Our friend W. Hunter Roberts has been working on her doctorate in ministerial studies for close to a decade. The Pacific School of Religion and the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, after submitting an all-points bulletin regarding her disappearance, finally just listed her as AWOL with sudden and unexpected appearances here and there. Hunter had the good sense to pop her head up once in a while, like that children’s game where the gopher pops up from the ground. She is larger than life and is really difficult to miss, but the mileage between here and California does add to the mix.
Hunter asked me if I would be interested in being on her dissertation committee after realizing that her third chair would not work out for various reasons. She did something very astute; we went for coffee where she interviewed me for the position. We had known each other for close to 2 years by that point, but this was a life changing and perhaps life affirming decision for her, so I honored this request and quietly applauded her for her insight.
My first statement included the fact that I am an atheist, a fact she should know immediately considering this was a religion topic. In my mind, this was a true advantage for her as I would be totally objective for a spiritually based dissertation. After a couple of hours of intense, but lively and thoroughly enjoyable discussion, Hunter asked if she could send me a chapter of her dissertation to read and comment on. This was the beginning of breaking bread, a communion if you will, into new relationship territory as an odd couple: a female minister and a male atheist.
Let me assure my readers that the journey was an adventure, but a delightfully educating one. Hunter is a good writer, but I especially appreciated the insights she brought to the table with her sources and personal stories. Even as an atheist, I have never quite quenched my need to learn about religions. I read, edited, commented, challenged, and discussed Hunter’s writings with her as well as in one of my university classes.
After months of jeers and cheers, tears and laughter, angst and jubilation, the days leading up to the oral defense had finally arrived. With the dissertation chair being in Berkeley, another member living in Washington, DC, and the two of us here in Budapest, it was only made possible due to Skype conference calling. I had never done this and wasn’t even sure how to use my computer to achieve it without a web cam. The fact is it is not possible. We decided I would go to Hunter’s and use her iPad while she used her computer. Finally, I realized my netbook would do the trick nicely.
The night before, I received e-mails from Hunter stating that the secretary in Berkeley would test the equipment to make sure all was a go. However, I was not available to read these e-mails. My phone had two SMS’s besides, but my ringer was turned off and the phone was on the charger, so I had no clue until the next morning when I reached the university to teach. It was too late to do anything about testing the equipment the night before, so I did not feel any immediate need to return the calls.
Later in the afternoon, after teaching three classes in a row and having thesis advising, I called Hunter. I was exhausted; she was naturally hysterical. Her nervousness overruled her thinking while she raged at me for not being attentive to the evening’s needs. Having gone through this myself as well as with multiple friends, I could only smile as she ranted. This was only made possible since this was not a video call. Had it been, I would have had to use all of my Capricorn acting skills to keep a straight face. I assured her I would be at her place in plenty of time to set up and test the equipment later in the early evening. She was going through SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) prior to a doctoral defense. At the time, no one really grasps this reality, most likely because they are too busy raging to think clearly about it. Normal stuff!
I decided to do some reassurance, but in a playful way. When it was time to leave the house, I sent a series of SMS messages sent about every three minutes as I was headed to her place.
“I am leaving the house.”
“I stubbed my toe on the curb. Running slower than normal.”
“Being attacked by a homeless man who wants my computer. Running late”
“Have to buy a new computer.”
“Having Skype installed now.”
I was prepared for facing either more hysteria or someone somewhat relaxed. Hunter greeted me with you had me hysterical. Isn’t it funny how some words can go in either direction in meaning? These are called contronyms. Fortunately for my mental health she meant I had her laughing. Fortunately for her, I did not have to slap her into calming down.
At 5:10 PM, W. Hunter Roberts with magnificent success defended her doctoral dissertation titled:
OF WINES AND WINESKINS: EXPERIMENTS IN RE-FORMING RELIGION FOR THE POSTMODERN ERA
She is now and forevermore known as Reverend Dr. W. Hunter Roberts. Congratulations, to our friend. I am honored to have been part of your rites of passage.