Jane Esbensen tells a story from the mid-1990s, when she worked as a chaplain at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, Minn. An elderly woman on her deathbed asked for Communion. Esbensen, who at the time was unable to perform this sacrament, brought in another chaplain who could.
The other chaplain blessed the Communion wafer and held it out for the woman, who "looked at me with troubled eyes." Esbensen, knowing the woman could hardly swallow, asked if it was too big; she nodded. The chaplain broke the wafer in half, then again, putting a quarter wafer on the woman's tongue.
"She was crying," recalls Esbensen. "It was very moving. And then she pulled me down and whispered in my ear, 'Will that get me all the way there?'"
Esbensen found this heartbreaking, "just a travesty," that the woman's lifetime of religion had left her with such a crimped view. "I said to her, 'This is not a ticket to heaven. If there's a God, he has seen what a good and kind and loving person you are.'"
Yep. Esbensen, 53, who was ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister in 1996 and recently became head of a Madison congregation, does not believe in God or life after death. She calls herself a "humanist atheist." She thinks belief in deity has arguably done more to hurt than help the world.
"People who do not believe in God are actually kinder, gentler people," she says. A personal belief in God, for instance, was not needed for Esbensen to comfort the dying woman in Minnesota, to "say what she needed to hear."
This fall, Esbensen became minister of the Prairie Unitarian Universalist Society, 2010 Whenona Dr., near South Midvale and the Beltline. She splits her time between there and Lake Country Unitarian Universalist Church in Hartland, about 40 miles west of Milwaukee, where she's been a minister since 2009.
Esbensen, who has lived in downtown Madison since January 2008, always wanted to "be in the religious world somehow." When she was a little girl, raised in a non-churchgoing home (her mother was Jewish, her father a Congregationalist), she was drawn to Catholicism and hoped to become a nun, "living in the south of France and working with the poor." But the nuns she met told her this was not possible, because, even then, Esbensen was not a theist.
In 1991, she entered a United Church of Christ seminary, a three-year program; she graduated after five years (she had young children at the time) and was ordained as a Unitarian Universalist. Since then, she's worked as a minister in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and as an elected municipal court judge in New Richmond, Wis. "I'm very social-justice-oriented," she explains.
Esbensen has found acceptance among fellow Unitarians, where humanists are a known quantity. But people from other faiths, when they learn she's an atheist, are often "a little puzzled and concerned." Most tragically, when she became a minister she lost her best friend, who felt this was not an appropriate role for a nonbeliever.
"That is so arrogant," clucks Esbensen. "There can be a lot of arrogance attached to people who believe in God."
Rebecca Malke, a member of the Prairie congregation and its director of religious education, was concerned when she learned of Esbensen's hiring. A theist herself, Malke knew "humanists are good people" but feared the new minister's message would be "devoid of any talk of God."
That hasn't happened. "She talks about Jesus and his work, and she talks about God and how for some people God brings this message of love and that's okay," says Malke. "Jane just really opened my eyes to humanism and doing good for the sake of doing good."
Esbensen puts it like this: "I'm just trying my best to be a decent human being on Earth."
Of course, according to some religionists, you can burn in hell for that.
The naked truth
In a ruling that bodes ill for the city of Madison's determination to penalize participants in this year's World Naked Bike Ride, a municipal judge has dismissed the first such case to be adjudicated.
James Old, filling in at Madison Municipal Court, last Friday tossed the citation against Cesilee Dean, one of 10 people cited for disorderly conduct in the June 19 event. The other cases remain pending.
Dean's attorney, Dan Bach, a former deputy attorney general, stated in a court hearing that "in Wisconsin [and] the city of Madison, there are no laws specifically prohibiting public nudity." He argued that Dean's going topless with body paint on her breasts did not constitute disorderly conduct and questioned the citation she received on due process and First Amendment grounds.
Olds granted Bach's motion to dismiss without ruling on these broader issues, saying, "I don't see anything in this record that leads me to believe the city would prevail" on its disorderly conduct charge. (For an audio recording of the hearing, see here.)
As Isthmus reported, Dean lodged a complaint against the arresting officer, Rene Gonzalez, alleging he refused to let her put on a shirt while detaining her in his squad. Madison Police have delayed looking into Dean's complaint, pending the resolution of her citation. (Done routinely to weed out complaints filed over justified enforcement actions, this creates an incentive for officers who know they've crossed a line to issue tickets or make arrests.)
Now that the ticket is dismissed, Dean and her boyfriend, Jason Shaw, want her complaint taken up. "He had no right to grab her," says Shaw. "The judge agreed this was without merit."
Dean is wisely "not optimistic" that the MPD's internal probe will find the officer at fault. But she is looking forward to next year's ride.
Down and downer at Cap News
The Wisconsin State Journal's circulation continues to fall, consistent with national trends, at times more so.
From Sept. 30, 2009, to Sept. 30, 2010, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, the decline for newspapers nationally was just 5% for daily sales and 4.5% for Sundays. That was significantly less precipitous than it had been. As one analyst put it, "Things are getting worse at a somewhat slower rate." Whoop-de-doo.
ABC places the State Journal's total average paid circulation at 87,950 for the six-month period ending Sept. 30, down from 92,213 the year before, a decline of 4.6%. Sunday sales fell from 130,179 to 121,947, a drop of 6.3%.
But most of the State Journal's daily decline has occurred since March 31, 2010, when it stood at 92,213. Sunday sales have also fallen faster in the last six months than in the prior six-month period.
Capital Newspapers, including the jointly owned Capital Times, remains profitable, with at least one sign that this could again trickle down to long-suffering employees. Starting in January, the company will revive its 401(k) plan, paying 40 cents on the dollar up to 5% of salary. That's down from a 100% match in the good ol' days but better than the current funding level of nothing.
And it means the folks who still work there can squirrel away a few bucks for their post-newspaper days.
Watch out for Watchdog!
As the holiday season approaches, the question on nearly everyone's mind is, "Where can I get a copy of the critically acclaimed new book Watchdog: 25 Years of Muckraking and Rabblerousing, by the guy who writes Isthmus' popular Watchdog column, to give as a gift to people in my life who are interested in Madison and Wisconsin and good writing?"
The answer: Any bookstore either has or can order it, plus it's on sale at Isthmus and online at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. And there are two more upcoming Madison readings: At Barnes & Noble West next Tuesday, Nov. 16, 7 p.m., where the theme will be criminal justice, and Borders East on Saturday, Nov. 20, 3 p.m., where the author will read his favorites.