Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Why Baton Rouge?

My first question! This one is from LutherPunk:

Ok, so why Baton Rouge? As a Lousiana native i understand that the call of
Tiger is great, but of all the places in the world a yankee girl could end up,
why there?

Why Baton Rouge? A question I have asked myself on more than one occassion since I arrived (when it took me a good hour to find the apartment building that is a mere 1.2 miles from the interstate exit - and it is a straight shot.). A question part of me is asking again as we in Louisiana endure another election cycle (they seem to happen every couple of months here).

I don't think I ever told the story of exactly how I ended up here in the first place. I shall share that fascinating tale with all of you now (Alert: you may want to have a Red Bull on hand).

In March on 2002, I found out that I would not be returning to the Catholic school where I had been teaching. It didn't come as a big shock to me on any level. First of all, there would be one less class in the middle school, and I wasn't certified to teach lower grades. Second, the principal at the time really preferred that all her teachers (with the exception of middle school math) be certified in Elementary Ed, rather than a secondary subject area. Third, I was a little too liberal, both politically and theologically speaking, to fit in with the culture of the school and parish. I would have stayed if they had asked, but I wasn't broken up that they didn't.

I decided that I didn't really want to be in teaching (though I didn't discount it all together). I enjoyed the day-to-day interaction with the kids, but sometimes the all-important (and inflexible) structure and rules really annoyed me. Add to that the fact that in middle school, I always ended up cleaning up the grammtical problem areas that the elementary school teachers should have taught but didn't (this is a universal problem, by the way. It's why so many school districts prefer secondary teachers in their middle schools rather than elementary teachers. Well, that and the fact that we know that adolescents are almost physically incapbably of walking single file and silent between classes - but that's another story). I sent resumes to a few schools (all out of state because it is almost impossible to get a teaching job - especially in English - in Pennsylvainia), but my heart wasn't in it.

A lot of people suggested that I consider youth ministry. I was already doing this in my parish (on a volunteer basis), I had a pretty strong theology and religious education background (both from classes I took in college and after, and my own reading), and I related really well with teenagers (probably because I never talk down to them). I did some research, found places with those kind of job listings, found some positions I qualified for, and applied.

The first call I got was from this church in Baton Rouge, Lousiana (note that this is the first time I am linking to my former employer. I will still call them St. Al's CCC, but I want those who are interested to have as full a picture of the parish as they can, rather than just my admittedly biased viewpoint). I had a phone interview with the whole staff (which was the largest staff I had ever heard of for a Catholic church - nine people not including the two priests - if you are interested, they are up to fourteen now, with one priest) which went extremely well. I also had interviews with churches in New Jersey, Maryland, and Idaho.

Well, all four churches offered me in-person interviews. The first one was the CCC. I flew in to New Orleans, was picked up at the airport by two members of the administrative staff, taken to lunch at a very nice restaurant (that I can't remember the name of), and dropped off at the hotel to rest for a while before dinner.

Dinner was at Mike Anderson's, a very good seafood place here (though I understand the quality has dropped recently). I had dinner with everyone on staff, and it was very nice. The next morning, I had a group interview with around 6 staff people and 3 or 4 parishoners. It went well. Then the director of religious ed and the director of liturgy took me to lunch and on a tour of the city. I saw Mike the Tiger, and I knew I could never live anywhere else.

Ok, I'm kidding about that last line. But seriously, the city really is rather nice for a small city (or what used to be a small city). I was struck even then by the dichotomy in the city, though. The neighborhood where the church is is very affluent, very well-educated, and very white. Literally across the street is a very poor, very black neighborhood of shotgun houses that have definitely seen better days. And then on the otherside of the that is a middle class neighborhood, which is right next to another affluent one. All of this is within about a mile radius of the church (but add in a neighborhood that is mostly apartments and college students, too).

Later that night, I went to dinner with two high school students who were really active in youth group and an adult (who would later come to be known as a minion of the dark one). That meal was at Chili's. I really had a good time and felt really comfortable. I was impressed with the young people, and impressed that the church involved the youth in the interview process.

I went on another in person interview (Maryland) and was all set to go to New Jersey and Idaho (God help me), but the CCC called me with a job offer. I did what you are supposed to do and didn't accept right away, and I talked it over with friends. I accepted anyway, without going on the other two interviews (Stupid, I know). I knew I didn't want the job in Maryland (it was right outside of DC, and way too...hectic for my tastes. The parish in New Jersey was right outside of NYC, and was probably very similar to the CCC. The one in Idaho was literally in the middle of nowhere (well, Twin Falls, so it might as well have been), and would have been way, way too rural for this city girl. Baton Rouge seemed ideal.

