Growing up in rural Carver County, Rev. Peg Chemberlin was steeped in a faith that’s harder to find today.
“It’s not a faith of fear, it’s not a faith of judgment, it’s not a faith that gets a lot of headlines. And yet it’s the best part of the faith: the love, the acceptance, the justice and the community,” said Chemberlin, 60.
“So I hope by the time I’m done with this life, I will give witness to that faith in some pretty significant ways.”
Now Chemberlin, the longtime leader of the Minnesota Council of Churches and an ordained member of the Moravian Church of America-North, is especially well-positioned to reach her goal. On Thursday, at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, she was installed as the 25th president of the National Council of Churches (NCC).
The NCC works to be the leading force for ecumenical cooperation among Christians in the United States. Its member faith groups include 45 million people in more than 100,000 local congregations across the nation, according to a press release.
In the coming year, the busy Seward neighborhood resident will take on NCCC’s leadership as well as maintaining her post on the Minnesota Council of Churches. She’ll also continue to travel to Washington, D.C. and work with President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, to which she was appointed last spring.
Chemberlin talked with the Daily Planet, waxing poetic on Minnesota’s charms, recalling missing a phone call from the White House and coming clean about her Facebook habit.
Looking back to your childhood in Waconia, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Well of course I saw myself doing any number of things. I remember in sixth grade, I loved drawing house plans, and I thought for sure I’d be an architect. That didn’t last very long.
But when I was 16, I was at church camp, and the president of the denomination said, “Anyone who feels called to the ministry, meet me in the chapel at 1 o’clock.” And I was the only one who showed up. And he sort of hemmed and hawed and said, “Maybe you should be a teacher, or a nurse or something,” because the denomination didn’t ordain women. He didn’t say, “Any man who feels called” – so I just thought it included me. And when he said it didn’t, I just sort of said, “Oh well, OK,” and then I went off to college.
Years later, after you’d finished college and started a teaching career, you were called back to a full-time life in the church. But by that point, it had changed its rules so women could be ordained, right?
Yes, and looking back at (the original rejection), I don’t regret that at all. I think to have such a blatant experience of exclusion was very helpful to my development and my own understanding of the world. Who’s excluded and why became a predominant question, and I still ask that question today.
How did you learn you’d been chosen to be a member of President Obama’s advisory council?
It was a phone call. My daughter and a number of her friends had been over for dinner – we have these wonderful dinners with these mid-20s folks, and they go on for hours and hours – and unlike usual, on this occasion I actually left my cell phone in another room. I never heard it ring.
So at about midnight, I’m getting ready to go to bed, and here is this voice mail: “Hi Peg, this is Josh DuBois – and Josh of course is, and I knew this, is the executive director of the White House office on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships – and he said, “I’ll call you first thing in the morning.”
And I thought, “OK, why am I getting a call from the White House?”
The next day you found out, and since then you’ve been working on the council’s economic recovery and poverty-fighting task force. So have you had a chance to meet the president?
Not yet. I’m hoping that chance happens at some point. The closest I’ve gotten to the president, to this president, is when he had had his (health care rally) at Target Center earlier this fall and I was asked to do the invocation. And just as I was walking to go into the arena, he was coming in out of his car, so we were about 20 feet away.
I remember being really moved by what you said and by the whole event.
It was a very moving time all around, and coming from a health care family [Chemberlin’s father was a community doctor], health care is a very important thing to me as well. It sort of seems like we should be treating health care the way that we treat roads: you know, everybody gets to use them, and they should be in good shape. So, we’ll see what happens there.
It was an interesting prayer time, because I don’t think I’ve ever been stopped in the middle of a prayer with applause from the audience. I was doing a kind of thank-you portion of the prayer, and I said, “In the language of the Anishinabe people, we say miigwetch.” Folks just responded very positively.
The crowd just went crazy, because you’d given a shout-out to a culture that lives here –
– and is excluded.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
My most favorite thing to do is sit on a rock by Lake Superior for hours at a time and not talk to anybody or do anything except just sit there. Unfortunately, that’s not easily come by, as it’s a six-hour drive, so we have put a good deal of time into gardening in our backyard.
Your recreational pastimes – like gardening and baking cookies with family – all seem rather wholesome. Do you have any guilty pleasures, like checking Facebook or watching bad reality TV?
I love Thursday night NBC TV; “30 Rock,” you know, just makes me laugh.
And I have to say that I don’t have as much time for Facebook as I’d like to. Some of my friends decided I needed to have 1000 friends on Facebook, and I think we’re pretty close. I do try to check in every day, and check in with a few particular friends and see what’s coming down the pike.
[She pauses for a moment, and then owns up.]
I’ve been known, on an off day, to spend two or three hours on Facebook. So there you are; there’s the truth.
You’ve lived many places, including Chicago, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania. Why do you keep coming back to Minnesota?
Well, family’s here, and family is just such a central part of my life. But even if my family wasn’t here, I might be back in Minnesota anyway.
I think Minnesota has a civic life for the common good that I really resonate with. We’re one of the strongest state councils of churches. I think we’ve got one of the best councils of nonprofits, and any number of voluntary organizations in Minnesota tend to be high on the best-practices list on the national level.
So I think it’s that sense of commitment to working together, of building together, of collaboration. Cooperation is kind of in our blood here.