VDS Voices

Alumni/ae Tuesday – Eric Smith, MTS ’02

Our monthly Alumni/ae Tuesday Guest Post series on the VDS Voices blog highlights posts written by VDS and GDR alumni/ae. Hear firsthand about their important work in the community, collaborations with other alumni/ae and faculty, and much more.

Be sure to also check out the Divinity School Instagram feed every Tuesday for our Alumni/ae Instagram Takeover Day. Each week, we will showcase a different alumnus/a as they document their day in photos. Follow @VUDivinity on Instagram today!

If would like to contribute a post to the Alumni/ae Tuesday Guest Post series, or participate in our Alumni/ae Instagram Takeover Day, please email Addie Sullivan (addie.sullivan@vanderbilt.edu)  in the Vanderbilt Divinity School Alumni/ae office.

Tobacco, Church, and Nostalgia: A Sermon for Pentecost by Eric Smith, MTS’02
(originally posted on www.patheos.com May 27, 2015)

What follows is a sermon that I preached on Pentecost Sunday. I used Acts 2:1-21 and Ezekiel 37:1-14 as my texts.

Cutting Burley Tobacco, Kentucky, 1940. Library of Congress.

When I was a kid, I lived about fifteen miles from the world headquarters of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. My grandfather worked at one of their plants, and my uncle worked at one of their plants and still does, and many of my friends had parents who worked for R.J. Reynolds. It was one of the best jobs you could get in our small town. I remember distinctly being in the first grade and noticing in September that many of my classmates were absent from school for a week or two at a time; and they came back bearing the reason for their absences, their excused absences in my small tobacco town: they had been absent because they had been at work in their families’ tobacco fields, doing the priming of the leaves, because their families needed their labor. Many of them developed nausea and vomiting, and later addictions from the nicotine seeping into their hands from the tar that came from the maturing tobacco plants.

I can’t overemphasize to you how enmeshed my hometown was with tobacco. My high school was the last one in the state, a state which was no doubt one of the last states in the nation, to still allow students, high school students, a smoking area and designated smoking breaks from class. This was in the 90s. My church, I remember, my church,underwent its greatest conflict when we voted on whether to ban smoking inside the building. The church elders were all tobacco farmers. The Sunday School teachers were plant workers. Even those of us who didn’t have direct ties to the industry knew where the tax revenues came from. Tobacco was king over all.

I was back home last week. Iliff sent me to give a lecture, of all places, in Stoneville NC, just twelve miles from my little hometown. It was a retreat for college students who were considering going to seminary; I’ll get back to them in a moment. But this retreat was held in the next county over from mine, and so I drove down all those old familiar roads back home and through all those places I’ve known so well. The roads there are lined with tobacco fields; the roads go right through tobacco fields. Those fields stretch for acres and acres, deep green and waist-high, big broad leaves looking like the healthiest thing in the world. Or at least, that’s how I remembered those fields. At least that’s what those fields looked like when I left for college twenty years ago.

Now, those fields are full of soybeans. They’re full of soybeans, and sometimes corn, and sometimes alfalfa. In the twenty years since I left town, the tobacco industry has collapsed. Smoking bans, and surgeon generals’ warnings, and nicotine patches, have all conspired to bring the industry down from its historic heights. And what tobacco people do still smoke can be grown more cheaply in China, or Egypt, or somewhere closer to the “emerging markets.” So those fields are now a lighter shade of green, soybean green, and the plants reach to your ankle, not your waist. And the giant processing facility down the road from my house is still running, but it’s mostly empty, its parking lot holding a half-dozen cars in its thousands of parking spaces.

And now is a good time to declare my biases: I HATE cigarette smoke. I can’t even stand to drive behind a car where someone is smoking; just catching a whiff makes me angry. But I feel this sense of loss that I cannot completely understand in the loss of the tobacco industry. It was a way of life. It was a destructive, murderous way of life for many people, built on lies and propped up by junk science and junkier politics. But it was a way of life, and it’s what I knew, and now that it’s gone I mourn it. I know the people who were laid off, who were forced off their land, who are now making ends meet with soybeans and alfalfa at a fraction of the yield per acre that tobacco once brought. Every time I drive through I think about it, I mourn it.

