Theology at Work in the World

In this episode, Dr. Reyes and Dr. Kate Ott discuss her Catholic upbringing in a tight-knit community in the Midwest, her inherent love of learning, and her deep desire to do good in the world. She talks about being fueled by relationships and how her call manifests in creating moments to help the next generation figure out how religion fits into their daily lives and vocation through her writing, advocacy, and teaching.

Season 3: Episode 12

A New Way to Look at Christianity

Kate Ott is a Christian social ethicist addressing the formation of moral communities with specializations in technology, sexuality, youth and young adults, pedagogy, and professional ethics. Her newest book is Sex, Tech, and Faith: Christian Ethics in a Digital Age (2022). Kate was recently appointed as the Jerre and Mary Joy Stead Professor of Christian Social Ethics and is director of the Stead Center on Ethics and Values at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL.


Patrick Reyes: Welcome to another episode of the Sound of the Genuine. I am Dr. Reyes and this is FTE's podcast on how inspiring religious leaders and educators find meaning and purpose in their lives. And today we have Dr. Kate Ott, who is my scholar of scholars. She is a social ethicist who's addressing the formation of moral communities with specializations in technology, sexuality, youth and young adults, pedagogy and professional ethics. 

Her publications include Sex, Tech and Faith: Christian Ethics in a Digital Age, which just came out in 2022. Christian Ethics for a Digital Society in 2018 and Sex and Faith:Talking with Your Child from Birth to Adolescence, in 2013.  And what I'm excited about is her own formation where she tells us how she became the scholar she is.

All right, doctor Ott, thank you for joining us on the sound of the genuine. Now I know you as a scholar, a writer, inspirer but I don't think you emerged into the world as all of those things. So take me back to your genesis and tell me about your community, your people. What was it like growing up?

Kate Ott: Well, first thanks! I'm so honored to be part of this podcast. I grew up in a community just outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And I would describe it as working-class and middle-class white folks. It was all white and it was all Catholic. I often joke, I didn't know people were a different religion until I was in like sixth grade and our basketball team played a Lutheran school.

You know, it was a small, tight knit community. I never had more than 40 kids in my class from kindergarten to eighth grade. I loved it! It shaped me in a number of ways. And my dad was an only child, first-gen immigrant and my mom was one of nine - big Catholic family. You know I think her parents were maybe second or third generation. So I kind of fall into that big swath of European immigration and moving to the Midwest. Those Catholic roots, however, really taught me two things. They taught me that faith binds people together, not just as family, as community, but also as people who want to change and make the world better. The social justice tradition of the Catholic church, was deeply imbued in all of the things we did at school, as family, as community, but it also taught me that there were certain people who were in and certain people who were out. 

I had many a…many an argument or, you know, moment where I got in trouble at school because I asked too many questions. Why girls couldn't do this or why women weren't allowed to be priests too? And so while it gave me this sense of social justice, it also taught me how to ask questions about what was unjust in the system that was already going on around me.

Patrick Reyes: And what was the community's hopes for you? I mean, as you're growing up in this context, especially as a young woman in the Catholic church, who's pushing and asking these questions. Yeah. What were the hopes for you? What were your dreams? What'd you want to be when you grew up?

Kate Ott: Education was extremely important and always came first, both in family, in church, and in community. I mean, I think that's why the church itself started all these schools. So there was this sense that you could do and be anything with education, except be a leader in the church as a young woman.

I think I was part of like the first generation in our community of young girls who got to be altar servers. I was so excited. I was like, yeah, this week I get to be an altar server. I do remember my grandmother saying to me, sort of under her breath, not directly to me, the church is just…it's going downhill from here. [laughter] So my genuine desire to be a leader in the church and participate was met with sort of these little door openings and then also, you know, influential people in my life sort of commenting that this was the demise of the church.

I think while it fueled folks regardless of gender, at that time boys and girls only, in terms of education and that your education was meant to do something in the world, that it was meant for good was always instilled in me. And, you know, was really supported by all of our teachers. Some of whom were lay folks and some of whom were nuns. I never had a priest as a teacher, they were only running the church. It was sort of like, you can do all these things and change the world just don't change the church as part of it. 

