“Think globally, act locally.” That phrase epitomizes the latter career of Isabel Steilberg. Isabel was a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University when she gave up her career to study for the Episcopal ministry.
When she told me she was entering the seminary, I said, “Then you can work for Bob,” her husband, who at the time was the rector of Wicomico Episcopal Church. She replied, “Or he can work for me.”
Ironically, her words were prophetic, for in the last years of his life, Bob did serve as an associate rector in her church, and after his death Isabel continued the work they had shared.
Isabel pursued in following her vocation, and was ordained, after which she was assigned to Saint Paul’s Church in Newport News in a downtown neighborhood that had declined as the city had expanded. There, for many years, she labored with the poor, the neglected, and the homeless, bringing them a ray of hope.
She was a very straightforward person, to use a cliché, she meant what she said, and said what she meant. She never lost hope in helping people to better themselves and to reform their lives. Isabel became the light in many dark lives. That was her calling.
On the weekends she was busy with her church duties, but on the weekdays, she often came to her home in the Northern Neck. She and Bob had built an idyllic house overlooking the Great Wicomico River, with a garden of magnificent proportions in which they grew incredible vegetables that they generously invited friends and neighbors to share. In their house everything was in order.
Isabel found fault in many aspects of the modern life of the world, but she never gave up on making the world better in her small corner, in that sense, she was a great optimist. The here and now was her focus. Indeed, Isabel thought globally, and she could speak comprehensively about the world at large, but she acted locally and meticulously. She paid close attention to her parishioners, their needs and their worries. Her weekday retreat replenished her energy for the next round, and she went back fresh and ready to make another difference. The little things truly mattered to Isabel. Everyone was important and counted in her equation.
Isabel referred to me as “Our Conservative.” When we talked, we spoke of common interests, especially of the environment. We respected each other’s concern for the habitat and enjoyed the repartee. She would comment on columns I had written, always in a constructive way. Would that our national leaders could engage in such civil discourse.
The people whom Isabel and Bob remembered in Newport News were frequently forgotten, marginalized and ignored. Because of their efforts, they were not, and nothing could be a more fulsome compliment to the lives they led.
If you wish to memorialize Isabel, a good place to start would be to pick up roadside litter, for that is the epitome of local acting, making the world a better place for today and tomorrow.
The Reverend Isabel Boyd Fourgurean Steilberg, September 3, 1941-February 11, 2023. R.I.P.