Sharon MacArthur is new board chair

Sharon MacArthur came to PSR a decade ago as a student, left with her MDiv three years later, and has been serving as senior pastor at Sycamore Congregational Church in nearby El Cerrito ever since. In July, after serving for five years as a member of PSR’s board of trustees, she became chair of the board. She believes that her ongoing experience as a pastor and a life lived in the midst of diverse communities will be beneficial during the three years of her term.

Sharon has her own reasons for supporting this seminary. “PSR gave me a new life,” she says. “It’s where my life came together.” She explains that she didn’t know the Bible very well, she was not comfortable with prayer, and    she didn’t understand why she was being called to seminary. She also assumed that “being Christian and going into seminary would mean: Forget about being Chinese.” But, in her first class, with Professor Jeffrey Kuan, she was surprised when students were asked to fill out a questionnaire meant to elicit such responses as: Who are you? How do you identify yourself? Where is your faith? “What that meant to me, and this was deeply important, was that you could bring every strand of your being with you in your journey at this seminary. I  left here feeling that my life had been pulled together.”

One reason for her disparate strands is that Sharon Li-MeiShem MacArthur was born to immigrant Chinese parents, in Stockton, CA. She spoke no English until she went to school, and only Chinese at home. “I can tell you when English kicked in as my language,” she says. “It was when I was 8, and I woke up realizing I had dreamt in English.”

She graduated from UC Berkeley in 1963 and for seven years did socio-economic research for the California Medical Association. After marriage to Nowell MacArthur, she stayed at home to raise four children. “You start volunteering at preschools, and enjoying it, you take some courses, and all of a sudden you get praised and paid for what you do at home!” Her career as a teacher and then assistant director of Thousand Oaks Preschool lasted until the late 1980s, when she was offered and served several positions in the corporate world.

Her introduction to religion was unplanned. “Although I was raised Chinese, with really no religion, in high school I attended a local Methodist Church because my Campfire Girls group met there and I felt comfortable there. Because they were desperate, I was asked to teach Sunday School. I had no idea of what to do—I began learning about the Bible by teaching it!

“After college, like many in our generation, both my husband and I drifted away from organized religion. But I wanted to provide my children with the advantage of a background in the Judeo-Christian tradition and we joined St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley. Our two girls led us to the Berkeley Chinese Community Church—because they had cousins there and wanted to go to Bible day camp. After two summers of camp, they decided they wanted to go church all year around. I became embarrassed to just drop them off at church, so I began going too. At that time I was in a state of discernment about whether I should continue in the corporate world or in preschool. It felt like every sermon was directed at me.

“I wound up switching careers, switching churches, becoming a lay leader, and, after a battle with breast cancer, going to PSR.”

One of MacArthur’s passions has been the multiracial and multicultural transformations of communities, something she has experienced throughout her life. “In the early 1960s, when my husband and I met—from two different ethnicities and cultures—our being together was a little bit unusual in our circles, and frowned upon in a lot of other places. When we were married, in 1965, and went looking for apartments in the East Bay, we’d arrive at the door only to be told the place was taken. This happened several times to us. And Sycamore Church, where I pastor now, had a hard time building in El Cerrito at the same time: Realtors didn’t want a Japanese church in that community.”

At Sycamore, there’s both a Japanese-speaking congregation and an English-speaking congregation, and when MacArthur arrived there were in effect two churches under one roof. “The minister from Japan and I arrived within two months of each other. And if that isn’t a God thing, I don’t know what is, because both of us, from different sides of the world, felt that it was our calling to bring these ‘two churches’ together into one. Bringing people together has been a very important part of my life.”

She sees PSR as a place that brings people together, and also listens to them. When she was a student here, she didn’t feel that international students were being integrated fully, and believed that if the seminary was reaching out for such students, more should be done once they arrived. “That was in 2001. Soon after, I began serving on the board, and I found out that PSR had hired a coordinator for international students. That gave me tears! I’m in awe of an institution that pays attention to its students, to voices other than those at the top. And this is that kind of place.

“I’m very honored and very humbled to be given this position,” the new board chair says. “It will be exciting to bring my no-holds-barred commitment to working together with others into play in a new way—a commitment nurtured by life experiences as a local pastor, past preschool teacher, and product of a family ‘tribal’ dynamic/tradition. We’re all going to have to work together in new ways in these critical times.”