by Letha Dawson Scanzoni, EEWC Update editor
Known for her social justice/feminist Christian music in the 1980s and early 1990s, Colleen Fulmer seemed to have disappeared from the music scene. EEWC Update decided to search for her.
I discovered Colleen Fulmer’s music only recently in my ongoing quest for women-affirming music with a strong spiritual emphasis. I remembered Juanita Wright Potter’s 1996 EEWC Update review of a tape called, “Cry of Ramah,” and was trying to find out if the singer, Colleen Fulmer, had a website with samples of her music for listening online. None existed, but I did find a site where I could order her three recordings: “Cry of Ramah,” “Her Wings Unfurled,” and “Dancing Sophia’s Circle.” When they arrived, I was “blown away” by what I heard — a beautiful rich voice, singable melodies, and deeply spiritual lyrics that honored God, lifted up women, and promoted social justice and peace.
I sensed that this was a woman with a story to tell and felt prompted to contact her for a possible interview. The Web search brought up several women named Colleen Fulmer, among them a math teacher, a nutritionist, a Methodist minister, even a person who had shed the name to take on a science fiction-type persona.
I decided to first try the Methodist minister in Oregon. A woman’s pleasant voice on the church answering machine invited callers to “come and sing God’s praises with us.” I felt I had the right person!
When the pastor returned my call that afternoon, I thanked her and said, “Before we go further, are you the Colleen Fulmer who recorded ‘Cry of Ramah’ and ‘Dancing Sophia’s Circle’?” She laughed and said, “Yes, but that was another lifetime ago!” I knew then that I had a story! She agreed to share her “lifetime ago” with EEWC Update.
A woman in process
Colleen’s career — indeed her life — is one of process. There is no sense of having “arrived” once for all, but rather a daily following of God’s Spirit. In a song on “Cry of Ramah,” she sings:
Mantle of Light, Risen Christ,
Spirit enfolding, healing and holding
All that I was,
All that I am,
All that I’ll ever hope to be.
And on “Dancing Sophia’s Circle,” she again reminds us that every part of our lives becomes part of our history — part of who we are now and who we will be tomorrow. No experience is wasted. “I am who I bring from yesterday,” her song begins.
In a sense, she herself is constantly “finding Colleen Fulmer” — as each of us is finding who we are and who we are meant to be. (I remember seeing a cartoon in which a woman was telling her spouse she had finally “found herself” — that she hadn’t done so before, because she hadn’t been looking high enough!)
Colleen’s song becomes plural:
We are who we bring from yesterday.
We are who we are today,
We are who we are
for all the days to come,
We are Women,
glorious creations of praise.
“I am who I bring from yesterday”
Colleen was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, during a time of nearby nuclear weapons testing. “I was born on All Soul’s Day — the day of praying for the dead,” she says. “And I’ve always thought there must have been a reason.” Perhaps it foreshadowed the prophetic role her music would play in speaking out against the death and destruction of war.
Her father served in the navy, and her mother worked for the navy as a civilian secretary. The family moved once or twice yearly throughout her childhood, which she describes as lonely because there was so little time to make friends. “I was overweight as a child, and it was hard to fit in because I was viewed as the odd person on the block anyway, “she says.
When her dad got out of the Navy, the family settled in Concord, CA; and for the first time in her life, Colleen had four years uninterrupted by moving. She spent them at a newly opened Catholic high school for girls. “It was a great experience for me, being able to get involved in theology,” she says. “We had some pretty dynamic nuns — the Carondelet nuns. At that time they were really into Teilhard de Chardin, bringing science and theology together.”
She calls those years formative. “I had an English teacher that just made poetry and literature come alive! I was just learning to play the guitar, and what I started to do was weave words to music — kind of on my own.”
Because her two younger brothers would pal around with each other, and her parents were at work, she had a lot of time to herself. She also had many of the household responsibilities. When she finished her tasks, she would pick up her guitar, compose songs, and sing. Just a few years after Vatican II, the teenaged Colleen started the first folk mass in her church. She had found her special gift, and it brought her great joy.
But after her high school graduation, her mother insisted that Colleen attend beauty school “to have a trade to fall back on.” Lack of money made college out of the question. Reluctantly, Colleen studied to be a beautician , and although she went on to pass the state boards and was licensed, she worked in a shop for only two weeks, then quit.
