This Holy Week I find myself remembering Eastertides past that I spent in pastoral service among the Yup’ik eskimo people on Alaska’s Bering Seacoast. Having been a Jesuit (lay) Volunteer fresh out of college (1981-82) in the village of Emmonak (mouth of the Yukon River, then population of 650), I began returning for seasonal pastoral service in the region as a Jesuit priest in 2000, continuing through 2009. I hope finally to return again a year from now, as part of my sabbatical. Here follows an entry from my pastoral diary, dated March 27, 2002:
I am once again on Alaska’s Bering Seacoast. This time assigned to the village of Hooper Bay, I arrived last Saturday (in time for Palm Sunday) and hope to fly out the day after Easter (weather permitting). As the crane flies, Hooper is 20 miles west of Chevak, the village I’ve served the last three times (straight shot by snowmobile in winter, that is, through May, much longer by boat in summer). I came to Hooper twice last summer to do funerals (three-day affairs for the Yup’ik people). The intriguing thing is that this longer stay is marked by the same phenomenon this time around: death rites. For the last three days I’ve been doing liturgies (along with the village elder/deacon) in the home of a 40-year-old mother whose son recklessly drove his snowmobile three weeks ago, got lost, and has never been found. Rescue volunteers found his snowmobile on the coastline 40 miles north, but no body. His tracks indicated that he’d been driving so fast as to have often been airborne. They’re still looking, and the physical and psychological strain is now overtaking many in the village. This region has the highest suicide rate per capita in the nation, mostly youth/young adults. This death has touched deep chords of anguish and even anger among the parents over how “lost” their children have become. Much of that came to a head after the Mass in the home last night. We started at 7 pm with the elder performing a 30-minute purification ritual with ayuk (incense made from a tundra shrub) and blessed owl feather (both presented to me as gifts afterward). I presided over Word and Eucharist, after which came an extended meeting. The one-room house was packed with people, including rescue volunteers and their wives from two other villages. The deacon, according to his elder status, spoke first, nearly a half-hour in Yup’ik. Then followed many other speeches and discussion in a mix of English and Yup’ik. I left well after 10 pm, quite spent. The tragic fact is that the mother of the missing youth is a widow, her husband having killed himself at age 30 some six years ago.
Then, at 4 am, banging woke me to find the public safety officer (there are no police in the villages): “Alexis H. has died. I’ll take you to the house.” My immediate reaction: “How old was he?” Relieved to learn he was an elder, I pulled myself together and accepted the snowmobile ride across the lake to spend an hour with the two elderly sisters of the 85-year-old corpse lying on their couch. As I signed with the cross Alexis’s forehead, sprinkled his body with water (reminder of his baptism), and articulated the accompanying biblical passages and prayers, my heart ached for the late-teen grandniece who, I learned, had cared for him around the clock. Words cannot express how privileged I felt to be with them in that home. The ensuing days of Masses (the Yup’iks keep vigil with the body for two days before a third-day funeral) intertwined with the parish liturgies of the Easter Triduum (Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Good Friday, Easter Vigil), making my task as a preacher a fluid one, connecting narratives of Christ’s paschal mystery traversing lives of faithful love unto death.
Dr. Bruce Morrill
Edward A. Malloy Chair of Catholic Studies
Professor of Theological Studies
by Eboni Marshall Turman
Palgrave Macmillan (2013)
Marshall Turman is Assistant Research Professor of Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School and the director of the Office of Black Church Ministries. She looks at how the Black Church has been, and in many contemporary quarters, remains an institution of rebellion again injustice and an outspoken opponent of racism. However, it has also been and remains a place that oppresses Black women by denying their gifts for ministry. Marshall Turman explores how such a juxtaposition can exist by looking at the ways in which the Black body is an American problem that is also a theological problem that can breed sexism that functions behind the veil of race in Black Churches—a challenging read that is well worth the effort.
Vanderbilt Divinity School is now on GoodReads. To review more selections by our faculty, click here.
