Of Psalms, Storms, and Seminary
by Barbara A. Chaapel
Merideth Mueller, Class of 2004, arrived at Princeton Seminary for student orientation in the fall of 2001, three days after 9/11. That same fall, she and classmates watched on a tv screen in Mackay as a plane crashed onto the streets of Brooklyn.
“Those experiences shaped us,” she says. “Our whole theological education took place with terror and vulnerability as an underpinning. We all wanted to get out and help, but then-president [Thomas] Gillespie said that we were exactly where we needed to be to help deal with the world’s suffering: in seminary. Those words gave me perspective.”
They also planted the seed of daily worship, a central part of Mueller’s spiritual discipline all through her years at Princeton. “Chapel services formed me as much as my classes did,” she says. “I attended every day, and hearing people develop their faith in worship fed my soul.” She joined the Seminary choir and developed a love for all forms of worship, “from Iona to Taize, from contemporary to Reformed.”
Now nine years after graduation, Mueller is pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Tuckerton, New Jersey, and living with her congregation in the wake of Super Storm Sandy that hit the east coast this past October and whose eye came ashore right in Little Egg Harbor Township and Tuckerton. Worship and music—and Princeton Seminary—are again sustaining her and her people.
On February 24, the Seminary Touring Choir and its director Martin Tel led a service of music, testimony, and prayer at the church to raise funds for those affected by Sandy and to raise spirits in the economically vulnerable communities of Little Egg Harbor. “Bringing us that service of psalms was Princeton Seminary at its best,” Mueller says. “I heard often when I was a student that the Seminary was here to serve the church. But how? This is how: to serve its pastors and congregations in times like these. The choir’s gift of music lifted our hearts, and the seminarians’ stories about their calling gave us hope. Strengthened, we go back out into the neighborhood to tell our neighbors that they are not alone.”
Choir member and Ph.D. student Melissa Haupt said the choir was greatly moved by its visit to Tuckerton. “In touring the community and seeing the devastated homes, we learned not only about the impact of the storm, but also about the impact of this church’s ministry in the midst of and after the storm,” she said. “We anticipated helping to lead the singing in the service, but as a choir we, too, experienced an evening of healing and transformation.”
Betsey Regan, a member of the Tuckerton church who attended the service, told of a firefighter who witnessed twenty-foot waves crashing over homes on the Tuckerton beach. She found her anguish at losing her own home echoed in the psalms. “I asked ‘Why did this happen? ’ It was because of nothing I had done. The psalmist asked the same thing. But in the psalms, we also know the character of God, and God is good,” she said. “God is here and I’m going to be fine.”
Money contributed by members of local churches and presbyteries who attended the evening of music will help Mueller’s congregation continue the soup ministry they provide in the community. “We reach out to neighbors with homemade soup three times a week,” she explains. “It began as an emergency response immediately after the storm; 27 households in my congregation were destroyed or displaced in the storm surge. Thousands of households in Tuckerton and Little Egg Harbor alone had major damage and houses had to be torn down, gutted, or replaced. People were homeless, without power, in chaos. But in the months following the storm, the soup became part of a larger narrative. We learned that this ministry was not just about soup and sandwiches. It was about walking alongside neighbors for as long as it takes. About telling people that we remember them. About being companions on the journey.”
The First Presbyterian Church of Tuckerton began it ministry in 1859 and sent its young men to fight in the Civil War. It has survived many wars since then and weathered many changes. “This recent storm has given us the opportunity to recommit to our ministry,” says Mueller. “It has confirmed that God is calling us to look outside of ourselves, to be in mission for our community.”