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Faith journey leads back to Cornell


Rev. Catherine Quehl-Engel '89


Memories from my spiritual biography begin in childhood after my parents’ divorce. It was then that my faith was nurtured in my mother’s hometown United Church of Christ congregation. Here I learned about Christ and God’s love. Yet I also sought God’s presence in a nearby Catholic cemetery after school. There, beneath a sculpture of the crucifixion, I’d bring my family’s little apocalypse, and sit with it at the feet of a God who apparently also aches, yet does so while declaring “Behold I make all things new.”

As a teenager, my intimacy with God included moments of what I call faith wrestling—a mixture of devotion, questioning, exploration, and thirst after moral meaning. On the one hand, I was deeply involved in my church, dedicated my life to Christ, and began discerning if God was calling me into ordained ministry. Yet a faith-crisis was rising. My relationship with Christ collided with destructive, ignorant rhetoric from some Christian friends who spoke of Jews as evil “Christ killers.” This was my first conscious encounter with Christianity as a source of hate and shame, and it—along with the Holocaust images of murdered Jews—threw me into confusion, and a desire to learn more about Judaism, christologies, and scripture.

On the first Sunday of my college career, I heard professor Weddle ask questions from the pulpit of Mount Vernon’s Presbyterian Church, questions I didn’t know we were permitted to ask. “Where is God in the midst of human suffering? If God is all powerful, just, and loving, why are children starving?” If Dr. Weddle—a church elder—asks such questions; if even Jesus Christ cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” then are we not permitted to question and think critically in order to ultimately deepen faith? And so began my spiritual nurture at Cornell College, with Dr. Weddle, Dr. Vernoff, and Rev. Thomas as my spiritual guides.

I majored in both religion and art and tried to live my faith through involvement in Religious Life Council, the Iowa City Crisis Center, and the Cedar Rapids Jewish-Christian Dialogue group. After Cornell, I attended seminary at The Pacific School of Religion and The Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. In addition to a divinity degree, I received a master’s with a thesis that meshed Holocaust theology, Judaic studies, and visual art. At the center of my study was a series of interpretive Holocaust paintings professor Lifson had introduced me to years before.

I left a PhD program in theology, ethics, and culture so that I could be a mother and college chaplain. It was my dream to return to Cornell, to give back to this church-related college that taught me to pray, not only with my heart but with my mind; to offer pastoral permission to experience faith as living with questions so it can continually deepen and grow. I think what students want more than anything is not only assurance of Meaning and Divine Presence, but the asking of questions—doing so without shame. This, I think, is part of what a good college chaplain provides in the nurture of souls.

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