Paula Buford knows quite well what it’s like to live on the margins. Having graduated from Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Ft. Worth, she was originally quite conservative, believing that women shouldn’t be ordained. But after spending a few years trying to live her calling to minister and being prevented from doing so because of her gender, she began to question those rules and prohibitions that seemed so arbitrary, so male-centric.
“I was so confused,” said Buford. “I had graduated from college in 1974 and for Baptist women there were hardly any openings. I felt called to ‘full-time Christian service,’ but I had no idea what that looked like. Men were pastors and I was not going to do that. But I was also not gifted in the traditional women’s roles in the church, like children’s minister, youth minister or education. I didn’t have a clue as to what I would do.”
“I was really angry and depressed. And then I became a feminist. I was so mad at God. I got more and more liberal,” she added.
Then she went to a friend’s ordination in 1980 and it opened up her world. She recognized her talent for pastoral counseling and started getting involved in interfaith groups.
“I did clinical pastoral education at Emory in 1982 (as a chaplain intern), so that’s when I started blossoming as a minister,” she said.
In 1983 she got ordained at Wieuca Road Baptist Church. She began working at an addiction center, and then joined the Army Reserves for pastoral service, so she could have a way to preach and lead service.
The Chance of a Lifetime
And then one day in 2014 she was sitting at a farmer’s market with Dr. Jesurathnam (or “Jesu”), professor at United Theological College in Bangalore, India. He was a visiting faculty member at Columbia Theological Seminary at the time. He popped the question.
“How’d you like to teach?” he said.
“He shocked the living daylights out of me,” said Buford. “I’ve prayed for many, many years for God to give me a ministry.”
But was she ready?
“I can’t do that. I have a disability,” she told him.
But she talked about the opportunity with friends and the more she thought about it, the more her heart said yes.
“I wanted to go because I felt like it would be one of the biggest contributions of my entire ministry,” she said. “I thought it would challenge me. I knew that I would never be the same if I went there. I always wanted to teach and be part of a seminary community and teach, but I had never had the chance.”
“I also wanted to go because I’ve always had a strong calling for the plight of women, in both ministry and women in culture,” she added. “For years I’ve heard about the power imbalances in India, where they have the caste system, and the roles of women are very rigid. There’s a lot of abuse of women.”
But Buford couldn’t just pick up and move to India for a semester. She couldn’t afford to be without her part-time salary and she couldn’t afford the travel, so she asked her friends at Oakhurst Baptist Church for help. They began a fundraising campaign to send her there and to help her with living expenses.
Once she got there she felt the old pull of the margins bringing her back again.
“The margins depend all on perception,” she explained. “In some ways India feels like it’s on the margins and in some ways it feels like it’s the heart of Christianity. There was all kinds of creative work going on and the seminary was doing cutting edge work. I was in the margins because I was between professor and student.”
She was there to teach about pastoral counseling. But living on the other side of the world in a place where Christianity is practiced by only 2.3 percent of the population, where English is only one of many languages, where women traditionally don’t have the same rights as men, and where moving through traffic is akin to riding the Mad Tea Party at Walt Disney World meant she had a lot to learn.
The sense of community in India was staggering. The professors live among the students on campus. And the college is oriented towards social justice.
The Lessons of a Lifetime
“The first week I was overwhelmed with the differences and the excitement,” said Buford.
“There’s this great divide because they’re used to the caste system. If you’re teaching you’re just like a guru. And if you’re an ordained minister and you’re from the US, it’s like you’re on this huge throne. It was hugely uncomfortable. I started trying to be more equal with the students, because I was trying to empower them. But then I realized I was going against the culture.”
At first Buford found the culture stifling. But then she learned to let go.
“I had kind of a conversion experience about a month in,” she said. “I was feeling really judgmental because their churches are conservative. I thought why weren’t they more like Oakhurst? I had a really bad attitude.”
“The next day I was supposed to testify and go to this full gospel church. I prayed that morning and asked God to help me, I said ‘God, you gotta fix my attitude. There’s no way I can speak and sing to these people.’”
“And then something just shifted within me. I just laid my judgmental side apart and traveled to the different churches and accepted what was happening. I sought to learn from them, and it just felt like my whole experience in India just shifted.”
At the seminary she co-taught with Drs. Nalini Arles and Joseph George and advised students. And she preached at various churches.
“I got to preach all over the place,” said Buford. “I didn’t expect the pastors to respect me, but they were hanging on every word I said. It was amazing.”
Singing was also part of the deal.
“They were so creative in the way they use music. They sing classical Indian music in their own dialects,” she said.
She’s not sure who learned more the students, or her.
“Seeing how people can live with very few resources joyfully, spiritually and faithfully was huge for me,” said Buford. “The Christians are very strong there. Seeing how religion and culture go together and seeing how the hierarchy from the culture is apparent in the church is huge.”
The eastern focus on community also made a deep impact on her.
“It’s challenging all my assumptions as to what it means to be an individual,” she said. “Their community is so rich that I actually feel lonely now sometimes.”
“What joy I experienced over there,” Buford added. “The spirit of Indians is just indomitable. They have an incredible sense of humor; they’re so artistic and visual. There’s just so much creativity.
“I think for the rest of my life I’ll always be sharing about India. I have this Facebook connection with hundreds of Indian students and professors now.”
To learn more about her journey, go to PaulaBufordIndia on Facebook or come to OBC to worship on Sunday and stay for tea time afterwards!
About Voices from the Edge:
Cutting Edge. Leading Edge. Marginal Edge. Bleeding Edge.
This Lenten season, as God calls us to journey more deeply into ourselves and into God’s world, we will listen for Voices from the Edge. These are the voices that we sometimes ignore, or do not pause long enough to hear. Sometimes we miss hearing them because they are so far ahead of us; sometimes because they are different from us; and sometimes because what they are calling us to might require more courage than we feel we can muster.