At a recent adult Sunday school class devoted to the subject of money and giving, Pat Van Slyke told the group that her perspective on such things has changed as she has aged. Many things that mattered to her 60 years ago matter very little now, she said.
It’s freeing in a way, she says.
Pat is turning 80 next year. Sure, her life looks quite different from those days 60 years ago when she was strolling around The College of Idaho.
It looks different from her life 40 years ago, as well, when she was busy with the Cub scouts, her local library, and shuffling kids to youth group and endless school activities.
And that’s not just because she’s an empty-nester with a few more silver hairs. Pat can point to a very specific moment decades ago, and at a Presbytery event no less, when things changed in her heart.
Here’s what her life looked like before that: Pat was raised a Disciple of Christ, in Berkeley, California. “Every time the church doors were open, I was there,” she said. Her father was a deacon, and her mother, president of the women’s group. Pat was present and active, but she grew increasingly skeptical the older she got. “I knew the Bible stories, but they seemed to have nothing to do with me. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t murder. I don’t steal.’ How are these words relevant to me?”
After college, Pat took a decade-long break from church.
“I had grown up with this view of people who only go at Christmas or Easter, and I wasn’t going to do that,” she said. “I wanted to go because it felt right for me to go.”
A friend in the neighborhood where she was living in Houston invited her back. And by the time her family had moved to the Washington area in the 1970s, Pat was in the swing of church life again.
She found a somewhat conservative Presbyterian congregation in Alexandria, and she initially felt comfortable. But not unlike her teen years, Pat started to feel like her questioning was isolating her.
“I remember being in a Sunday school class, and we were discussing Jonah. I said, ‘It seems possible to me that a man wasn’t actually swallowed by a whale, that it didn’t happen exactly like the Bible reads, and you can still get the message from the story.” A friend turned to her and said, “I feel sorry for you.”
Not long after, Pat attended an evangelism event that was sponsored by the National Capital Presbytery. Jim Wallis, a Christian writer and activist, spoke, and he said something that Pat has never forgotten: If it’s good news, it will be good news for the poor.
“It was like a lightbulb went off,” Pat said. She hesitates to use the phrase born again, but in a way that’s how she felt. Her perspective on church changed. Her perspective on her own role as a Christian changed. Her voting patterns changed.
And she decided that questioning and doubting isn’t a bad thing.
“It wasn’t just about some stories that happened a long time ago,” she said. “Gospel in action: That was so appealing to me.”
Pat found BPC, which resonated more with her new idea of what church should be. And whereas her life before had been “more self-focused,” she felt called in a new direction.
She helped support an Iraqi family that BPC became connected with; the husband had lost a limb under Saddam Hussein’s rule. She has tutored children, worked with the literacy council, and attended events organized by VOICE, which invests in social justice issues. She is getting involved in a support network for indigent criminal defendants in the South, a problem that she has read about recently and discovered “is so much worse than I even imagined.”
An antique clock hangs on her dining room wall, one that was from her parents’ and grandparents’ church in Idaho. It’s a reminder, in some ways, of Pat’s own spiritual evolution. “I once heard someone say, ‘Every person is responsible for their own faith journey.’ I believe that.”