One experience I remember that, you know, comes back every once in a while to me - Growing up in a Catholic church, in a Catholic school, Catholic community, all white working middle-class, we had a principal who was a nun but she, now that I know this right, was on the progressive side of things and was a huge educational innovator. Again, I didn't know that when I was experiencing it, but would encourage all kinds of ways for us to learn in new and different formats. And at the time, one of the priests at the church that was in collaboration with the school, really did tons of children and youth outreach.

He was almost always the priest who did our weekly masses. I didn't know that was unusual, but now I do. He had gifts for that. And our principal loved clowns. Now you can imagine for young children, clowns can be a scary thing sometimes, but she loved clowns and we would have all these spirit days in school. 

And so the priest, Father Ed, decided that our weekly Friday Mass, that spirit day was going to be like the big celebration of this principal and all that she had accomplished. And we all got to dress up as clowns for clown day, in celebration of what she loved and just like have fun as kids. I mean, we were literally all dressed as clowns sitting in class, like learning.  But it was Friday mass and he led mass dressed as a clown. And all of us kids, we were all dressed as clowns. It was excellent! I have to say like, it pops up in my memory constantly of like, this is what celebrating God means, especially for children and youth! Like we came as we were and as we wanted to pretend we were.

Well, the local older folks who always came to mass for the church school were appalled. I mean, from their point of view, he had like desecrated mass and the sacraments, everything, because he was dressed up as a clown, leading Eucharist. There were like newspaper stories. All I remember is that it was bad and we were supposed to feel bad about it. And we should have like, recognized that he was wrong in doing this and we should not have followed that. And the whole time, it was like cognitive dissonance! I was like this was the best faith experience I've ever had and all these people want to run this priest out of town for doing this! 

And the principal. I mean, they wanted to run her out as well. I couldn't have been more than, I don't know, first or second grade, but I knew something was wrong. Like people had misunderstood what was going on here. Again, maybe it was some of the teachers around me, maybe it was just God working in us in that moment, in that church service, maybe it was just that I had decided I was going to be a rebel for the rest of my life, but I keep that memory with me of a moment of creative, religious expression that gave permission to do and be and experience something differently. And for me, it was a moment that let God in.

Patrick Reyes: Ok, you got to help me out. What do you do with this? How do you go from this ‘clown’ moment of seeing someone lead mass to getting into education, theological education in particular? Is it the arts, is it the sciences? What does that look like that you want to explore? 

Kate Ott: I loved every part of education. But arts and creativity, science, math, theology, language, and literature - I loved all of it. And I still do, like, I could be a student of just about anything. With that, you know, I'm grateful that I got the education I did and was able to excel. After going to a very small Catholic grade school from K through eighth grade. I went to an all women's high school, Catholic as well.

Again, it was one of those places where the doors were wide open to you as a young female person, if you were educated. And we were given leeway to like study so many things and explore. Again, that was all wrapped in the message of…I believe our motto was like born women, born leaders, which I always, you know, kind of questioned. I think that was probably my early like foundation for questioning gender and sexuality.

Cause I was like, well you're not really born a woman. That's something you have to become at some point, whether that's just like age and growth or whether - that's how we think about gender. But it was a place where I learned how to ask those questions. My approach to education has always been asking questions and I think it can be frustrating and know it was frustrating for many of my teachers growing up. I just have always thought, well, if we can keep asking questions, we can keep making the world a better place. And I don't know where I connected those two things. I don't know whether that was because all of my education happened in the context of this faith community that cared about social justice or whether that's just how God wrapped me up in who I am and my vocation, but I have never thought education was just for the purpose of becoming smarter or education was for the purpose of making money or getting a job. To me, education has always been about making the world a better place. 

