LAUREL SCOTT: SOMETHING WONDERFUL HAPPENING
By Ryan Asmussen
Somehow, life balances out. We don’t know how and where, but we understand that the lives we live today are affected by the decisions made by our ancestors thousands of years ago. In that same way, we affect the lives of today’s generations and the generations to come. — Laurel Scott, from the sermon “An Abundance of Love,” December 30, 2001.
As Laurel Scott (’02) would be the first to admit, there is something a little incongruous about an African-American native of Barbados pastoring a New England church–in this case, Old West Church, one of the oldest in the City of Boston (1737). If you happen to study the portraits of past ministers on display there, the somewhat stern, seemingly puritanical faces of William Mayhew, Simeon Howard, and Charles Lowell, then glance over at Scott, preaching from the pulpit in Caribbean cadences, dressed in bright vestments of her own creation (a far cry from the powdered wigs and stiff collars of the eighteenth century), you might very well experience flashes of confusion, respect, and wonder. Or humor.
“I think God laughs,” says Scott. “I never saw myself in this church. I come here every day and say, ‘What am I doing here?’ And then I say, ‘Okay, God has a purpose and a plan.’ And I preach that. I’m living it.”
This apparent incompatibility quickly recedes, however, with a little research. Then, it becomes clear that Scott not only fits squarely into the religious tradition of the church she calls her new home, she is actually continuing the work begun by her predecessors. The Reverend William Mayhew, known by historians as “The Herald of Revolution” and “The Asserter of Religious Liberty,” was a close associate of John and Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and James Otis. The Reverend Simeon Howard possessed a strong personal belief in civil freedom and, during the American Revolution, advocated personal responsibility during times of crisis. The Reverend Charles Lowell, father of James Russell Lowell, championed the abolitionist cause, ended segregated seating in the congregation, and provided the first Sunday School for Boston’s poor.
Laurel Scott, in the twenty-one years of her professional life before entering the United Methodist Church, worked with crime victims, the impoverished young, the neglected elderly, the infirm, and students of varied, sometimes troubled backgrounds in public schools and colleges. She has arrived at a well-defined social agenda, a theological perspective, and a pastoral mission. Where she fits in the Old West Church’s ministering lineage is not so much debatable as it may be providential. “God has a purpose and a plan,” says Scott, “but it’s so wide that we only get to see a piece of it. I don’t know what God is doing. But I know that He is doing something pretty spectacular. I guess I feel it. I told my congregation once, ‘Can you imagine me? An immigrant, a woman? Short? And here I am!’”
The spiritual welfare of her congregation-an ethnically diverse collection of lawyers, doctors, architects, educators, housekeepers, nurses, office workers, and students-is clearly Scott’s primary concern. “I would like to see the people here spiritually awakened in such a way that others can’t help wanting to know what’s going on in here. I’d like them to have a passion for the Christian life. That’s my goal. I want to do a real ministry with them. I want to make a difference in their lives.”
Sentiments surely echoed, if they are in observance, by the spirits of Mayhew, Howard, and Lowell.
But when we do what we do from the heart . . . when we do the best we can despite the circumstances, when we live our lives with the purest of intentions . . . and when we acknowledge the Spirit of God operating in our lives as Jesus did, then something wonderful happens. — Laurel Scott, from the sermon “Power to Do Good,” January 13, 2002.
Laurel Scott never really imagined herself living in the United States. She loved the island where she was born and raised. But when she was twenty-one, she decided to get an American degree in journalism, then return home to run the island’s only daily newspaper, The Barbados Advocate, where she was a reporter. Accepted at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, Scott received her bachelor’s in communications magna cum laude in 1979. Two years later, she realized New York had “gotten to” her. She didn’t want to return to the Caribbean.
Before graduation, Scott had been hired part-time by the Victim Services Agency, a project initiated by Mayor Ed Koch, and became one of the first advocates for domestic violence victims in the country. “This was where the experimentation for this kind of thing was being done,” says Scott. “It started in the Brooklyn courts.” After graduation, Scott hoped to go into human services, although companies were cutting back on their personnel departments. “I’d been looking around at some of the big corporations,” says Scott, “when Victim Services asked me whether I wanted to begin a project they were doing in Times Square with the Mayor’s Office of Enforcement, providing services for crime victims, particularly tourists. Years later, around 1985, I became director of their traveler’s aid division and supervised programs in midtown and Kennedy Airport.”
Following Scott’s successful endeavors in aid management, the agency asked her to direct its emergency room program for sexual assault and child abuse victims. Scott supervised twelve counselors in four New York City trauma centers in shifts from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. and also helped train NYC police detectives in the effective treatment of assault victims. “We were dealing with things like rape crisis kits when they were first being tested,” says Scott. “Rape kits are now commonplace in hospitals, but in the eighties we were trying to introduce them, and it was a difficult job. People didn’t want to listen to us. Most of the people in decision-making positions were male, and they didn’t think it mattered how you treated a sexual assault victim.”
Two years later, Scott joined the New York City Commissioner of Social Services’ personal staff, advising on the treatment of homeless adults and issues of domestic violence, rape, and other sexual assault. Next, she became director of Project Enable at LaGuardia Community College, teaching and supervising a staff of forty-five. Project Enable provided college prep and job training to welfare recipients, and there Scott happily applied her experience with the welfare population to education. “We did some very interesting things,” she recalls. “For example, we introduced a police training program for welfare recipients, providing them with the instruction necessary to prepare them for all the police exams around: the NYPD, the Port Authority Police, the railroad police.”
