The Rev. Virginia K. Bergfalk ’81 first attended Union Theological Seminary on a full scholarship in the late ’50s but left to marry a Union graduate and become a missionary in South Africa during Apartheid. She came back to Union 20 years later to finish her degree and launch her own ground-breaking career as a woman in ordained ministry—and in gratitude she is making a percentage gift to Union as part of her smart estate planning.
“Union convinced me that I needed to pursue a Christian vocation and gave me the theological underpinnings for my feminism and for my engagement with the major issues of the time,” says Virginia, who is now 87 years old and lives in a community in California with many other retired missionaries, ministers, and religious activists.
Virginia gives to Union annually in addition to her estate gift, which has now been in place for many years.
“I applied to all of the major seminaries, and Union was the one that gave me a full scholarship,” Virginia says. “Bill Webber was the dean of admissions when I interviewed, and he said nobody had come to Union with so little money ever. I had $400 I had earned as a waitress; that was it. Union not only gave me full tuition but also housing and meal tickets—and there is no way I could have attended without that support. I don’t have a lot of money now, given my career, but I want to help other students who may need it as much as I did.”
With a bachelor’s degree in English from Cedarcrest College in Pennsylvania, Virginia was a first-year student on that full scholarship when she was “nabbed by a senior” and left school to marry Bob Bergfalk ’57. They both wanted to serve internationally, and his first assignment was in South Africa—where they eventually ran Christian leadership conferences attended by all races, with no segregation. That did not sit well with the apartheid government.
“Our phone was tapped, and one time we were raided by the police with dogs in the middle of the night,” Virginia recalls. “It was not awful for us, but it was awful for the Africans; they were arrested and interrogated.”
After ten years—and now with three daughters, two of whom were born in a Zulu hospital—the Bergfalks returned to the States, and Bob pastored in New Jersey and Rhode Island. It was good for his career, as he was promoted several times; but Virginia calls those her “lost years”—and she eventually determined that she had to return to school to become a pastor herself. This time she threw herself into her studies, learning from some of the best seminary professors in the nation.
“I was lucky enough to have Bob Brown both times,” says Virginia of the professor who wrote 29 books on religion and philosophy and taught at Union for a decade in the ’50s and ’60s and then returned in the late ’70s, with a stint at Stanford in between. “I also had (renowned professor) James Muilenburg for Old Testament my first time at Union, and his pupil (feminist Biblical scholar) Phyllis Trible my second time. To have professors of the stature at Union certainly impacted my life and work.”
Graduating in 1981, Virginia gave up her Episcopalian roots and joined the United Church of Christ—starting a new church in Minnesota. She also pastored churches in Petaluma, California, and Oracle, Arizona, with several interim assignments as well. She and Bob divorced in 1985, and Virginia retired in 1997.
“I was the first woman in every church I pastored, and it was tough,” Virginia says. “After the first church in Minnesota, I was an interim pastor for four years on two coasts before I got a second call. But I stuck to my beliefs as a Christian feminist and activist, and I found my way.
“Union helped give me the confidence I needed and also gave me useful language for my intuitions,” says Virginia, who now resides at Pilgrim Place, a retirement community in Claremont, California, that was founded by Pomona College. Also living there are religious luminaries including Joe Huff, a former president of Union; John Cobb, a prominent theologian and environmentalist; and Rosemary Luther, a pioneer in feminist theology.
“It’s a community of activists, people who have spent their working lives in peace and justice and for the care of the earth,” Virginia says. “The conversations we have are not unlike the conversations we used to have at Union. My education at Union shaped my life, and for that my gratitude is unbounded.”