“We believe…these two words sum up the hope I find so alive here at Vanderbilt Divinity School. We believe in the power of transformatory ministry and scholarship. And because of this, we seek to provide a faithfilled environment for our students to learn and grow. We invite you into this partnership of hope, spirituality, and justice-making for a future alive with the profound changes deep belief brings in a world that needs witnesses for love, hope, and justice.” ~Emilie M. Townes, Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School and E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Chair and Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society
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Posted by Michelle Bukowski on April 11, 2014 in Photo of the Week, Dean Emilie Townes, Dr. Laurel Schneider, hope, ministry, rainbow glasses, scholarship, spirituality, Vanderbilt Divinity School, VDS Vision, vocation
Last month I had the opportunity to attend the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Black Ministers Retreat in Johnson City, Tennessee. The Black Ministers Retreat offers an opportunity for participants to engage in conversations on a wide range of topics ranging from community and social action to issues of health and wellness in the Black church.
The ability to participate in events such as this one is fundamental in my quest to become a theological educator concerned with ministerial formation. I came to Vanderbilt’s Graduate Department of Religion because, much like everything else in the world, the Church is flawed. I am just stupid or arrogant enough to think that maybe I can do something about it. I do not think the Academy is a corrective for the Church; instead, I believe that a mutual relationship between the two is the only thing that can facilitate the development of either entity. That being said, it is impossible for me to be the educator that I want to be by hiding behind the walls of Vanderbilt Divinity School or in the library.
I went to the Black Ministers Retreat for the same reason I came to Vanderbilt—to explore my vocational calling, to attempt to figure out what I am doing, to think through the best ways to bridge the work of theological education with the work of ministry in the Church. I went to learn something about the ways in which ministry exists for Blacks churches within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), particularly because I am not only new to the DoC but also new clergy. I arrived at the meeting feeling like an imposter. I spend too much time enmeshed in lexica, ostraca, and history books, to be a minister, right?
Surrounded by a community of Black ministers—even for a brief period time—I reconnected with a side of myself. Being in Johnson City listening to presenters, preachers, and teachers talk about the real issues that their congregations are facing reignited a hermeneutical impulse that I let dwindle over the past few years. I left asking questions. Does the Bible/Hebrew Bible have anything to say about the Church’s stance on immigration reform? Cancer rates in the Black community? Obesity and wellness in the Black church? What is the message that I will carry to my students in the classroom to help them deal with these very real issues in their congregation?
I left with a renewed sense that everything that I have to get out of my educational process cannot be received in the classroom. I left reminded that the Church, more specifically the Black church, has just as much to teach me as I have to teach them.
Reverend Yolanda M. Norton, M.Div, MTS
PhD Student, Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel, Vanderbilt University
Theology and Practice Fellow
FTE Doctoral Fellow
Posted by Michelle Bukowski on April 9, 2014 in Feature, Christian Church Black Ministers Retreat, Church, Disciples of Christ, Graduate Department of Religion, Johnson City, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Vanderbilt Divinity School
Have you joined us for Creative Practice Wednesday? Here’s a peak at what some of your fellow students, faculty and staff have created.
Join us each Wednesday at noon in the Commons Room for creative play!
by Julia Nusbaum, MTS2
I have always found healing in words. While growing up and feeling sad or lonely, I would find a book and become absorbed in the words. Stories made me feel whole again— the words made worlds come alive inside of me. I wanted to make people feel the way I did when I read stories. I wanted people to become immersed in the raw emotion of a finely woven tale.
In middle school, a teacher convinced me to buy a journal during a school book fair. She said it would help me with my writing. I bought it, took it home, yet I didn’t know what to do with it. No stories came to mind—at least not any that didn’t seem false and contrived. I was trying too hard to create something that was not inside of me.
When I finally put my pen to paper, all that came from me were the details of my day. The mundane events of a middle school life—I wrote about my friends; I wrote about at which lunch table I sat; I wrote about a fight with my brother over the TV remote. It felt good to put these experiences on paper—these little details—these chronicles of my day. It felt good to know my feelings.
I wrote in that journal until it was full, and then I took it to my mother and demanded (as middle school girls do) that she buy me another one. She did, and I wrote. I wrote all of my feelings, all of the stories ideas in my head. I wrote down poems that I made up and poems that I found in books. I wrote down quotations, sayings, and song lyrics. I wrote, and I wrote, and I kept on writing. This year I filled up my fourteenth journal with the words that are inside of me.
The stories I’ve written, the stories of myself that I keep tucked in my journals, and the fictional stories I’ve written for school, pleasure, and contests have had for me the same healing effects as a book. I am not always escaping from myself, but I am telling truths about myself that I did not know were inside of me. These truths, these narratives of my life, heal me.
