Sitting in her office at New Haven’s First Presbyterian Church, Maria LaSala seems much like the many other Presbyterian ministers I’ve met in my life. She has pictures scattered about from various important moments in her career, a large collection of books filling the shelves that line one wall and is quick to tell stories about both her own family and the family at the church where she’s served with her husband, the Reverend Bill Goettler for fifteen years.
It’s when I begin asking questions about her social justice work that I notice the change. Gone is the unassuming atmosphere that often comes standard in pastoral conversations, as Maria’s eyes light up with the stories of a life spent serving the victims of a suffering socio-economic system.
“Even when I was young, I was convinced I wanted to change the world,” she said. “I wanted to make the world a better place, more just, more loving. Because I was raised in the church, I thought the church was the vehicle for that.”
Maria LaSala grew up in a faithful Catholic family. She attended Barnard College in New York City and met often with the priest who served both Columbia University and the women at Barnard.
“I told him that I felt called to be a priest,” Maria explained, noting that both she and her priest knew that the rules of the Catholic Church wouldn’t soon change. “He agreed that I wasn’t meant to be a nun, and said if I wanted to find a different way to make a difference I should go into law.”
After college, Maria got a job at a big New York City law firm. Still committed to her vision of justice and love for all, she was sickened by the excesses of her work environment. “I hated every minute of it,” Maria detailed, sharing her discomfort with “the people, the work and the feeling of being around that much money.”
Every morning before heading to the law office, Maria would pray her rosary and attend mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Her prayers had a consistent theme. Maria described her sense that something needed to change and how often she found herself saying, “There has to be a different path here, God.”
One afternoon, Maria got her answer. She received a call from the Barnard College Research Center for Women, asking if she’d like to come back to campus to work for them. After finishing the year with the law firm, Maria joined the research center staff, and laughed when relating how quickly she found herself on a new path to service in the church.
“My very first research project was with a woman who was a student at Union Theological Seminary. She was researching on denomination policies regarding the ordination of women.”
“I went to classes with her at Union,” Maria said. “I did all this reading about Protestantism. In the Catholic Church, it was made out to be the enemy.
“I found myself asking, ‘Oh my! What am I doing as a Catholic woman!'”
Soon after, she began the application process at Union and was enrolled for fall semester the very next year.
While at Union, Maria received theological training, but not full ordination. She finished her degree and became the chaplain at a girl’s boarding school in Troy, NY, where Bill worked in his first church.
Though she did a significant amount of preaching at the boarding school, it wasn’t until after a move to Delaware that Maria became serious about her call to ministry.
Bill was an ordained Presbyterian minister, and Maria pursued ordination with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as well, not only because she feels it’s important for a family to worship together, but also because she was able to express her own voice through the lens of Presbyterian thought. She finished classes at Lancaster Theological Seminary while working at Planned Parenthood full-time and how now been ordained for 21 years.
In a country where studies continue to report declining attendance at traditional worship services, Maria defends her stance that the church can be a real transformative agent in the world. “It may actually be the only real transformative agent,” she said, adding, “The church breaks down barriers that divide us one from the other and lifts up the spirit. Without wholeness of spirit, how can we help others? I believe the church is meant to be a voice of transformation.”
The problem, however, for Maria, may be that we fail to recognize the many ways of being a church.
“Imagine starting a restaurant where you can put homeless men and women to work making healthy and nutritious food that you then sell, asking customers to simply pay what they can afford. This would also be a church,” Maria explained. “It’s thinking about these other ways that is necessary to change the world.”
Maria also believes that the church and individual believers can (and should) be engaged in politics. Though her church cannot endorse one political candidate over another, Maria works to ensure that congregation members explore what candidates are saying and who will benefit and lose from various political plans.
“I do think the church has a role in the state,” Maria said. I believe that our faith informs our political decisions. You cannot be a follower of Jesus Christ and not care for the children, feed the hungry and try to meet the needs of women. The scriptures absolutely command it.”
Maria’s own involvement in politics began in her early twenties in New York City. At least once a week, she would protest in front of the Army recruiting station. Over the course of her life, she has written hundreds of letters to Congressional leaders protesting unfair and oppressive policies. She doesn’t find herself in front of embassies in quite the same way anymore, but she continues to feel the same urge to action.
“When I was younger I expressed it in different ways,” she explained. “I’m still just as committed to making sure the budget we adopt is a moral budget and that women have a place to stay and children are not hungry. These problems still exist in our country in record numbers.”
Maria’s critique of the selfishness present in American politics affirms her own work in the church. She said, “It doesn’t matter who is elected. I don’t think we can fix [these problems] that way. Until we open up our eyes and open our hearts and realize that this has to change, it’s going to continue to be all about the individual.”
Though fully committed to seeking a better life for the disinherited, Maria admits that her job does not always bring her in contact with the suffering men and women of society.
“In my day to day work, I’m not a pastor on the New Haven Green,” she said. “I do not have day to day conversations with the disenfranchised. That is not the work that I do. But because I serve a privileged community, I feel it would be scandalous if we do not consciously act on behalf of others or speak when others are silent.
“Last week, the candidates for the U.S. Congress seat in New Haven came to our church and addressed their approaches to issues of hunger and poverty. Church folks asked them tough questions. That too is the work of faith.
“I can’t be comfortable if the church feels comfortable with the world as it is today.”
Looking back at over thirty years of social justice work, Maria laughed when she considered the difference between herself at 23 and at 53.
“I keep saying that I’m not the same person, but in fact I am! I just don’t live in New York City anymore.”
Through her initiatives with the members of the First Presbyterian Church and her continued volunteer work with Planned Parenthood, Maria remains committed to her early dream of making the world a better place. She writes columns for the New Haven Register about four times a year, often challenging community members to think critically about the way they are affecting others through their own decisions.
“Does my work in this community proclaim the Good News? Yes, a little bit. Does the Good News mean making sure the wheelbarrow for the food pantry is full? Yes. Does it mean teaching children to be kind? Yes.
“I work to equip people to do the kind of work that helps others.”
Talking with Maria, it becomes clear that the passion to serve others is not something one can easily leave behind. Her sense of purpose and call to justice shaped her life in her twenties and continues to shape it thirty years down the road. Though she finds it hard to believe herself, Maria LaSala very much embodies the kind of life we, as justice seekers, should hope to lead, one in which the faith and dreams of impassioned young adulthood are still very much present in the career and commitments of our mature selves decades later.