studies class being the sole student to raise my hand when the teacher asked if we didn’t believe in the death penalty. I was filmed by a news crew at a vigil for a death row inmate, cradling my cross in my hands. As a young Episcopalian it was simple enough to imagine that Christ wouldn’t have flipped a switch to fry a human being. Even then I knew I had to stand up, no matter whether it reaffirmed my differences to my peers.

Julianne's family circa 1975I grew up in South Carolina, the youngest daughter of an Episcopal minister. My interest in spirituality was evident at an early age. I remember my father scooping me up at the recessional hymn and he would stand me beside him to shake the parishioners’ hands as they left service. My church community was one place that was receptive to my questions, and I remember a loving support system that I lacked at school and among my peers. It nurtured me through many of the bumps of growing up and the strife of divorce and teenagehood.

In first grade, on career day, I wore my father’s clerical collar. It didn’t matter that the other kids told me that a girl couldn’t be a priest, because I knew they were wrong. I would line up my stuffed animals in imaginary pews and preach to them from the Book of Common Prayer. I baptized every single one of them, sure that St. Francis also included my beloved stuffed friends among those that could enter heaven.

Being youngest among my siblings definitely shaped my personality. Too often being the object of others' orders and care, I strained to find an outlet to do some caring of my own. I gravitated towards babysitting, helping in the church nursery, and always championing any underdog schoolmates. I never did say or wear the right things to circle in popular crowds, so I cleaved to those that didn’t fit the mold. I was one of them, and it was easier to stick up for them than for myself. It isn’t that I was selfless, but it has always been easier to take a stand for others or for a cause than to stake a personal stand. There is much more on the line when it is simply about you.

While I questioned the ethics of government, the plight of our planet, and my own role in the scheme of school and my family, I had only questioned softly the faith of my childhood by the time I’d graduated from high school. Though the Episcopal Church was liberal enough to sustain me through my youngest years, I began to chafe at the constraints of Christian definitions of the divine.

Julianne player guitar at church booth at Okra Strut in 1988From world religion classes, talks with Unitarian Universalists, and transforming experiences in nature, spirituality became more about the journey and less about the destination. I began to greet the sacred outside of doors and the confines of pews. I began to seek answers within instead of without. Still, there seemed to be not one answer for me, but many. There wasn’t a simple explanation to my hardest questions – instead I began to find wisdom from many different sources, including my own personal experience. Still I felt the burning desire to fight for what is right and moral in the world, though I often felt adrift amid my spiritual questions. In retrospect, it is easy to see that I lacked the one thing that most need in those times: a spiritual community. When I tried to go back to the church of my childhood, I no longer felt at home. It was after graduation when I lived in Jacksonville, Florida that I found the right community for myself. The Unitarian Universalist Church of Jacksonville was a place of people just like me, people that didn’t fit the mold and who continually questioned the world around them.

Though I was an infrequent visitor of the church for less than two years, it became a foundation for me. The U.U. principles and sources of wisdom encompass my utter conviction that no one has a monopoly on the truth, and that there is truth and merit among many traditions. When my future husband Karl and I moved to Atlanta, Georgia for job opportunities, I was once again cut off from a spiritual support network. This was a time when a church home would have meant the most.

In 1999 my brother drove to Atlanta for the sole purpose of informing me that our mother had stage four lung cancer. The prognosis was a matter of months, though she would end up besting the odds by a year and a half.

Karl and I had planned our wedding for April of 2000, three years to the date after we started dating. Having our wedding near Beltane and May Day was important to us – what better day to celebrate our love and begin a new chapter in our life?

My mother did chemo and all the things that doctors do to stave off the inevitable. During this time her inner strength and spirit was so evident. Crisis often hones a person to their best, and that is what this did for her. Through the panic attacks and pain, she found a grace of spirit that I've seen in few people. She became my hero in how she decided to live during her illness and ultimately the grace with which she died. My mom died April 7, 2000 – three weeks before my wedding.

Like her I had a choice in how to meet the circumstances that barreled into my life. I could have taken many roads, but luckily I chose what I considered to be the right one. It is really hard to put into words what it meant to me to be there at her passing. The woman who brought me into the world left on wings of music and the blessings of her loved ones. We wanted her free and she finally was.

Julianne kissing Karl at their weddingWith the march of mundane matters of a funeral, will, and clearing out the house I had little time for grief. The seeds of ministry flourished in me again, when I gave the eulogy at her funeral. I wanted to celebrate the essence of her, and many people said those words helped. It was a mere three weeks later Karl and I were married by the lake a Red Top Mountain, and it seemed very wrong to not have her there. But, she was. She told me once when things were looking more grim for her health and we were looking over wedding guests lists, "I'll be a breeze at your wedding, Julie, if nothing else." I had laughed for her sake, but it had given me chills. During the service we'd set aside a memorial candle to honor those that had passed to include them in our celebration. No joke. We couldn't light the candle for the bursts of wind that gusted around us. Someone later told me they saw a butterfly. So, my mom made it as she'd promised. Through tears and laughter we felt mom's presence in a most elemental way.

Experience granted me wisdom and yes that horrible word, acceptance. The missing link became clear. Just as the birth of a child is joyous, so can death be a time of release and renewal. In ancient Celtic traditions Samhain is a time of letting go of the old, so there is a space for the new – just as Beltane is the time to revel in the pulse of life, creativity, and fertility. The dance marches on, whether my mom is dying of cancer or I birthed my first child. My life rolled forward. I got married to the love of my life and have had two beautiful boys in expression of that love.

In my professional life I moved from finance to massage and eventually to full time motherhood. Finance taught me that I could handle the business world, though it never touched my soul the way working with clients through their suffering did. The healing call of massage was transformational in my life and also in the clients I served. The work I did with people made me hungry to do more good work. At that time, I just hadn’t seen how I might proceed.

Eventually, in Atlanta I found another spiritual home – at the Unitarian Universalist Metro Atlanta North congregation in Roswell, GA. While I visited other area Unitarian Universalist congregations, UUMAN became our new faith home. It was through the strong encouragement for lay participation in worship that the seeds of ministry flourished even more in me. During a presentation on the ministerial search process at UUMAN, I heard a distinct and clear call. There was a mention of a shortage of interim ministers, and I felt a warm rush move through my body. It was as if everything that I had done up to that moment had led me to a path. I urgently whispered to my husband that I needed to tell him something. Yet, he knew exactly what I was going to say. We stayed up all night discussing what the ministry journey would mean for us as a family. I entered the Candler School of Theology shortly after that, and the rest has been one more step on the journey...

Julianne and her family in 2008