So I drove through those fields and past those idle processing plants last week, and I made it to this retreat where young people were discerning whether they were called to ministry. And I had been invited to give a lecture titled “The Future of Faith and a New Kind of Christianity.” My job was to go to this retreat and stand up in front of these college juniors and seniors and tell them that they were not making a terrible life choice. I was supposed to convince them that there IS a future of faith, that there CAN BE a new kind of Christianity. I was supposed to tell them all the ways the church is changing, the ways it is alive, the ways it is looking to the future, a Pentecost message if you will. And that’s what I did. And I think I was pretty inspiring, if I do say so myself. But there’s something implied, isn’t there, there’s something implied in the fact that they have to invite someone to give that talk? There’s something implied in taking a moment out of a retreat designed for people entering a line of work, taking a moment out to say, “don’t worry about what you hear, we are pretty sure we’ll still be around by the time you retire.” That “pretty sure” implies that you’re not really sure. It implies some doubt. I wonder if those college kids drove to that retreat through all those converted fields and wondered if they were signing up for a lifetime of planting tobacco in a soybean world.

I know I wonder sometimes. The day before I gave that talk to those college students, the Pew Research Center published a new study. Now for those of us in ministry, seeing a new study from the Pew Research Center is the equivalent of a tobacco industry executive waking up in the morning to see a new advisory from the surgeon general. You know it’s not going to be a good day. You know it’s not going to be good news. You know it’s not going to say anything comforting. We kind of brace ourselves as we click the link to read it. We steel ourselves for how bad it’s going to be.

It was bad. Christianity is declining, still. Especially Protestant Christianity. Especially mainline Protestant Christianity–that’s us–especially we are declining. 3.4% decline for mainline protestants, since 2007, almost 8 percent for Christianity in general, 8 percent decline since 2007. Since 2007! That, my friends, is the year I moved to Denver and started working at this church, it wasn’t that long ago. 8 percent in 7 years. Those are tobacco numbers. That is a startling drop in market share, to use the language of business. That is a cultural shift, that is a broad-based rejection, that is an abandonment en masse, a sign that people consider the product tainted and unworthy of their investment. It feels sometimes, at least to me, it feels looking around Christianity today the same way it feels driving past those tobacco fields back home. There is a sense of something lost, of something irrevocably changed, of some golden age slipped into the past.

Now I had a dilemma while writing this sermon. I realized that, by starting with the story of the tobacco industry in the town where I’m from, that I would lock myself into comparing Christianity, comparing the church, to tobacco. And that is not a flattering comparison. Tobacco is a poisonous product, it’s a drug, a marvel of chemistry and marketing that seduced many people to their deaths. I had a dilemma while writing this sermon because I didn’t want to go down the path of telling that story about the church, I didn’t want to make that comparison.

But then I asked: why shouldn’t we go down that path? And why shouldn’t the church get compared to the tobacco industry? The church, after all, has been, at times, a deeply unethical institution, dealing in lies and misleading rhetoric and coercive marketing. It has made its profits by the dehumanization of certain kinds of people. The church has very often sold a poisonous product, as many of you here today can testify; the church has peddled ideologies of sexism and racism and homophobia and hate and guilt and shame. So why not compare it to the tobacco industry, why not tell the truth, and say that the church has not always lived up to its calling and to its own ideals? Why not take the opportunity to acknowledge the past and move into the future?

Here’s where I think we have a Pentecost message. Here’s where I think we have something to say. Here’s where I think scripture can speak to our current circumstances. Because what we see in the bible, again and again, what we see in the stories of the people of God, what we see is that again and again life comes out of places of deepest darkness. It is when the people of God have come up against the harshest realities, it is when the old ways have ended in desperation and defeat, it is when all else has failed, that the new can rush in.

“Can these bones live?” What a desolate scene are those words spoken into. “Can these bones live,” as we look upon a whole valley of very dry bones. “Can these bones live,” as they crunch underfoot, the remnants of lives that once were. “Can these bones live?” What a strange question. Of course they cannot live. They are bones. Maybe they could become part of the soil and feed new life that way. Maybe they could live on in that sense. But bones can’t live. They’re bones. Very dry bones. This is a scene of what it looks like at the end, when everything has failed. And all that was left was dry bones.

Or how about this story of defeat and darkness. They were all together in one place, in Acts chapter 2, and their hopes were dashed, their expectations were stymied, their friend and their leader was dead…they had seen him die. And they were afraid. And they were huddled together, the last of them, in fear. And in the harshest moments of their confusion and defeat a rush of wind filled the room and divided tongues as of fire rested on their heads and they were suddenly filled with the Spirit of God.