I think that's where my questions come from and why these particular kinds of institutions really both opened me up to being able to do that and also created this fire in me that they had these restrictions that I hated, especially around religion and theology, and around gender in particular. It wasn't until probably late middle school and high school that I really understood that I was part of an all-white community, because it wasn't until then that there was any real diversity or even personal relationships around people and with people who were of different racial/ethnic backgrounds.

So I think for me, understanding gender as inequality was always part of the root of my questioning until I was able to be part of communities where either I could see all of the whiteness that was around me, or have folks who I was in personal relationship with me sort of saying like, you get that that's like a white thing, right? And I couldn't see that until I actually could recognize whiteness in those communities, along with the religion and gender that was happening.

Patrick Reyes: That's a lot to shape your imagination around! You've been in a single gender, single-sex education environment, Catholic environment, all white environment, what do you start thinking about where you want to study, how you want to study, who you want to study with? What comes next after high school?

Kate Ott: So just like everyone goes to Catholic grade school, everybody goes to Catholic high school, everyone across my family was going to Catholic colleges, small Catholic colleges. I applied to a couple of them. This was before…I feel like people also need to understand, young adults today, that like it was pretty rare that you would go and tour schools and think about leaving your state. And that might still be true for some young folks. But I feel like the industrial complex of higher education has totally changed the landscape. This was like, you went to the Catholic school that was in your city or state, or maybe you crossed the state line from a Midwest kind of Catholic immigrant perspective. I just thought, you know what, I'm going to apply to the big state school. I'm going to apply to University of Wisconsin-Madison, and there's 40,000 plus people there. This is going to be amazing. At that point, I was also definitely way moved on to the progressive end and social justice end of my Catholic tradition, which was definitely not the place that my family or upbringing was.

And so I also just wanted to do something, you know, that was not the tradition. That was not what my family wanted. So I got into the University of Wisconsin- Madison and went there. Had no idea what I wanted to do other than I had this vague idea that I wanted to do some sort of social justice/social service work. I had to pick a major as you do in college and I stumbled into this women, gender studies class that was cross-listed with language and literature. It was some of like the first classes on Asian/Asian-American women's writing. At the time I sort of fancied myself…I was like, I could write poetry, short stories…which no, not very good at. But I thought like that's the direction I'm going to go. And I loved this class, I loved the professor. And the professor said to me, you know, you can do a women/gender studies major and an English literature major cause here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, like most of our feminist professors are also language and literature professors. And I thought someone's going to give me a degree and all I have to do is like read these amazing novels, poetry, short stories by women? So that's what I did. 

It was a challenge because the one thing I was not very good at was writing, I had always gotten critiques and comments back on my writing. I also thought I can do calculus, I can speak German, I can do these other things. I'm okay at those things, writing I'm not very good at. I also thought I'll just challenge myself. Probably this degree is just a ticket to getting some job that I don't actually need the degree for.

You don't need a degree to help run like a Catholic charities organization or something, which is what I really thought I would do. But being in those classrooms completely reshaped the way I understood how the world was structured. It was the first time someone helped me understand how structural oppression functions and why when I said, I don't think born women/born leader is really true. I think there's all kinds of gender inequality and you have this Catholic girls school because they need this space to flourish because in other spaces they may not flourish. But I didn't understand that that was both because of gender inequality in society and in the church.

I didn't know how it structurally functioned. And getting a women/gender studies degree and women's language and literature degree finally gave me words to that. And it exposed me, like I said, my first class was on Asian/Asian American women's writing and I took classes on African American women's writing, African American writers throughout history.

I had the chance to do some classes on like film noir and comic book writing. And so it just exposed me to this whole world I had never been part of. At the same time I found a Catholic campus ministry. This Catholic campus ministry was created by these post-Vatican II, 1960s/70s radical church goers.

