by Lou Mancinelli
Whom do you work for, and how much money do you make? It was those kinds of comments that 26-year-long Mt. Airy resident and Pastor Kari Hart often heard in Washington, D.C., as a young woman during the late 1970s, long before the advent of her ministerial days. Hart experienced the Capitol after working for a successful Michigan congressional campaign. Those days in Washington were hard-drinking days among political players; it was kind of an ugly scene, she said.
At the time, Hart was but a year or two out of Oberlin College (’78), a dry campus in Ohio, noted for being one of the first institutions of higher learning in the U.S. to regularly admit female and black students. She ultimately became disillusioned in D.C. She quit her political job within one year.
Most recently, Hart has returned from a three-month religious sabbatical in Scandinavia and Costa Rica she took this summer. The purpose of the sabbatical was for Hart to reconnect with her past and to convey her reflections of those connections in writing. The sabbatical was funded by a $48,000 grant from the Lilly Foundation awarded to Hart and the members of her congregation at the Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion, located at 2110 Chestnut St. in Center City.
The journey was an opportunity for Hart to deal with ideas that had been ruminating in her mind for the past 20 years but had yet to be explored in written form. In addition to funding her trip, the grant funded a congregational project called “Telling Our Stories.” Over the summer, while their pastor was in Copenhagen and Oslo with her mother and sisters, members of her congregation were getting to know each other through activities like writing, visual arts, journaling and dancing.
But 22 years ago, before the Center City church position and the grant award, Hart went through a life-altering experience at her father’s death bed. The experience untimately led Kari to the ministry.
Before that, she had worked in D.C. as a waitress from 1980 to 1983, and she was working at Le Bec Fin in 1985 when she married her husband, Shawn. She served up desserts at Le Bec Fin and later became one of its first full-time female servers. While raising a daughter, she balanced various freelance positions like copy editor, proofreader and fitness teacher. She became very involved with the Houston School Home and School Association. Eventually, in 2003, she received her master’s of divinity degree from the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia (LTSP) in Mt. Airy.
But let us reel back a number of years. Hart moved home to Mt. Airy, the town where she was born and raised, in 1985 in order to be closer to her father, who was ill at the time. The family was intensely close. Her father had been a professor at LTSP, but Hart had drifted away from the religious life in her 20s, rarely attending services.
But at her father’s death bed in 1989, she “was faced with a crisis of faith.” She says she felt the presence of God, experienced God being with her father during his final moments of suffering.
At the time, Hart was not sure what had happened to her in that fatal room. But she knows it prompted her to reconsider God’s role in her life. Almost a decade later, in 1997, after a meeting with the Dean of LTSP, where she poured out her feelings in both words and tears, she decided to take one class. The class was “Corinthian correspondence,” and she was hooked. She did not know where it would lead but decided to ride it out.
What it led to was Hart taking a few classes a year because she did not want to burden her family with the stress of her being a full-time student. She eventually graduated from the four-year program in six years. Since then, she has served as co-pastor at Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion.
Her recent sabbatical was a chance to revisit the Scandinavian cities she had lived in with her family for one year as a young girl, when her father took his own sabbaticals in the early ‘70s. Hart described those times “as some of the happiest” in her life.
About two-and-a-half years ago, Hart approached members of her congregation with the idea of applying for the grant. The idea was that the grant would lend itself to the writing Hart had been waiting for 20 years to undertake. She wanted to contrast the happiest times in her life, those times in Scandinavia, with the harrowing experience of her father’s death. The church’s governing body agreed it was a good idea. Part of the grant also included the “Telling Our Stories” campaign, carried out by members of the congregation this summer. Hart said writing the grant was a comprehensive process that involved the entire congregation.
“The grant was meant to bring the congregation together,” said Ron Coolbaugh, the church’s managing director. “Though telling our stories all summer, we feel more connected. We feel more connected to our pastor… It’s really been a spiritual experience.”
“One of the reasons I went into ministry was to figure out what happened to me [at my father’s death bed],” Hart said. “I came from a very angry place with God to a place where I was at peace with God. And it happened at my father’s death bed.”
After two weeks with her family in Copenhagen and Oslo, and some time on her own, Hart flew across the Atlantic Ocean and over the Caribbean Sea to Costa Rica. In Costa Rica she spent a month at the Diquis Del Sur, a resort and writer’s retreat. The second two weeks of the month, her husband joined her.
The results of her sabbatical are 18 to 20 prose poems. Hart plans to refine, rewrite and revise and later publish the poems in some form within the next year.
Meanwhile, Hart is occupied handling the demanding day-to-day duties of serving in an urban church. In addition to religious services, the Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion hosts a welcome center for the homeless and a food bank. Other responsibilities include things like hospital visits.
“A lot of what we do is to be there for anyone who walks in, and anyone can walk in and does walk through our doors,” Hart said.
For more information, visit www.lc-hc.org or call Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion at 215-567-3668.