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Spiritual journey leads new director to Mills

Photo by Elizabeth Clayton

At first glance, Erika Macs doesn't look the way most would expect a pastor to look. Although she recently turned 40, she looks 10 years younger, and could easily pass as a grad student. Appearences can be deceiving though, and Macs was recently hired to be the Director of Religious and Spiritual Life.

While Macs is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, she says her religious views are not limited to her denomination. She calls herself a "spiritual midwife," and says, "I don't lead anyone down any certain path – it's their path and I'm there to walk with them if they want me to. I have an allergy to conversion – to directed, conditional religious."

Macs comes to Mills from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, where she spent the last two years as campus minister. She had previously spent seven years in the Bay Area, including time spent getting her Master of Divinity degree from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley in 1996

Kristi Rychener, a senior at Evergreen, said that Macs' greatest assets as campus minister there were her "openness and ability to listen; she's very receptive, and I think people are drawn to her and trust her very early on."

Rychener attended a group that Macs was in charge of at Evergreen and very quickly realized that she enjoyed "the type of services that she leads and the atmosphere that she creates in general." Rychener said that Macs' openness and acceptance of various spiritualities helped her to "strengthen my Christianity by allowing me to see that it didn't contradict beliefs I had in relation to eastern religions and helping me to see the feminine in Christianity by seeing a strong woman who felt confident in that religion."

"I miss her a lot, she became a very strong spiritual mentor in my life, and it was sad to see her leave," Rychener added.

Macs' path to Mills has been anything but conventional. In the fall of 2000 she left everything she knew, bought a Volkswagon van, and set off on what she calls a "spiritual quest" that led her primarily around the Southwest of the United States. For Macs it was "in a spiritual and literal way to strip my life down to its bare essence. I chose to leave everything I know, I chose to go into debt, as well, for an experience that would be finished when I knew it was finished, and it was a year and a day."

Macs is now in the process of writing a book about her experiences during that time. "I really didn't anticipate or intend on writing when I started out, but so many things came up I felt very compelled to write from it. And I'm not really a writer. I also felt that if I could help one person the way that I was helped by the women's spiritual memoirs that I was reading then that would be really amazing. It was an amazing, amazing trip where I encountered so many things that clicked deeper spiritual lessons, life lessons for me, uncovering some things that I didn't necessarily even know about."

"It was hard too, it was not rosy. I don't want to paint a rosy picture, but I would do it again in the same circumstances in a heartbeat. Because there just aren't that many opportunities to get down to the bare bones of who you are,and what you're all about." Macs also feels that the lessons she learned have been helpful to her work with students at Evergreen.

After finishing her quest Macs spent a few years working almost exclusively on her book, and living between California, Western Washington and Chicago, mostly house sitting. During this time she was eyeing the job at Evergreen. When it opened up as a two-year full-time job, Macs jumped on the opportunity.

In December, Macs turned forty, and realized that she wanted to return to California. Soon after, a friend sent her the job listing for the position at Mills, and she jumped on the chance. Despite having only two weeks to complete the entire application process, Macs managed to get everything in.

Dean of Students Joanna Iwata said that among the three candidates interviewed at the end of a national search, Macs "clearly came with some strong experiences tied to campus ministry work, and the type of programs she had worked with were very much in line with our needs here." Iwata said that Macs' commitment to women's education and women's empowerment, along with a desire to help "anybody who is seeking or trying to understand their connection to their own spirit" made Macs a great choice for Mills' campus.

As for being at Mills, Macs says "I love it so far." As she came so close to the end of the semester, she sees her timing as presenting challenges, but is more than eager to step up to meet them. Her first major coordination effort will be planning and holding the Baccalaureate Service, which is given the night before graduation for graduating seniors and their families. Since she hasn't been on campus long enough to have a relationship with the students, and sees the service as "something about and for the students." She is working closely with the Interfaith Council to develop it.

Macs is filling a new position that's been revamped since the departure of Chaplain Maud Stayaert at the end of the 2004-2005 school year. She says sees her new job at Mills as a "confluence of threads that are important in my life," including women's education and empowerment, being a community liaison, and a spiritual caregiver."