The Rev. Dr. Roberta “Bobbie” Nelson
The Rev. Dr. Roberta “Bobbie” Nelson, teacher, sexuality educator, author, chef, and avid reader, died in Deer Isle, Maine, on January 2, 2015 from complications of influenza, surrounded by her family.
Bobbie’s outstanding and lengthy career in Unitarian Universalist religious education and ministry reveals a courageous trailblazer who was deeply respected by her colleagues. A passionate advocate for recognizing the professional status of religious educators, after certification as an Accredited Religious Educator by the UUA in 1967, she was one of the first six ministers to be credentialed as Minister of Religious Education in 1980. She chaired the joint UUA/UCC Sexuality Education Task Force, which wrote the first About Your Sexuality curriculum, and vigorously defended the value of truthful, comprehensive sexuality education on national television in an interview with Bryant Gumbel in 1998.
But she was so much more than her career, impressive as it was. Bobbie was devoted to the arts, enthusiastically reading poetry and attending plays, musicals, and concerts with her husband Chris and their three daughters, as well as visiting museums and art exhibits during their world travels. She excelled at the true art of home making, as she took care that her home was beautiful and the food she served to countless guests was cooked to perfection. She sewed (not just children’s clothing and Halloween costumes, but even her own wedding dress) and knitted, gardened, decorated, and made of the family home a true sanctuary.
Roberta Martin was born in Boston, MA to Raymond A. and Vera R. Martin on June 9, 1935. Her father took two newspapers every day and read them both. They discussed current events at the dinner table, and Bobbie became a political junkie. She was an avid non-fiction and newspaper reader for her entire life, always caring deeply for current events and world affairs. She grew up in Boston, attending Girls Latin High School (the first in her family to graduate from high school and to attend college) and earning a BS degree from Tufts University in 1958, with a certificate from the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development. As a student, she was secretary and treasurer of the American Unitarian Youth, serving on the Board that merged with the Universalist Youth Fellowship to form Liberal Religious Youth in 1954. She participated in an IRF student exchange program, studying in Europe in the summer of 1959 and deepening her sensitivity to international cultures and traditions. The desire for travel, to see and be a part of a larger world, would continue throughout her life.
Her career in religious education began with service to the First Parish in Needham, MA (1959-1973), where she met and married her husband, Christopher Nelson, in 1960. She was the Director of Religious Education at the UU Congregation of Fairfax in Oakton, VA (1973-1980), where she was ordained in 1980, continuing her service there as Minister of Religious Education until 1987. She was then the Minister of Religious Education at Cedar Lane Unitarian Church, Bethesda, MD (1987-2001) and was named Minister Emerita in 2002.
The list of her professional achievements is significant. She was the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association Berry Street Essayist in 2002. Her essay, “Spiritual Teaching,” was published in Unitarian Universalism Selected Essays 2003 and in In the Middle of a Journey in 2013. Other awards and honors included receiving the Angus H. MacLean Award for Excellence in Religious Education in 1975; the Doctor of Divinity degree from Meadville Lombard Theological School in 1996; the Axel Award for Teaching Excellence from Meadville Lombard, and the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation Ministry to Women Award, both in 2001. She was the Fahs Lecturer at the 1995 UUA General Assembly, offering “Persistent as the Myriad Light of Stars,” which was also published in Unitarian Universalism Selected Essays in 1996. The Roberta M. Nelson Prize for Excellence in Religious Education at Meadville Lombard was established in 1992.
Her volunteer efforts are equally impressive. As mentioned above, she chaired the Sexuality Education Task Force which produced the About Your Sexuality curriculum. She and her husband led workshops training teachers for About Your Sexuality and Our Whole Lives. She served on many UUA committees, including the Curriculum Envisioning Committee, the Nominating Committee, the Panel on Theological Education, Accreditation Committee, Ministerial Fellowship Committee, Board of Review, Affirmative Action Committee for Women in Ministry, and the Benson Committee and Scovel Commission, both related to the recognition of the Ministry of Religious Education. She served on the UUA and Meadville Lombard joint Envisioning Committee concerning the transition of the Independent Study Program from the UUA to Meadville Lombard and the establishment of the Sophia Lyon Fahs Center at Meadville Lombard. She was an advisor to candidates in the ISP and Modified Residency Program from 1971 to 2008.