By then she knew what she really wanted. “I wanted to be around people who were serious about God,” she says. “I wanted to do something meaningful, something in the deeper currents.” She checked out numerous religious orders. and decided on the Holy Family Sisters. Feeling immediately at home, she took a year of simple vows and remained there for what she calls “an awesome five years.” She learned a lot about relationships in community and cultivated her gifts. “It wove the biblical and musical together for me,” she says.
“I am who I am today”
She left the convent to be part of the wider world after she began feeling “kind of claustrophobic.” She considered it a wonderful and nurturing “hot-house” experience But she wanted a wider arena in which to live and work. “I needed color, I needed texture, I needed a bigger field,” she explains.
In her last two years in the convent, she had created and coordinated liturgies with music and the arts and had found a niche that she loved. “I think if the convent would have been open to allowing me to go into that area, I probably would have stayed for another five or ten years,” she says. “but they discouraged that at the time.” They saw no future in it and instead wanted her to work with two-year-olds.
She found re-entry into the mainstream difficult but began working as a church liturgist and youth minister in Willows, CA where she became involved in the growing Hispanic community. She took intensive courses in Spanish at Chico State University to aid her ministry with migrant workers.
Her next ministry was in Grants Pass, OR, where she worked in group homes for juvenile offenders. Her interest in liturgy and the arts flourished as she and other single Catholic women formed a liturgical dance group there.
At the same time, her concern for the Latin American people was calling her. She applied to study and work under the Maryknoll Lay Missioners program where she had “an incredible four months of social justice classes and social analysis on Latin America and Africa.” But as she got ready to leave for Peru, two things made her hesitate. The political situation there became more unstable, and her grandmother’s health was declining. Colleen decided to let go of her dream and spend quality time with her grandmother. “I was glad I did,” she says. “I got to walk with her through her process of dying.”
At the same time, music again beckoned. A tape made at Maryknoll resulted in an invitation to work with Franciscan Communications in Los Angeles and be part of an album called “Bread of Justice, Wine of Peace.” It contains one of her own most beautiful songs, “There is a Feast” (included on her Ramah cassette). Based on a parable of Jesus, the song invites everyone to God’s loving family feast, leaving hatred, weapons, and divisiveness behind.
Colleen then took some time off to earn her B.A. in theology and ministry and to pursue a Master of Theological Studies, with a concentration in worship and the arts, at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley, CA.
It was there in 1982 that she underwent what she describes as “an incredible feminist conversion.”
“I am who I am for all the days to come”
At GTU, she met “strong, outspoken women who were really rooted in literature and the arts, theology, ethics — very well-rounded women.” She was in a program through the Franciscan School of Theology in which women and men studied together but which placed men on an ordination track and women on a track for other ministries. “The women had had lots of experience,” she says. “and many were mothers.” In contrast “the men were young seminarians — not much more than teenagers.” But at the end of two years, “we women were graduated, and the men — guys we had preached with and studied with — were ordained.”
She says the women so clearly outshone the men in gifts, in expertise, and in experience. “Yet these young guys were the ones who were ordained and got to go in the front door with trumpets and champagne; and the rest of us were ‘thanked for flying United.'”
Colleen says this agonizing experience of hurt and rage “brought forth a lot of music.” Much of her grief work is on “Cry of Ramah.” She describes the inequity signified by the gender-based two-track program as “a painful, mortal wounding.” Composing songs brought healing. “What gave me comfort is that those who are first now will be last later, and the last — the ones that were let go — we will be the ones leading the worship in the New Jerusalem.” She grieves over the church’s dismissal of women’s creativity and gifts and its exaltation of men regardless of gifts or lack thereof.
She produced the “Cry of Ramah” tape as part of her Master’s project for GTU. It was never intended to be mass produced and sold. Her accompanying paper emphasized liberation theology and the need “to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” She intended her songs to bring comfort and compassion and at the same time challenge people and help them build up courage.
