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Future pastor explores America

6/3/2003 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: Photographs are available with this report.

A UMNS Feature By Kathy L. Gilbert* By Kathy L. Gilbert*

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Meredith Gudger poses on the observation deck of the Empire State Building in New York. Gudger, 22, is going to every state, visiting churches and religious communities of all denominations, and “exploring what it means to be religious, be American, be unique and be unified in community.” A UMNS photo courtesy of Debbie Gudger. Photo number 03-201, Accompanies UMNS #307, 6/3/03


LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Meredith Gudger poses outside a Society of Friends (Quaker) silent meeting in Philadelphia. Gudger, 22, is going to every state, visiting churches and religious communities of all denominations, and “exploring what it means to be religious, be American, be unique and be unified in community.” A UMNS photo courtesy of Debbie Gudger. Photo number 03-199, Accompanies UMNS #307, 6/3/03


LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Meredith Gudger poses onboard the Staten Island Ferry in New York. Gudger, 22, is going to every state, visiting churches and religious communities of all denominations, and “exploring what it means to be religious, be American, be unique and be unified in community.” A UMNS photo courtesy of Debbie Gudger. Photo number 03-200, Accompanies UMNS #307, 6/3/03
Last September, 22-year-old Meredith Gudger got in her car in Oakhurst, Calif., and didn't stop driving until she reached New York. In fact, she hasn't stopped driving yet.

She is going to every state, visiting churches and religious communities of all denominations, and "exploring what it means to be religious, be American, be unique and be unified in community."

At the end of her cross-country journey, she plans to enroll in Drew Divinity School, a United Methodist seminary in Madison, N.J. There she will begin her next journey, one that will take her into ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church.

Before hitting the road, Meredith did a lot of research and called a few churches to let them know she would be passing through. Some churches "disinvited her," she says. "They were a little apprehensive or thought they would be too busy at the time I wanted to visit," she explains.

"Sometimes I just get to a state, drive into a town that looks sort of good and look up churches in the phone book," she says.

Most of the time she is able to visit with the pastor of the church, which she says she appreciates. But she is most interested in the people in the pews.

"I am mainly interested in the congregation," she says. "Why do they even come to church? It is not a mandatory thing; it is a choice you make. What does it mean to them? How does it work into their life?"

Meredith sees this year on the road as preparation for spending time in a pulpit with a congregation of her own. She also sees it as a gift.

"I am so fortunate, and I am constantly reminding myself that this is an opportunity nobody else has," she says. An inheritance from her late grandmother has enabled her to afford the journey.

Daily phone calls to her parents, Ken and Debbie, give her emotional strength.

"This has been a real odyssey for her," Debbie says of her daughter. "The first half of the trip was more about learning about faith communities and the states. I think the second part has been harder emotionally to be alone all that time, and she is learning more about herself."

When she learned of her daughter's plan, Debbie admits she hoped the idea would just go away.

"But she just has this wisdom; we have learned to trust it. … The only condition we placed on it was that we talk to her every night," she says.

A native of Monrovia, Calif., Meredith earned her bachelor of arts degree in religious studies from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.

She and her family - her parents as well as younger sister Kara - all grew up in the United Methodist Church. When they moved to Oakhurst, there was no United Methodist congregation, so they started one. The New Community United Methodist Church Fellowship held its first service on Easter Sunday with an attendance of 195.

"Our family has benefited so much over the years because of the United Methodist Church," Debbie says. "Meredith is doing what she is doing because of the United Methodist Church. We have to do this for the next generation."

Meredith says her journey has made her love the United Methodist Church even more.

"Before I left, I loved the church, but I was frustrated with some of the things about the church," she says.

"The United Methodist churches I have visited are so wonderful, they are really living up to the 'open hearts, open minds, open doors' theme. I just place so much more confidence and stock in the church now. We have such great opportunities, such great talent; we can really make great things happen. There are great Methodists out there doing great stuff."

Along the way, Meredith has met "many wonderful people," such as a Maine couple who took her into their home for four days; or a young Delaware woman who is a former United Methodist; and North Dakota farmers who took her to their ranch.

"Some of the churches really inspired me and made me wish I could come back the next week and be a part of that community," she says.

She is keeping an electronic journal of her travels on a Web site she and a friend, Alex Lazara, created, www.thislandismyland.com.

Here is an example of her musings on her Web site:
September 16, somewhere in New York
I'm going to church at Overlook United Methodist Church in Woodstock, NY this weekend, and I talked with the minister this morning. I have yet to figure out just exactly how one goes about visiting a church in each state. I feel like someone on their very first date-nothing but awkward. But, as John Steinbeck said, "You do not take a journey. A journey takes you." I'll let you know where it takes me.

She has also done a commentary for National Public Radio about her adventure at http://www.npr.org/programs/atc/commentaries/2003/may/.

Her journey will end the last week of July, when she reaches the junior high summer camp in Pasadena, Calif.

"I went to camp there when I was in the seventh and eighth grades; I was a counselor there when I was in high school; and I will spend a week being a counselor there this year. It will be a homecoming for me," she says.

"There have been times when it has been really, really difficult," she admits. Living on the road alone, month after month, gets hard, she says.

"This has really taught me to love God with all my heart, mind and strength - especially with all my strength."
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*Gilbert is a news writer with United Methodist News Service.

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