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17 Oct 2018

Know Your Neighbors: Meet Barbara Fast, a Lawyer Turned Pastor—With a Knack for Storytelling

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Barbara Fast. Barbara Fast.

Back when the news was being dominated by the federal “zero-tolerance policy” which was resulting in family separations at the border, I attended a presentation by the writers’ group at Coachella Valley Repertory—always a great way to experience local talent.

The final writer performing her original work was Barbara Fast, the new pastor at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Desert in Rancho Mirage, doing a piece she called I Am Miriam. She told the story of Moses’ journey down the Nile in a reed basket, into the arms of the Egyptian princess who adopted him into the royal kingdom, from the perspective of Miriam, Moses’ sister.

In Fast’s version, Miriam followed her brother’s journey and then suggested to the princess that she could get a Hebrew woman to breast-feed the baby—enabling their real mother to suckle her own infant. When Fast said her line about how no child should ever be separated from its mother, the audience gasped—a collective intake of breath at the ironic current relevance of that age-old story. I still get goosebumps when I recall the moment.

Barbara Fast, 67, has been in the desert for only a year and a half. She was born and raised in New York City, the only child of working parents.

“I was what used to be called a ‘latch-key kid,’” says Fast. “My mom and dad were big influences on me. I would get to go to work with my dad sometimes, at the Veterans Administration, and I learned to have respect for those who serve in any capacity in our government.”

In high school, Fast specialized in math and science. She then attended Sarah Lawrence College, majoring in philosophy, and went on to earn a law degree from Georgetown University.

“My senior high school year was 1968, when so much was going on, particularly the King and Kennedy killings,” she says. “I had already become involved in local political campaigns, and then once I was in college, there were the Kent State killings, bus riders in the South, and marches. Fairness and justice were always really important to me.”

As a lawyer, Fast went into trial practice. “It was what I seemed to be good at, and I loved the thinking,” she says. “I became a prosecutor in New York state—not a defense lawyer, because I was all about justice and discretion on behalf of the people. In the late 1970s, New York was coming out of bankruptcy; graffiti was everywhere. I felt I was participating in upholding standards. Every day, there were ethical issues.”

The work required an enormous commitment. Fast and her husband decided to move to Connecticut to start a family, and she began to teach law.

How did Fast go from law to religion?

“My husband is Jewish, and I’m sort of Catholic (from a mixed marriage),” she says. “We decided to raise our children in the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Westport. I was doing lots of volunteer work on environmental issues and was asked to give personal witness at the church for Earth Day. I spent a ridiculous amount of time preparing to do five minutes, but I realized then that although I had always been standing in the back, I wanted to be in front of the church. I wanted to engage the hearts of the people.

“We live in this world, and it’s about how to live with integrity and joy. We don’t know for sure what happens afterward, so we can only imagine and wonder. What I do now is about how we live our lives. If we can ask the right questions, we can get to the right answers.

“Somebody once said to me, ‘If it knocks more than once, it could be God knocking.’ I’ve never forgotten that. I applied to go part-time to Yale and felt at home in divinity school, studying the Old Testament and ethics.“

Fast met her husband, Jonathan, in college, but it wasn’t until they met again at an alumni event that they got together. They have now been married 35 years.

“I have three wonderful children: Molly, my stepdaughter, and two sons, Ben and Dan. Jon was a novelist, but we both made career shifts at about the same time. He started teaching social policy, and I went into divinity school.”

What brought them to the Coachella Valley?

“About two years ago, we decided to retire, after kicking it around for about a year. I had served churches in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and then back to Connecticut, and I was tired. After the Sandy Hook shootings happened nearby, I was in a state of trauma. It was all just so sad.

“Jon was retiring, and our son Ben was in Los Angeles, so we looked around there. Then we came over the mountain originally thinking it was ridiculous—it was August, and the temperature was about 114! But we fell in love with this area. It’s affordable, and there are so many creative people here. We wanted a place that was near a UU church, and when we attended, we found a great group of people, friendly and smart. We knew the church was in transition; they weren’t ready at that time for a full-time pastor, but I did preach there a few times.”

Shortly after arriving in Rancho Mirage, Fast sought out the CV Rep Writers’ Group, run by Andy Harmon.

“It’s wonderful,” she says. “I had crafted stories as part of sermons, not just about individuals, but about human beings in general and the human condition, trying to make connections with how we are living now. I had presented stories, after gathering evidence and analyzing it, as a lawyer. Then I did it in sermons. Now I wanted to expand my capabilities. Biblical text is very compact, so when I was writing about Miriam, I asked myself, ‘Why did she go into the water? How did she get there, down the Nile? What must it be like to sacrifice your child?’”

Fast says a “calling” is when your greatest love meets the world’s greatest need: “It takes different shapes at different times of your life.”

Lucky for us, Fast’s current time of life is here in the desert. She shares stories with her “audience” every Sunday, making a difference in the community, and bringing goose bumps to her listeners.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays from 11 a.m. to noon on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

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