It was all concrete, it had no images in it. The chapel area or the sanctuary area was kind of like set in the center and the pews went up and out to the side, so there was no center, technically. And there was a woman chaplain. I had plenty of nuns that I knew that I learned from, but I'd never met someone who was a woman chaplain. And she went to Harvard Divinity School and I was like, oh my gosh, Catholic women don't have to be nuns! They can go and like actually be leaders in the church. Sadly, I have to say, as soon as I graduated, there was like this whole movement around the Catholic church and Opus DEI. And that campus ministry got knocked down and it now looks like a Byzantine cathedral with so much iconography. And yeah, I don't think women are even allowed to be like peer ministers in the church anymore. But when I was there, it was an amazing radical place and really really reshaped me. There was an older group of, I think, grad students and people who had been members of this church for a long time and they formed a group called Many Parts, and it was like one of the first LGBTQ Catholic groups that I had ever even heard of. So the confluence of being a women/gender studies major and reading all these different kinds of language and literature, and like being exposed to Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, just that along with getting to be a peer minister and see a woman up there standing across the table at communion, completely reshaped my imagination - both of how structural violence happens, how oppression is not just an individual thing that happens in communities or that people can't work their way out of, which was definitely what I was taught in my white Catholic upbringing - but also that there were ways to be parts of community and ways to work against that in the world that I had never even imagined were possible.

Patrick Reyes: I mean this is so cool. You're having this awakening at college. You're reading all this great stuff. I'm just going to project here. I'm imagining this is where like, I want to do this, whatever this is. This is what I want to do. What is the next step after undergraduate? When you think about that, how do you put this into action?

Kate Ott: Yeah, unfortunately, there was never a this! I wish like I had been in undergrad and been like, yeah, this is the job I'm going to have. I mean I interned at social service organizations. I was a tutor at one of the local high schools. Like I said, I had this initial little writing bug where I thought I could be a writer someday. But none of it was coming together like this is what I was supposed to do in the world. And so the woman chaplain at St. Paul's Catholic Campus Center said to me, “You could go to seminary.” And to be honest, I had really only heard that word like two or three times in my life. And it was either to point out a building that was like the men's priesthood seminary in Milwaukee or I had one uncle who left seminary. Like he thought he was going to be a priest and he left. Those were the only times I had heard the word “seminary,” as a young Catholic woman.

And so when this woman chaplain said to me, you could go to seminary, I was like, what? I don't even know what that is. What do you do with that? But at that point I had already fallen in love with academia, like women/gender studies. It was transdisciplinary. We studied women's health. That was also where I had started to like, become an advocate around issues of sexuality and gender. But it was always sort of disconnected from religion and what I was doing with Catholicism. I recall my senior project for women/gender studies, I took Sandra Schneider's work on the female Christ and I did interviews with all these people who were part of this cool campus ministry I was part of, to ask them how do they understand gendered images of God? And like, how could we understand Christ, not just as this male bodied form but from actually Christ re-interpreting gender for us because of how he behaves in the world and who he partners with and all those kinds of things. So I gave, what I thought, was a super awesome presentation on my final project to my women/gender studies senior class. The most impressionable comment I got - one of my fellow students who I really thought I was part of them and accepted and they said, “I guess I'm just not getting it. Like, how can any of these questions even be about equality or liberation? Like it's part of religion and religion is the problem.”

I mean in that moment, I was like, wow, I guess if I really want to find justice in the world, you know - and at that point justice was race, class, gender intersection - that I had to let religion go because religion was the problem. And so I was really struggling with that in my last semester and that was when the woman chaplain said, “actually there's this whole universe of people who ask these questions and there are all these people who have been changing, not just the Catholic church, but the Christian Church for, from her perspective – centuries - but for decades. And I really think you should go to seminary to ask them these questions.

And she actually said to me, “if you get done with it and if you just want to go back to doing social service and like direct work, you can.” You know, you can get this master's degree and still go work in a church or still run mission trips or do whatever it is you think you should be doing right now. But just go, apply. See what it's like. In that moment, I had no idea that my life was going to be shaped to being an author, a theologian, an ethicist, but maybe she knew. Or at least she knew enough to say, “go test it out and see what it’s like.” 

Patrick Reyes: I mean what seminary? Where'd you end up going? Who'd you end up studying with and could you really do what, it sounds like the wrestling with this big question, could you hold on to religion and this upbringing, or did you need to let it go? Was it a, you know, huge challenge to the things you care about?

