When Rev. Dr. Joy Brittain (MDiv, 1985) thinks about current Iliff students, she wants them to be challenged by a global perspective. She’s benefited from the challenge she received during her time at Iliff. When she graduated from Iliff in 1985, she stepped out onto a path with twists and turns she never could have predicted. She started out as a UMC pastor but she’s ended up finding her real flock with her students. It’s not been a level path and it’s not over yet! But Joy has found a wonderful way to minister to the world and pay the love she’s felt forward.
Like a lot of paths that end up satisfying, this one had its very hard times. In the process of coming out, Joy lost both her home and her job as a pastor. Additionally, one of her young sons was quite ill.
She found her feet working with a specialized program with the National Guard. In this program, she worked with functionally illiterate students to help them earn their GED or focus on math and science skills that could get them jobs, positions in the military, or help them go to college. She enjoyed the work and is proud of the high passing rate the program had. But the path shifted— as a new site in the Education Development Offices in California, her site was closed a part of budget cuts in the 1990s. Before her time at Iliff, She worked for the Peace Corps and after the closure of the office, Joy went to work in a school for learning disabled people, but then joined up again when the National guard program returned in a new way. She was able to create a traveling program all across Southern California to help students who were having trouble in school. She included geese, a pot-bellied pig, and Rosie the Tarantula in her traveling teaching “show” and in the process discovered her passion for teaching. Eventually, the program’s grant funding ran out, but she knew she could find a way to continue to help students.
Joy started work at California Lutheran University as A TRIO Director of an Upward Bound Math/Science Regional Center, a six-week summer and academic year high school program for low-income students interested in STEM. Iliff had prepared her by helping her understand diversity in all its forms. Students in this program were coming to California from all over— from reservations in New Mexico, the Pacific Islands, inner-city LA, and more. In the UBMS Program, students had to learn to get along. She loved working with students and especially enjoyed the stories they shared in the evenings. Living in the dorms was a challenge for them. Some had never used a functioning toilet. Some had never seen a donut. Rural students mingled with inner city students. Iliff had helped her by giving her an idea of humanity that included everyone; she gained what she calls a global perspective. The self-examination that she’d done at Iliff had helped her solidify her idea of who she was. “I wasn’t out yet, but I was getting there.”
She fondly remembers a program at Iliff that brought in the first twelve women who had been ordained in the Episcopal Church. These were rebellious women who wanted to change the world. She didn’t know then how prescient talking to these women would be.
Throughout her journey after leaving her first pastorate, she kept asking God, “When do you want me back in the ministry?” But, things kept happening with her family. She couldn’t take the time out to find a new ministry. She found a Metropolitan Community Church in her local community that cared for her, but it was visiting the Disciples of Christ Church that finally felt like home. She joined the church, joined the choir, directed Christmas Eve services and kept working, just following her path.
Joy didn’t want to run ahead of God. She went through the whole process of ordination from start to finish “to make sure that I was ready to come back to ministry.” Throughout that time she felt tested; “People knew I was gay.” The Disciples of Christ in the Pacific Southwest Region had not yet ordained gay people, but someone had to be first. “During the interview, I felt the Spirit was with me. People were in tears… When they asked me, ‘Would you marry a gay couple?’ I answered honestly and said ‘Yes.’ This is who I am! I said I might not marry them in my church, but that I would marry them.” (It was a truly close-to-home question, even then, as Joy has recently celebrated 25 years with her life partner, Elaine!)
Usually, the deliberation after the interview just takes a few minutes, but for Joy, it took them an hour to decide. It was agony. “When I came back in the room, they couldn’t look at me. All their eyes were down.” The answer was no, even though they stated she was fit for ministry. “I have to be honest, I was devastated.”
The associate minster’s husband came to Joy to ask her to appeal the decision. “At first I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to be the ‘poster child’ for ordaining gay people. But I appealed anyway.” Supporters wrote about what Joy did and why she did it; they wrote passionately about how sexual orientation should not be a hindrance to ministry. After the appeal, they approved her!
This means Joy was the first openly gay Disciples of Christ minister approved in Southern California. She paved the way for two or three other people to come right after her. When her ordination service came, it was a wonderful time. “In that service, it truly felt like I was ordained by God to spread God’s love.”
She kept up her ministry with a part-time position in church while working full-time, but there was more for Joy to do. In 2009, a former student led her to a new Educational doctorate program in the community college system. After several roles in churches and ministries, she returned to her DOC home church and finished her doctorate.
Now Joy is working at California State University Monterey Bay as the Senior Director of Early Outreach and Support Programs. This role gives Joy a chance to fulfill her ministerial calling and draw on her education experience. She’s still using compassionate skills that she found at Iliff— working with low income, first generation college students, migrant students, students out of foster care, and students with disabilities to help them finish high school and get into a university or succeed at CSU. She’s helping them in a holistic way, considering everything from their academic needs to their personal needs. “We service 7,000 students every year. As the Senior Director, I am able to help with policymaking at the campus and for the CSU system. .” She’s very proud of her incredible staff of 50 people and the exemplary success of the department.
“That’s ministry if I’m able to affect someone in a positive way.” She’s been able to see the programs she’s served truly work. “I still have students from programs back in 1996 that I keep it contact with. It’s great to see them become doctors and scientists.
“My professors at Iliff were hard,” she says, “They demanded perfection. As someone with a background in biology, they forced me to think outside the box and my personal perspective.” As she fondly remembered Shelia Devaney, Larry Graham, Alton Templin, and Vincent Harding she remarked: “These were the people I got B’s from! But they helped me understand what I need to do.”
“Iliff could see the world as a whole, not just Denver. By bringing in that global perspective, we could see faith, not just United Methodists.” When she was looking to start an MDiv, “I tried other programs, but with Iliff I knew I was home when they gave me such a different perspective on the world.” We’re grateful that Joy found Iliff, and that she keeps on paying what she’s received forward as a faithful Evergreen Society donor (giving monthly for ten years!), too. She wants to make sure Iliff keeps going and loves the idea of online and certificate programs that spread good ideas around.
“I want students to be challenged with a global perspective. Sometimes students get siloed into their own ways; Iliff brings in different perspectives. People who feel called by God should feel protected. I loved the protection of being challenged, hearing different perspectives, being sure I was ready. But not losing faith. I felt like I never lost my faith. I could talk to fellow students about what is truly in their hearts. I want that balance between head and heart.”
Take a look at just some of the people and programs that have been a part of Joy’s ministry.
(April 11, 2018)