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Palmer brings female perspective to ministry

Donna Gray

Talk about turning your life around. Not that Barbara Palmer had anything to turn. But in her mid-50s, after a full life of raising a family, she went back to college and then entered the seminary and was ordained a minister in 1998.Rather than reaching a turning point, for Palmer, following a religious calling was something that had been brewing inside her for a long time.Palmer grew up Catholic in Concord, N.H. “I was going to be a nun,” she said. “But I met my husband and the nunnery went out the window,” she laughed. Although it wasn’t love at first sight, she did fall, and hard.”His roommate picked me up off the floor” of the chapel at West Point where she was on a weekend date with another cadet. The roommate introduced her to John Palmer and the rest, as they say, is history, 47 years later.When John retired from the Army in 1982, they ended up in Macon, Ga. The southeast was a natural choice, Palmer explained, because John grew up in Alabama. During a women’s retreat on St. Simon’s Island, Ga., the group was asked to come up with their dream career.”I saw myself as a clergywoman. I was 45 years old with a year and a half of college, and I was as likely to be come a clergy as a … brain surgeon.”But it also felt like answering a call.”I’d been a wife and mother (to three children). But I had something else going on inside me.”In 1987, John was invited to help found a new engineering department at Mercer University in Macon. Barbara decided it was a good time to go back to school and enrolled in the religious studies department. Although Mercer is a Baptist school, Palmer explained, the religious studies department was all-inclusive, without focusing on one particular sect or doctrine. What she learned about her burgeoning religious feeling was influenced by Christians from all over the world who came to Mercer to study. Palmer graduated magna cum laude in 1993.”I just knew I wasn’t done,” she said. So it was on to seminary at the Chandler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. For the next three years, she lived in Atlanta during the week and went back to John and Macon on the weekends.Seminary “was the most exciting time in my life,” Palmer said. The students and teachers were from diverse backgrounds. During her time at Chandler, she sat in on a class from visiting professor Desmond Tutu, the Anglican bishop from South Africa who was instrumental in moving the country toward a fully representative government.”He was an amazing man … humble, giving, tolerant,” she said.Preparation for the ministry could be a bit like boot camp at times. In her first semester, she was on a team that visited the Fulton County Jail to interview inmates for representation by the Georgia Justice Society, a group of attorneys who gave their services to those who truly wanted to make their lives better. The experience was more about self-realization than learning to be a minister.”I was completely hoodwinked in the first six weeks,” Palmer said, by an inmate who looked like “an altar boy” and turned out to be a hardened criminal.Just after graduation, Palmer was ordained as a minister in the Disciples of Christ Church and was assigned as an assistant to the pastor of the First Christian Church in Macon. She chose the Disciples of Christ primarily for its open attitude toward religion, and the fact that it ordained its first woman minister in 1880.During all that time, the Palmers began to establish a connection with Glenwood Springs, where Barbara’s sister Kathy lives. The couple purchased a lot in No Name, just up the street from Kathy, and built a house in 2000.In her spiritual development, Barbara became interested in the contemplative movement in Christianity that began in the mid-1980s with a practice called Centering Prayer, which borrows some of the rubrics of Eastern meditation with a focus on a connection with the spiritual. The practice was developed by Father Thomas Keating, who resides at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass. The movement took off, especially in the Protestant Church.At the same time, Palmer also moved more strongly into her belief in feminist theology, which looks at the Bible in a broader way than traditional interpretations. She had been drawn to women’s spiritual groups, and continues to participate. Now she offers women’s retreats based on what she has brought from contemplation and the feminine outlook. She and psychotherapist Daphne Stevens will offer a women’s retreat, “Women of the 14th Moon,” Friday, Feb. 25, and Saturday, Feb. 26, at the Hot Springs Athletic Club.Through the years, Palmer said, she’s found herself more and more anchored in her faith.”I’m much less certain about things than I used to be and what I am certain is about is the pull of the spirit in my life. I feel it and yet I don’t understand it and now I don’t care nearly so much about understanding.”For information about the retreat call Palmer at 945-7258.Contact Donna Gray: 945-8515, ext. 510dgray@postindependent.com


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