Jessica's Story: Building a Life and Raising a Family With No Religion, Too

In 2001, Jessica arrived in Rochester via Winona after graduating from Winona State University. Growing up in Chicago, she loved the city life, and never imagined she would grow roots in a town such as Rochester, but she and her husband have learned a valuable lesson in what it means to create the kind of life you want to live wherever you are. And, she's done just that and our small city is better for it.

In many ways, Jessica and I have much in common - we both have strong leadership skills that sometimes get the best of us and we are both wives and mothers committed to making our community a great place to live.

However, we view the world very differently from one another - like how she's a Packer fan and I'm a Vikings fan; how she likes to bike and I don't on account of getting motion sickness; about how she's a political progressive and I'm a moderate and how she's an atheist and I'm know...not. 

Feature Image courtesy of Marit Williams Photography

S]: Okay, so first things first, you work for Mayo, correct?

[J]: I'm a program manager in education. We're the school that does all the Clinical Medical Education conferences for physicians. Basically, I manage the workload of our staff who do the logistical planning for conferences that physicians attend in order to continue their education. A conference in Hawaii could be going on at the same time as two conferences in Rochester, so it's managing who's going where and who's doing what.

[S]: There's so much that goes on at Mayo that the world doesn't know about.

[J]: Yes. Exactly. When I started at Mayo 15 years ago, people would assume I was a nurse.

[S]: How did you land in Rochester?

[J]: My husband and I met at Winona State and before we were married I followed him to Rochester. He had always planned to work for IBM so it was inevitable that we would move here.

[S]: Unwillingly? Describe that. Was there a non-appeal to Rochester initially?

[J]: Growing up in inner city Chicago and then moving to Winona was a huge leap. I'm a city girl through and through, and I get a lot of energy from that sort of life - the culture and the opportunities for stuff to do. Winona has a culture of its own, but going to college in Winona is a different experience than living there. You feel even more removed from the city. Moving then to Rochester wasn't exactly an upgrade, necessarily, from Winona. This was 17 years ago and Rochester was a lot different back then with even fewer opportunities for a young couple.

[S]: Did you ever think about living somewhere else?

[J]: Well, about three months after we were married, my husband and I moved to England for a year. IBM sent my husband there to work remotely. We sold our apartment, put everything into storage and just moved. It was life changing for both of us.

[S]: How was it life changing for you?

[J]: I think it gave us a new perspective to bring back home to Rochester. In England, we lived an hour from London by train in a city that was geographically smaller than Rochester but had as many people, and it had some of the best tourist sites. But, even then, on a Tuesday night, there was nothing to do. We were still sitting at home watching TV which is what we'd always complained about here. What I learned was that it's less about where you are and more about what you make of wherever you are whether it's Manchester, England or in Rochester, MN. That philosophy has driven a lot of our decisions and what we do here in Rochester.

[S]: What degree did you earn from Winona State?

[J]: B.A. in Theater Arts, but then I went back to school after returning from England and earned a Masters in Adult Education through the University of Minnesota's programming at RCTC (Rochester Community & Technic College).

[S]: You do photography as well, correct?

[J]: Well, I do all these random things all the time and I'm not really like totally involved 100% in any one of them, but I enjoy a lot of different things and I want to be able to do them.  For example. I do photography, but I'm not a professional photographer even though I do charge a fee. I really enjoy photography, but on a level that connects more with my education background since I also teach photography classes through Rochester' Community Ed. As in photography is just a means for me to teach, which is what I'm really passionate about.

[S]: Where did this passion for teaching come from?

[J]: As a kid, I played "school" all the time. Like all. the. time. Many of my talents and skills, however, I interpreted to be in the acting realm, though now I see they fit more in the teaching realm. I think I misguided myself. Someone probably gave me the feedback at some point that teachers don't make a lot of money or it's too hard know.

[S]: So photography and teaching. Is there more?

[J]: There's more. So then photography I, um, started doing graphic design - website and logos - and eventually started working on political campaigns designs and marketing for those.

[S]: Whose campaign did you work on in 2016?

[J}: I worked on two city campaigns, Shawn Allen for city council president, and Michael Wojcik for Ward 2.

[S]: Oooo...How else are you involved in politics?

Jessica with her kids. Bike helmets, of course.

Jessica with her kids. Bike helmets, of course.

[J]: City politics, mainly.

