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Janet Vandevender: Living Bold

by Mary Domb Mikkelson, Connecting Voices Editor
     “There are eight million stories in the Naked City…” declared the narrator of Jules Dassin’s Oscar-winning 1948 black and white film noir, The Naked City.  One per inhabitant, plus or minus a dozen or so.

      The same claim could easily be made for members of the United Church of Christ, all 1,080,199 or so of them – and their unique faith journeys, the paths that lead them to UCC.

      Take Janet Vandevender, for example.  As a student at the University of Illinois, filled with dreams of justice and peace, she participated in an exciting leadership development program at Berkeley – and came home certain she was called to ministry.  Her mother advised her to seek their Lutheran pastor’s advice on how to proceed. 

      “He told me, gently, ‘In our church we don’t ordain women.  Would you like to be a Deaconess?’  I thought to myself, ‘get thee to a new church!’”

      Returning to Berkeley to live, she found, as she told her mother in a phone call, “the greatest church, Skyline UCC).”  Mother burst out laughing!  It seems her childhood church had been one of those that merged in to the UCC, a UCC not as affirming as today’s.  As WWII came to an end, Mother, a young working woman supporting several family members, was advised by her pastor to quit her job as the men returning from the war needed work more than she did.  She, too, got herself to another church. 

      Undeterred, Janet joined Skyline UCC, starting down the road of service and faith that lead recently to her being named one of the Southern California Nevada Conference’s (SCNC) Distinguished Laywomen for 2011.

      In many ways, Janet’s path can be traced back to her childhood.  “We were not well off, though I didn’t realize it then.  When my father (a high school math and science teacher) got paid, he and Mother divided up the money, AFTER setting aside 10% for the church.  That, they said, was God’s money.  My two sisters and I learned, too, from Mother, who was always concerned about doing for those who didn’t have enough, the importance of caring for others – and that church, where love gathered people in community, was a wonderful ‘base of operations.’”

      “That was the spirit in which she was nurtured into the life of the church,” explains Janet’s husband, Rev. Paul Kittlaus.  “The church has been her home wherever she has lived.  It shaped her and she shaped it.”

      Janet met Paul at a conference at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, where she was representing the Inter-Mountain Conference (now Rocky Mountain Conference).  They have four living children between them (Janet’s son Benjamin died at the age of there) and four grandchildren.

      A member of the Claremont United Church of Christ, Janet has been involved in just about every area of church work – from Thanksgiving Meal Assistant Coordinator to the Staff-Parish Relations Committee and has served the Southern California Nevada Conference in multiple ways – from Acting Director, Pilgrim Pines to Chair of the Conference Minister Search Committee which called Félix Villanueva to his new position (she now serves on the Conference Minister Support Committee).  Other volunteer activities have been for the Southern California Ecumenical Council, a number of political and other community groups and, in many roles, Pilgrim Place.  Asked about the gifts she brings to her work, she speaks of her ability to manage meetings and reports that she is a “class act planner” (my kids say “compulsive”).

      What lies ahead for her?  “I don’t know.  I’m in a very good place right now, having just completed my term as Moderator for Pilgrim Place.  I can take the time to listen, to discern which direction to turn, how best to serve the church that shaped me, gave outline and substance to my life. 

      What about others, especially those who would like to move from pew sitting to active participation.  What advice would she offer them?  “There are all kinds of ministries, all kinds of ways to serve and share – from bookkeeping to art to driving someone to a doctor’s appointment.   Look around.  Think what this person or that might like to do.  Sit in his or her pew.  Say, ‘I’d like to do thus and so.  Would you like to join me?’  Look for and cherish ‘wacked out’ ideas that will get people out of their pews and their ruts.  Find what feeds their spirit then find ways to use it.”

      What are her hopes for her church…for the Conference…for the national church?  “I’d like to see my church grow ever greater in ecumenical and interfaith activities, connecting with Muslims, Jews and non-churched people and reaching out to people hungering to find a community of faith.” 

      As for the Conference (“our magnificent Conference”) – “We should decide what we are called to do, say for the next five years – and it should be challenging.  Félix is the perfect person to help us do just that.  Then there is Gary Roberts and his work in new church development!  Now to get non-staff involved, help them realize UCC is a great place to find meaning. 

      For the national church, I want us to get over the fear resulting from declining membership and the need to tighten our financial belts.  I want us to live outrageously, to challenge each other as to what gives life meaning, to ask what we have and what we can do to help our neighbors, to build a beloved community.  I want us to find depth, purpose, fulfillment, centeredness; to know who we are, to know God better.  Then we can be whole and at peace – and we can inspire others.”

      Janet, in turn, has been inspired by others, especially by many of the women in her life – among them her mother; Nelle Morgan, “a feminist deeply grounded in faith who asked all the right questions and encouraged me to find my own answers” and, more recently, Diana Porras  Owings and Michiko (“Mitchi”) Manacop-Reyes, the other two 2011 Distinguished Laywomen.  “All along the way, everywhere I went, I have been fortunate in being surrounded by wonderful women.”

      A final question:   “If you could achieve one thing in the church, no matter the cost or obstacles, what would it be?”  “I would have us be bold,” Janet said, “have us stand up and say we aren’t afraid, that this is what we believe and what we’re going to do.  I would have us believe and live what we say, have us ever ready to say, ‘Come with me.  You’re looking for something we’ve got and we’d like to share it with you.”


One Response to “Janet Vandevender: Living Bold”
  1. judith sandven says:

    Gosh, Janet, we need you to lead the UCC. You are tremendously inspiring. I loved your history.

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