January 2024
Leaves from My Notebook
Elaine Greensmith Jordan


Leaves from My Notebook by Elaine Greensmith Jordan

I stumbled and caught myself before I could fall. Not bad for a middle-aged walker in a desert landscape on an icy March morning. The rocky path wound through a ranchland of brown hills and tottering fences. The only signs of civilization were a nearby golf course, a small church, and some tulips growing in rocky yards.

I trudged the Old Chisholm Trail (its real name) wearing a heavy red jacket and my husband’s blue knitted cap with ‘California Bears’ on the front. The cold air whipped my cheeks. This desert was the proper setting for a woman minister — unusual in those days. We women ministers forged modern tools, cleared old brush, spoke new truths. I felt strong and capable in this bracing landscape, a lone western pioneer.

I was living a new life as a Christian minister in northern Arizona high country at a unique church made of wood and stone. Sacred light shone through faceted glass high in the sanctuary walls, creating patterns on us that changed with the movement of clouds. No Christian icons adorned the church walls except for a brass cross on the gray stone. The place suited me.

I’d left a lovely city with beaches, boats and flowers, a place where I’d been a single mother, a high-school teacher, and an actor in local theatre. Something had driven me from San Diego into a religious profession. I had no family religious tradition or spiritual visions. I was an ordinary soul with a need to meet God, so I walked away from California and came to a small Arizona church. With a seminary education in my pocket, a degree in literature, a tour of raising children and high-school teaching experience, I felt qualified.

My morning walk helped me clarify, and I liked to think I stumbled toward insights on my lone journey. It’s easy to muse in Arizona high country. The air, the clouds, the circling hawks and desert emptiness teach you to observe. The skies had a pristine clarity, and the distant Bradshaw Mountains seemed bastions of integrity. There was something newly born about this setting, as if I was the first to touch down. 

This windy path was where I could confess my truth: I was not a traditional believer. I couldn’t and wouldn’t teach a strict orthodox Christianity using the Bible to proclaim Jesus as savior of the world, the only way to God.

Silence. My feet touched the pavement, but they made no sound. No cars sped by, as if Arizona hadn’t come to accept the wheel yet.

My commitment to ministry had come out of a sense that the Christian Church was on to something, and I’d set myself on a path to understand its mysteries, hoping to meet God in some way. Maybe I was inspired by the revered vocation, the robes of clerical authority. Or maybe I chose ministry to put myself in the presence of bighearted church people like Earle Dunning, a born-again fellow who seemed to live in his pickup truck. The man had soul, you could say, eyes that offer his heart.

I didn’t belong here in Arizona among the faithful. What had I done?

A roadrunner darted in front of me with a young snake in its beak. I stopped. Danger. The pronghorns, grazing on the open desert, looked up to stare at my pilgrim’s progress. I wanted to sit down and watch the animals, stop the momentum, but I walked on. The pronghorns went back to their grazing. The roadrunner hid somewhere with her meal.

Stones, pampas grass and cacti were the shrubs of choice in front of the homes in this district, but a few gardeners had planted tulips. The tulip people came from verdant eastern places. They brought in fresh soil and grew tulips to transform our wilderness into Eden. I wasn’t sure what to make of their effort. Did I want the desert to look like a watered place? Even so, I identified with the tulip, a transplant. Like a proud tulip, I stood up in imposing costumes pretending I belonged.

My fitness walks sustained me for another five years while I spun thoughts about the mysteries of religion and marveled at Arizona high country, where tulips appeared in the desert, and nobility drove a pickup truck. But I continued to doubt the comfortable beliefs of churchgoers, till the stones in my path became boulders. I couldn’t see over them to make my way.

I could no more identify with the Christians around me than I could identify with the pronghorns, and so I walked away from ministry, aware I was leaving behind spiritual revelations from untamed earth, beautiful faceted glass, and a host of faithful people.

Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years.