I was born in Columbia, South Carolina, to Tom and Connie Fulbright – their first child, delivered to them while they were still very young. My father’s family is from South Carolina; my mother’s, from Louisiana. There is some Cherokee blood on my father’s side of the family, but on my mother’s, we are Comanche. My maternal grandfather was ashamed of his blood, because he experienced a great deal of prejudice against him as a “half-breed,” as he was called back then. During World War II, he was placed in the “colored unit,” and forced to dig latrines. His response was to go AWOL and join the Coast Guard. By the time he was found, he was in active service in the Coast Guard, and was allowed to continue. He spent his life trying to pass as “white,” and so retracing our lineage has been harder than we would like. It also informs my experience of the world, as I am given white privilege. So much of my identity is erased under that broad brush of assumption; so much lost, unseen. For this and many other reasons, I am active in our UU ARAOMC work, and involved in our People of Color gatherings.
My upbringing was Southern, and I think that matters. There is something inescapable about “coming from” the South, a way it weaves itself into your very blood. The smell of the inlet, where I lived as a child, moves me inside in ways I never seem to expect. Certain colors grow brighter. Certain songs move me more deeply. I become quieter inside. The South has mountains and sea, flatlands and foothills. It moves slowly, speaks softly, prizes civility and subtle cruelty. Like any other, it is a place where one can grow up with easy good fortune, or the sharper, more ignorant turns of the human heart. I have seen all these things. In the South, there is still a strong tradition of “belonging.” Who are your people? Where is your place? Where do you come from? In the South, I have seen how past and present collide, sometimes well, sometimes not. It has made me prize certain things. I believe in recognizing the role of tradition, how it can comfort the human spirit, yet I do not idolize it. I believe in ties that hold us together, home-cooked meals, time for long conversation. I have learned the hard lessons of racism and intolerance, how they limit potential, destroy ability, and erase the authentic stories of human experience. Being at times surrounded by apathy and mindless adherence to dogma has put a fire in my belly. I wouldn’t trade that for the world. And flowing through all of this is the beauty of the land itself, which has given me gifts of strength and well-being it would be impossible to estimate.
I was only the first of my parents’ children: in 1972, my brother Trey was born. Thus began a typical rollercoaster of sibling squabbles, but most of all it meant I had a playmate, irritating as he might be most of the time. (I, on the other hand, was pure joy 24/7) Trey patiently endured being dressed up – usually in women’s clothing – and being taught endless song-and-dance routines. Apparently, for most of our childhood I was channeling the spirits of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney – “c’mon, kids, let’s put on a show in the old barn!” He paid me back by frequently embarrassing me in front of my peers during my teen years, so it all balanced out in the end. Besides, I am sure it is because I forced him “onstage” so often that he became quite comfortable there as a talented drummer. Clearly, I can take credit for all his success.
My high school years were wonderful. I was fortunate to live in an area of the state which had an extremely active voice for young people in the arts in a woman named Virginia Uldrick. Long before “magnet schools” were on the radar, Greenville had a performing arts high school. I was one of only three students at the time to be accepted into two disciplines there – theatre and dance. We also had a summer Governor’s School for the Arts, which I also attended for drama. Aside from the joy of being able to develop my gifts, the Fine Arts Center gave me an opportunity to be surrounded by creative, free-thinking, and spirited kids. At least half of us were bi/gay/lesbian (none of us yet were transgendered, but we were very fluid in our gender expressiveness), and for us, it was all completely normal – no stigma, no bullying. We were free of so many of the “boxes” to which kids in a more traditional high school environment were subjected. I was able to develop my leadership skills and begin to understand intimate connections made from a heart level. So I was powerfully blessed by the opportunity to develop in an environment that celebrated potential of all kinds.
My college experiences were rich, as well; I studied the philosophy of religion, lived abroad, found a home in psychology and began “working in the world” – tutoring kids in maximum security juvenile detention centers, doing clinical assessments of people accused of violent crime, volunteering with a rape crisis center. It’s hard to encapsulate years of transformative experience, but I believe I grasped what life had to offer – always while holding down jobs to pay for my own education.
