At 7 a.m. on a cold and gray April morning, the Rev. Cathlin Baker is on a mission.
A pancake mission. She shakes flour through an old sifter that belonged to her mother, glancing down at a butter-stained cookbook on the counter. Her family is all around her doing the morning things that are familiar to every family with school-aged children. There are lunches to make, son Hardy is at the kitchen table finishing up some math homework and husband Bill is curled up on the couch with younger daughter Pickle reading. Soon the kids will be off to the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, just down the road from their West Tisbury home. Bill will be off to his job as managing editor at the Vineyard Gazette, and Cathlin to hers as the first female and 50th minister of the 341-year-old First Congregational Church of West Tisbury.
But first, pancakes.
“We make pancakes at least three times a week,” Cathlin says.
She has been up since six. “I usually get up at five to study and do sermon prep — picking out the prayers, hymns, thinking about what I’m going to say on Sunday — but I have a church meeting tonight and will be getting home late, so I slept in. Hardy, Pickle, do you guys want strawberries?”
“Yes!” Pickle answers for both of them. Hardy is too immersed in his homework to respond.
A short time later Hardy declines a second helping and heads into the family room to practice the piano. Cathlin tucks a shaft of gray-blond hair behind her ear and listens. “Do you hear that? He’s playing Demons [a pop song by the band Imagine Dragons]! That’s what I’ve been talking about for Lent! Exploring the contours of the wilderness — our dark side. Finding the courage to confront our demons and overcome them. Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness, conversing with the devil and enduring temptations of power, ego.”
Pickle, who is six and has a fantastic head of curls, interjects: “I hope Lent stops soon! Then my belly will be full of chocolate.” Cathlin laughs, “Time to get dressed.” The children head upstairs with their dad to get ready for school.
It’s different now, Cathlin explains quietly, speaking of her treatment for breast cancer two years ago. “I am much more mindful of my limits. How much sleep I need. If I’m getting enough exercise. Enough time with the kids. Decompression time. I used to just power through.” She laughs. “So New York.” Before she was called to the Island to serve as minister at the West Tisbury church, Cathlin was senior assistant to the president of Union Seminary in New York city, the nation’s oldest and largest seminary. “I helped with development, organized conferences and big events — Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama coming to New York, that kind of a thing,” she says.
The kids come downstairs, kiss their mom goodbye and head out with their dad. Cathlin gets dressed — a simple A-line red skirt, black shirt, boots and a navy vest — and sets off for the church.
Her first task this morning is a stewardship meeting. Since becoming minister, with the help of her congregation Cathlin has worked to revive every aspect of the church — financially, physically and of course spiritually. The stewardship committee is devoted to the financial health of the church. Recently the committee completed a capital campaign, raising $400,000 to renovate and restore the church building, which now gleams with fresh paint and refurbished floors.
After the meeting Cathlin zips down to Vineyard Haven to participate in the Martha’s Vineyard Neighborhood Convention monthly luncheon. Founded in 1894 because the Methodists and Baptists were not speaking, the convention is, according to a pamphlet, a “neighborly meeting to promote better relationships among all congregations.” The churches and the temple on the Island rotate hosting the event, which features a brown bag lunch with cookies, tea, coffee and speakers.
This month Grace Church is the host and Mike Creato of Katama Airfield is the speaker. Cathlin knows most of the 40-odd attendees and greets each person warmly, asking related questions about their health, family and lives. After the talk, she eats her lunch with the group (salad with a hard-boiled egg) and hands out posters for one of the First Congregational Church’s upcoming events. “This luncheon is about fellowship. Being with people. And it’s a great time for me to see and talk to other clergy members on the Island,” she says.
Two hours and about 20 conversations later, Cathlin heads to the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. As the chaplain on call, she will visit with people from her congregation as well as anyone who has asked to see a minister or who has indicated a religious affiliation on their intake form. The registration desk hands Cathlin a list of patients to see and she heads to the ICU. The first three patients she visits are well into their 80s and the fourth is 100 years old. Cathlin carries a bible and book of hymns but doesn’t open them. She takes her time with each visit, finding personal connections, admiring people’s flowers and cards. But mostly she listens.
“So much of my job is about just showing up and listening,” she will say later.
It is of course only partly true.
Walking out of the hospital, she responds to a text for a play date for Hardy and listens to a message from farmer and chef Chris Fischer, whom she has invited to preach for her Farm to Faith series at the church. Chris’s grandfather, John Wallace, was a minister at the church.
When she sits down with her assistant Kim Johnson 15 minutes later to go over church business, her depth, breadth and ambitions for her church are evident. The two women begin by discussing schedules, which leads to a conversation about weddings, which leads a conversation about congregants who are sick, which leads to discussion about those who need Cathlin to make a house call, which leads to identifying all those who need a phone call from Cathlin. The list is long. And then the phone rings.
