By Brittany Wilson, Co-Editor-in-Chief, The Whetstone
“I was raised in Nutley, New Jersey,” Pastor Bonniekaren “BK” Mullen began her story. “Home of the famous sharpshooter, Annie Oakley.”
Wesley College’s new chaplain leaned back in her chair— voice soft, eyes intent, both brimming with a lifetime’s worth of memories—and no longer seemed like a chaplain, but a storyteller, her life a tale of the experiences that have shaped her.
“It’s been a wonderful—at times— journey,” she said. “And it helps me to understand all of life’s experiences and not to judge.”
This semester, Mullen was hired as the College’s chaplain and pastor of Bennett Chapel.
She did not sit much taller than the desk in front of her, the stacks of papers strewn atop it a reflection of her short, scattered attention span.
Anyone could tell by the ornery half-smile on Mullen’s face, Annie Oakley was not the only interesting character to come from Nutley.
Mullen said when she was about a year old, a neighbor who could not have children of her own was visiting Mullen’s mother, who had four.
“She told my mother, ‘You have too many children,’ and walked me down the street,” she said.
Mullen said because her adoptive mother was an alcoholic, she mostly raised herself.
“She was a flapper—hard drinking, hard smoking, hard living—a party girl,” she said. “So this was really a problem because now I come along, she’s got to be a real mother and psychologically she wasn’t ready.”
Although her adoptive parents were not religious, Mullen said her grandmother and aunts took her to a Lutheran church every Sunday.
When she was finally on her own, Mullen married her first husband, the father of her two sons. They lived happily until her husband was diagnosed with cancer.
Mullen said his death was devastating, but, looking back, she said she believes it was all part of God’s plan.
“The Lord had to move him out of the way so that I could do what I do,” she said.
At 43, Mullen began her journey into the ministry. She received her Master’s in Divinity in 1994, served as the pastor of several churches, taught at five colleges, and worked as a chaplain, a counselor, and a director within a number of different programs and outreaches that serve the less fortunate.
“What have I gleaned from all that? Just tons of experience,” she said. “Experience that has led to a very rich, rewarding life. A very lonely life, but I’ve always gone where God directs me. I will be here as long as God directs me to be.”
Mullen said she met her second husband while working at mission. Although they were happy for a while, Mullen said he began drinking in their fourth or fifth year of marriage, and by year seven she had finally had enough and filed for divorce.
“He was very, very bad toward the end,” she said. “And you can’t have that in churches.”
Mullen paused for a moment to reflect on her story, some of the emotion still raw in her eyes. But just like every good tale, Mullen’s story did not finish without a happy ending.
Two years ago, after she turned 70, Mullen said she reconnected with her biological family on ancestry.com—and discovered she had nine siblings, all who shared the same mother, but by five different fathers.
“She just kept having children and men,” she said. “They said she would say ‘I want her back! I want her back,’ but she never did anything to get me back.”
Mullen said that finding her siblings changed her life.
“Meeting them has given me a different story,” she said. “It has allowed me to be me in the truest of sense and now I have the encouragement and support of a family that’s still going, as opposed to all those who died.”
Mullen said she is excited to be a part of the Wesley College family.
Senior Philosophy and Religion major Yasmine Johnson said Mullen attended the second and third IMPACT Bible studies of the semester.
“Her spirit is lovely and she has a gift for people—she wants to minister to Wesley’s family,” she said. “I believe she’s the perfect fit for our school.”
Director of Campus Life Carol King, who shares an office with Mullen in the Underground, said she likes the way the new chaplain interacts with students.
“As her colleague, I find Pastor BK as one who is easy to relate to,” she said. “She is one who has much wisdom and shows the love of Christ in what she says and does. Students have already begun to show their appreciation for her kindness and genuine spirit.”
Junior Jamal Earls said because he was on the hiring committee for the new chaplain, he was able to see first-hand the way Mullen stood out amongst the other candidates for the position.
“She is like a 25-year-old in an old person’s body—her energy and personality are just that big,” he said.
Services begin Sunday, Feb. 5, at Bennett Chapel, where Mullen said there will be upbeat music, interpretive dancing and other enthusiastic forms of worship.
King said she will be attending services at Bennett Chapel.
“Giving students an opportunity to attend a church on the Campus and knowing the love and acceptance that will greet them excites me the most,” she said. “I believe Pastor BK is just what the Doctor (God) ordered for Wesley College!”