One of my personal favorites is “Alter Christus,” a parable that directly deals with her pain over the ordination issue. The song describes a bird which had awakened at dawn, bursting with song and filling the forest with beautiful music, “a small humble bird, with sun-christened feathers, voice of Creator, given for all.” But then a group of red-feathered birds smugly gathered on tree branches. “They shouted at me their whole long history, wanting to silence my song.” The little bird then sings, “Must I have red feathers before I can sing/ A song God put special in me? /Or is what you say meant to limit God’s way/ Making your melodies ‘king’?” The bird goes on singing nevertheless and hopes to inspire others like her to do likewise, in spite of the lingering effects of the red birds’ stinging words. “Their lies haunt me still, yet my voice will ring free/ My life crystal clear in its song/ A gift given free, hoping others like me/ Together will stand and sing strong!”
Two days after graduation, Colleen left for Mexico to work with the Center for Intercultural Dialogue on Development, which offered 10-day programs for religious leaders to observe firsthand how Third World people lived. Intensive social analysis showed colonialism’s effects on Latin America “and our own country’s complicity in the colonial structures that continue to be supported by multinational corporations.” Her year there changed Colleen, impacting her “with the reality of how the majority of the world lives.”
She returned to Los Angeles at the invitation of the Claretians, with whom she had helped develop a lay community. When she arrived in Los Angeles, some Notre Dame sisters were painting the house, preparing for a lay group. As they painted, they were listening to a tape and singing, “Washerwoman God,” a song she had written with Martha Ann Kirk, one of her friends at GTU who had been included in Colleen’s graduation project. “Where did you get that music?” a surprised Colleen asked. The sisters, not knowing she was the singer, said their superior had used the tape for their retreat.
She learned that the Loretto Sisters (who had called her during her Mexico trip for permission to make a “few copies” of her tape for some interested people) found the demand so great that they decided to package several hundred and sell them, along with a song book some of the sisters had made! Thus, a demo tape for a grad school project , never intended to become a finished product without final polishing, has become Colleen’s most popular recording. Colleen didn’t object. Her message was going out, and that was all that mattered.
Over the next several months, she worked with refugees at a shelter center in Hollywood and tried to help people from war-torn areas of Latin America get jobs. While spending six months in Albany, CA with the Loretto Sisters for spiritual renewal, she began dating a Salvadoran man she met there, and a year later they were married. The marriage lasted five years before it ended amiably, and the two remain friends, with both involved in the life of their daughter, Cassie, now 14.
During Colleen’s marriage, she produced her second cassette, “Her Wings Unfurled,” drawing on her experiences since her GTU days. Seven years later, after moving to Grants Pass, Oregon, she become involved in a women’s group called Sophia’s Circle, which developed an abundance of “woman-caring and woman-sharing rituals of grace” and directed retreats for women with various needs. From those experiences and her involvement in some Native spiritual practices, Colleen’s third recording “Dancing Sophia’s Circle” was born in 1994.
Colleen had basically dropped out of music during most of the early 1990s, except to provide music at a few major conferences. She needed to work full-time as a single mom, devoting her energies to young Cassie, as well as spending time with her parents. Thus, she resisted pressure to put out another album. “That time was hard for me because my musical creativity got put on hold,” she says. Then someone said to her, “Well, Cassie’s your song right now.” Colleen found those words comforting.
In Grants Pass, she distanced herself from church work and taught Spanish at a community college. But in time, she again longed for a church body and tried numerous Protestant churches. She says she couldn’t go back to the Roman Catholic Church. “It was just too painful, too hierarchical — too everything. It was the feeling of ‘Here I have all these gifts and all of this beauty to offer,’ and it wasn’t wanted. . . I just couldn’t do it any more.” Such feelings are familiar to many women who have longed to serve God in church settings.
But one place did welcome her ministry. A friend got Colleen involved in creating a contemporary ritual service, woven around the Lectionary, for a Methodist Church. “To get back into the liturgical seasons was just awesome for me,” Colleen says. Sitting under the preaching of a woman minister, she saw a new possibility opening up, even though “there were so many things that weren’t Catholic for me,” she says. “It was like learning a new language.”
It was a language she would soon learn, however, as an opportunity opened up for her to become a licensed United Methodist pastor, serving the church on the Oregon coast where I found her.
She likes this question: “Are you into cultivating a garden or guarding a museum?” She believes too many churches today are into “guarding museums.” Colleen desires her ministry to be more than that. “I want to be in the organic process of growing a garden, and I don’t know where that will take me.”
She still composes, and someday, in God’s time, she will share new music with us once again.
© 2004 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, EEWC Update, volume 28, number 1, Spring (April-June) 2004