Jennifer Norber earned a Master of Arts in Leadership Studies (MALS) from Meadville Lombard in 2019. Since graduation, she has worked as a hospice spiritual care advisor and grief support manager during the Covid-19 pandemic, and now serves as a deputy director of a community activism organization called Red Wine and Blue. We asked her about her experience at MLTS, her career path, and the political issues she is dealing with now. She has a special message about gun safety. Please read on.
I live in Michigan, and I looked at a couple of local colleges to go to school. I wanted to be a hospice chaplain. I had a background doing some internships as a hospice social worker, and then as a volunteer coordinator and a director of a grief camp. I wanted to move into spiritual care for hospice, and so I was looking for a theological degree that would allow me to do that. I looked locally and they all seemed to be very focused on Christianity, even when they said they weren’t. I wanted a wider lens to be able to look through. I had lurked at a UU church for quite a while, and the minister suggested I look into Meadville Lombard. When I discussed this with friends, I learned I had a friend whose brother had gone there as well.
So I visited and I toured and really thought it seemed like the perfect place to marry my social work values with my theological values, and then be able to move into this role of spiritual care in a hospice position. That’s originally why I went to Meadville Lombard, but I always had this thread of activism that ran through my life, and Meadville Lombard was able to match those needs and values for me, too.
After I graduated, I went on to be a hospice spiritual care advisor at a local hospice. I really enjoyed that. I got hired in January 2020 and worked through Covid. Working in hospice is difficult enough, I think, without the layer of Covid on top of it, but that just made it really difficult. I started to experience fatigue and burnout, and was moved to grief support. So the degree helped me to be able to be in that space, too.
Even after I was moved to grief support, I still felt that same burnout and fatigue. I decided to take a break and look for a job with some sort of community organizing aspect and was fortunate enough to get a position as a deputy director for an organization called Red Wine and Blue. We help organize and mobilize suburban women to speak up against extremists that are in their community and to get officials with our values elected to be in spaces that can work for those values. I switched from spiritual care to what I’m doing now in community activism.
The organization was started by Katie Paris, who is out of Ohio. She had spent her adult career in politics in the DC area, and then she moved to Ohio and saw this need locally to organize women. She made it her mission to try to educate and empower women to use their voices to speak up in their local communities and to get them involved in politics through different issues that affected their everyday lives.
It’s a relational organizing group, where we take the power of women using their voices and encourage them to talk to their friends and family. We have learned that people talking to people is a very effective way to get out the vote because people will listen to their friends and family and what they believe more than they’ll answer a Robo-call! Relational organizing has proven to be a really powerful tool.
We also have a suburban women’s podcast that talks about issues as well; we have different content that helps people learn about the issues. We host weekly salons where speakers will come in from different organizations. This week, somebody from Educate Us is coming in to talk about sex ed in schools, and then next there’s somebody who’s talking about Communications 101, how to have difficult conversations with people around politics. We try to educate through our podcast.
Red Wine and Blue started in Ohio, and we have people there and in North Carolina and Pennsylvania as well as in Michigan where I work.
We will focus on basically whatever is important in that state and in that space for the time. During the 2022 election here in Michigan, reproductive justice was something that was really important. We had Prop 3 on the ballot, which was reproductive freedom for all. We were able to work with many other partner organizations and get Prop 3 passed. More signatures were collected for that than for any other ballot proposal in the history of Michigan. This was something that was really important to people across the state. Of course, with us specifically focusing on women, it was very important to our membership as well. We also had several extremists that were running up and down the ballot, so, again, through relational organizing, we tried to get candidates elected that matched our values.
Currently, we are working on ending gun violence. There’s a campaign, Ending Gun Violence Coalition, that we are members of. We are working on getting a few different laws passed at the state level around those things. There are some bills that were introduced that would enact extreme risk protection orders, or as they used to be called, “red flag laws”. These would prevent sales of firearms to people who’ve been reported to law enforcement as dangerous to themselves or others. This is actually polling at 80% support across all of Michigan. There’s also enacting secure storage laws, which would hold gun owners accountable for the safe storage of firearms. This is supported by 82% of people. The last one that is in front of the legislature right now is requiring background checks on all gun sales, including sales at gun shows and other private sales. That one’s supported by 90% of all Michiganders. Here is the resource where all these polling numbers were pulled from as well as many more. The thing that’s important to note about all this is that these are issues that are polling with really high percentages of support.