Kate Ott: Well, do have to say that in the midst of this, I also got married. I'm extremely idealistic and also very practical. And so, I say to this guy, I think I'm going to go to grad school, I'm going to go to this seminary and I'm going to move across the country. We can get married and you can come or probably it's not going to work out. But for me, that's also a central aspect to how I understand community and relationship. Like I think how we need to be in the world is in relationship. And I already knew that at that point in my life. I didn't want to go start something new or discover something about who I needed to be in the world and for both of us in relationship to not be all in, in that. And I now see that as also very formative to what I end up doing later in life and what I study around sexuality and relationships. But commitment and trust are key from my point of view for the work that we're called to do. It's difficult work because every day you have to wake up and say, I'm going to do it. It doesn't just happen. And so for me, it's actually really formative that between undergraduate and going to seminary my husband and I, 21 and 22, we're like, yeah, we're going to make this happen, let's see how it works out. So we get married, we move across the country from the Midwest to Connecticut. Yale Divinity School is where I chose to go. I met this really cool Catholic feminist woman, Margaret Farley and I thought if this woman can write about sexuality and gender issues in the Catholic church and she's a nun, like, this is where I need to be.

I didn't know that I was going to meet Letty Russell, who also had been working with global women's theology to change World Council of Churches, like churches all over the globe. And so I think the two of them as mentors and professors had the biggest impact on me thinking about theological education.

And then my husband who had already gotten into criminal justice reform issues in Wisconsin and in Madison - We come to Connecticut, which is this state that 20 years ago is trying to reform the prison system, especially for juvenile offenders and starts out working in nonprofit work where young teenagers who had been convicted usually of like very petty things where truancy was a crime, you know, we still had the kind of old drug laws. And so, kids selling for other dealers, you know, they'd get picked up. And the question of whether you should just immediately put them into the system or not was something that Connecticut on a state level was struggling with and they decided that they could try to do these interventions where they would have non-profits run pre and post adjudication programs for these kids so that they were in the regular - I don't know that they’d call them schools - but they weren't in detention or in the corrections facilities. And so he started working in those and a couple of the places he worked were like, we need folks who are part-time who can like work on weekends and stuff.

And I was like, I love kids. I love teenagers. I can totally do that. Like, you know, I've been a tutor. I've been…yeah. I had only adjacently, if that, experienced the kind of lives that these kids lived. So going through seminary, I'm exposed to the top feminist womanist theologians around the world. I'm learning like there is this totally radically different way to look at Christianity and its global influence while also constantly pushing back on it - on the colonialism, on the racism, on gender inequality and I'm spending weekends and afternoons or nights whenever they needed an extra shift at these juvenile facilities where I'm learning about these kids' lives and the experiences they've had, why they're wrapped up in the criminal justice system, what neighborhoods they're from. And yeah, those two things together are really what gave me my purpose around, not just theological education and academic writing, but also around what the purpose of that was supposed to be. I credit that today that's why I don't think I can look at a social situation and not think about the effects that sexuality, that relationships, that family, that childhood developments, and that our religious systems have to play in whatever kind of social issue we're looking at. 

Patrick Reyes: So when is it that you start thinking, hey I could add my voice to these great writers, the academic scholars, that are doing that? Especially in theological education, which, it's still now majority white men who serve in all of these institutions. So when was that moment that you're like, this is what I want to do? I want to study this. I want to write it. I want to make a difference in the academy?

Kate Ott: I think, probably I would credit Letty Russell mostly with trying to plant that seed. She was constantly saying, you know you should think about grad school, you could do a PhD. You know, I was like no actually, we need to start a girls only track of this non-adjudicated programming for kids in the system. Cause you know, I'm tired of there being three girls in the program and them getting told to put oversized t-shirts on every time they show up because somehow their gender is a problem.