And on those dry bones—lest we forget that God has been about this work for a long, long time—on those dry bones way back there in the book of Ezekiel, on those dry bones there formed flesh, and into that flesh there flew breath, and though the text doesn’t say so, I can only assume that that breath then flew out in songs and great shouts of joy. And that’s what happened on that day of Pentecost, there in the book of Acts, that wind that rushed in rushed out again in miraculous language and confident words and in the workings of the Spirit of God.

You see, God never fails to bring forth life. But God does not always bring forth life from our death-dealing ways. God does not, as far as I can tell, sanction institutions and traditions because they have always existed, as if the Spirit of God were some kind of birthright of the dying. No, God seems, as far as I can tell, to find those places where death is most near, where death is accomplished, where the old has passed away and left only traces, where something new can truly flourish. God is a student of the new, God is the breath of life, and the lifegiving power of God is not bound by the dryness of our bones. God is in the business of life.

I drove back through my old hometown, having given my talk on the future of faith and a new kind of Christianity. I drove past those fields of soybeans, that had once been so full of tobacco, and I saw toiling in those fields women and men who hoped to make their lives from that soil. Maybe they remembered the tobacco, or maybe they only knew the soybeans, but all the same there they were striving to bring life forth from it. I thought, as I drove, about those young women and men at that retreat who were deciding whether to bet their lives on the church—or at least, to bet their lives on God—to ignore all the data and do the thing they heard God calling them to do. I had told them that their churches wouldn’t look like mine, with a big steeple and an educational wing and a large parking lot, that they would find life and ministry in many different places that might not look anything like the churches we have know for so long. That much is for certain—the parking lots of big-steeple churches are as empty as the parking lots of the tobacco plants.

Rev. Eric Smith

But here’s the thing. I bet the parking lots at the soybean plants are full. And I bet people are making ways of life out of that. And I bet people are finding life in what’s next—far more life than that old death-dealing tobacco leaf ever brought. And I realized, driving down those roads out of town, that my nostalgia for the old days of tobacco was just that—nostalgia. I was grieving for a thing I don’t even believe in. I realized that I’m glad it’s gone. Less tobacco in the world is a good thing. And I realized that if those college students could go out into the world and find God putting flesh onto dry bones, if they could go out into the world and see God breathe spirit into people in whole new ways, if those young people could make a life in the church that God is breathing into life tomorrow—then our nostalgia for the way the churchwas can fade away. Then our longing for the good old days that weren’t always that good, to everyone, can pass away. Then it’s not a question of indulging our grief and nostalgia for what we’ve always known. Then it’s a call to go out into the fields and see what’s growing next. Can these bones live? Let’s go and see. Amen.


 

Posted by Michelle Bukowski on June 9, 2015 in Alumni/ae Tuesday, , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Creating Change 2015 – Sherry Brewer

The 26th National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change made its home in downtown Denver, Colorado, February 4-8 2015.

We had nearly 4,000 people from all over the country attend our five-day program that featured over 390 workshops, training sessions, meetings and events, and four unbelieveably spectacular plenary sessions.

Vanderbilt Divinity students Sara Green, Robles, Sherry Brewer, and Sarah Connette attended, along with The Carpenter Program’s Carlin Rushing (Program Coordinating Fellow) and Lyndsey Godwin (Assistant Director). This year the Divinity School also partnered with the Center for Gay and Lesbian Studies at the Pacific School of Religion to co-host a caucus called “Queering Theological Studies;” and our Assistant Dean of Admissions, Vocation, and Stewardship coordinated with over a dozen schools from across the country to co-host the first ever Theological Schools reception at Creating Change. Vandy’s attendees presented workshops, engaged in discussions, and  met with activists, educators, and faith leaders from across the nation, particularly in Creating Change’s “Practice Spirit, Do Justice” track.  This track of workshops is sponsored by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, the same foundation that supports our Carpenter Program and through which our attendance was made possible.

Responding to international LGBTQ politics:

“Stop your mad men from coming to drive my countrymen insane.”

by Sherry Brewer, MDiv3

——-

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner

Though William Faulkner’s sage observation was written over 60 years ago, his words pierce to the core of Western Christianity’s relationship to the recent anti-gay legislation in some African countries. Removed from us by an ocean, thousands of miles, and cultures that seem to be on different paths, it is often all-too-easy for many in the United States to shake our heads at the virulently anti-gay sentiment in countries like Uganda and Zimbabwe.

