It’s Sunday morning at Atonement Lutheran on Syracuse’s South Side – just two days before the 2016 presidential election – and Beth DuBois is nervous. Usually, elections don’t trouble her. But as she looks at the 15 people gathered in the church’s small chapel, she knows there is a lot at stake this time around.
But something else is bothering DuBois, solo pastor of the South Valley Presbyterian Church. As she walks around the room writing down prayers from the congregation in a journal, DuBois adds her own prayer to the offering.
“First English Lutheran church is meeting right now to discuss whether they’ll be closing,” she says, as members lower their gaze in disappointment.
Everyone around the room knows what this means. The drop in attendance at Mainline Protestant churches, known as the “mainline decline,” has hit Syracuse hard over the past 20 years. According to a study by the Association or Religion Data Archives, the Presbyterian Church community in Onondaga County dropped by over 30 percent from 2000 to 2010. Nationwide, the church’s membership decreased by over 20 percent.
Churches are shrinking and simply can’t get enough money to maintain the buildings in which they operate. Many have been forced to sell their properties, including DuBois’ church. In 2008, they sold the previous location on South Salina Street, a century-old building that made headlines because of its controversial Tiffany windows. DuBois is now in the process of selling Onondaga Valley Presbyterian, on West Seneca Turnpike, to the Turkish Cultural Center.
When she first arrived in Syracuse in 1998, DuBois thought the church membership and finances were stable. However, 30 members had passed away or moved, which made a gradual and costly difference at the small church. This problem only worsened as the congregation aged and the church changed locations.
Longtime parishioners remember the days when services brought about 100 attendees each. Children grew up in the church and were forced to wear black and white suits and dresses, hold their tongues, and pray with their heads bowed. Those kids are now adults who don’t affiliate with religion, or have explored options outside of Mainline Protestant churches.
Yet, DuBois is bringing new life to a church that seemed to be on its way out. A partnership with Atonement Lutheran Ministries has given her congregation a place to worship – the small chapel – while the Lutheran congregation meets in the larger part of the building. In addition to the Sunday morning service, there is a Wednesday-night worship and dinner service, which feeds about 150 people per week.
Laura Bailey, who has gone to South Valley Presbyterian for over 40 years, is the leader of the lay committee that helps make decisions for the church. She says DuBois has remained engaged and upbeat despite the challenges the church has faced.
“She’s wonderful with children from the neighborhood and is a really positive person,” Bailey says, referencing DuBois’ ability to involve children from the nearby low-income housing complex in her ministry. “I mean, she’s definitely wonderful with everyone. But with the kids is where she just shines.”
Dave Marcy, a retired county sheriff who helped prepare the church’s Seneca Turnpike building for sale, has known DuBois since she arrived in Syracuse.
“She does a good sermon, and we’re very lucky to have her,” Marcy says. “She has kept her focus while working on selling the buildings, which hasn’t been easy.”
At five feet 2 inches, wearing a gray fleece-lined Columbia vest, DuBois is the staff of her church – in the past, she had a staff of about five. On Sunday mornings, she sings, gives a sermon, teaches lessons to the children, and hands out self-made bulletins. But even though DuBois is the main act, the show is not really about her. She encourages children to come to the podium to read scripture and lets the congregation ask questions. DuBois is said to be the type of person who will pull over on the side of the road to help a traveller whose car is broken down, even if she’s running late to a meeting.
During one Sunday morning service, a young girl in the corner says, “Why is Trump racist? Sorry, I just couldn’t hold that back.”
“It’s okay,” DuBois responds. “You can say what you want and feel. But not everyone will agree with you.”
This attitude is key to DuBois’ philosophy on life. When she became a solo pastor 19 years ago, she quickly became aware of her privilege as a white person who had gone to seminary. DuBois realized that she was paid more than the local Black pastors who were typically trained within their own gospel churches. This was her wake up call to the intersection of race, class, and gender in her line of work. She has spent the time since then facilitating and participating in community dialogues that focus on these topics.
Her awareness of discrimination and privilege became all the more important when DuBois realized she was a lesbian. Indeed, like many women in the LGBT community who grew up in the 1960s, DuBois, a self-proclaimed tomboy, was not aware she could be gay.
“Many gay women in their 50s have a pretty similar story,” DuBois says. “It’s sort of this stumbling in. You have this real emotional attachment with a best friend, and then another best friend, and you realize – whoa, this might be more.”