It’s Justin LaRue, who is helping Cathlin run the church’s confirmation class (Last year was for girls. This year it is for boys). They discuss locations for an outdoor class where they will, among other activities, build cairns. “Since we’re talking about the wilderness, why not go out and explore it, interact with it?” she says. “Talk about direction in another way. A 13 year-old boy’s life is such a critical time. I want to give them something to support them, direction, something to lean on inside.” She laughs, “Not many confirmation classes are taught this way.”
She sends a text to one of the boys in the confirmation class who attends Falmouth Academy, to see if he can get out of school early to make it to West Tisbury for this particular class. He sends a text back asking if she can write a note. She texts back, laughing more and agreeing to the request, asking Kim to remind her to write the note and also to remind her to call on the 100-year-old woman she saw today at the hospital. Cathlin sighs. “I was so happy to see her. I haven’t been able to visit her since my treatment. I want to follow up and see her again. Oh, and I also need to call the June wedding family and connect. I owe them an email too.”
It is a living illustration of how much contact and connection Cathlin maintains with the members of her church, especially when they are at their most vulnerable — newborn, moving into adulthood, ill, getting married, divorced and dying.
In the second half of her meeting with Kim they discuss the conferences and retreats she’ll be attending in the coming months, the church leaders she will bring to the Island to preach, including Raphael G. Warnock of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. They talk about the church school’s drive to collect clothes for those in need for homeless outreach in Boston, and Cathlin’s goal to make the church an Open and Affirming (ONA) church by next year.
“Well, we already are, but we want to make it official,” she explains. “Open and affirming means that we welcome people of all gender expressions, sexual orientation, race and ability. And also make sure that people with different faith backgrounds can come. Open and Affirming is just one way to communicate that everyone is welcome to come to our church.”
Her work to bring about change and help those in need is not new. Her first job out of college was working for Philadelphia’s Dignity Housing program, devoted to finding affordable housing for the homeless. “I didn’t set out to be a minister but in college, theology caught my heart,” she recalls. As a senior in college, she traveled to Chennai, India, to study other religions and cultures. It was a time of self discovery. “Who am I fooling? I am not Hindu. I am Western,” she recalls thinking at the time. “Christianity was the door for the untouchables. Why couldn’t it be for me?” After her time in Philadelphia, she began studying at Union Seminary in New York.
And then about six months after her mother died of cancer, when Cathlin was 28, she heard the call. She was staying a small hotel room in Cuba while attending an international women’s rights conference when she heard a voice that “sounded like my mother and it said, anything is possible. And that is when I had the thought, oh, I can be a minister.”
She pursued a master’s degree at Union Seminary, worked on an anti-poverty movement with Rev. Dr. James Forbes and the Riverside church, and then returned to the seminary for a second master’s, this time in divinity while working as an assistant minister at New York’s Judson Church. After graduating she worked as a Hospice chaplain in Tallahassee, Fla., while Bill studied for his master’s in creative writing.
Her experiences of organizing, activism, ministering, preaching and politicking would become the foundation for her job as a minister in a small town on an Island. It is apparent that the separation from the religious institutions that helped form her spirituality and their preachers, people whom she talks about as though they were family members, inspires Cathlin to work harder to bring the world to her church and her church into the world.
After her meeting with Kim, Cathlin moves into her office, sits down in a small wooden chair by a window with a view through the trees onto Music street.
“I went back into the wilderness last week,” she says. “They found another lump. This time in my side. I had to go back up to Boston and get a biopsy. I was a shell of myself. Nearly catatonic with fear. I had been feeling so great, so alive. I had pocketed the fear. But then it came back and got me.” She sighs and continues: “The good news is that I’m fine. The lump is nothing. But it rocked me.” She pauses again and says, “There’s a hymn I sing to myself when I get this scared.”
Then, right there in one of her tiny wooden office chairs, she sings The King of Love.
When she is done she smiles. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
Cathlin Baker by the Numbers:
Profession: Minister, First Congregational Church of West Tisbury
Born: New York city
Raised: North Plainfield, N.J.
Moved to Martha’s Vineyard: 2008
Spouse: Bill Eville, managing editor, Vineyard Gazette
Children: Hardy, age nine and Eirene (she prefers Pickle), age six
Education: Bachelor of arts in religion, Hamilton College, master’s in divinity, Union Theological Seminary
Favorite food: Mango Lassi from Mermaid Farm
Favorite Hymn/Prayer: The King of Love, Psalm 23
Pets: “None. A big bone of contention in this house. We owe Pickle a rabbit.”