So I was still like, no, the system needs changing. The only way to change it is to like be on the ground, direct service. And she very gently said, yeah, but you also could change a much wider system, right? Like your life has been changed. The way you look at these problems has been changed by the books that you read, by how you engage these problems. And pretty much all these people you've met who write these books, also do these things, right?

They're also activists in their own way. And I still hadn't fully said yes to that yet. I am about to finish my seminary degree. I don't have a job. I mean, I can continue to work part-time in these non-profits. But a woman in front of me who had been in my very first orientation group says, so Kate you're graduating, where are you going to go work? I'm sure every seminary student hates this question because everyone asked them that when they're about to graduate, what are you going to do? Yeah, I don't know. I mean, I'm going to keep working at the juvenile programs I've been working at. And everyone knew, because every question I asked in class was like, how does this apply to the kids I'm working with?

There's two or three moments. The first is I was in a sexual ethics class with Margaret Farley and I asked that question and she said to me, we're talking about adults. I don't know how this applies to youth or children. And definitely not the ones you're working with. I don't know you're going to have to go figure that out. And so that was the first seed. I could figure this out. 

The second was, you know, Letty Russell saying, you know, you should think about grad school. You could get a PhD. And the third, which seems like a tangent was my fellow classmate in front of me saying, “What are you going to do?” And when I said, I don't know, she said, “Well I'm part of a Methodist church and we need a youth minister. Would you consider being the youth minister?” [laughter] Of course my response was, I'm not Methodist. Yeah, I know how to work with youth but I've never been employed by a church because I was Catholic. So her response was, don't worry, I can teach you everything you need to know about Methodism this summer - Which I still love because now I'm part of all these Methodist institutions and I keep telling them you can learn it in a summer. And she said, I think if you don't fully know what you want to do, but what you really care about is children and youth and the church, maybe you need to work with children and youth in the church. And so I worked for them for five years. They allowed me to go work on my PhD while I was working there. And at the same time I worked at social service programs related to this nonprofit I had been working for but I switched to, at the time it was called a safe home. Kids were removed, for department of children and families. You know, oftentimes the case worker comes in and it's extremely unsafe and so they have to be immediately removed, but there's often not a home for them to go to at that point. So we would take kids anywhere from like one week to 90 days and they were immediate removals. You know, kids could come at 10 in the morning or 10 at night or one in the morning. I worked in that program and then I also served as the youth minister and eventually children and family minister at this Methodist church.

They were maybe five miles apart, but they were worlds apart. The Methodist Church was in Fairfield, an extremely wealthy town in Connecticut. And it is right next to Bridgeport, Connecticut, which is probably the most economically depressed city in all of Connecticut. I was working across this town border in completely different circumstances, but both of them were teaching me about the experience that children and youth were having - diverse, different experiences, but still experiences often of being disempowered and seen as not having agency, always seen as some larger system needed to save them, whether that was the wealthy kids who needed to be saved and educated and brought up in the church or whether that was these kids who were experiencing abuse and violence and poverty who needed to be saved by probably the same people - the white Christians in the other town who had money to teach them what to be in the world.

And so those two experiences really concretized for me, all of these other seeds that had been planted that if the church, from my point of view, was going to take seriously what needs to happen for children and youth in the world, that people needed to start writing theology about it, needed to start doing ethics on it. And so I went back to grad school, started a PhD at Union Theological Seminary and I met this like really great transdisciplinary group of scholars who had really started to launch serious academic work on children and youth.

Patrick Reyes: So as you do this work, you know, projecting on the academy here, that it's not the most welcoming, celebratory space that like, oh, you've doing this cool work bridging this gap between what you're experiencing in the community, the youth that you work with and this high academic work that you're doing, how do you start navigating that as a vocation? How do you start making people pay attention, this is what's important? We need to do work around this and kind of building out your own scholarly voice.

Kate Ott: I have the gift of having mentors and teachers in higher education, who were also people who always had one foot in some version of advocacy or activism. That's not always true. And, you know, moments where I ran into people for whom that wasn't true, I would be shocked, which is just a gift. Cause I know so many people in academia who never see that model and leave because they never see those kinds of commitments modeled for them. I do remember I presented a portion of my dissertation, which was on adolescent sexual ethics at the Society of Christian ethics, and one of the reviewer notes that I got back said, this isn't ethics, this is Christian education. And I thought, they don't get it because I was surrounded by people who told me that's not true.

