J. Edson Way’68 was in his mid-50s, deep into an esteemed anthropological career, when something unexpected happened that turned his life around.
The 2008 Beloit College Distinguished Service Citation recipient was driving home to Santa Fe, N.M., alone one night after a spiritual retreat when he suddenly heard a voice coming from the left side of his brain.
“You should go to seminary and become a priest,” the voice said.
“What the hell?” Way recalls saying out loud.
He said the call came to him like a voice over the radio. He couldn’t stop thinking about it for the rest of the drive, and when he got home he told his wife, “I think I’m supposed to go to seminary and become a priest.”
Jenny Chappell Way’69 was immediately supportive, which Way says made him think maybe he wasn’t out of his mind after all.
Way had never planned to become an Episcopal priest.
Born in Chicago and raised in the northern suburbs, he came to Beloit in the 1960s, attracted to the college’s liberal arts education and international study opportunities.
A member of the first Beloit Plan class, Way decided to major in anthropology after he visited another classmate on an archaeological dig in northern Wisconsin.
“I discovered all these Beloit kids camped out in the woods finding arrowheads, fishing in the evening, and living in the north woods, and I thought that it was for me,” he says.
After leaving Beloit in 1968, he went on to receive a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Toronto in 1970 where he later earned a Ph.D.
Way returned to Beloit in 1972 to teach anthropology, and went on to found the college’s museum studies program and serve as director of the Logan Museum of Anthropology.
In 1985, he left Beloit to become the director of Santa Fe’s Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. Twelve years later, he became New Mexico’s cultural affairs officer.
It was during that time that Way heard his calling, and he kept telling himself he couldn’t do it. “I had a good job and life, and I could see how this could really screw that up,” he says.
Way, who joined the Episcopal Church in 2000, discussed the career transition for a couple of years with his wife and church and meanwhile was not re-appointed as the cultural affairs officer by New Mexico’s new governor. In 2005, at the age of 57, he entered seminary school in Austin, Texas.
Way completed a Master of Divinity Degree in 2008, the same year he became a priest at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Lubbock, Texas.
“I’m loving it,” Way says. “It’s the best time in my life. The church has doubled in size since I’ve been here, and the people here are so faithful.”
He has often wondered why he didn’t receive the call earlier in life, and the best answer he has come up with is that he needed to obtain a variety of life experiences.
“I learned a lot of things, developed an empathy for people, and I became far more intuitive,” Way says. “These are all skills I use on a daily basis as a priest.”
Plus, he says getting ordained at the age of 61 proves that God has a sense of humor.
Though he didn’t realize it at the time, Way says the roots of his work as a priest go back to Beloit.
In the late ’70s, he and Jenny became members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Every Sunday for nine years, the couple and their three children attended the Beloit Quaker meeting at the home of Professor Scott and Nancy Crom on Clary Street.
“It was through our involvement in the Quaker meetings at Beloit College that I became convinced of the existence of a spirit realm almost like a parallel universe,” Way says. “The ancient Celtic Christians in Britain talk about thin places in the universe where the spirit realm is more apparent, and to me the Crom home was one of those thin places where the movement of the Holy Spirit was very evident to me.”
Because Way was a biological anthropologist, he was once asked by his uncle—a noted anatomist and avowed atheist—how he, as a scientist, could hold those beliefs.
“To apply empirical methodology to the spirit world is like trying to measure distance from my house to my church in gallons,” Way told him. “The gallon is a valid measurement, but to apply that particular measurement to distance is inappropriate and to apply empirical methodology to the spirit realm is an equally inappropriate method.”
While they operate on different levels, Way still believes both are real.
Way, who plans to remain with the church until the mandatory retirement age of 72, also believes wholeheartedly that becoming a priest was the right decision.
“I just feel so blessed to be called here to St. Christopher’s,” Way says. “I still can’t believe it some days, but I know I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, and I’m where I’m supposed to be doing it.”