Women of Spirit

  • By:  Dona Sapristi

Let’s meet three Tidewater faith leaders who create connections in a disconnected world.

An elderly man is in the hospital. He knows he will die, if not today, then tomorrow. His doctor asks him is there anyone he would like to see? No, he answers, there is no one, no family, no friends. He is utterly alone, facing death with no support system.

A young woman comes home to a lonely apartment after work. She barely spoke to her coworkers all day. Now she will spend the evening trying to find true love on the internet. No friends call or visit. She is hungry for relationship, hungry for connection.

These scenarios are common in today’s world. “The world is a lonelier place than ever before,” said Rev. Justine Sullivan, a Unitarian Universalist minister in Norfolk. She believes people today are disconnected from themselves, from each other, and from the Sacred.

Though many Americans today have more comforts and advantages than ever before in human history, there is still a longing, a void to fill. Somehow, it’s part of the human condition to seek connection to Spirit and each other. Let’s meet three Tidewater faith leaders who create connections in a disconnected world.

Love and Joy

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Carylanne Steinberg of Va. Beach has spent the last 25 years as a faith leader and healer. People she sees in her practice are in pain, emotionally, physically, or both. They come to her seeking answers: “What is my purpose? What am I here to do?”

They know there’s something more, they just don’t know how to make find what they’re looking for. Carylanne gently guides them to find answers. But ultimately, she wants them to recognize that they are “the truest expression of Love and Joy,” she said.

Carylanne believes there is no one “right” spiritual path. She was raised Jewish, but when she was 10, her neighbors took her to a protestant church. “I have believed in the light and healing of the Christ since then,” she explained. When she went home, she asked her mother, “Why don’t we go to that church?” “Because we go to Temple,” her mother replied.

Since then, her spiritual path has included Christ consciousness, Judaism, Buddhism, Native American teachings and practices, among others. She believes Spirit is in all faiths: God is in everything. Her parents have been completely supportive of her spiritual path over the years.

Even though this is a time when people are feeling disconnected and insecure, Carylanne believes this is also one of the most amazing times in human history. A cosmic shift is taking place, she believes, and we create our life and our world with our thoughts and feelings. Part of this cosmic shift is an appreciation and reverence of the Divine Feminine, especially in the sacredness of nature.

Before she began her spiritual practice, Carylanne was plagued by depression and anxiety. She met a holistic healer, a Reiki master, who helped her regain her faith health and gratitude. That, along with “an experience with the Christ,” led her to devote her life to her faith.           

Enlightened by her spiritual awakening, Carylanne is certain faith, love, and gratitude are three of the key components for a fulfilling, deeply meaningful life. In her wellness, healing, and meditation practice, she inspires others to wholeness and helps them connect with their truth and faith to live an authentic, abundant life.

She also facilitates group meditation in her wellness practice, and the people who meet there offer each other love and support. They find connection in a group expansion of consciousness. Carylanne says there is a greater vibrational energy because it happens as a group, which is why it’s so powerful to meditate together.

What she loves most about being a faith leader is inspiring others and being part of their journey to health and wholeness. Caryalnne feels she is a vessel for Spirit, a messenger to bring light and healing into the world.

Being a woman of faith is about living through the higher self and trusting in unseen forces. But for everyone who wants to begin a spiritual journey, remember, “Faith and gratitude open the light in every experience,” she said.

Human Dignity

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As a child, Rev. Justine Sullivan loved attending the Roman Catholic church she was raised in. But at age 13, something changed for her. She realized that only men and boys were leading worship. Even the altar servers were boys. It caused her to question her faith.

“I couldn’t say the words I no longer believed in,” she said. She felt there was no place for her and left the faith of her childhood.

The 55-year-old Norfolk resident attended her first Unitarian Universalist service when she was 30. The church was very active in serving the LGBT community and, during the late 1980s, was ministering to people dying of AIDS. As a lesbian, she felt a kinship to the gay men they served. The UU church was like a homecoming for Justine. She only wishes she found it sooner.

