Reverend Farr earned her Master of Divinity from Yale Divinity School in 1979. While still in seminary, her deep interest in world religions took her on a two-year leave to study the Buddhist practice of mindfulness meditation (Vipassana) with Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, renowned Sri Lankan monk in the tradition of Theravada Buddhism, in Washington, D.C. Since 1989, Reverend Farr and her husband have served as co-pastors of Emmanuel Church of the United Church of Christ in Watertown, NY. Their innovative, egalitarian leadership style has enabled the community to discover their faith, journeys, and gifts, experience personal transformation, and develop an expansive understanding of the Great Mystery that is God, through the practice of Christ’s progressive teachings and way of life.
Kim Terrell: Tell me a little about yourself. What brought you to the ministry?
Patricia Farr: I grew up in a traditional family and experienced a stable, traditional Christian education, going to Sunday school and church and participating in youth groups. I learned the stories of Jesus and became familiar with his teachings. When I got to college, the Vietnam conflict (never declared a war) was raging, and kids were dropping out left and right, mainly because people didn’t see the relevance of the war. I tried to rely on my Christian faith for answers to the lunacy I saw around me. I tried again and again, but all of a sudden I could not see God’s relevance and experienced a crisis in faith that sent me into a deep depression.
Kim Terrell: What did you do?
Patricia Farr: I reached out for help. The first person I talked to was the pastor of the church my family had attended for years. He tried to help me and was very kind and loving, but I could not bridge the gap between his faith perspective and my dark depression. I also talked with my older brother, who had returned from Vietnam a few years before. He, too, was extremely kind and listened to me with patience and great care, telling me that I would find my own way through this darkness.
The people I reached out to helped me to understand that I was not alone, but my depression remained. I began taking introductory courses in religion—Religion 101, that sort of thing. There I met Paul Tillich in his book The Courage to Be. Suddenly I had language and a vocabulary for thinking about God and whether or not there was meaning in the universe. His view of God made sense to me.
Kim Terrell: In what way?
Patricia Farr: Tillich saw God as the ground upon which all beings exist. He felt that since one cannot deny that there is being (where we and our world exist), there is therefore a Power of Being. As such, God precedes “being” itself, and God is manifested in the structure of all beings.
Kim Terrell: How did this help you?
Patricia Farr: It gave me a sense of hugeness I had not had before. Suddenly God was not this guy with a beard, he was not my personal god, but something so vast as to be unknowable. Tillich gave me a different way into my search for understanding. He helped me to grasp that your ultimate concern, whatever it may be, is God to you. That realization led me on more of a spiritual journey—one that included constant questioning—for now I had a new language to help my exploration, and language, though limited, is essential for me. It is my way to understanding.
Kim Terrell: What came next?
Patricia Farr: On my 21st birthday, I was hanging out in my dorm room, playing the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The next thing I knew, I was in an altered state of consciousness. No drugs—just this decidedly altered state. I experienced everything as personal, as if all life, in fact the entire universe, was brimming with love and meaning. This became the touchstone of my faith for the rest of my life. I don’t know how long the experience lasted; I simply know that it happened, and it changed my life as I’d known it up until then. I went to the library and found a book, The Idea of the Holy, by Rudolph Otto. It talked about what happens to a person when they are having a religious experience.
Kim Terrell: Did you know you’d had a religious experience?
Patricia Farr: Yes, but it took many years to really sink in. My depression began to lift, and I decided that life is for us, not against us. I decided to go on with my spiritual journey.
Kim Terrell: Which took you to Yale Divinity School?
Patricia Farr: Yes. After completing our undergraduate studies, my husband-to-be and I went to Yale. There we continued our studies, not only of the Christian religion but also other world religions. I explored both the Hindu and Buddhist faith traditions, which, like Christianity, encourage a life of commitment to wisdom, service, and compassion.
We took time off from Yale to study with Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, a Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka. Every day, we would volunteer at the Buddhist Vihara, a center on 16th Street, NW in Washington, D.C., where Bhante Gunaratana introduced us to the practice of Vipassana (mindfulness meditation) and taught us a contemplative approach to life. I came to learn that the current contemplative Christian practice of “Centering Prayer” was, in fact, influenced by the ancient tradition of Vipassana.
Kim Terrell: Did that experience transform you in any way?
Patricia Farr: Yes, in many ways, the most important one being that I realized that my path had to do with being a bridge between many seemingly different religions that actually share a basic set of principles. At their core, all universal religions are connected. It expanded my questions and my resolve to continue exploring the great mystery surrounding the authoring of the universe.
Kim Terrell: Did you return to Yale?
Patricia Farr: Yes, after a two-year stint we went back to the seminary and graduated from Yale Divinity in 1979.
Kim Terrell: What are the challenges that you face as co-ministers of the progressive Christian denomination, the United Church of Christ?
