Kate Ernsting spent seven years on a crusade she didn’t seek. In 2003, as an administrator at Tom Monaghan’s Ave Maria College (now Florida’s Ave Maria University), she was fired after cooperating with a U.S. Department of Education financial aid investigation. She sued and eventually was awarded more than $400,000 in a case that expanded legal protection for whistleblowers.
Ernsting was, and is, a deeply religious woman. “I wasn’t on a hate campaign, but I knew if I didn’t sue they were going to fire more people,” she says. It was uncomfortable: “All the time the suit was going on, at church I’d sometimes find myself looking Tom Monaghan in the eye and giving him the handshake of peace.”
Now she’s on a much happier crusade: to help people spend their leisure time more wisely. “We work so hard so we can be at leisure, but nobody knows how to be at leisure anymore. When we don’t know how to be at leisure, we don’t have good relationships.” She’s not taking aim at Ann Arbor’s soccer moms and kids–they can walk on over to Play It Again Sports, a few doors down at Westgate. She’s drawing a bead on TV and video games and how they passively envelop all of us in antisocial screen addiction.
Ernsting works hard herself–Ophir Crafts is a leisure-time activity for her, since she works full-time in medical administration. It’s strategically located between a couple of other well-known leisure-time centers, Nicola’s Books and the AADL’s West Branch. Her vision is an original one, and she can’t point to a prototype: it’s a kind of cross between Ten Thousand Villages and the Y. Classes in knitting, crochet, clay modeling, embroidery, and needle felting are taught around the big wooden table, with more classes to come. The “gallery” hasn’t fully evolved yet. Hoping to eventually sell many more locally made crafts, for the time being, she’s selling any fair-trade kind of craft she can get her hands on, from Michigan-made Amish Furniture and maple syrup to tiny figurines from Africa and woven bags from South America. She also sees an open niche to become Ann Arbor’s main yarn store since the closing of Knit a Round: she bought up a lot of its stock and is shopping for more.
Ernsting, an open-faced, energetic woman who laughs a lot and answers questions candidly and thoughtfully, wants to make it clear she’s not sending a coded message about religion, either to draw people in or keep them away. Ophir is a name intentionally chosen for its pre-Christian, nonsectarian connotation–it was the El Dorado of the Old World, a supposed trade center that no one ever found. And if the goal of her classes seems to be to teach Zen mindfulness, she doesn’t mind the comparison to Buddhism. In fact, her daughter Terry, who works at the shop, is a Buddhist, as is one of her chief employees, Barbra Stewart.
Stewart is another chapter of another book–an outspoken iconoclast with tattoos up her arms, she has a PhD in pharmaceutical chemistry and worked at Warner-Lambert/Parke-Davis for years, quitting shortly after Pfizer took over: “I could see that the personality traits that got me promoted every year at Parke were going to get me fired at Pfizer.” So she became an artist, and one of her jobs is bringing in artists to do trunk shows at Ophir. How did she meet Ernsting? “We have the same hair dresser.”
Though Ernsting isn’t sending out religious messages, she doesn’t deny the part Christianity plays in her life and her politics. “I care about the poor,” she says, evading the liberal/conservative labels but giving a thumbs up to the new pope. “The good news of Christianity is all about our relationships and the good news of salvation. People need something bigger than themselves.”
Ophir Crafts, 2507 Jackson Rd. (Westgate), 794-7777. Mon.-Fri. noon-8 p.m., Sat. 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Closed Sun. ophircrafts.com