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‘A profound moment’

Clergy: Two women who’ve gone through life’s stumbling blocks take a big step towards the calling of

Posted: July 16, 2010 9:50 p.m.
Updated: July 17, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, center,  presents newly ordained deacons Cynthia Jew and Susan Bek to members of the community at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Valencia on July 9. Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, center,  presents newly ordained deacons Cynthia Jew and Susan Bek to members of the community at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Valencia on July 9.
Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, center, presents newly ordained deacons Cynthia Jew and Susan Bek to members of the community at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Valencia on July 9.

Susan Bek had spent years working at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, directing youth programs and giving spiritual mentorship.

Cynthia Jew, a seasoned college professor and psychologist, had a doctorate and plenty of schooling behind her.

Both were raising special-needs children. Both were in their 40s.

Jew was diagnosed with breast cancer. Then, her partner of 29 years was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

The stumbling blocks, hardships and reasons to look the other way piled up.

But Jew and Bek, both members of St. Stephen’s, were confident in their callings to the priesthood.

And they made individual yet almost identical promises to themselves and God not to deny it.

“That was my commitment – to walk in faith,” Bek said.

“My commitment was to not say no again,” followed Jew, who had begun seminary decades ago and quit to pursue psychology.

Members and clergy of St. Stephen’s ordained Bek, now 47, and Jew, now 50, as transitional deacons on July 9.

“At the end of the journey, we’re headed to become priests,” Bek said.

Walls break down
Bek considers herself a cradle Episcopalian. She grew up in the church, and her desire to serve revealed itself in several roles at St. Stephen’s. She served, and continues to serve, as the director of youth and children’s ministries and the school’s chaplain.

“I had worked at St. Stephen’s 10 years before I realized there was something I was being called to do,” she said.

She was doing about as much ministry as a layperson could do, she said, but still couldn’t escape a curious thought.

“I had a profound sense I needed to be a part of the Eucharist,” she said. “That you have to be a priest for.”

Despite positive feedback from her husband, the Rev. Lynn Jay and members of the congregation, Bek couldn’t quite visualize the feasibility of the idea.

How could she afford seminary? How would she take care of her boys, both of whom suffer from Tourette’s syndrome?

“One by one, those roadblocks got knocked down somehow,” said Bek, a mother of four.

Bek received a significant scholarship from the archdiocese for schooling. She spent weekdays with her kids and weekends at Claremont School of Theology.

A Master in Divinity panned out to a five-year-long journey for Bek. Times of doubt crept in throughout. She wondered if she was smart enough, good enough and committed enough.

“Every day I said, ‘Am I going to be able to do this?’ and every day God met me and gave me the strength to do so,” Bek said.

A walk of faith
What do all psychologists do at the end of their career? Jew asked.

“They either become lawyers or go to the clergy,” she said.

The joke is a common one in the psychologist world, she said. But it actually makes some sense.

“You spend lots of time with people who have really hard lives and you start to ask really hard questions,” she said. “You look for answers either by law or by grace.”

But Jew had abandoned a life of ministry years earlier when she left seminary. She spent 20 years as a psychologist. She thought her time for ministry had passed.

“I probably knew I was called 20 years ago,” she said. “I said ‘no’ like the story of Jonah.”

Jew found St. Stephen’s six years ago. Getting involved “felt like coming home again,” she said.

She was immediately drawn to the inclusive spirit of the congregation, she said. St. Stephen’s not only tolerates difference, she said, the church embraces it.

Church members and leaders accepted her, they accepted her partner and they allowed her adopted deaf daughter to sit in on services. Her 8-year-old daughter, Jordyn, wears a cochlear implant, a surgically implanted electronic device that allows her to hear.

Jew didn’t want to stick Jordyn, one of her two adopted daughters, in a quiet room during service. She wanted Jordyn to interact with others in service so she could hear voices, music and sounds.

The church welcomed Jordyn to their services, Jew said.

“How these people treated myself, partner and daughter – it was authentic and legitimate,” she said.

After a few years, Jew began to feel as if she was on an unfinished journey. She knew she was being called to the priesthood, but she couldn’t imagine returning to school.

“I thought, ‘This is for the young; I’m old,” she said.

But like Bek, Jew experienced a strong sense that she could not ignore. Her calling had not disappeared with time.

“God has a long memory,” she said. “I was hoping that God would forget.”

As she began to trust God with the decision, she said, she saw doors open.

“(God) provided all that was needed,” she said. “My vow was to walk faithfully.”

A year after Jew decided to take that walk, doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer. Jew was able to escape chemo after surgery. She is now two years free of cancer.

But her success in her fight against cancer is overshadowed by the recent lost of her marriage partner.

In August, Jew’s partner was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells in bone marrow. She died several months ago.

Throughout this journey, Jew said she doubted herself, but she never doubted God.

“God walks with us,” she said. “If we had not come to the Episcopal Church, would I still have had breast cancer? Would my partner still have had cancer? Yes.”

Though she struggled with her sickness and partner’s death, she never felt alone in that grief.

“It’s not about asking ‘Why?’ It’s about the idea that you get to ask ‘Why’ together,” she added. “‘Why?’ in a conversation of two is better than ‘Why?’ in a conversation of one.”

Jew said she constantly felt surrounded by the face of God as fellow congregants supported her.

Standing as a minister
Bek and Jew are considered transitional deacons for six months. After the period of apprenticeship and approval of several clergy committees, they will transition into priesthood.

Bek will have a full-time ministry as a priest for St. Stephen’s. Jew will continue to teach at California Lutheran University and balance part-time work with St. Stephen’s.

At the Ordination of the Deacons on July 9, Bek and Jew lied face-down on the church floor surrounded by their own family members and church family. The congregation sang and prayed over the women.

“It’s a symbol of giving up all that you are and all that you have and fully committing to serve God’s people,” she said.

“As deacons, our responsibility is to the people but most specifically, the poor, the sick and those in need,” she added.

The women then knelt down as the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno shook them and then prayed that they would be filled with the spirit. Before they stood up, they were vested as deacons.

“You kneel down a layperson, but stand up a minister,” Bek said. “That was a profound moment.”


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