As interim minister of Coastal Virginia Unitarian Universalist Church in Virginia Beach, Rev. Justine believes people turn to faith for the same reasons as ages past. They are in pain. They need connections with others as well as to the Holy.

“From the moment we’re born, we seek connection. We experience wonder,” she said. The Unitarian Universalist faith is open to new ways of relating to the Holy. No ideas are considered heresy “as long as you honor the inherent worth and dignity of every human being,” she said.

The UU faith creates community by being open and inclusive of people who may have felt left out of traditional churches for many reasons. They may be gay or question the faith they were raised in or even question the existence of God. But no matter what their differences, they all share an interest in social justice. Their connection is a passion for making the world a better place.

Rev. Justine, who has a master’s degree in social work, always felt a tug towards a life of service. She started seminary at age 50 and says she couldn’t have done it without the support of her beloved spouse. She has been with her female partner, Dale, for 32 years. She feels that her congregation loves and supports them both.

Even the Christmas pageant at her church will have a social justice theme. “This year in our holiday pageant, we will remember that Mary and Joseph were immigrants and then refugees, who were given sanctuary,” she said.

Hope and Healing

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As Reverend Rachel Gilmore tells it, her great grandfather was converted to Methodism by a fiery, red-haired woman evangelist. He and two of his sons became Methodist ministers. Since then, for the past 107 years, someone in her family has been a Methodist minister. Now she carries on the tradition.

The 37-year-old Va. Beach resident is the daughter of a Navy chaplain. She has moved seventeen times during her life. “During the instability of moving, I felt my only home was the church,” she recalled. “I found my home in my connection with God.”

She attended Duke Divinity School along with her husband, Brandon, also a Methodist minister. They were already married when they joined the Peace Corps together. They wanted to begin a life of service, but didn’t feel ready to lead a church.

The couple served in Lom, Bulgaria, a poor community on the Danube River which is ethnically 50 percent Gypsy. She taught English, and he taught physics in the local school.

The winters there were harsh. Sometimes the thermometer dipped to minus seven degrees Fahrenheit, and there was no central heat. She needed a hat and gloves to make dinner. That experience has made her appreciate the milder climate of Va. Beach.

The real value of church is in creating connections, Rev. Rachel believes. In fact, the mission statement of her church, The Gathering at Scott Memorial Methodist Church, is “to help people reconnect to God, others, themselves, and creation.”

In her faith community, homeless persons attend alongside millionaires, and both are equally valued. “We need each other to grow,” she said.

Rev. Rachel has made some relevant observations about the inherent differences in how men and women deal with stress. “When men are under stress, their instinct is fight or flight,” she said. “When women are under stress, we turn to relationships. We ‘tend and befriend,’ according to Dr. Shelley Taylor of UCLA. It makes women good pastors.” Rev. Rachel feels that women are uniquely gifted at creating community.

The future of religion is faith in action in an outreach to the community, Rev. Rachel says. Her church lives this now. On Christmas Eve, 60 homeless persons will be housed at her church. They will awaken Christmas morning to breakfast, gifts, and carols. They won’t have to spend Christmas alone.

Rev. Rachel believes God is best served when we connect with each other in faith. “The most worthwhile part of being a pastor is seeing lives transformed and hope and healing reborn,” she said.

The stories of these women illustrate a few of the different paths that spiritual practice can take. Yet there are still ideas they can agree on. For example, questioning is welcome. Faith doesn’t depend on knowing all the answers. Longing for something more is fine, too, yet you can still be grateful for what you have.

Waking up to spiritual truth doesn’t mean you were sleep walking before. A connection to the Divine and to others first requires a connection with oneself. In these ways we find wholeness. Namaste  

Dona Sapristi is a freelance writer and poet who lives in Newport News.

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