By Barbara Dills
Sopris Sun Correspondent
Florence Caplow, the new minister for the Two Rivers Unitarian Universalist (TRUU) fellowship that meets weekly in Carbondale, arrived Aug. 7 more or less sight unseen. That is, she had never been to the Roaring Fork Valley before and had only met with members of TRUU’s search committee and congregation via phone, Skype, and e-mail prior to her arrival. It’s not the first time Caplow, a field biologist for much of her adult life, had landed in a new place knowing very little about it. “I’m used to just showing up somewhere and finding my feet. And I love that actually,” she told The Sopris Sun.
Caplow grew up 75 miles southwest of Indianapolis in the town of Terre Haute and attended college at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, where she studied botany and ecology and received her B.A. degree in 1987. Her work as a field biologist focused on identifying and protecting rare plant populations throughout the West, including species new to science. For this move to Colorado, she uprooted from Port Townsend on the Washington coast, which had been her home for the last year. Despite her years in the Pacific Northwest, she’s no stranger to the drier landscapes of the Southwest, having conducted research in the Mojave Desert and the Intermountain West in the past.
A long-time student of Buddhism, Caplow is also an ordained Zen priest and teacher in the Soto Zen tradition. She began practicing meditation at the age of 20 and, after many years of preparation, was lay ordained in 1993 and ordained as a priest in 2007. Her roots as a Unitarian Universalist (UU) go back even further, to the 1890s when her great-great-grandmother was instrumental in establishing the first UU church in the small town of Cherokee, Iowa. As a fifth generation UU, Caplow expresses a deep connection to the founding values and activism of those early Unitarian churches. “Unitarian Universalism is a thoroughly American form of religion, coming out of the American way,” she says. She points out that Buddhism, on the other hand, has roots in antiquity in the East, but is relatively new to America.
Says Caplow, “It is profound, exciting, and moving to me to bring together what are really two great traditions. I see the Buddhist tradition — the depth of the philosophical understanding, the contemplative understanding, and poetic expression — meeting Unitarian Universalism, with its extraordinary history of peace and justice and dedication to acting in the world, in a way that can heal our world. And it really feels to me that with the two in conversation, something can happen that isn’t possible with either one on its own. More and more I see how they come together and how much they have to say to one another.”
Before coming to TRUU, Caplow served as the intern minister of the 600-member UU congregation in Port Townsend. She is currently finishing her Masters of Divinity at Iliff School of Theology as a distance student and will head to Boston in early October to sit with the national UU Ministerial Fellowship Committee for a final oral exam. Committee members will have studied 130 pages of background and materials on Caplow prior to meeting with her for this last step in pursuit of her degree; they will consider both her intellectual knowledge of theology and world religion and her readiness to take on the administrative and pastoral responsibilities of a UU minister.
She is already an accomplished writer and author. As reported on the TRUU website, her first book “Wildbranch,” is an anthology of environmental and nature writing, published by the University of Utah Press in 2010. Her second book, released in 2013 by Wisdom Publications, is “The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women,” a collection of 100 teaching stories by women from Buddhist history, along with short reflections by 100 contemporary women teachers. She has also published essays in “Tricycle,” “Turning Wheel,” “Inquiring Mind,” “Terrain.org” and other national journals.
An active outdoorswoman, Caplow is enjoying settling into her life here in the mountains and all that the valley has to offer, including the breadth of cultural offerings. “The first 10 days, my mind was blown. One day I got taken to Avalanche Creek and Penny Hot Springs. And the next day, I was at a rehearsal [at the Aspen Music Festival] with Joshua Bell.” She says she was encouraged to come here by many people she spoke with in UU circles who repeatedly characterized TRUU as one of “the sweetest, most creative congregations” they had encountered anywhere. Her arrival marks a milestone for TRUU as she is the first of the congregation’s ministers to live in the valley full time.
TRUU meets weekly at the Third Street Center. Sunday services are held at 10 a.m. in the Calaway Room and include a special program for youth and children. Caplow will speak on the topic “Everything is Holy Now” this Sunday, Sept. 27.
Published in The Sopris Sun on September 24, 2015.