Patricia Farr: The challenge is to be relevant in today’s world and to help people understand the progressive nature of our church. We are not interested in converting people to a set of dogmatic beliefs. We welcome people of all backgrounds, proclivities, and beliefs, and we are mainly interested in respectful dialogue. We do not suggest nor believe there is only one right answer. Jesus was a progressive, interested in everyone. It’s a challenge to get people to come and explore with us. Love, non-judgment, and service are at the basis of everything we do in our church. We are unconditional in welcoming people and that creates its own set of challenges.
Kim Terrell: What sort of thinking do you encourage?
Patricia Farr: We encourage people to think of life as a journey, by helping them to understand that the answers are within. Spiritual education should help people discover that they are much more than they think they are. Once this idea takes hold, then transformation can happen.
Kim Terrell: What are your thoughts on the increasing violence in the world, and how does it reflect on the long tradition of nonviolence in both religion and philosophy?
Patricia Farr: Violence is alien to the doctrines of all major religions, but over the centuries much violence has been perpetrated in the name of Christ, Muhammad, and even the Buddha. I will speak to what I think is the Christian perspective on violence, and that is that it goes against Jesus’ actual teachings of reconciliation, forgiveness, and compassion as a way of life. Violence has never been part of Christ’s teachings. Though, as I said, we have perpetrated war upon one another in the name of religion on a regular basis.
Christ lived at a time when the Romans controlled the tribal populations of the Jews. He chose to break down barriers and spent time with everyone—even the hated Samaritans and “unclean” women. He chose to make friends in unlikely places. His disciples worried about the consequences of his choices, but he made them anyway. And ultimately, he chose his moment to die. He knew what would happen to him as a result of his unorthodox choices.
Kim Terrell: Gandhi emulated much of Christ’s teachings, did he not?
Patricia Farr: Gandhi stated that he loved Jesus’ teachings. Gandhi said that all that is necessary for understanding non-violent protest is contained in the Sermon on the Mount, specifically Matthew 5, 6, and 7. Martin Luther King subsequently based his movement of non-violent protest on Gandhi’s example.
Kim Terrell: There seems to be such wide variation in how the spiritual doctrines are interpreted and implemented.
Patricia Farr: I think there are different levels of distortion of the teachings of Jesus. I have found that people bring their own level of development to religious teachings. I often feel when talking with people who take the Bible literally that there is no desire to find common ground and a common language with those of us who take the Bible seriously but not literally. In a progressive church like ours, we do not insist on any dogma but rather seek to talk together and to listen to one another. From our perspective, concern for the oppressed, compassion, and inclusion best represent Christ’s teachings.
Kim Terrell: Such different points of view must be difficult to reconcile.
Patricia Farr: My husband and I often talk about that, and we have come to think of all the variations of thought as people living in different jet streams that represent different realities. It has been my personal experience that if one is living from spirit, then embracing hope and experiencing others with compassion becomes a way of life, whereas living an ego-centered life encourages divisiveness and a point of view that experiences anyone different as “other.”
Kim Terrell: What difficulties do you experience on this path you are traveling?
Patricia Farr: Allowing my heart to be open to suffering, my own and others’, without being paralyzed by it, is an ongoing challenge. Witnessing cruelty and violence in the world without becoming hopeless. Continuing to believe in the possibility and inevitability of living sane lives. Also, recognizing that I cannot always be the influence that turns someone’s life away from despair, though I recognize that I have been placed in a position that allows me to walk with people through darkness back into the light. But what happens during the walk is not for me to govern. I can only be present and available to listen.
Kim Terrell: How do we move towards a society motivated by compassion instead of profit?
Patricia Farr: I think that to a great extent we must unplug from a culture or society that refuses to act with compassion. And we must use our gifts wisely—but first we must know what they are. As we awaken to how vast all this is, and begin to discover and live our lives with the realization that we are constantly growing, moving, and changing, and that we can share with one another rather than hoard… As we find what moves us and begin to do those things, then new ways of being present themselves. We begin to connect with our own humanity and then with other people’s. We become a network of lights connecting with one another across more and more ground.
Kim Terrell: What makes life worth living from your perspective?
Patricia Farr: That is a fundamental question along with “What does it mean to be Human?” I think it is important to ask these questions on an ongoing basis, so that we continually explore the possibilities raised by such questions. Simply asking questions about existence helps us to realize that we have a purpose, and this in turn helps us to live with purpose.
Kim Terrell: What is your purpose?
Patricia Farr: What makes my life meaningful is finding the treasure buried inside all of us. Sometimes it seems impossible, but resolving to continue looking, listening, and being present with others is what makes my life purposeful.
Recently, I ran into a young person in the hall of our church and asked if I could help him, as I did not recognize him. He said that he wanted to join the church—that he had been looking for a spiritual home and decided that our church was to be his church. He’s in the 9th grade and quite a wonderful young person. His inner compass brought him to us. He likes the fact that we accept people unconditionally and decided we would be a good beginning for his spiritual journey.
Kim Terrell: That’s quite wonderful. Thank you, Reverend Farr, for your time and your insights.
Patricia Farr: My pleasure.