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To be heard by the men, she spoke through a man

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By Meaghan Downs

The Roman Catholic priest called, the sing-song lilt of his voice heard through the telephone:
“So, what are we going to suggest today?” he asked her, the usual conversation necessary before the next committee meeting.
Retired Disciples of Christ minister Pat Yates, sitting at her kitchen table last Friday afternoon, said her ideas on Christian education would only be heard if spoken through the mouth of her friend, a Roman Catholic priest also serving on a committee to develop programs for inner-city youth in Ohio.
Otherwise, the men dismissed Yates.  
In the mid-1960s, it may have been easy to dismiss her.
But landscape of the modern church has changed and is continuing to change.
A progressive start-up church led by a tattooed female minister is getting attention nationally, according to a recent popular religion article published by the Washington Post, and getting more members.
The debate rages online and in the pews: Is this the kind of church that improves Christianity for the better?
For Yates, yes.
Change gives Yates — who wasn’t ordained as a pastor until she was in her 50s — hope.
Hope for young women thinking about entering the ministry.
Hope for those who want to return to a church that can hold its own in the modern world.  
Hope for others who also believe that “in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God,” the verse as close to Yates’ concept of God as she can articulate.  
“‘I’m not your traditional preacher,’ Yates told her small Alabama congregation, her first church as senior pastor, decades later. ‘I’m more of a storyteller.’”
Yates explained her circuitous path to ministry was part circumstance and part personality: Yates said she always felt more comfortable — not preaching in front of a congregation on Sunday morning — but encouraging other to use their gifts.
It took some time to discover her own calling, however.
The idea that Yates could become a minister never occurred to her as a young religion student at Berea College, the Eastern Kentucky native said.
Yates was the first of 18 cousins to attend a university, any university.
Berea opened doors, Yates said, to a nanny job for a doctor who lived on Park Avenue in New York City to a master’s degree in religious education at a seminary in Hartford, Conn.
In the early ‘60s, a career as a pastor wasn’t even suggested to her.
A theology professor at her seminary, she said, even vocally proclaimed his dislike of women attending his class.
Yates raised her hand and asked questions all the more.
“I have to admit, I drove him crazy,” she said.
Later, that same professor asked if Yates was thinking about getting a doctorate.
Her needling must have worked somehow, she said.
Yates grew up around God and with God. Her mother worked nights selling Avon but still taught Sunday school every single Sunday. Her father, excommunicated from the Catholic church when he married her mother, answered Yates’ probing questions about why her peers seemed to dislike Catholics.
“I don’t remember a time I didn’t,” Yates said after she was asked when she first consciously felt the existence of a higher power. “It was just sort of the air you breathe.”
Much is different from the time Yates, as an undergraduate student, taught Sunday school on the beach at Yellowstone Park and spent seven years leading a congregation in Auburn, Ala.
Gone are the days of playing telephone to get her suggestions for the church heard when the days of seeing her daughter-in-law and son working as ministers (both moved from Lawrenceburg to Indiana a few years ago) are here.   
“I felt there was maybe more I was being called to do, but I didn’t know what that was,” Yates said.
Then she did.
And that has made all the difference.

Meaghan Downs is the news editor at The Anderson News, and is always interested to read and learn about faith in the modern world. She can be reached via e-mail at mdowns@theandersonnews.com.