As part of my field education placement at the Magdalene Community and Thistle Farms, I started teaching a creative writing class for the women of Magdalene who are survivors of trafficking, addiction, and life on the street. The two-year recovery program emphasizes storytelling and encourages all of the women to take agency over their stories—to reclaim their stolen narratives.
When the suggestion came for me to teach a class that would give women a creative outlet to write their own stories or simply express themselves creatively, I was both excited and terrified. I had never taught anyone to write creatively. I was sure there would be only two women in the class, maybe three. But when I walked into the room for the first class, there were eleven women waiting.
“Are you the writer?” they asked.
Was I the writer?
I asked each woman what had brought her to the class that day, and nearly all of them answered the same. “I have a story inside me. I have things to say, and I want to get them out.”
We all have stories inside of us. Each one of us has something to say and a longing in some way to bear our story to the world. Teaching creative writing has taught me that there is healing in words and power in telling one’s own story. There is healing that comes from putting pen to paper.
When I say I love you…
The ebb and flow of life’s undercurrent.
It is such a beautiful sunny day
I would love to have a great day today.
My God will always carry me through
Even when my heart is sad.
I hold my head up, and I say,
I am proud of who I am
I am holding on, standing strong
Healing comes by faith,
And the day comes with singing.
—Written by the women of Magdalene
This week during Community Worship, Emily McCord Lis Valle-Ruiz performed an exceprt from Blessed: Monologues in Celebration of Mary.
VDS student, Justin Lester, who is interning at 15th Ave Baptist Church, and his Field Ed supervisor, Rev. Dr. William Buchanan.
When I first decided that I would like to contribute to the Divinity School’s blog, I immediately gravitated toward retelling my VDS journey, while also fighting the academic urge to explicate my identifiers: Hyper-Calvinist and Mystic-Heretic. Now, however, I feel moved to leave those terms in their respective ambiguous places. To be fair, I will note that my experience with Hyper-Calvinism was tantamount to waking every morning and wondering what the Great Big Lord in the sky had planned for me … me, a mere worm (see Romans 7:24). And in short, my experience with a Hyper-Calvinist congregation and oppressive leader led me to believe that, as a woman, I had no voice (unless my voice represented birthing babies and quietly following my husband’s lead). You see, God already had a plan for me, and that plan might even include Hell. Consequently, my myopic beliefs about God, alongside my limited encounter with varied theological perspectives, diminished my ability to form meaningful relationships. My robotic theology created a relational stumbling block; I could not enter fully into examining, accepting, and loving myself. And because I did not know how to love myself, I also could not abundantly love other people.
Now, fast forward to the part where I finally leave the Hyper-Calvinist congregation and eventually enter Vanderbilt Divinity School (with a seven year gap between the two). Little did I know, but I still harbored my constrictive and unquestioned beliefs. So imagine my surprise upon discovering that it was easier, and more comfortable, to support deeply ingrained ideologies! My surprise escalated, especially when encountering unpredicted differences: diverse people, beliefs, and classes. SHOCK. Resounding shock and grief (I will spare the gory details). The whole world isn’t Hyper-Calvinist?
In the beginning:
With the love and support of many professors, faculty, and students, alongside ample time spent with an eclectic range of theological books, insightful conversations, and private reflections, I can now joyfully proclaim that I have seen the light! Well, a light, and one among many. My theological education at VDS continues to teach me how to step outside myself and discover the ever-evolving and exciting world of belief. I have stepped outside myself and into a place where hope perseveres—where people’s stories are the beauty that composes life, and I only wish I had the time to listen and enter into all of the stories! The God I have come to love and know reflects the multicolored, multicultural, and the multitudinous embrace of ALL God’s glorious creation. I no longer merely recite, “God is love,” because I have learned from experience that God is love.
In the midst of my transformation, I have often wondered how my former self would greet the newly reawakened me. And I am sure that the old me would enter into a series of foreboding judgments, even going as far as calling myself a “Mystic-Heretic.” I rather like the sound of that term, “Mystic-Heretic” and how it simultaneously signifies unfettered imagination and creative contrariness … inclusive love, even limitless possibilities. Indeed, Mystic-Heretic, I am.
Thank you to all who shared their Spring Break with our community using Instagram. We had over 60 photos submitted using #VDSspringbreak. Enjoy a selection of these fun photos.