It was while I was in college that the most transformative event of my life occurred. After returning from living in Wales for a year, I married my high school sweetheart and gave birth to our daughter, Ember. It turned out the marriage was not right for any of us, but my first husband Eric and I were able to recognize that early on, and we chose to separate, so that we could co-parent Ember and she would only remember us as two, separate adults. This worked well for over ten years. Unfortunately, when Ember was 10, her father remarried, and he has chosen to have very little to do with her since. The challenges and pain of having a once-warm and engaged co-parenting relationship to one where a child is left behind as a parent moves on is heartbreaking on every level. Having experienced the fullness of what divorce can be like, I have great empathy for all who have to travel that road. I choose to view it as a gift to my ministry. Fortunately, Ember, who is now 21, has always been at the center of a loving community, and has weathered gracefully the loss of a biological father.
Being a mother is the most ancient of things, yet every time it happens, it is a first – the first time it has happened between this child and this mother. Because of Ember, the world was born anew for me, and I to it. I notice things now I never noticed before becoming a parent; I am called to action and service in ways I never expected prior to that transformation. Because I am a mother, I want the world to be a better place for all children, and I have found reserves of courage and energy I never knew before: courage to face injustice and speak out, energy to put forth the long effort to midwife change. And it just so happens that I have been blessed with two amazing girls, who fill me to the brim with joy and pride, so I am, as we say, “blessed and highly favored!”
I have written and rewritten over time about my long theological journey. I hope it will be the source of a lifetime of conversation and exploration. Since childhood, I have been drawn not only to the life of the spirit, but to the institutions of religion – the places, communities, and theologies that are created between us, not just the ideas and practices we nurture independently. I have moved through an unquestioned, undifferentiated Southern Christianity, childishly explored Roman Catholicism and Judaism, took my turn as a fundamentalist atheist (or so I believed at the time), passionately explored earth-centered traditions (I was a 3rd degree Wiccan priestess), philosophically integrated Buddhism and Taoism into my worldview, seriously considered converting to Hinduism, and studied Islam as my secondary focus in seminary. In the end -and despite, over the years, seriously considering whether there might be another faith tradition that might be a better fit, by which, it turns out, I mean “easier to minister within,” – it does turn out that I am utterly and irretrievably a Unitarian Universalist. I require a creedless faith, one which not only accepts but insists that I pursue a free and responsible search for truth and meaning all my days; one which has, as a source, the wisdom of all the world’s great faith traditions, but also the deep wisdom of human knowledge and experience, and respect for the ways of knowing that come from being alive on this fragile, breathing green planet.
When I acknowledged my call to ministry and entered Starr King School for the Ministry, I had no way of knowing how transformative that experience would be. I call the years of study there a crucible or “Redeemer’s Fire” time. I grew more in the five years of seminary and internship than in all the years before, it seemed to me then. From the emboded and passionate education I received in the classrooms, through the journey of relationships with others on that path, I was taught more than I could ever express, and it gives me joy to dedicate my life to attempting to do just that.
Between seminary and my call to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Roanoke (UUCR), Virginia, I was invited to serve as summer minister at the 600+ member UU church in Asheville, NC, then to serve as executive director for a new non-profit, Stewards of the Earth, as well as serve briefly as an interim minister for a Church of the Science of Mind. But it was, unquestionably, my decade of service at UUCR that has made me into the minister I am today. There is nothing to compare to the opportunity to serve one community faithfully for such a long time. I was able to go from a green minister into a ripe fullness. They walked with me when I had breast cancer, as I married my amazing husband, Rob Fulson, in 2004, as we had our incredibly smart daughter Ani, in 2007. Together, we built onto the church, created a genuinely intergenerational community, embraced lifespan faith development, worked on governance, played together, worshiped together, and it would be impossible for me to express my gratitude for our time in relationship. This is the thing about ministry; it means nothing when one is standing by oneself. Ministry is only what happens in the context of community, in circles of friendship and goodwill. My time with the people at UUCR, my connections to my colleagues, my work in the district, my travels and involvements with many UU congregations…these are the things that make one a minister. And so it is with joy that I bow to the past and say “Namaste,” and look with bright and eager eyes for the next congregation with whom to fall in love, and create ministry together.