Quote: “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Samuel, a freaked out little kid trying to do the right thing.
I had been working for PETA for nine tumultuous, but rewarding years. I had a toddler. I had just quit working full-time because trying to save the world from itself and make sure my kid didn’t eat a dog toy was too much to handle in one ten-hour day. It was becoming difficult to pay for the house we had bought from friends in a fit of impulsive optimism now that we were limited to one and a half incomes and the additional expense of even part-time daycare. And I felt increasingly divided, the only Christian at work and one of only a handful of vegans at the big Presbyterian church that was our home. I was tired of wearing all the hats one at a time and I was in the midst of a pretty nasty bout of late-onset postpartum depression.
So of course that’s when God told me to go to seminary. Of course.
I remember the exact moment I heard the words. I was sitting in a worship service at First Presbyterian Church in Norfolk, Virginia. The fellowship hall where the contemporary service was held had recently been built, a multi-million dollar project I’d viewed as ethically questionable, given the gentrification and poverty in the neighborhoods surrounding the building. So, one Sunday morning, I was sitting cross-legged on a wide padded chair, in the front row on the far left of the hall, my usual spot (even at City Salt, I just realized). I was watching the three jumbo screens, listening to dramatic music as stylized prophetic scripture scrolled in and out of view. It was about blood and sacrifice, that’s all I remember.
I remember thinking, “Wow, this video would be so cool if there was factory farming and slaughterhouse footage behind it.” And then immediately after: “Sarah, you’re the only person in this room of six hundred people who is having that thought.”
And my head opened up and warmth gushed in. I heard the voice of God, clear as anything happening in the room. I heard God say, “You love animals and you love me. I made you this way for a reason. Stop fighting it. Go to seminary.”
I was glued to my seat as the sensation ceased. I looked around to see if I was the only person who had heard what I did. This kind of thing didn’t happen at First Pres Norfolk. We’re the frozen chosen. Only a few of us ever got up the nerve to raise a timid hand at particularly moving parts of a worship song or two. I had no precedence for this experience and didn’t know how I was supposed to respond.
Seminary? I had no desire to be a pastor. I didn’t think my negative view of people would really be a good fit for that job. And it had been ten years since I had been to any school. Google had barely been a thing when I graduated college. How would I function as a student in a whole new world? Also, I really dislike being led places. I’d much rather do the leading. I didn’t want an adventure, I just wanted a good night’s sleep. It was a ridiculous notion.
But I started poking around at the possibilities, late at night and on the weekends. I started to allow myself to think of a different future for myself than the one that my boss at PETA and I had planned on. Giehl and I prayed about the possibility. We met with our lead pastor, to get his blessing on the whole endeavor. He pointed me to Palmer Theological Seminary and the work of Ron Sider, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) and a Palmer professor.
And when I walked in the doors of Palmer Seminary in Philadelphia, a six-hour drive from our home in Norfolk, I knew it was the next stop on my journey. A scholarship and a chance to work with ESA sealed the deal.
So Giehl started looking for a job. I could work remotely part-time, but we relied on his income to pay the bills and provide our insurance. If I wanted to go to Palmer, we needed to move from Norfolk to Philadelphia. And if we were going to move, Giehl needed a job that would support the three of us.
Months went by. We arranged for dog-sitters and drove up for interviews. We looked at neighborhoods and houses with a Philadelphia realtor. Offers were promised, but none delivered. A hiring freeze here, a budget shift there. Summer came and I lost hope that I’d be able to matriculate that fall. There was just no way. The timing was too tight now.
Dejected, I thought God might be directing me to Regent, instead. Though it was just a few minutes away in Virginia Beach, the school didn’t seem like a particularly good fit. The degree programs weren’t what I was looking for. None of the classes looked at issues of systemic justice, the intersection of politics and faith, or creation care. The vast majority of professors were old, white, and male. (Ron is also old, white, and male, but many of the other Palmer profs were not, and I had been looking forward to learning from people who looked at the world through lenses different than my own).
Then Jim Gates, one of our family’s closest friends, and the associate pastor at our church, stood in our kitchen and said to me, “Don’t give up on Palmer.”
Sometimes God speaks to us through supernatural revelation. Sometimes God speaks to us through our goofy friends while we’re staring at the cracked green tile in our kitchens, wrapped up in a world of our own worry. And sometimes God speaks to us through the open doors that follow.
Palmer classes met one day a week, I discovered, and all the classes I wanted to sign up for were on Monday and Tuesday. Palmer kept commuter rooms on campus for students, with beds and desks and showers, and the nightly rate was extremely reasonable. While the drive up and down the Eastern Shore was dotted with factory farms and chicken slaughterhouses, I could make the trek from Norfolk in five hours or less if I left at strategic times. We put our house on the market and despite the burst real estate bubble that caused its value to drop the year after we bought it, we sold it in under a month, and walked away with enough cash to put down first and last month’s rent on a more modest home. Friends stepped up to offer to take Isaiah to pre-school the mornings I was away.
We moved to the rental house in Norfolk the week before classes started. During new student orientation, a group of 80 students, including many grandmothers who were even more afraid than I was about starting school again, sang “Here I Am, Lord” and I wept with gratitude that God had made the path so clear, when I was determined not to see it. During the first training for new students working with ESA, a professor mentioned that he was working on a book and one of the chapters would be on the environmental impacts of eating meat. I gave my notice at PETA that day.
Three years later, I graduated with a Masters in Theological Studies. We sang, “Here I Am, Lord,” during graduation, as we had during orientation. The next year, I published my graduate thesis. Shortly after that, I published Vegangelical. The next year, I met David Clough and we founded CreatureKind with the mission of helping Christians think theologically about farmed animal welfare, and to take practical action in response.
Now, the writer of “Here I Am, Lord” is a little more confident about the efficacy of their efforts than I am. I’m not sure my hand has saved anyone. But I’ve walked with some certainty that by doing my best to listen and respond to God, I’m pleasing the One who created me. So listen to John Michael for a minute (there’s some powerful stuff in there), but then read Thomas Merton in case that’s a better reflection of how you live into your own adventure.
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
About the Author
Sarah is the author of Vegangelical: How Caring for Animals Can Shape Your Faith (Zondervan, 2016) and Animals Are Not Ours (No, Really, They’re Not): An Evangelical Animal Liberation Theology (Cascade Books, 2016). She spends her days working for CreatureKind, helping Christians put their faith into action. She lives in Eugene with her husband, son, and animal companions and enjoys action movies, black coffee, the daily crossword, and dreaming of her next international journey.