SYCAMORE — Martha Brunell dumped everything out of her purse for one of the first sermons she gave at the Mayfield Congregational Church.
Brunell was chosen on May 1 to be the new pastor and she is known for using her own experiences to make scripture lessons from the Bible relevant. In this scripture lesson, she was showing with her empty purse how people should find what they need in life so God could supply it.
"She's not highly formal," said Carolyn Law, Mayfield Congregational Church moderator. "She's engaging, she's surprising, she's an excellent teacher."
Those and other qualities are what netted Brunell the lead position last month for one of the most progressive churches in Sycamore. The Mayfield Congregational Church is part of the United Church of Christ denomination. The church is known for talking about social issues such as the abolition of slavery, women's rights and LGBT rights. The church is also is one of the few with ordained women and welcomes LGBT members to their congregation.
For 35 years, Brunell has held ministry positions in churches across the nation. She grew up in Auburn, N.Y., but was enraptured enough by the open lands and skies of the Midwest to choose to live here instead. She first came to the Illinois River valley area to do interim work for a church in 2008 before living in Michigan for four years.
She previously served at Friedens United Church of Christ in St. Louis, Mo., which was located in one of the poorest areas of the city, she said. The church ran a number of after-school programs and she was committed to literacy issues in the community. Later, she co-founded a domestic violence agency called Lydia's House in St. Louis to provide educational resources, counseling and job training for abused women and children.
She applied to become the new pastor for the Mayfield Congregational Church because it was small and diverse congregation with a strong history of being engaged in issues of the world. She also finds the church to have a playful side to it, something she finds to be as important as prayer.
"This is a beautiful and peaceful and provoking location," Brunell said. "I imagine there can be a lot of spiritual conversations and explorations here."
Brunell said her first priority as pastor is to listen to members of the church. She wants to know their history and what empowers them because they look to their church as a place where they find empowerment. She's interested in knowing what they think it means to be a spiritual person in the 21st century.
"The faith community is hopefully a place where what you care about is something that is heard and strengthened," Brunell said.
Church member Ann Werhane was on the search committee for the new pastor. She said when she met Brunell she thought she was wonderful. Brunell has only just started but already she fits in with the church.
"We already feel she is one of us," Werhane said.