Sometime in 1977, a young the Rev. Arabella Meadows-Rogers found herself enjoying a coffee break with several other staffers in the kitchen of Manhattan’s West-Park Presbyterian Church. Along with the milk and sugar, the young clergy staffers were also serving “when I grow up” stories.
“Jokingly, I said ‘I want to be the EP (executive presbyter) of the New York City Presbytery!’” As Meadows-Rogers remembers it, everyone naturally dissolved into laughter.
Fresh out of seminary in 1975, Meadows-Rogers had been hired by West-Park’s then-pastor, the Rev. Bob Davidson, as a half-time assistant pastor and community organizer.
Now, some 32 years later — six years after her installation as executive presbyter for the Presbytery of New York City — she has sat down with the Presbyterian News Service in a restaurant just off Times Square, a few days before her Aug. 1 retirement.
“I love my job,” she says, with a bright smile and a twinkle in her eye.
“But the length of my life has been curtailed.”
For the past 18 months, Meadows-Rogers has been battling pancreatic cancer. Aside from the white headscarf trimmed with red and blue designs that complement her navy blue suit, you’d never suspect it.
As she digs into a warm slice of apple pie a la mode, she sums up her reasons for retiring: “New York needs a healthy EP.”
“There are five or 10 or 20 things I still want to do with the rest of my life,” Meadows-Rogers says. Retirement will give her this opportunity.
Fulfilling one’s dreams seem to run in Meadows-Rogers’ blood — she cites a recent example from her dad.
“He’s 88. When he was in 3rd grade, he became fascinated with the Johnstown Flood (Johnstown, PA, 1889). He read everything he could about it and vowed he’d get to the flood museum. Well, 80 years later he finally got the opportunity to go,” she says.
The path to fulfilling one’s dreams often begins with a personal epiphany. For Meadows-Rogers, hers came around the same time as her prescient kaffee klatch at West-Park during a service at the Methodist church where her husband, Rob, was pastor.
“I was sitting in a pew one Sunday and realized that I loved congregational ministry. I was also a bit jealous of my husband’s pastorate,” she says.
She left West-Park in 1978 for her own pulpit, University Heights Presbyterian Churchin the South Bronx, a few short months removed from the infamous year of the “Bronx is Burning,” a time of tension, financial crisis and tenement fires.
In 1982, Rob was called to a pulpit in Astoria, across New York City’s Triboro Bridge in the borough of Queens. Also that year, their family grew with the adoption of a son, Matt; Meadows-Rogers became a working mom and a commuter.
The following year, it was “good bye, city life” and “hello, little girl,” as the family, now a bit larger with the adoption of a daughter, Sarah, moved to rural upstate New York, where she served the West Delhi Presbyterian Church as stated supply.
By 1985, it was time to move again, this time back to Durham, NC; the couple had done their graduate work at Duke University. Rob went back for his doctorate, and Meadows-Rogers began serving as First Presbyterian Church’s associate pastor. Returning as guest preacher in September 2008, she recalled her time on Tobacco Road:
“... I was associate pastor from 1985 to 1992. It was before computers; there was still a dial telephone in my office. Rebecca Harvard was IN the youth group, not RUNNING the youth group ... My children were 3 and 5 when we arrived; I now have grandchildren older than that ...”
The doorway to fulfilling her 1977 dream opened in 1992. Horace Greeley, he of “Go West, young man!” fame, would have found it ironic that her path back to New York lay at the foot of a signpost pointing 1,350 miles westward to Moorhead, MN.
While Rob settled in at Concordia College as a professor of art, Meadows-Rogers answered a call as designated pastor for a divergent pair of North Dakota congregations in the Presbytery of the Northern Plains, which straddles the Minnesota/North Dakota border.
She rose to executive presbyter in 1997; five years later, the Presbytery of New York City came calling. In July 2003, Meadows-Rogers moved back east to New York; that October, she was installed in the position that, a quarter-century earlier, she had said was her dream job.
‘I should’ve been dead a year ago’
Meadows-Rogers points to three achievements during her half-dozen years in New York City: the expansion of the Commissioned Lay Pastors program, the doubling of installed Latino and Latina pastors and the firm designation of monies for mission work from the sale of church property, particularly on Staten Island.
But her tenure was not all sweetness and light: efforts to unite the presbytery behind a common mission effort moved slower than she would have preferred; with anxiousness about leadership of any sort running high in some quarters, attempts to lower the temperature proved more difficult than anticipated; a pastor/congregant affair within a high-profile congregation not only wrenched the presbytery, it was sensationalized to an extent in the city’s tabloid dailies.
But as the saying goes, looking back only tells you where you’ve been. Meadows-Rogers, who turned 60 July 15, prefers to look ahead.
“I should’ve been dead a year ago.”
The statistics for those with pancreatic cancer are sobering, something Meadows-Rogers touched on in her September 2008 guest sermon in Durham:
“Vulnerability and strength. It’s a lesson I’m learning daily. It’s a lesson I can’t help from learning, as living with a terminal disease makes me different, weaker sometimes, more vulnerable, makes me wonder who I am and who God wants me to be during this period of my life,” she said. “It’s a lesson I learn daily when I have to ask for help in ways I didn’t before, or when I have to cancel an engagement or bow out of a meeting. It’s a lesson that says vulnerability and strength are just two sides of the same coin, and each gains integrity and power by embracing its other side.
“It’s an incredible thing that I’m alive.”
The chemotherapy and other procedures have been taxing during these past 18 months.
“It’s been very wearing on Rob,” Meadows-Rogers says. A wistful look crosses her face, a vocabulary of love and gratitude for the faithfulness and loyalty shown by her husband, the rock who has been by her side throughout all her treatments.
She has also felt God’s strong presence during this time, something touched on last summer in an article by Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann; she recalled the passage for her Durham listeners:
“... common biblical scholarship understands that life and death are not absolute states but constitute a continuum of strength and weakness. Thus every weakness is a death and every strength a resurrection ...”
“Someone said to me,” she recalls, “‘Being EP is such a stressful job; maybe the job brought on your cancer.’ Maybe so, but my job has also provided me the unique opportunity to feel the incredible power of prayer. Perhaps I was someone who needed to be held in God’s kind hands.”
As if in sync with the conversation, the summer downpour that had been soaking Times Square during these past few minutes ends abruptly.
The sunlight returns, as does Meadows-Rogers to her retirement plans. White water rafting is on the list — texting is not.
“The other day, my Palm Pilot broke,” she chuckles. “It just quit.”
She has no plans to replace her electric leash.
Retirement brings Meadows-Rogers a new outlook on preaching the lectionary. She looks forward to the freedom of not having to peg her sermons to a particular holiday, anniversary or other commemorative event, something she found herself doing a bit too frequently as EP.
She and Rob plan to stay in New York, though perhaps not in Manhattan.
“I love my doctor,” she says.
Aside from the positive outlook on her own life, Meadows-Rogers has a positive outlook on the life of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which explains why she plans to stay active as a minister-at-large in the Presbytery of New York City.
“This is a most exciting time to minister,” she says. “There are a lot good things going on around the country: new approaches to accomplishing mission, new outlooks on worship, new titles to better represent these new approaches.”
Jim Nedelka is a professional journalist working in New York City. A frequent contributor to the Presbyterian News Service, Nedelka is an elder and member of West-Park Presbyterian Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.