As a backstory, in England, we only had one vehicle, so I learned to get around on a bicycle and that lifestyle really appealed to us. So, we continued that when we moved back to Rochester. So, I bike to work. Now, we live right on the bike trail because my husband is a runner and I continue to bike. Through that love of biking, I started to be connected to biking advocacy groups in town. One such organization is We Bike Rochester. It was just getting launched off the ground, so I served as the Vice President and was active with that group. I also joined a joint committee between county city called the Bicycle & Pedestrian Committee.

In essence, I got involved in politics through those connections. I'm not with either of those groups anymore, I continue to stay involved in other ways like campaigning. Those of us who worked on Shawn Allen's campaign have started a new group called Rochester Forward where we're hoping to connect non-profits that push progressive ideas in Rochester and provide them with resources for a variety of different things in order to help these grassroots groups move forward. From helping them with graphic design or providing water bottles for an event or helping them connect with people we know can get their message out. So, that's kind of another side job that I don't get paid for but I love.

Politics are definitely a passion of mine.

[S]: Is politics your religion?

[J]: Um, no. Absolutely not. Good question, though.

S]: Describe your family.

[J]: I have two kids. Benjamin is 11 years old and Lucy is 6 years old.

[S]: Pick one word each to describe your children.

[J]: Benjamin is thoughtful, as in full of thoughts. Lucy is compassionate. That would describe her very well. Yeah. They're cool kids.

[S]: Style of music you like?

[J]: Oh boy. Uh, Broadway show tunes.

[S]: What musical has left the biggest impression?

[J]: Um, I'd have to say Les Mis, just because it was my first. It's like the first boyfriend. It made me fall in love and think that maybe I'd want to go into acting.

Jessica as Little Red Riding Hood.

Jessica as Little Red Riding Hood.

[S]: What's your favorite role that you've played?

[J]: Oh, that's gotta be Little Red Riding Hood in "Into the Woods."

[S]: Wow.

[J]: That was my freshman year in college and the first lead role I ever had. The audition was literally two weeks after school started and I nailed it. Good times. I was born to play that role at that time.

[S]: I'm gonna veer into the dangerous territory of faith and religion. You and I are on opposite spectrums when it comes to faith, so I'm going to be brave and ask some questions that satisfy my curiosity yet respect your beliefs without diminishing the overall content of your story.

So, do you consider yourself an atheist, or an agnostic, or a humanist? How would you describe yourself?

[J]: Atheist is probably the closest, but probably more like a "none" or nothing. There is just nothing. To me, an atheist is almost against religion. I'm not against religion; rather I'm just nothing. So, I would identify more with no label but atheist is probably the closest in terms of what other people understand.

[S]: Do you feel like you live in a Christian world or culture or community?

[J]: Yes, I do, but I also believe that there are far more people who truly don't have faith or don't believe in anything but who pretend, for lack of a better word, that they do. So, while I feel like society is inclined to be Christian, I feel less alone because I'm fairly certain that there are more people that would probably identify as a non-believer. I think we're constantly surrounded by what essentially is Christian ideas and Christian cultures and Christian traditions whether they are tied to religion or not. But, they're there, for sure.

[S]: What's one question you would ask a Christian?

[J]: A prominent atheist celebrity like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, or somebody like that said something like "How do you explain bone cancer in kids?" Although I don't know if that's my specific question I resonate with that sort of questioning.

[S]: As in, how can a loving God allow suffering?

[J]: What I understand from my close friends and family that are openly Christian is that there seems to always be this idea of everything being for a reason or a higher purpose. I lost my very best friend four years ago to cancer. She was a very religious person. We had similar conversations about faith. She died for NO reason. There was no higher plan. She had two children and nobody benefited from her death. How can a person rectify innocent children in Syria being bombed? There's no reason for that. God doesn't need them in heaven. That's terrible. That's the kind of thing, for me, I will never be able to wrap my head around. But, I would be interested in hearing someone's response to that.

[S]: I've struggled with that question for years and thankfully, I believe God invites those questions and conversations. I've tried to understand why it is that a God who has ultimate power and sovereignty wouldn't eliminate suffering right now. Why does He allow it to continue?  In the past few years, I feel like I'm getting closer to an understanding, but I will adamantly say I don't think human suffering was ever God's intent.

Here's another question: Christian faith is such a forward looking faith...