At Meadville Lombard she served on the Board of Trustees, the Winter Institute Planning Committee (where she was Dean from 1978 to 1994), was Minister in Residence in 1986, and taught religious education courses. She also taught religious education at Pacific School of Religion.
She served on the Board of the UUMA and was Board vice president 2001-2004. She was active in her local Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) chapter (Greater Washington Religious Unitarian Universalist Professionals, later the Chesapeake Chapter), from 1973 to 2001, and served as vice president, program chair, and president.
An active member of LREDA, she served as secretary, vice president, and president, as well as on many committees, including the Endowment Committee. She chaired the Fahs Lecture Committee, 50th Anniversary Committee, and Publications Committee. She co-led, with Christopher Nelson and others, the LREDA Fall Conference program on Our Whole Lives in 1998.
She was active in local religious educator groups, the Mass Bay Religious Education Team (1965-1973), and the Greater Washington Religious Education Council (GWAREC) from 1973 to 2001, serving as president and in other capacities. She also served on the Board of the Religious Education Association (REA), an interfaith, international association, for seven years, and was both secretary and a member of the program committee.
Over the years, she led or co-led hundreds of religious education workshops and trainings for volunteer teachers and trainers of teachers throughout the United States and Canada, primarily with her husband, Christopher Nelson. In addition to sexuality education workshops, these included The Haunting House, Death and Dying programs, and Religion-Making. She was involved in the development of various religious education programs used widely throughout the UUA: The Haunting House, About Your Sexuality, Our Whole Lives, the Parents series, and Graduate Level Course in Religious Education.
In the mid-80’s she and Chris traveled to Sierra Leone, where their daughter Heather was in the Peace Corps. Being in Africa made a huge impression on her, underscoring the worldview she had attained in childhood that “We’re all just people,” regardless of what their governments are doing. The couple traveled to London, Sweden, Norway, the British Isles several times, and they lived in Abingdon, England when Bobbie was on sabbatical.
After retirement, Bobbie and Chris moved to Sedgwick, Maine, where she was a classroom volunteer for ten years at the local elementary school; she loved hearing the first and second-graders read to her. She also served on the Healthy Peninsula Advisory Committee and continued to enjoy traveling, entertaining, cooking (especially desserts for her grandchildren), knitting, and theater. She was an intrepid grandmother, rising to any challenge from her grandkids (“Would you touch a snake? Go out in a kayak?”) and, when they turned 14, taking the two older grandchildren on separate special trips to Europe.
She was famously well-organized, with systems for everything at home and at work. When she and Chris remodeled their Rockville, MD kitchen, they included two dishwashers, two sinks, and a roomful of superbly organized cabinets; when they designed their home in Maine, Bobbie made sure there was an electrical outlet under every window for the Christmas candles. Always, her home was both a work of art and a welcoming place for myriad guests, not to mention the small animals she encouraged her children to own: gerbils, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, a raccoon and even a deodorized skunk.
She had a wicked sense of humor (though the family admits she never could remember punch lines), and she had a special fondness for chocolate, raspberries, and hazelnuts — especially if they were included in one delicious birthday cake!
Bobbie was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and Lewy Body Dementia in 2012, moving in 2014 into the Island Nursing Home in Deer Isle where she received loving care and support. “A wink or a hint of a smile became her last words, but love, courage, and faith sustained her to the end. She died at peace,” said her husband.
She is survived by her husband of 54 years, Christopher Nelson (who misses her loving care and concern for others); their daughters Heather of Surry, ME; Jennifer of Portland, ME; Joy Saams of Gambrills, MD; three grandchildren; and her brother Donald Martin of Ellsworth, ME. Memorial services were held at the Ellsworth, Maine, Unitarian Church on January 10, 2015 and at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, MD on April 25, 2015.
Condolences may be sent to Chris Nelson and family at 41 Astbury Lane, Sedgwick, ME 04676-3423.