Theological calling draws psychologist to the pulpit Education opened doors for city native

November 20, 1991|By Robert A. Erlandso | Robert A. Erlandso,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

Monday though Friday, Dr. Patricia Anne Outlaw, the cool dispassionate scientist, treats the troubled minds at Spring Grove State Hospital.

But on Sunday, her exuberant other self emerges as the Rev. Patricia Outlaw takes to her tiny Monkton pulpit to exhort her 25-member African Methodist Episcopal flock to seek Christ's help to save their immortal souls.

"I look upon myself as a mind expander, opening doors for people," said the 45-year-old clinical psychologist. "Even in my preaching, my message is different from those who don't have my training."

Dr. Outlaw said she loves having two careers and would never abandon her psychology practice, but the ministry is her real love.

Psychology and theology are complementary professions, she said. She adapts the principles and skills of each to the other to help people confront and deal with the problems of their lives.

In a recent sermon at Mount Joy A.M.E. Church, she used basketball superstar Magic Johnson as an example to urge her congregation to "stand on your feet."

It was a few days after Mr. Johnson's disclosure that he has HIV, the AIDS virus, and was retiring from sports to become an AIDS-education spokesman.

"If you wallow in the pit, no one will see you; you have to stand on your feet, despite the circumstances of life," the former Roman Catholicnun told her congregation.

"Many of us would go into depression, so it brought joy to my heart when Magic said, 'God has used me for basketball and now he will use me for this,' " Dr. Outlaw said.

In her work at Spring Grove for the Walter P. Carter Center, Dr. Outlaw treats patients with serious mental disorders.

Her private practice is more family oriented, she said, offering therapy for problems such as low self-esteem, adolescent crises, sexual abuse, depression and stress.

Growing up in West Baltimore's tough Sandtown section, Dr. Outlaw had every opportunity to go wrong, as did many of her childhood friends. But, she said, "I did not want to go to jail. I saw education as my way out, and I had a sense of who I was. I got that from my parents."

She was smart, taking advanced courses from elementary through high school. And she was lucky, too. "Someone was there at every point, to keep me on track," she said, "an older person I could talk to."

As a child she was fascinated with religion, and as she matured so did her idea of a religious vocation. Raised Baptist, she converted to Catholicism in her early teens and entered the Oblate Sisters of Providence as a postulant nun.

Recognizing her ability, the order sent her to Towson State University to study psychology.

In college, however, she began to question church demands for lifetime discipline and celibacy and what she considers women's passive role in the Catholic Church. "Priests always had more freedom than nuns," she said. "I felt it should be more egalitarian."

The assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, a month before her college graduation, marked a turning point. Soon afterward, Loyola College president, the Rev. Joseph A. Sellinger, addressed the senior convocation with a speech titled "Go Into the City." His words struck a chord.

"I thought maybe I needed to look at other things before I made the commitment" of taking final vows, Dr. Outlaw said.

Still in her habit, she interviewed for a job in the Baltimore Social Services Department. "It was a transition from long skirts to mini skirts," she recalled. Leaving the order "was a big step."

Dorothy Siegel, Towson State's vice president for student services, remembers watching Dr. Outlaw "evolve from a woman in a black habit with no make-up to a woman who began to think about clothing and her appearance as a contemporary woman.

"This woman was determined to learn, to do and to make a difference," she said. "She was an early black professional in an all-white world. She has worked hard to achieve what she has. She is a role model."

In 1978, with a doctorate from the University of Maryland and after several jobs in mental health, Dr. Outlaw returned to Towson State as an assistant psychology professor and Ms. Siegel's assistant.

Friends invited her to Bethel A.M.E. Church on Druid Hill Avenue. The joy and vigor of the services, the preaching and gospel singing, struck another chord, reawakening thoughts of religious vocation.

"I used to go to Mass, then rush to Bethel to hear the Rev. John Bryant preach," Dr. Outlaw said. It was a spiritual homecoming, "Bethel spoke to my Africanity, if that's a word."

The A.M.E. church was founded in 1787 in protest of discrimination against blacks, she said.

"At Bethel, I didn't have to deny who I was," she said. "My ancestors were spiritual people. Jesus spoke of the Gospel as one of liberation, and since we've been oppressed I felt it was a Gospel of good news."

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