Q&A with St. Mark’s Episcopal Church new rector

Marshall Cohen

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St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 1509 Ridge Ave., will welcome the Rev. Debra Bullock as its 18th rector next month.

Her official installation will be celebrated June 9 at 7 p.m. The church was founded in 1854 and is one of the oldest in Evanston.

The Daily spoke with Bullock about her vision for St. Mark’s, her experience at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, 2122 Sheridan Road, and her view on the changing rights of gay couples in Illinois.

Daily: What happens on June 9, when you will be officially installed at St. Mark’s?

Bullock: The installation is when the bishop from the Chicago diocese comes and officially installs me as the new rector of the congregation. He asks the congregation if I am the person they’ve chosen, and they’ll hopefully say yes (laughs). The bishop will then affirm the calling.

Daily: What were you doing before you came to St. Mark’s, and what brings you here to Evanston?

Bullock: I actually was serving two congregations in southern N.J., in Cape May County. I had been there for three and a half years as a priest, but I was actually ordained in the diocese of Chicago. So this is definitely a homecoming. My family and my partner’s family both live in the Midwest, so this was a way to get back home and continue doing what I love, which is sharing the gospel with folks.

Daily: Do you think we can learn any religious lessons from the MTV show “Jersey Shore”?

Bullock: Oh my goodness. I confess, I have not watched “Jersey Shore,” but, of course, living in Jersey you can’t help but hear about it. For me, as a Christian, the story of Jesus is really what religion is about, though. A suntan and working out at the gym only gets you so far.

Daily: What is your vision as to how you will run St. Mark’s Church?

Bullock: The nice thing about the Episcopal Church is that the clergy (members) don’t run the church on their own. I have a group of wonderful lay leaders who will help to shape the vision of St. Mark’s as we move forward. Certainly one of my hopes for the congregation is to get us more connected with the Evanston community and certainly more visible to Northwestern students.

Daily: Do you have any plans to reach out to Northwestern students?

Bullock: The Episcopal Church offers a wonderful ministry through Canterbury House on Orrington Avenue. While Northwestern students are a transient population, they are here for a while, and we would love to have students join us while they’re sojourning through their college or graduate school years. Also, we have a wonderful choir, and we’re always looking for new voices to join us and sing. I know college life is already demanding enough. Students can come here and just be in the presence of other Christians and don’t need to feel obligated to get involved.

Daily: As a child, did you ever think you would become a pastor?

Bullock: I knew by the time I was a senior in high school that I was called to be clergy. But in my early 20s while I was in college I did something that a lot of people that age do, which was struggling with figuring out what I was really called to do. I tried to figure out what on earth I was doing. I took some time off and spent about 10 years working in the pharmaceutical industry. But my call to ordination never went away, and I discovered the beauty of the Episcopal Church and returned to the same feelings I had during my senior year in high school.

Daily: What inspired you to pursue ordination?

Bullock: What particularly grabbed me was a youth minister who was hired by the Presbyterian Church that I was a member of, and it was a woman. That was the first time that I had seen a female member of the clergy. And I always laugh because my reaction was not, “Oh, I didn’t know women could be clergy.” Rather, my reaction was, “Oh, I can be clergy.”

Daily: What was it like to be a student at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, located on the NU campus?

Bullock: Evanston is such an exciting city, and being a student at Seabury was great. I was a commuter student, since I owned a home in Mount Prospect, Ill., so I didn’t get all of the benefits of “living on the block” as we called it at Seabury at the time. But I did get to explore Evanston, especially the great restaurants. Seabury offered some great programs like daily worship experiences in a community with others who are also following their calling and looking forward to serving congregations.

Daily: How do you feel about the legalization of civil unions for same-sex couples in Illinois starting on June 1?

Bullock: As a Christian, as a clergyperson and as a partnered lesbian, I am very excited that civil unions will finally be legal and available here in the state of Illinois. Fundamentally, at the core of the Christian message – and the message of many faiths – is respect for the dignity of every human being. Part of that is ensuring that everyone has the same rights. Scripture tells us that love is the underlying message. God has love for all people, and I’m pretty convinced this means that we shouldn’t carve out certain groups of people. As excited as I am for June 1, I really look forward to the day when marriage equality will be offered to all. Here at St. Mark’s, there is a long-standing tradition of tolerance that predates my time here. The first blessing of a same-sex union was done about a decade ago. This is an inclusive community, and we call ourselves a church for all seasons where everyone is welcome and we truly mean that.

Daily: If you could have any speaker come to St. Mark’s, who would it be and why?

Bullock: On the fly I would say probably the Dalai Lama. His message and his very being of peacefulness and deep care and compassion about the world and humanity is just amazing. To be in his presence would be quite an experience. I suppose I might be in trouble for not choosing a Christian, but I think we have a lot to learn from a lot of different faiths, and the Dalai Lama is a pretty remarkable person.

Daily: What is your favorite vacation spot?

Bullock: There is a resort in Iron River, Wis. And unlike most people who go there during the summer to swim and fish, I enjoy going in the middle of winter when it is peaceful. I can go cross-country skiing, and I can let my dogs run through the snow. There is no television there. Radio transmission is a little spotty. There is certainly no ability to use my cellphone, and it is just peaceful. I just love it there. I love being there with my family. It relaxes, refreshes and reconnects me.

marshallcohen2014@u.northwestern.edu

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