ROCK SPRINGS — Of all the metaphorical images of God and Jesus – master of the house, carpenter, teacher, winemaker — Bernadine Craft’s favorite is shepherd.
Her grandfather, who died before she was born, ran sheep in the Wind River Mountains. Craft grew up hearing stories of his adventures.
A painting created by Craft’s aunt hung in her childhood home in Rock Springs. It’s of Jesus leaning over a rocky ledge, grabbing a lost lamb. Craft now owns that house and still has that painting.
“From the time I was a little girl, that somehow symbolized to me God, and symbolized Christ,” she said. “That love of the shepherd for his sheep. And I would hear the stories about the sheep herders that would go up and look for that one lost lamb, that one stray little sheep.”
The role of shepherding the flock has taken on new meaning for Craft, a Democratic state senator who is studying to become a priest in the Episcopal Church. On Aug. 20, she will be ordained as a transitional deacon at her Rock Springs parish, Church of The Holy Communion. She will be a deacon for at least six months before ordination as a priest.
“I’ve never questioned my call to the ministry. I have questioned my call to serve in the Legislature,” she said and then laughed.
Craft doesn’t believe the two roles conflict. She sees them as different forms of service.
“I think people of faith need to be involved,” she said. “People of faith need to make their voices heard. Not as proponents of a particular religion, not as proponents of a particular issue, but as proponents of our citizens, proponents of doing the very best we can.
“To me, it’s a really good fit.”
Church and state
“…We beseech Thee so to guide and bless our senators and representatives in the Legislature of this state, that they may enact such laws as shall please Thee…” - Prayer for a State Legislature from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer
Opinions vary on what separation of church and state should look like in Wyoming politics.
Craft said she follows a quote that’s attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.”
Craft said she doesn’t preach to the Wyoming Legislature.
“I have no ‘church agenda,’” she said.
The Episcopal Church takes separation of church and state seriously, said Tristan English, canon for congregational enrichment — a top staff position — for the Episcopal Diocese of Wyoming.
“We have not taken an active political role” in the Wyoming Legislature, English said. “We would not try to influence Bernadine in any manner.”
Craft believes most Wyoming lawmakers work hard in Cheyenne, regardless of religious background or political affiliation.
“They come down there for the right reasons,” she said. “Now they may not be my reasons. They may not have the same agenda I do, but I think the majority of people who serve in the Legislature do it because they really do want to help citizens of Wyoming.”
Most Wyoming lawmakers are similar to Craft. They do not preach publicly.
In fact, most members of the Legislature keep their religious beliefs so private that the public only learns about religious affiliation when they consult biographies on the Legislature’s website — if legislators choose to disclose religion on their bios.
But another Rock Springs lawmaker, Republican Rep. Stephen Watt, has evoked God on the floor of the House and in letters and statements to the press. He identifies himself as a Christian, which he describes as having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as his savior.
He doesn’t think the state Legislature is particularly Christian, which he said is unfortunate.
“If you do not have a high set of morals and standards set for yourself, then how can you be a leader?” he said. “I think that’s what’s wrong with our country. Take a look at Washington, D.C. You know, there’s so much immorality that’s in our government.”
Watt described his style as bold.
“Why do I live my Christianity so openly? Well, I believe if you do not know Jesus Christ as your lord and savior ... you’re going to hell,” he said. “I don’t care how good of a person you think you are. You’re going to hell.”
Watt was shot five times while on duty as a Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper in 1982. He accepted Jesus Christ as his savior and became an ordained minister after studying with the Evangelical Church Alliance International of Bradley, Ill., he said. In 1986, he began a ministry of sharing his story of how he forgave and became best friends with the man convicted of shooting him. He ministers in jails, prisons, churches and other places.
Watt believes his proclamations of God are essential. He said he is free of fear because the worst fear — being shot five times — has already happened to him.
“I’ve had people tell me, ‘Being vocal as you are, you’ll never be re-elected,’” he said. “I’ve been elected to the Legislature three different times. You know what? So what if I don’t get elected, my life isn’t going to end.”
During the debate of the bill that gave the state authority to establish a semi-private lottery, Rep. Garry Piiparinen, R-Evanston, distributed copies of a 1987 talk a leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gave in opposition to gambling.
The document raised eyebrows in the Legislature, but Piiparinen said he never intended to impose dogma on lawmakers.
The talk was given by Mormon Elder Dallin H. Oaks, who was a justice on the Utah Supreme Court, according to the church’s website. Piiparinen said Oaks’ arguments were more eloquent and better reasoned than anything he could have communicated, which is why he shared it.
“If you read that, he lays out some really good points as to why gambling is not good for society,” Piiparinen said. “I’m not talking morally. We’re just talking about
Becoming a priest
“…You are to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor…” – Bishop’s address during the ordination of a priest, from the Book of Common Prayer.
Craft is finishing a master of divinity degree at Iliff School of Theology in Denver through a program that’s mostly online.
Craft was born into an Episcopal family. She was baptized at the Church of The Holy Communion.
Joan Domson, who has known Craft since they were children in the Rock Springs parish, described her friend as a devout child who always insisted her parents take her to church — even when they were on vacation.
“She is such a spiritual person, and in our church, we accept women as priests,” Domson said. “If there was anyone who was going to be a priest, she was probably going to do it.”
Craft will continue her day job as executive director of the Sweetwater Board of Cooperative Education Services. On the side, she will continue serving in the Legislature, teaching counseling classes at Western Wyoming Community College, maintaining her private psychotherapy practice and teaching yoga.
Being a person of deep faith, Craft believes in miracles. But she has questioned the 2006 death of her husband – and why God allowed it to happen. They’re questions she still grapples with.
In 1988, Craft contracted a rare form of leukemia. Physicians removed her spleen. Shortly before she was to travel with her parents to Salt Lake City to start chemotherapy, a friend said some healing prayers with her.
“It felt wonderful,” she said. “It felt loving and comfortable and comforting. I mean, I felt different.”
In Salt Lake City, her blood counts were normal. She was sent home.
“I’ve never had any treatment since,” she said, explaining that every six weeks she gets her blood checked for illness.
Nearly 20 years later, her husband, Larry Hill got cancer.
He worked as a psychologist, too. Their relationship was close, Craft said. She considered his children her own.
“I thought, we could have another miracle,” she said.
In 2006, he died. It remains the biggest spiritual struggle of her life, she said.
She said she prayed hard for her husband to recover from cancer, and after he died, she asked God why he could take Hill from her.
“It took me a really long time to work through that,” she said. “Just because I want something doesn’t mean I’m going to get it. God always answers our prayers, but not always in the way we think they will be answered.”
She still doesn’t entirely understand why her husband died, but she believes that pain and sorrow hurt God, too. She read a story about a priest who told a cancer patient that God may not have a lot to do with the physical body. That makes sense, Craft said.
“I guess my conclusion was I’m really supposed to do something,” she said. “I’m supposed to make a difference somehow.”
Craft served in the House from
2007-12. She thought her career in politics was over when she began studying for the priesthood. But then the seat for Senate District 12 opened. Local Democrats encouraged her to run and she won. The 2013 session was her first in the Senate.
She supports legislation for victims’ rights and Medicaid and health care. While fighting for the bills, Craft’s mind is on the hereafter.
In the vestibule of the Rock Springs church is a columbarium that Craft’s husband carved from wood. It contains the urns of her parents. When Hill died, she placed his urn in it.
“And I will be back there,” she said.