There's not this hierarchy of academic disciplines that we are supposed to be transdisciplinary. That if we're talking about children and youth and we're talking about ethics and theology, you can't not talk about education. So even those moments where, what I would say the kind of ways in which the academy is killing itself were presented to me as like, this was the highest standard, I was surrounded by so many people who didn't believe that, that it was easy for me not to give into it. And I now see what a privilege that was. Also, the majority of classes and study that I did was learning from folks of color in the academy who had done work over the past three decades, that was new and transformative.

Like I said, learning about global women's theology, studying with emilie townes at Union Theological Seminary. You know, I wasn't shaped by a traditional academy and I think that's really what has allowed me to do the kind of academic work that I do. It's also however why, when I graduated with my PhD, I was like, yeah, I'm just not going to take any regular old academic job unless these people are cool like the folks I've been allowed to study with and hang out with. I can't do that. Writing on ethics and children and youth and sexuality obviously it was not seen as the highest academic standard of theology and ethics. So I struggled, trying to figure out where my place was.

I also was at a point where thankfully given the people I had learned from and my peers in the academy, that both a fully inclusive LGBTQ sensibility and anti-racist approach, were things I was continuing to work on, but was not going to negotiate about. Which meant all of those lovely Catholic ethics jobs were not open to me because I would not sign a form that said that I was willing to teach what the Catholic church thought. Because by that point in time, I had realized that to be able to do the work I wanted to do in the world, it had to be beyond the Catholic church. And I'm grateful to many of my sisters and brothers and siblings in the Catholic church who continue to fight those battles, but I was not willing to fight that and I wanted to be part of a broader Christian movement. 

So finishing up with my PhD. I took a job at a nonprofit doing national advocacy for sexual and reproductive justice, as well as on the ground denominational and local congregational work on sexuality education. After everything I had been through vocationally and thinking about what I wanted to do in the world, it brought so many things together. I got to be a writer. I got to write congregational resources. I got to write policy, political advocacy from a Christian perspective, a faith-based perspective. Got to work with national organizations trying to work for LGBTQ equality and sexuality education, reproductive justice. It was amazing. And all the while I was like adjuncting every semester, all over the Northeast. For that moment, I think it was exactly where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to be doing, but there came a time where I felt like there are some important things I'm just not able to do. One was all the work I did on my dissertation. It was like a little article somewhere, but I wasn't able to like make a book out of it. And a lot of it was because it didn't fit anywhere.

You know, it was about Christian education. It was about children and youth development, but it was about ethics and I was an ethicist. And it, it was pretty progressive. No one knew where it fit anyhow. Doing this work in the nonprofit, I was able to connect with congregational presses and people there just said to me, you know, why don't you write this for parents, for religious leaders, for the people you're working for right now, so that they can understand why it's so important that we talk about sexuality differently in our faith communities for young people?

And I thought if I said yes to that, I would never fully be accepted in the academy. And I got to the point where I figured that was never going to happen anyway so I went for it. You know, I wanted this out there. But I also realized that I think a lot of folks do this in the academy who want to be academics, who want to be advocates who want to be engaged in their community.

To me, it's always a matter of where we spend a primary amount of our time and where we're going to go to get money for our livelihood. From my point of view, I could have gone to any of those three, right? I could have gone and worked full time in a church. I could have continued to work full-time in a nonprofit, or I could have really pushed and tried to be in the academy. But I was never going to not do all three in some way. The gift of theological education from my point of view has been that it is a space of flexibility, of creativity, of relationship building that values all three of those - at least the theological education institutions I've been part of - but also that really values being intellectually engaged around these issues and learning from one another.