[J]: In terms of your direction to death and then to ultimate life?

[S]: Yes. For the Christian, hope for the future is something that informs almost every aspect of one's life. So, what do you hope for? What is it that provides you hope?

[J]: So I think what informs my life differently is that it's not necessarily forward thinking on a grander scale, right? After I die I don't expect anything else to happen. I'm living in my life right now. I have from today until when my body gives out or I have a disease or I get hit by a car. My hope is to make that time as awesome as I can. I want the same for my children and my friends and my family. There's a definite end point, so let's make sure that what's here is really awesome. I suppose my hope is more short-lived, but it's the same hope, right?

But, I think where I do believe that there is a sort of afterlife is what we leave behind. Not that I have to be infamous or famous and leave behind some great legacy. But, what am I leaving behind through my children? What am I leaving behind for my planet? What did I do with my life? Did I push to make sure that I got really awesome bike lanes in Rochester, MN which helped kids stay safe and live longer or helped people get to work when they couldn't otherwise? It's more about what my legacy may be on even a small scale. That's what's driving my long-term view.

[S]: Do you think it's crazy that Christianity has survived for over 2,000 years?

[J]: It absolutely is a wonder that Christianity has survived which to me tells me that there must be something innate in humans that drives them to stay with this belief for so long, which maybe I don't have.

[S]: Have you ever had the impressions that because you are not a believer, Christians view you as a person to change or convert?

[J]: Christians try very hard to change me. It's as if they can't see me for who I am and accept me for that.

[S]: If you had to thread a ribbon through your life, what would that ribbon be? For me, that ribbon would be faith. What has been your constant that connects the dots of your life?

[J]: I think it would be somewhere between growth through empathy and doing things for others. This isn't much different than a lot of people who prescribe to that ribbon being their faith. So, for me, again, it's how do I impact others? What do I do in my life to give back to others? I'm guided by what are essentially Christians’ principals, they're just not tied to faith or religion or Jesus or God. But, it's certainly the same path through life which is taking care of others by taking care of myself.

But, she's a Packer fan?!?!? 

But, she's a Packer fan?!?!? 

S]: Where does that goodness come from?

[J]: You know, I have to go back to one of my favorite quotes of all times by Anne Frank "In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart." So, I think it's in all of us. We are caregivers essentially. We're on the animal kingdom scale; we are procreating and caring for our young and I think that extends more broadly to our community, city, our world...the human family. I'm just trying to be a good person and I'm trying to improve the world in my own little way and ensure that the people I'm gonna leave behind are good people, too.

Do I get that goodness because I was born with it? Maybe. Is it because my parents were also good people and they taught me to be good people? Yeah. Partially. Is it because I was exposed to environments that led me to want to be that kind of person? Yeah. That too. I think it's greater than just, you know, what you would identify as Jesus being in you or providing you with that goodness. For me it seems like it could come from a number of different places.

[S]: Were your parents religious?

[J]: Growing up, religion was more a sense of tradition than faith and I think that drove the direction that I headed. Prayer wasn't a part of our bedtime or dinnertime routines. Some may argue that's exactly why I am the way I am today.

My husband and I had our children baptized, but beyond that we abandoned everything. When we moved back to Rochester, we wanted to find our place. The easiest place to go to is the church because there is a community there. So, we found a church we liked and found a priest that we really liked. Really, we enjoyed going to church. I was lecturing and volunteering and really put myself into it.

But then the amendment for marriage protection came up and I could not get behind it. I started to see that I was in church, not for the religion, which I never believed in, but I was pretending for the tradition and the community. I realized I could find this sense of community somewhere else without pushing against my very deeply held beliefs in caring for people and allowing everyone to have the same rights. It was right around the time my husband, too, came to the same conclusion.

[S]: Are you a natural redhead?

[J]: Not really. By now, if I didn't dye my hair it would be white.

[S]: I've been a redhead for like 14 years and I'm gonna have white hair before long.

[J]: I've been a redhead since I was 15.

[S]: You look like a red-head.

[J]: So do you!

[S]: And, there's our common ground!

Despite what some would consider glaring differences, my conversation with Jessica was fruitful. I want to encourage everyone to have open and honest conversations with a wide variety of people - even those who don't share your views or opinions or politics or religion.  Yikes! But be kind, please!

Because there is so much more to learn about what it means to be me, you, them, us and most importantly - we.