What emerged was a woman determined to be on the forefront of social reform: court advocacy, hospital counseling, and education for the poor and disenfranchised. It was obvious that Scott possessed a talent for innovation, a restless desire for new challenges, and a need for gathering like-minded people committed to a cause. Where she would eventually travel would, in time, seem inevitable.
Our plans do not always work out according to our own reasoning, and that’s a good thing. It is a good thing and a blessing as long as we are operating under the protection and provision and love of God Almighty. The wisdom of God is foolishness to human beings. — Laurel Scott, from “An Abundance of Love”
“After Project Enable,” says Scott, “I went on to train staff who worked with foster care kids, and then became executive director of a community development corporation, Flatbush Gateway Community Development. It was in that job that I had what I call a ‘crisis in my career.’ And it was then that I realized that my philosophy of life was at odds with the political crowd in which I had become very intimately involved.” At forty-two, double her age as an eager journalism student, Scott felt forced to make some difficult decisions about how she was going to live her life.
“I made the decision to leave that job,” says Scott. “But then I couldn’t find another job at that level. That forced me to ask, ‘Why? Why was I not succeeding after having been successful so long and so consistently?’” A chance conversation with a United Methodist minister led her to join his church. Born into the Episcopal Church, she had since been affiliated with several nondenominational churches. Scott recognized she was experiencing a spiritual crisis. She was honest with her new pastor, painfully so.
“I told him,” says Scott, with a pleading look in her eyes as she relives that anguish, “‘I’m doing right. I’ve been going to church all my life. I go to church every Sunday. I do all of these things for the church in my spare time. I volunteer. I do lay ministry. I teach Bible study.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Don’t you think God is calling you to something higher?’”
This suddenly brought to mind what another spiritual director had been telling her for years: “You are called to something else, and your life is not going to settle down or be happy until you do it.” Scott suddenly decided to “get busy” on obtaining her Master of Divinity degree.
Having received her Master of Public Administration degree in public and non-profit management from NYU in 1992, “I thought I was through with school!” says Scott, laughing. “Maybe a doctorate in time, but I certainly didn’t think I’d have to go back and do another master’s. But I said okay. I did want to go someplace warm, though, to go back to the climate of my childhood, so I began looking at schools in the South.”
But via another chance encounter, Scott was recommended to Boston University. “I called STH, and Earl Beane picked up the phone. Now Earl Beane is legendary at STH because he’s been there for, I don’t know, twenty-five years, and he’s seen many people come through that school, and he’s an excellent recruiter. And he heard me, whereas other people in other university admission offices did not, and what I was saying was, ‘I’m a second-career student. I’ve been a teacher at the college level. Coming back to school is going to be a difficult kind of transition for me!’” In 1999, Scott began her first semester. Three years later, she is poised to graduate, having served as 2000-2001 president of the BU Theological Students Association and been recognized by the New York Conference of the United Methodist Church as a licensed pastor and certified candidate for the Order of Elder.
In the meantime, she has applied to STH’s Th.D. program in practical theology and church history to realize a vocational goal. “In my opinion, there’s too wide a gap between the academy and the local church. You can work with the latest thinking, but, if it’s not applied to the lives of people, it remains sterile. Both can become more effective if they are in closer relationship with each other. My hope is to bring the two into closer relationship.” And she acknowledges that the education she has received at STH has been invaluable. “STH has given me a sound academic foundation on which I can now begin to shape my own theology and pastoral approach,” says Scott proudly.
In her second year of study, to fulfill STH’s requirement of a year of pastoral internship, Scott came to Old West Church to serve as children and youth minister. A year later, in May 2001, Scott thought she was leaving Old West for good, on her way to an appointment in Stratford, Connecticut, but the New England Conference of the United Methodist Church had other ideas. Before her departure, she was asked by the district superintendent to take over the spiritual direction of the historic church. “On May 13, the congregation had thrown me a farewell party,” says Scott, with a laugh. “They had given me a plaque, a nice gift; they took photographs; everybody said goodbye. The congregation told me, ‘Some church is going to get you and they’re going to be so lucky! We wish you could stay.’ And two weeks later, the district superintendent walks up the path with me and says to them, ‘Here’s your new pastor!’” Scott assumed the pastorship in August 2001, becoming the first woman and the first person of color to be appointed pastor of Old West Church.
This relationship with God is not a one-way action. We don’t sit and wait for God to come to us. God has already come among us as Jesus. We must Come and See. It is a dynamic and interactive relationship, which means that we and God are hearing, smelling, seeing, tasting, touching each other. God does not do for us. God does with us. — Laurel Scott, from the sermon “Come and See,” January 20, 2002.
Scott, naturally enough, had reservations. Would her former congregation, used to her as a student, accept her as pastor? Did she have the qualifications to take on the new role of spiritual guide? What would she do with all the experience she had? “Do you know what? I find that I’m using it,” says Scott, a little amazed. “All the things I’ve done have been the best preparation I could have had for the work I’m doing now. I’ve met people from all walks of life. All kinds of people come through these doors with all kinds of requests. I have to engage in conflict management. I’m one of the on-call chaplains at Mass General. My life has been great training!”
If you ask Laurel Scott what goes through her mind when she is in the pulpit, she immediately responds with a word she uses often: passion. “I have a really strong passion for bringing everyone who hears me, everyone who comes into contact with me as a pastor, into closer contact with God. That is my passion. And when I’m in the pulpit, that is what’s going through my mind. I want to tell people the truth as I understand it. I want to give them insights and guidelines so that they can go out into their lives and live a more contented, more peaceful life. I want to communicate the joy I feel in my relationship with the divine, and help others come into a similar kind of relationship.”
Copyright, Focus, 2002