Easter Sunday this year is a milestone for Steve Islander. It's his last day to conduct services as the retiring pastor of .
It's just another step in a fascinating journey.
There’s no typical path to being a minister, yet Islander’s is unique. Before taking “the cloth,” he was a cowboy, commercial fisherman, served in the Navy, owned his own packing and shipping business and worked in management in major companies in the cosmetic, vitamin, spice and grocery industries.
He is originally from Torrance. Ironically, he learned his cowboy techniques on in Ramona at age 14, thanks to a neighbor in Torrance who was related to the Barnetts. Islander took his saddle skills to Fish Lake Valley, Nev.—which was “85 miles from the nearest town at that time.” He did commercial fishing in Galveston and said he has “some great weather stories.” Years later, he was sent back to Ramona by the Methodist Church, after leading congregations in Morro Bay and San Pedro and doing internships in Paso Robles and Shandon.
Those earlier visits to Barnett Ranch changed his life, he said.
“I thought I wanted a Navy career but agriculture was a lot more interesting."
He went on to get a degree in Animal Science.
Then, in a twist of events, in 1998, Islander ventured into the ministry at age 52. He said he resisted it until then, even though a pastor had recommended it.
So, how did a man with such an earthy and varied background end up getting a Master of Divinity degree and leading congregations?
"Humans tend to get out in the world and live their physical life and then, when they’re older, they turn to look more at the spiritual," he said. "It was a feeling like I couldn’t resist it any more. God made it clear this was the direction I was to take. I guess it was in my personality too. When I announced I was going into the ministry, no one was surprised. It was like, ‘What took you so long?’”
He chose to go into the Methodist denomination because it's "low doctrine," he said.
"It allows you to explore your faith in a broader way. It gave me the freedom to explore my own calling. It doesn’t mean you make up your own religion. Our main doctrine is the Great Commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. It’s a simple message but people try to complicate it with, 'But what about the gays and what about these others.'"
Islander said he can remember the "calling" as early as 6 years old.
“We went to this old church in Michigan and they gave us a picture to color of two boys making up as friends after a fight. I remember thinking, ‘This is about polite society. There’s supposed to be more to it than that.'”
Islander still challenges some ideas in the Church today.
On Easter Sunday, it seems appropriate to share a dialog about the tough questions of the faith, as well as where the Church as a whole is “at” and how it can change for the better.
Patch: Do you believe the Bible is the inerrant and infallible word of God?
Islander: No. It’s the people’s conversations with God and sometimes those conversations are flawed. It covers the spectrum of human fear and emotion. The Book of Psalms is a good example.
Patch: You have said that the Bible is metaphorical and that a lot of people don’t understand that.
Islander: The deepest meaning or value is received by approaching it as metaphor. Take the story of Jesus walking on water. If we look at it only in a historical way, it has no meaning because none of us has seen anyone walking on water unassisted by any devices. If we look at it as metaphor, then we see the teaching of Jesus controlling the sea—the sea being a metaphor for chaos. It takes us back to the beginning of the Bible, when God blew across the ocean.
Patch: What is the point of conveying a message in metaphor and parables?
Islander: Why do we read poetry? It tells a truth that can’t be told by any other means. There's certain ancient wisdom that can only be told in story format.
Patch: Easter is an example of a celebration that incorporates pagan symbols and stories, such as the Easter rabbit and Easter eggs. Some symbols and stories that we think of as Christian were around long before the Christian faith began. So what is a person to make of the truth or value of these symbols and stories in the Christian context?
Islander: Symbols are a way of talking to people in their own language.
Patch: You've said before that you think the American Church is ailing? What do you mean?
Islander: The Church believes the good life is going to heaven. If you do the right thing, you go to heaven. The world believes the good life is having material possessions. Jesus and his disciples would have been terrible failures then.
The good life is living in the kingdom of God, right here on Earth, now. It’s a world with peace, with justice for all. Not victory through violence or coercion. Heaven is an idea that appeals to those afraid to die. The people who are afraid to die are the same ones who are afraid to live.
Patch: What do you believe about the concept of hell?
Islander: Hell is a human creation. We create hell on earth. The Bible is inconclusive on whether it’s a place.
Patch: Is it metaphorical?
Islander: It’s important not to be concerned with hell. We should be concerned with having dominion over Earth. That’s what God gave us. There’s no excuse for famine in this day and age. Howard Zinn (author of "A People's History of the United States, 1492 - Present") is right: It’s not about evil people, it’s about evil systems.
Patch: You approach religious issues from an intellectual viewpoint. Some people take things more literally or emotionally. How would you answer a Christian who might think your intellect “gets in the way” of believing certain aspects they take as literal truths?
Islander: My mind is my way to the spirit. Some people come to the mind through the heart, and others get to the heart through the mind. You can have an emotion, but if it’s unchecked by the mind, it can lead you to a very bad place. The passion of murder is an example.
Patch: You talk about retirement freeing you from the bureaucracy of the institutionalized Church, and you talk about the Church in general not being well. What is the difference then, between the Church and—what would you call it?
Islander: Christianity! The Church is an organization, an institution of people at all stages of development. The problem is that the Church gives equal authority to all stages of development. Democracy has invaded the Church. It’s majority vote. This leads to all kinds of things that are not based on scripture. Ninety percent of what Christians do in established churches have nothing to do with the gospel. They’re about building maintenance, forms of worship, rules and regulations. There's an emphasis about obeying rules rather than seeking guidance.
I still love the Church. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be saying these things. A church that thinks about these things and disciplines itself does well. You see it more in marginalized communities—the poor neighborhoods. The Black church did a great job during the Civil Rights era. After World War II, the church became a refuge for the respectable. It has forgotten one of its purposes: to speak the truth to power.
Islander is looking forward to “tending his own garden”—both literally and figuratively—out among his olive grove and grapevines and under the shade of his favorite pepper tree on his Ramona property, with wife Diane. He's also hoping to get time to re-read his favorite John Steinbeck novels.
Eventually he wants to build his own website and teach the principles of Christian spirituality.
"A lot of people see the form," he said, "but not the function."
In the meantime, he plans to continue to blog on Ramona Patch, with a potentially bold new twist, now that he’s independent. He’ll have the freedom to express his own thoughts and favorite philosophies on the subject of religion.