I think the piece to me that I was always missing was that I love learning and I love teaching. I want to do that through my writing. I want to do that in the classroom in creative ways. I want to do that in the faith communities I'm part of, in the community activism I engage. The opportunity of a position at Drew Theological School came about and, I mean, the institution, its values, the colleagues there, it was just a perfect storm. And I felt like I could leave the non-profit world, like I don't have to be an activist only for the rest of my life. You know, surviving on grant funding. Well, I didn't know that theological education was also going to be a financial struggle! I thought it was like the city on the hill. And then, you know, you get there and you realize it's the same as working at a nonprofit, struggling for your life, enrollments and finances. I'm grateful that the hustle hasn't ended, even though I thought it was going to when I went into theological education.

I really love being in the classroom and hopefully, partnering with the next generation of folks who are going into ministry and advocacy and academia to provide a space that I was gifted, to ask those kinds of questions and really engage new issues and not say, that's not a real academic question or you can't do that in the church. I am committed to those never being things I say to my students or to the folks that I work with. I want them to know that whatever question you have, ask it! And then go find other people who want to ask it with you! Like, to me, that's the key of movements in the world. You find a question you really want to ask and find other people who want to ask it with you. And I'm grateful to have been able to do that and do it in new ways, in different spaces, throughout my career. 

Patrick Reyes: What's so inspiring for me about that is that's the heart of education, right? Is that we're able to explore, solve our own problems, ask the right questions, all that. This is my last question. I ask everyone who comes on this show, some version of this question. But that call, how much of it comes from those experiences that you had with that woman chaplain, with Letty Russell, with your colleagues in the academy, with your broader community, the kids you worked with, the youth in these two different programs, your family, and how much comes from like your own inner curiosity, going back to the beginning of your story, where you're sitting in these Catholic spaces thinking like, this isn't right. Like something here tells me this is something to be challenged, your own question. So how much is it community and how much is it your connection to the divine or yourself or your own questions?

Kate Ott: I don't know. I think of it more as sources of inspiration or like this well that I can return to. That well is such a mix of who I am, who I'm in relationship with, and how God sustains all of that. So I don't know if God built the well, I don't think so. At least God didn't do it on God's own. And I truly believe we all have that and it's all feeding each other in that. There are times that I know I have to go back to my own personal experiences and say either what helped you be this person - you can keep doing that. If you ask that question when you were seven it's okay to ask it when you're 45. Just keep asking it. But I also know that I can't do those things on my own. That I ask those questions cause I know I can call a friend up and say, do you believe in me? Should I keep doing it? And they will say yes. 

I have less direct experiences with God or prayer. Like I truly believe in the you pray through your doing. And so for me, being in relationship with whomever or whatever that is creation, is itself prayer. And so maybe, maybe for me, the action of learning, of serving, creates that well that continues to both shape me, shape the communities I'm part of and be the source that helps that energy continue. And I have had many a person tell me my energy is far too much for the average human but I'm fueled by the relationships I'm in with children and youth, with my family, with my colleagues, with my friends. How can you not keep doing the work when you have that kind of energy and trust at the source of what you're doing?

I hope that the work that I do, the writings I do, the congregational workshops that I lead, can create some moments for the next generation of children and youth, struggling to figure out how religion fits with their lives, their vocation, and the change that I really think we need to see in the world.

Patrick Reyes: Kate, thank you so much for this conversation for sharing your life, your work. It's inspiring on so many levels it's inspiring for me. And there's a whole bunch of offline conversations that we're going to have to have about all the Catholic stuff. But grateful, grateful, so thank you for being here.

Kate Ott: Thank you so much. So, as I said, it's, it's an honor to be part of these conversations. 

Patrick Reyes: Thank you again for listening to the Sound of the Genuine and Dr. Ott's story. If you were inspired by the story do us a favor, share this podcast with a friend and give us a five-star review on whatever platform you are listening to this story on. I want to thank my team - our producers, Elsie Barnhart and Heather Wallace for putting this story together, Diva Morgan Hicks for putting it out into the world and @siryalibeats for his music. Thank you again for listening to the Sound of the Genuine.