CAC Board Chair and Living School alumna, LaVera Crawley (’15), recently took some time to talk with Mark Longhurst (’15) about her life; vocation; work on the CAC Board; an important Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion process that the CAC is undertaking; and more. This interview kicks off an ongoing series with members of CAC’s leadership and has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Mark: Where are you from and what are you up to in the world?
LaVera: I live in Oakland, CA, and I’m talking to you from my office at the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in nearby Berkeley. I’m a certified educator for hospital chaplains through the ACPE (Accredited Clinical Pastoral Education) agency. This is a culmination of my path; all the roads in my life have led here. I absolutely love this work. I’m also the Board Chair of the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC).
Mark: It’s interesting that you view this work of training chaplains as the culmination of many paths. What were those other paths and how is it the culmination?
LaVera: There are several strands. The first is just career and occupations. All of those led to what I now see as my vocation. Professionally I was a family physician. I practiced family medicine on the Navajo Indian reservation in Arizona for a number of years. I studied ethics at Stanford and then served on the faculty of Stanford’s medical school as an empirical bio-ethicist, researching and teaching med students.
The other strand that led me to this vocation is my spiritual path. I took a year sabbatical in 2011. It was a period of deep transition. I decided to do a yearlong training in chaplaincy, to be with patients in a spiritual setting and to enhance my career as an ethicist. I hadn’t been at the clinical bedside for years and I missed seeing the direct impact of God’s work through me when I was one-on-one with patients in these very intimate, serious, meaningful life events centered around health and illness. I was so totally transformed by chaplaincy that after finishing the final year of my contract with Stanford, I came back to where I trained in chaplaincy here at Alpha Bates and went into the supervisory training track.
In 2013 I joined Living School program.
All this time, all these things were leading me to this way of integrating my inner and outer worlds. Alongside my professional and vocational work, religious experiences helped form me. My mom was Catholic. She met and fell in love with my dad in the pre-Vatican II 1950s. They got married, and the church would not recognize their marriage, because my father was a divorced Baptist. She was essentially excommunicated, but that didn’t stop her. She went to mass every Sunday, and she took my brother and me. I grew up in the Catholic Church, but I had a sense of being an outsider, looking in on Catholicism through the window, because we couldn’t participate. I never observed my mom participating in the sacraments because she wasn’t allowed to anymore.
I fell in love with the Catholic Church, and I’ve always been a deeply spiritual person, but because we weren’t officially Catholic, when I got into my teens I started exploring other religious paths, both Christian and non-Christian. I traveled to Pakistan and started studying Islam there. In my first marriage, my husband was Jewish. We would celebrate Shabbat every Friday. I had this very eclectic experience of spirituality, and all along, I was drawn to mysticism.
A chaplain’s role is to serve everyone in their religion, faith, or non-faith. We attend to people’s spiritual care and well-being. It really does help for me to have this eclectic experience in multiple religious backgrounds. This eclecticism is still a part of the way I approach spirituality. I’ve been grateful to have found the Living School and the CAC because that was my introduction to Franciscanism. I just feel so much at home here.
Mark: It sounds like you discovered the Living School at a time when your vocational path was opening up in this powerful way. Did you know about the CAC before the Living School, and how did you come to find out about the Living School?
LaVera: I had heard about Richard Rohr a few years before learning of the Living School. I find that when you open up spiritually, God brings all kinds of things your way.
I was very drawn by the social teachings of the Church and began taking the JustFaith full immersion course. Many people in the program had heard of Richard and talked about him or the Daily Meditations. One of our JustFaith coordinators hosted a group of us at her house for the CAC webcast in which Richard announced the Living School. Richard’s presentation was everything I had been wanting in terms of the process and the content of theological education. It met me exactly where I was.
Mark: I identify with your story of the Living School grabbing your heart. I think they had a special Daily Meditation about the Living School, and I opened it and experienced a laser beam to my heart and said to myself, “I have to do that.”
Now you’re the chair of the Board of Directors. That’s quite a development. How did you decide to go more deeply into leadership in the organization?
