Storyteller Whose Own Tale Is Compelling

June 29, 2016

The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 29, 2000, by Art Carey

When you ask the Rev. Paula Lawrence Wehmiller a question, you don’t get an answer, you get a story. Pastor Paula tells stories not just to share her own experience but to “awaken the stories in others” – to include, to affirm, to connect.

Stories happen in their own time. They well up and express themselves when they are ripe. Story time is “timeless time,” she says, time for meditation and reflection, for dreams, wonder and grace.

Her story begins with the stories of others: her grandmother, a shy schoolteacher who would sit behind her and vigorously brush her hair, always telling stories; her father, the sociology professor, the griot, the keeper of stories who would share poetic narratives at the dining-room table; her mother, the child psychiatrist, a weaver of stories luminous with intuition and small epiphanies. Says Pastor Paula: “We spoke in story.”

Her clothes tell a story. There is the clerical collar, a concrete sign of the church. “I wear it not as a 19th-century gentleman but as an African American woman, as Pastor Paula, as an expression of my vocation, Episcopal priest.”

Around her neck is a stole, which yokes her to the church. But it is bright blue, lively patterned – a symbol of her individuality, her determination to carve her own way.

Her earrings are large, dangling, silver, shaped like a feather. They are a reminder of the words of Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century mystic: “We are feathers on the breath of God.”

From a neck chain hangs a gold cross, a relic of her grandfather. He received it when he was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1909. It was he who baptized her, who called her “his legs” after diabetes claimed his. Pastor Paula wears the cross on “hard days” – days when she faces challenges. “It reminds me that being a black priest in the Episcopal Church in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1909 was a lot harder than anything I have to do.”

We’re sitting on a bench on the campus of Swarthmore College, and there’s a story there, too. She’s a 1967 grad, who majored in biology and, until senior year, was premed. She appreciates the school now (for one thing, it’s where she met her husband, John Wehmiller, a geology professor at the University of Delaware), but her undergrad years were – well, when I ask if she was happy, she rolls her eyes and smiles evasively. Swarthmore was, in a word, “unforgiving,” she says, a place of numbing seriousness.

She arrived with a trunk full of gifts – artist, musician, athlete, leader. But she felt she had to leave that trunk on the station platform because at Swarthmore in those days, “the door was too narrow.”

Her gifts were nurtured by parents who expected much. She grew up north of New York City, on the west side of the Hudson. She lived in a woodsy “intentional community” that was racially diverse, devoted to peace and social justice. She participated in Quaker work camps, campaigned for civil rights. She picketed Woolworths and stood by the reflecting pool in Washington when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. “I remember feeling whatever I do in life, I want to be sure children are included and allowed to live the life they are.”

She sang in the church choir at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Spring Valley, N.Y., and never missed Sunday services. After retiring, her father, Charles, was president of the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies. He oversaw the introduction of a new prayer book and hymnal and chaired the committee on women’s ordination.

She excelled in school, played basketball, baseball and field hockey. She drew and painted, played the piano, violin and clarinet. She was a cheerleader and class president all through high school. She loved Motown and dreamed of being a backup singer for Ray Charles. Along with her sister (now a sociology professor at Harvard) and brother (a law professor at Georgetown), she formed a singing group called the Presidential Suite.

“I never felt anything was impossible,” Pastor Paula says. It helped to have parents who convinced her she was special. Their customary parting words: “You know who you are, and you are blessed.”

She made it look easy, but it wasn’t. There were slights, affronts, exclusions, because she was black, female. “It’s good we don’t bitter,” her sister once remarked. “We come from a culture and long tradition that sees the strength in struggle,” Pastor Paula says. “From the hard stories comes the best teaching, the seed of wanting to make things different for someone else.”

After Swarthmore: art school, then a master’s in education. She taught, and raised a family (two boys, Wes, a professional bassist in Los Angeles; Abram, a high school history teacher in Dallas). In 1990, the time had come to stop ignoring the call, “this yearning and obligation I felt to become a priest.” After three years of seminary, she became a deacon, then, in 1998, at age 52, a priest. Not assigned to a parish, she views herself as “a pastor to the pastors,” a sojourner whose mission is to minister to the church. “We are all strangers within the gates,” she says. The cure for our loneliness is to include, to understand, to forgive, to love.

As a priest, she sees the end of her beginnings, the fulfillment of her aspirations and family destiny. She’s a healer, a teacher, an artist of sacred spaces. But this is not the end of her story. Each day is the beginning of a new story. “There’s no name for what I do. So I do a lot of redefining and re-creating. Maya Angelou said we should re-create daily. I say we should co-create daily with God. We should be present to the way the path is taking us.”

Copyright Philadelphia Inquirer. Originally published June 29, 2000. Posted with permission.

Posted In: Uncategorized