It was much more. DuBois met her partner Kathleen Waters, a Presbyterian pastor in Homer, NY, in a Christian bookstore on Erie Boulevard in August of 1999.
“Beth was very helpful for my daughter,” says Waters, who had just adopted her daughter Katya from Russia when she met DuBois. “She showed us around Syracuse, and we’ve been friends ever since.”
At first, they kept their relationship private. For DuBois, the pressures of being a woman in a largely patriarchal structure were already enough to deal with. Her experiences include being patted on the head by other church leaders and sitting patiently while men voted on whether she could participate in various religious organizations. Adding her sexual orientation to that list seemed imprudent, especially at a time when the Presbyterian Church was not ordaining LGBT pastors.
“I had to decide whether I would let my sexual orientation stop me from doing what I considered to be really important justice work for the community I serve,” DuBois says. It was a tough decision. But the couple has grown much more open in the years since. In fact, they now read prayers at PRIDE parades and participate in a networking group with other LGBT parents.
DuBois’ three younger siblings are all educators. Her brother Doug is a photographer and chair of the transmedia department at the SU College of Visual and Performing Arts. Some of his most notable work focuses on the DuBois family itself. He photographed their life in Far Hills, N.J. during the 1980s. He photographed their parents, who split up after serious battles with depression. He photographed their experiences in London where their father, a banker, got a job after a career in New York. But noticeably missing from these photos is Beth, who took a while to find the centeredness she is now known for.
“I remember when she went into the seminary at Princeton,” Doug says. “And at her graduation, our grandmother came to see her. It was a great moment, and it was really nice to see Beth find her way.”
Doug is an atheist, but says he is proud of his sister’s work in the ministry. “I love watching her do her thing. She’s relaxed but at the same time, has a real presence. What you’re seeing is someone who sincerely has faith.”
Her sister Lise, 53, is a preschool teacher who utilizes the Reggio Emilia approach. And her youngest sibling Luke, 41, is director of the Brooklyn Experimental Music Center at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering.
DuBois, too, has committed to a lifelong project of educating and being educated. One could say this journey began in the first few years after graduating from Franklin and Marshall College. She briefly worked at Chase Bank in Manhattan, following her father’s footsteps – a job both she and Doug admit wasn’t a good fit. During this time, she also volunteered with her sister’s youth group, which put on the play Godspell, based largely on the Gospel of Matthew.
“I’m reading scripture,” DuBois says, “and for the first time, reading commentaries that explain what they mean. And I’m totally hooked.”
DuBois left banking to do mission work in Nome, Alaska, where she quickly realized that isolation and lack of guidance and maturity was a recipe for failure. But it was also where she audited psychology courses at a community college and learned about topics like alcoholism and domestic violence.
The lessons prompted DuBois to enter the seminary. But she had to be strategic. The Episcopal Church she grew up in was placing women in chaplaincy positions and campus ministry. She felt called to work as a pastor in a community instead. DuBois knew that the Presbyterians would allow her to be a pastor as a woman. So she led youth mission trips as an associate pastor in Plainfield, New Jersey, until she finally got her call to be the solo pastor of Onondaga Valley Presbyterian Church.
DuBois is focused on family – her partner, their two daughters, both adopted from Russia, a one-year old grandson, and a poodle named Mac. The family has dealt with a lot over the years: a teenage pregnancy, emotional and learning disabilities, the suicide of one of her daughter’s closest friends, and, of course, bouncing around from church to church.
“Do I pray every night?” DuBois asks herself. “Do I see signs of God through my day? The answer is yes. Are there things I’m grateful for, things I’m upset about? Yes. But at the end of the day, the lens I see these things through is still the church and Jesus. And I know that’s not for everybody.”
It is, however, for Scot Vanderpool, manager of Parking and Transit Services at SU. Vanderpool has played piano during the Sunday morning services for nearly all 15 years he’s attended South Valley Presbyterian.
“Beth taught us to never give up on our belief, and never give up on people.” Vanderpool says. “She is so laid back and forgiving. She’s taught us that it’s important to give people enough time to change and do the right thing.”
Not all heroes wear capes, and not all saints have halos. Some, apparently, wear gray-fleece vests and are right here in Syracuse.
written by Elliot Williams, @ecwilliams30
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