THE MOTHER OF MY HEART: Reflections on the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California

THE MOTHER OF MY HEART: Reflections on the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California April 23, 2023

Remarks shared on the occasion of being named a “Distinguished Alumnx” at the Pacific School of Religion

James Ishmael Ford

Yesterday Jan & I spent the day at the Pacific School of Religion, where I earned an MDiv (1991) as well as an MA (1992). There were many stressors at the time, not the least how we could afford the whole thing. And. I was in hog heaven. While the school was very much center of my experience, my registration there also meant I could take classes across the Graduate Theological Union. Did I say hog heaven? It was more precisely my idea of heaven.

So, it was truly wonderful to be informed that I had been named a “Distinguished Alumnx.”

What follows are the remarks I prepared for the occasion.

However, two things happened that led me to decide to not deliver them. First, our wanderings around the larger GTU campus showed how the current trends had devastated the seminary community. The shrinking of the Catholic presence and how the UU seminary, Starr King’s withdrawal from the GTU, struck me as to just how not only do things change, but the world I lived in thirty-five years ago, simply no longer existed.

The other thing was a panel presentation of the school’s junior faculty. I was so taken with their brilliance, and curiosity, and diversity of background. At one point one of my alumn peers whispered loudly from behind us, “I want to start over again, and attend this school, now.” I totally understood that. Me too…

My prepared remarks were and are expressions of gratitude. I wanted to name the people who helped shape my mature life. And, so I share those words here.

But at the time, I felt it more important to briefly speak to what I was witnessing. These are hard, hard times. It is not too much to say the world is dying. Yes, the world is always dying. And we, you and I, begin dying with our first breath. But there are ways in which that dying takes on new dimensions in our time and place. And it feels to me, deeply there is a sense of urgency.

And while it has taken some hard hits in recent years, what I saw at PSR, was not only resilience, but a reframing of its vision as a school preparing religious leadership. They have always been proud of academic rigor, it is a hallmark of PSR. But it felt, it really felt that aspect of ministerial formation has been totally integrated with care for the person, and for being able to meet our particular times.

So, I devoted my few minutes to sharing those thoughts. Totally off the cuff, as they say. So, with a little luck they’re vanished into the aethers.

And with that, my original remarks…


September 1988. If like me, your math skills aren’t top notch, in three months that will be thirty-five years ago. I’d just turned forty. Jan was retooling to become a librarian and I a parish minister. As I crammed four years of course work into those three in order to also earn an MA with my MDiv, my precise memories of those years are a bit hazy.

We lived in two PSR properties. I recall our beloved cat Bastet Queen of the Nile, who despite her grand name was a bit of dim bulb. She liked to rest her considerable bulk on a windowsill where students passed during the day. They would often pause to admire her. She was a cute calico. And she would inevitably turn over so they could scratch her tummy. Of course, she was on the wrong side of the window, and the turn would become a tumble to the ground. She never quite caught that wasn’t a good idea.

In our last year we were in housing on Le Conte near the then Starr King campus. I have a particularly vivid memory of hearing people singing on the street. I went to look out the window to see dancers, and streamers, and featuring a wonderous banner emblazoned with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I continue to have the smallest of regrets that I returned to a paper rather than run outside to join the procession.

These were among the most important years of my life. Dreaming unafraid. Because the school, the people in this school, nurtured my dreams, our dreams. And. Then. Soon. Waking into action. Being given the tools we would need to be of use in this world. And it is we. Jan was thinking about library school, and volunteering at Flora Lampson Hewlett working around her money-making jobs, which confirmed that direction.

Our lives were intertwined with everything happening up here on Holy Hill. So rich. So important for us.

One of the joys in attending PSR was how much it was like one of those situations where you think you’re marrying a person, but you end up with a very large extended family. I was blessed with teachers and colleagues taking classes across the GTU, at Starr King, the Institute of Buddhist Studies, the Franciscan School of Theology, the Jesuit School of Theology, and the Church Divinity School of the Pacific.  Among the GTU mentors I found were Louis Weil at CDSP and Joanna Macy at Starr King.

The truth is our time on the stage is brief. And memories quickly fade. All are retired, a number now dead. But there are a few names I feel a deep need to raise up here this evening. Father Weil and Dr Macy, for instance. That cloud of witnesses, my list of beloveds, mentors, guides, soul friends.

And. The through line for me were my professors at PSR. Lynn Rhodes was a calm presence always there when I needed her. It’s funny now, so long after, as I look back, how a word here and there from her turned out to be the most important thing for me. Doug Adams informed me that it was required I take his worship arts class. I think I was halfway through before learning that it was not in fact a requirement. But I was glad I did, anyway. His joy in the arts of worship continue to touch who I am.

Karen Le Bacqz pounded some basic sense of ethics into me. It was a job, but she succeeded. Enough. A similar story with Dr James Chuck and preaching. Masao Abe was a visiting professor here at PSR for two my three years. I was past privileged to sit at the feet of the last of the Kyoto School philosophers.

I think it was Lynn who decided my formal advisor should be Durwood Foster. Durwood was critically important in several ways. First, just a good human being. Second such a keen intellect. He was encouraging, liked my Buddhism, while tantalizing my latent interest in my natal Christianity as witnessed by his own progressive and transformative faith. He would be my lead advisor for my MA thesis.

Everything this school offered cherished my heart, guided my mind, and launched me toward usefulness. Coffee with friends. Discussions. Conversations. One of the miraculous things about seminary is that no matter how old you are when you go, you will be thrown into the tumult, there will be challenges, and there will be invitations. I know when I arrived at PSR I considered myself pretty well read, theologically speaking. I wasn’t. I frequently had never heard of the authors my professors expected me to read. So much. It shaped what would be the mature years of my life.

And now. Well. Thirty-five years after beginning here, I can only say. Thank you. You helped me to become the person I wanted to be. This school truly is the mother of my heart.

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