LaVera: By about 2010, I really started an earnest shift in seeking my vocation. After being “sent” through the Living School, I received a call from the CAC’s Board nomination committee. They wanted to find the talents, gifts, and charisms among people in the Living School to help serve the Board. By this time, I had learned to listen to the voice and callings of God. The invitation to serve on the Board felt very much like a calling, so I said “yes.”
Mark: What are you learning from serving on the Board, and what’s one thing you’re working to change?
LaVera: I’ll be 62 soon. I’m at this age where I don’t doubt my spiritual faith, my spiritual practices, or my capacities. I’m always open to growth—life is always a growing process—but I’m very settled and confident. I’m also an Enneagram Five. The contemplative and quiet path, inner focus, one-on-one—in Enneagram Terms “self-preservation”—that’s me. I’ve been doing this inner work for five decades, so I’m very comfortable with it. Serving on the Board is an opportunity for me to reach into the other part of who I am and channel my Enneagram Eight-ness, which requires stepping out from being inner-focused, and applying this wisdom and energy through just leadership. That is what I’m learning to do in a leadership role with CAC.
What I hope to bring in my role as the Chair is third force, a Trinitarian way of leadership. I’m inspired to apply and live this practice through leadership.
One thing I’m extremely excited about is the leadership of Executive Director Michael Poffenberger. We are really blessed to have him and the entire staff leadership team. They’re an amazing group of people. Because of them, we are looking at who we are as an organization through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion. A great deal of dedicated work is going into taking an honest look at who we are and what our practices are, at all levels: Board, faculty, staff, Living School students, and more. We are committing not just to improvement, but to becoming—and in fact being—diverse, equitable, and inclusive. It’s going to be hard and difficult work to be honest with ourselves about where our starting point is, but I’m so excited to be in this realm of leadership to bring that forward.
Mark: I’ve been humbled to see the intentionality that the CAC is taking around this process.
LaVera: The Living School provides the energy and impetus. During the school’s first year (2015), the diversity in our group was very small. There was probably more diversity than meets the eye, but in terms of racial visibility, or any other kinds of visible difference, there was not that much diversity in the room.
The second cohort was more diverse. They noticed it, and a group of people of color and allies pulled an affinity group together during one of the lunches. They started planting the seeds, saying, “We can’t just do nothing about this. We have to do something.”
The Living School students of color volunteered to be recorded speaking about their experiences. Those compelling narratives—told from their hearts—keep this movement alive as one of the Board’s priorities.
Mark: For alumni who may not know what the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion process is, can you give a brief description from your perspective?
LaVera: Guided by Living School alumni, staff, and CAC leadership, we did a national search for an organization that could help guide and teach us. We have identified that partner organization, and they will help us look at the CAC, it’s structures and systems that are in place, and identify where we have limits and gaps and where we have strengths. Then we will work on designing programs and opportunities to improve those limits and continue to lift up those strengths.
Mark: When you think about what’s possible for the CAC in the future, what are you hoping for?
LaVera: My hope for the CAC—and it’s not just my dream, it’s the organization’s dream—is to understand, embrace, and carry out not just the message but the medium, which is the way that God’s message works through Richard. We want to keep alive the way in which the message is transmitted.
Mark: That’s powerful. To incarnate God in a similar way as how God works through Richard. I’m picturing his radiance now as you’re saying that.
It’s inspiring to me how the CAC is listening to the Living School student experience, and then once sent, we become alumni. What role do alumni have in this DEI process, if any at all?
LaVera: The DEI process should reverberate throughout the entire organization. I imagine that we’ll be reaching out to stakeholders, including alumni, for events or focus groups.
But beyond the DEI process, the Board is often looking for volunteers to serve on committees. Watch the CAC’s communication channels (Daily Meditations, Living School Facebook group, this newsletter) for opportunities to share your talents.
I also invite alumni to do DEI work wherever you are. If you’re not sure what that means but want to learn more, research organizations in your area that are doing this kind of work and get some training. We need to become aware of and partner with more of our brethren and sisters.
Mark: Can you give an example of a mystic right now that is inspiring your journey?
LaVera: St. John of the Cross is my baseline mystic through the vocational path that I’ve described. I discovered him for the first time on a silent retreat with the Camaldolese monks in Big Sur, CA. I think of John and Teresa of Avila as my guides, my spiritual directors.