If such a thing as a pureblood Presbyterian exists, Iola’s First Presbyterian Church has found one in their new pastor, Linda Whitworth-Reed.
Though ordained only within the last decade, her roots travel deep into the bedrock of that tradition: Her father was a Presbyterian minister from Oklahoma who kept up his Greek and Hebrew until the day he died. As for Whitworth-Reed’s mother — whose upbringing was turned over to the Presbyterian Children’s Home in Itasca, Texas — the debt to the church runs, perhaps, even deeper.
Despite this pedigree, the clerical mantle isn’t a birthright, and it was decades — well into Whitworth-Reed’s middle years — before she decided to follow her father into the ministry.
Late Tuesday afternoon, the newly arrived pastor, hardly unpacked from her move from Little Rock, sat on the sun porch of the church’s parsonage. A sprawling basket of purple Wave petunias dominated a nearby table. The pastor’s 12-year-old Dachshund, Cisco — wearing a handmade red sweater — rested in the corner, his attention alternating between a stuffed frog and a couple of baby carrots, a favorite snack.
“In the Presbyterian Church,” remarked Whitworth-Reed, “we say: ‘You don’t call yourself; you hear the call through others.’”
For Whitworth-Reed, God’s summons arrived in 2000, five years before she entered seminary. “It was right before my dad died. We took a trip to see my godmother and parents’ very close friend, Grace Thompson. She had been a Presbyterian worker with the Choctaw tribe in Oklahoma. She knows all the hymns in Choctaw. On that trip, in three different places, on three different occasions, strangers asked me what church I was a pastor of. Three times — are you kidding? … We say that other people recognize the gifts that God has given you.”
Whitworth-Reed’s career path up to that point adhered to nothing so boring as a straight line: During the years she was awaiting the divine subpoena, she was a recruiter for Austin College, her alma mater; she was a French teacher, a Spanish teacher; a Spanish-English translator for heavy industry; she worked at a computer store in Dallas; then owned a desktop publishing business, also in Texas; she’s worked for Apple and IBM and EDS. “I’m a Jacqueline-of-all-trades,” jokes the former French major.
Her husband of 38 years, David, an ordained minister himself, traced a similarly jagged route to the pulpit, making the leap from the corporate theater into the ministry in 1994. Whitworth-Reed would enter Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary a decade later.
Although she’s traveled far and wide, Austin College exerts a centrifugal influence on Whitworth-Reed’s life: It’s where her parents met. It’s where she met David, a vocal performance major at the time. It’s where she incubated her love for foreign languages. And it stands out as one of the early precincts of thought and culture for a woman who would afterward always take a keen interest in the life of the mind.
Whitworth-Reed and her husband have no children, but, she says, borrowing a line from cinema, “just like in ‘First Monday in October’: ‘My ideas are my children.’
“See, I’m constantly curious,” explains Whitworth-Reed, “and am more intrigued by the questions than the answers. Anytime anyone says they have the corner on the truth, that’s when God gives them an opportunity to find out that they don’t.”
The Presbyterian church has itself been guilty of such rigid thinking, especially as it relates to its treatment of women clergy. Asked why she didn’t consider attending seminary in her twenties, Whitworth-Reed is clear: “Are you kidding? I saw how women were treated in the ministry. The women that I most admired were treated so badly. I wasn’t going to do that. Women with real talent were not given opportunity.”
And while the climate has thawed considerably in recent decades, it’s still a chilly welcome for many women hoping to ascend the church’s hierarchy. But for Iola’s newest pastor, any hostility she’s met has been grist for her ministry.
“I want to be accepting, because I saw people not being accepted, and I was one of them. … I’ll take somebody who’s pink and blue with purple polka dots, because they were born that way. You know, I’ve lived in metropolitan areas and on university campuses where people have purple hair and piercings and whatever else. But I find that if you give me three minutes with a person, surely I can find something that we share in common.
“My dad had a saying that I just love: ‘It’s not a small world; it’s a big family.’”
How much of your father’s influence is in your ministry? “Oh, my gosh,” answers Whitworth-Reed, tipping her head back. “A lot. He just didn’t turn people away. It didn’t matter — he saw Christ in everyone.
“In this season of advent,” says Whitworth-Reed, “there are four Sundays before Christmas: hope, peace, joy and love. And all of those are part of God’s grace. If I’m accused of anything, I want to be accused of being on the side of grace and love and acceptance for all God’s children.”
WHITWORTH-REED describes herself as someone who does everything “full-bore.” “One of my favorite quotes is from Edna St. Vincent Millay: ‘My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night; but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends — it gives a lovely light!”
Her embrace of Iola, in the few weeks that she’s been here, has been total. Asked if she’s been busy since her arrival, here’s Whitworth-Reed: “Is the pope from Argentina?
“It’s my goal to meet with all the civic leaders. [Former mayor] Bill Shirley has already given me a tour of Iola. I’ve already been to the Thrive Allen County banquet.
“I’m very interested in community development. Essentially, that’s what church is, but with a spiritual twist. … Everywhere I have been, the thing I notice is that people are hungry for acknowledgment, for respect, for love. Even those we think aren’t in need — trust me, they are. “
The new pastor speaks of her adopted town with a measure of exhilaration. “David and I both keep pinching ourselves — we get to live here? Who knew Iola was such a gem?”
And so, is she happy with her adopted vocation, with the path that has led her to this small congregation in southeast Kansas? Whitworth-Reed pauses. “I hope my smile tells you everything.”