Let’s just take a quick second to hit pause for anybody who may be triggered by discussions like these. And remember that you can always take a break and take care of yourself.
As I said, I worked for a hospice as a spiritual care advisor, and I happened to have the territory of Oxford, Michigan, when there was a fatal school shooting in November 2021. Of course, we know that gun violence negatively affects an entire community. I was counseling several people through their hospice experience and end-of-life experiences of themselves or their family members, and then that trauma happened in that area. I was also a grief support service manager at the time. Some of the people that I had on my caseload not only had members of their family who were on hospice and had passed away but were also dealing with grief around homicide or suicide that was in their families. Gun violence happens all across the board, not just in Oxford and at Michigan State University, but this happens to people every day all the time. It deeply affects every fiber of our being, every fiber of our community’s being. It’s such a pervasive problem, and it’s a uniquely American problem, too. Just seeing the way that this affected these communities and providing this direct support to people was really difficult for me.
Also, in order to become a chaplain, I briefly worked at a hospital doing a Clinical Pastoral Education program. At the hospital, I did carry a trauma pager and cared for the family members of a young person who was a victim of gun violence. We all know how heavy it is.
It was always super important to me to continue to fight for gun violence prevention. Then my kid was a student at Michigan State during the recent shooting and campus lockdown that occurred earlier this month. They were safe and physically unharmed. However, the trauma of having to hide and be quiet for four hours, barricading their door as the search for the gunman was happening, is something that I also had to deal with in supporting them. Gun violence is something that has been happening for a very long time. Those are just the ways that it’s hit home for me.
I think we all need to work on the place where our spirituality hits our work in action, where we know that we are connected to everybody and that what is heavy for other people’s spirits is heavy for me. It’s my duty to stand up and speak up and put prayer and thoughts into action. My spirituality absolutely informs my everyday and how I show up. I spend a significant amount of my time dedicated to trying to fight for change, and that’s 100% something I got in every class and every moment at Meadville Lombard. That’s just an absolute fiber that runs through our being. I’m very thankful for that training, the classes, the people, the students, the support staff, everybody who gets that message across every day and every minute.
You can visit our website at redwine.blue. We have an events tab, and there are national Zoom workshops that I spoke of earlier. We have a suburban women’s podcast that brings in different speakers. I think this week the podcast is bringing in somebody from NARAL to speak about women’s reproductive justice issues. Again, every week it’s something that’s pertinent to what is happening.
Specifically, if you know anybody that lives in Michigan or you yourself live in Michigan, please ask them to immediately talk to or write to their state senator, their state representative, Speaker of the House Joe Tate, and Senate Majority Leader Winne Brinks. That’s an immediate action you can take. Please ask them to say yes and pass those laws I spoke about earlier on gun safety; enacting extreme risk protection orders, enacting secure storage laws, and requiring background checks on all gun sales. Here is a link to share that makes contacting those representatives really easy.
Talk to your friends and family. That’s what we do. We talk to our friends and family about these things that are important and ask them to support these things. So, if everybody that writes an email to their legislators could also ask for friends to do the same, and those people ask four friends to do the same, that’s how we make changes, by linking arms together and speaking up about all these things.
I have a degree in Master of Arts and Leadership Studies, so my concentration at the time was in lay community ministries. I like how Meadville Lombard is addressing the need for us to serve our communities in ways beyond the four walls of a congregation. So that degree specifically, I am happy to see the further development of that, and I appreciate that there is a communal call for that. Different communities all need this.
My hope is that, at least with gun violence, we start to make some serious changes. These three laws that have been introduced are just the surface. We all know that there are so many more things that need to be done, and that there needs to be a cultural shift around this issue as well. I hope that a deep cultural shift will start to happen and that we understand that we are the majority. The minority is making a lot of noise right now, but we can speak up and we can make a lot of noise about this too, especially because we are the majority in so many of these issues like gun violence and reproductive freedom.
All of us want our kids to be safe in school. That’s an absolute universal truth. My hope is that we can have the courage to speak up, and that we do this in community and coalition with others. I want to see us continue to find ways to be change agents in these systems that are constantly creating oppression.
Jennifer Norber graduated in 2019 with a Master of Arts in Leadership Studies degree. She was a hospice chaplain, hospice spiritual care advisor, and grief supporter during the Covid-19 pandemic. She now serves in an activism organization called Red Wine and Blue as the deputy director.