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A teacher's journey to ministry; Pastor leads church with mixture of passion, quietude

As a high school English and drama teacher in a rough neighborhood outside Chicago, the Rev. Victoria Weinstein used to get insulted when her students called her "preacher lady."

"Prayer was for idiots," she said. "I was an intelligent, intellectual woman. I wasn't religious."

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But Weinstein's students might have known her better than she knew herself, because several years later she heard a call to enter the ministry. Her journey from cynical intellectual to passionate religious brought her, several months ago, to Howard County to become pastor of Channing Memorial Church, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Clarksville with about 80 adult members and 70 children.

Weinstein, 33, grew up in New Canaan, Conn., the daughter of a secular Jewish father and a Russian Orthodox mother. When her parents went to get married almost 40 years ago, her mother's priest refused to preside at her marriage to a Jew. Instead, they found a Unitarian Universalist minister to perform the ceremony and decided to raise their children in the church.

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Most ministers can pinpoint the exact moment when they heard "the call," when they believe God tapped them to do what they do. Weinstein heard it in her late 20s -- and wondered whether God was making a big mistake.

"I was terrified," she said. "I thought to be a minister, you have to be old and wise and gray and calm and peaceful and all religious and stuff."

Weinstein, a big-boned woman with red hair, is far from "old and wise and gray and calm and peaceful." She talks fast and breathlessly, using her hands, says she has a "terrible temper," and describes herself as "impatient," "judgmental," "cranky" and "high-maintenance."

But her Ellicott City apartment, which sometimes doubles as her office, reveals a more meditative side. Weinstein's living room has a big fluffy couch, bookshelves, lots of pictures on the walls and an indoor fountain that fills her living room with the sound of running water. She listens to classical music, decorates with flowers, likes to light candles when she talks to people and says she is working hard to overcome her natural impulsiveness.

Her sermons reveal the same mix of passion and quietude. Her sermon for Dec. 19 is titled "Hail Mary, Girl Power." Recent sermons have included "Generation X, Generation Why" and "Get Ready, Get Set, Stop."

In 1997, she won a Feminist Theology Award from the Unitarian Universalist Women's Federation for a paper called, "She is Risen: Reclaiming the Myth of Persephone as a Resurrection Narrative for Women."

hed 'I have this dream'

Weinstein, who started her job in August, is the congregation's fifth minister since the church was created seven years ago. The first full-time minister left for health reasons; the others, she said, have been interim ministers who are not allowed to stay more than two years. Weinstein is the second full-time minister and hopes to stay a long time.

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"I have this dream that we'll have a building and that we'll grow," she said. "I'd love to watch these children grow up and marry them."

Although the Unitarian Universalists stem from Protestantism, a minority of members define themselves as Christians. Some call themselves humanists, others agnostics or atheists. Still others belong to one of the other major world religions: Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam. The denomination, known for its liberal views, encourages religious diversity and puts a great emphasis on social justice.

"The joke," Weinstein said, "is that Unitarians are mouthy Quakers." She said a group of Columbia Unitarian Universalists created the congregation because they wanted more spirituality than they could find in other area Unitarian congregations. That's what attracted her to this congregation.

"Unitarian Universalism has gotten a reputation as the religion for the nonreligious," she said. "Our feeling is we want to be a strong liberal religious presence. We don't want to be so post-modern that we lose our roots."

One of her goals, Weinstein said, is to encourage Generation X to take a more active role in public life. She is also interested in prison reform and chaplaincy and is a member of Clergy for a More Just and Compassionate Drug Policy.

'Wise beyond her years'

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"She is wise beyond her years," said Janis Boster, a member of the congregation who was on Channing's search committee and helped choose Weinstein from dozens of other applicants for the full-time position. "She has enormous leadership skill, unbelievable preaching ability and a warm and wonderful sense of humor. She's dynamite."

Long before she dreamed of being a minister, Weinstein wanted to be a singer and performer. She went to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., to study musical theater performance, but decided she didn't have the commitment to succeed on stage and became an English major.

After she graduated, she taught for two years in Maywood, Ill., the hard-knock suburb outside Chicago where her students called her "preacher lady" when she lectured them about living up to their full potential despite everybody's low expectations of them.

Then, following a boyfriend, she moved to a suburb of St. Paul, Minn., to become an eighth-grade teacher at a Catholic school. Although she liked teaching, she said, she wasn't wholly content.

"I always felt, this is sort of it but it isn't quite it," she said. "The universe was knocking at me a little bit somehow."

Weinstein says the idea of becoming a minister came to her during the summer of 1993 when she received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, both committed Unitarian Universalists. She began her theological studies in summer 1994, when she was 28, and graduated from Harvard with a master of divinity degree in 1997.

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She was ordained in June of that year by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Medford and served for two years as a pastor at a church on the wealthy Main Line outside Philadelphia before moving to Howard County.

"This is really brand-new, having a church as her full responsibility," said Weinstein's mother, Shirley Mole. "This is it. She's like the big [leader]."

Mole said one thing's for sure: Her daughter will never, ever bore her parishioners.

"When I think of Vicki," Mole said, "I always think of Bette Midler behind the pulpit."


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