I accepted the job on June 30, and I was in Baton Rouge on July 15. Things went swimmingly for a while, but then I started to realize what I bad decision I made. That happend about...six weeks after I arrived and school started. I was told to spend that first year more in the background, and to let things go as they had been and to make observations and suggestions. Well, my first observation is that there was a distinct division between those who were in Catholic school (90% of the parish youth) and those who were in public or other private schools. I tried to point out that we needed to schedule not only for the Catholic school kids, but the other kids as well. I was told the public school kids didn't come to any events anyway, so why bother. I tried to point out that they didn't come because they were in religious ed at the time, or even in school at the time, and that maybe they would if we scheduled appropriately. Got shot down.

Pretty much every suggestion I made or program I tried to implement that year got shot down in some way, shape or form. At the end of the year, when I could finally take control of things, I spent weeks putting together a new structure that met the objectives laid out in official US Catholic Conference documents about effective, integrated, wholistic youth ministry (Renewing the Vision is the standard, by the way. And it is very good, regardless of the denomination). I gathered all the adults involved in any facet of youth ministry (jr. high, sr. high, religious ed., confirmation prep., etc) and presented this framework. Everyone was all excited about it, was on board, thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Then somehow, when we had our first planning meeting, it morphed into something it totally wasn't supposed to be.

The problem is that the people in that parish are all used to being in charge. They are doctors, attorneys, college professors, business owners, and the like. The don't quite know how to step back and say, "tell me what I need to do." Instead, they tend to push ahead and say, " here is what we are going to do." And when many of them band together...well, I didn't stand a chance.

Then I found out on our summer leadership retreat that the minion of the dark one was organizing a campaign to have me fired. There had apparently already been one meeting with parish staff without me, and I resented that. A lot. I wasn't able to defend myself against anything that might have been said, and I had no idea what had been said. I was hurt that the senior members of the parish staff would sanction that. And I was hurt that the organizers didn't come to me first with their concerns.

Well, we had it out on that retreat. It was not the most professional thing I could have done, I admit, but I made sure that there were no youth present by having one of the seniors organize a game of Capture the Flag. I put all my cards on the table. I opened up, and I forced them to be honest (or so I thought). I had no idea the adults I had been working with for so long resented me so much. They didn't like that I had a more laid-back approach to youth ministry. They wanted everything to be heavy programming, heavy organization, every minute planned, etc. I can't function like that. I prefer to have a loose outline and follow where that naturally and organically goes. I'm just not "J" enough to function the other way.

We all agreed that we would give each other more time, and see how the year went.

Well, it went poorly. The minion of the dark one in particular (though she had a few lackeys who followed her every whim) pretty much made my existance unbearable. She instituted herself into every ministry we had for youth, even ones she never expressed an interest in. She was at every meeting I was in, and I swear I could have said, "The Catholic church believes in the doctrine of the Trinity," and she would have argued with me. It made me miserable and insecure. Add to that the fact that I didn't have the support of the senior staff (whose policy was always keep the most influential parishoners happy - they have money and a loud voice), and it was an almost unbearable situation.

The beauty of it is that this woman is now a spiritual director, trained by the Jesuits. And to think, I used to respect them.

Anyway, I came to the painful realization that that particular parish was not a good fit for me. I was also experiencing something of a dark night of the soul as I was coming to the conclusion that my beliefs didn't really fit Catholic theology all that well. I knew I was going to resign, but I was going to finish out the program year.

Didn't work out that way and I was fired two weeks before Confirmation. In fact, after a very painful chat with the pastor, I was given 10 minutes to take anything personal out of my office. They said that they would deliver the rest, which they left on my patio in a driving rainstorm, destroying the books they deigned to give back (they kept a lot of my personal books, as well as a bunch of CDs).

I was bitter for a long time, and probably still am a little. Some of that is starting to wane, though, as I see the direction that parish in general and that youth ministry in particular are heading. I'm probably a lot more sane (despite the stint on antidepressants) than I would have been. I haven't had to try to be someone I'm just not for the sake of keeping up appearances.

I had the opportunity to leave Baton Rouge a couple of times. I was offered teaching jobs in Connecticut and in Houston, but they just didn't feel right. Despite everything that went wrong with my last job, though, I'm glad I stayed. I wouldn't have my current, wonderful job if I hadn't.

And I like Baton Rouge, even if the politics, the racism and classism, and the lack of seasons do drive me nuts.

How's that for a long answer to a short question?

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