In one of the sessions I attended at Creating Change, however, activists from Uganda as well as the United States showed that the culture war underway in many African countries against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people is, to a significant degree, of our own making–both historically and currently. Just as Faulkner says, the past is not even past; indeed, it lives on into the present.

A popular narrative, fueled by religious and political leaders like Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, claims that homosexuality is foreign to African culture; the “gay agenda” is an unwanted Western import, so goes the story. The past, however, tells another story entirely, according to one of the Creating Change speakers, an activist from Uganda.[1]

Prior to the arrival of the British in the 19th century, homosexuality was part of Ugandan society, particularly among royal families. In an effort to secure submission of the local culture to British rule, however, the British colonizers decried same-sex relationships as evidence that the Ugandan royal families were evil and unfit to rule because they lived in contradiction to God’s word.  They cited the Bible, as well as a 1553 British law that meted out death by hanging as punishment for same-sex relationships. Over time and through colonization, these biases became firmly entrenched.

The past, however, remains with us in more ways than one; the same Western hate-mongering in Africa continues today in the form of people like anti-gay pastor Scott Lively. As leader of his own organization, Abiding Truth Ministries, Lively has travelled the world, inciting existing prejudices against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in places like Russia, Ukraine, and Uganda.

In a 2009 seminar in Uganda, Lively urged Ugandans to reclaim religion because gay people, he claimed, were coming to their country to recruit their children. In the wake of his visit, violence against LGBTQ people escalated.[2]

In a nearly-unprecedented turn of events, Lively now will stand trial in United States federal court for crimes against humanity arising from his actions in Uganda.  Brought by Ugandan human rights organizations, the plaintiffs seek damages from Lively for “contributing to the persecution of Ugandan homosexuals and seeking to deprive LGBT members of the Ugandan population of their basic human rights.”[3] (For more information, check out the documentary God Loves Uganda on Netflix, which chronicles the actions of Lively and other American evangelicals in the persecutions of gay Africans.)

In the wake of international religious politics, how can we respond?  One of the Ugandan speakers at Creating Change put it bluntly in his plea:  “Stop your mad men from coming to drive my countrymen insane.” We can support organizations like Political Research Associates and the Southern Poverty Law Center, who keep a close eye on hate-mongering groups and increase resistance to their work by first making us aware of what they are doing.  Because of increased publicity, one anti-gay group seeking space for a conference, has recently been turned down by five different venues.

For me, the Creating Change workshop pointed anew to the wisdom of Faulkner’s words. The past is indeed not even past. To be in solidarity with our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer brothers and sisters around the world, we must take responsibility to know the past… in order to act in the present.


[1] The speaker, a gay man living and working in Uganda, requested anonymity due to fear for his safety.

[2] Sarah S. Kilborne, “Hate on Trial: What The Case Against Scott Lively Really Means,” Slate, Dec. 16, 2014.

[3] Ibid.

 

Posted by Michelle Bukowski on May 27, 2015 in Feature, , , , , , , , , , , ,


Creating Change 2015 – Robles

The 26th National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change made its home in downtown Denver, Colorado, February 4-8 2015.

We had nearly 4,000 people from all over the country attend our five-day program that featured over 390 workshops, training sessions, meetings and events, and four unbelieveably spectacular plenary sessions.

Vanderbilt Divinity students Sara Green, Robles, Sherry Brewer, and Sarah Connette attended, along with The Carpenter Program’s Carlin Rushing (Program Coordinating Fellow) and Lyndsey Godwin (Assistant Director). This year the Divinity School also partnered with the Center for Gay and Lesbian Studies at the Pacific School of Religion to co-host a caucus called “Queering Theological Studies;” and our Assistant Dean of Admissions, Vocation, and Stewardship coordinated with over a dozen schools from across the country to co-host the first ever Theological Schools reception at Creating Change. Vandy’s attendees presented workshops, engaged in discussions, and  met with activists, educators, and faith leaders from across the nation, particularly in Creating Change’s “Practice Spirit, Do Justice” track.  This track of workshops is sponsored by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, the same foundation that supports our Carpenter Program and through which our attendance was made possible.

Since the beginning of my community organizing as a trans youth in Chicago, I had heard about Creating Change. Many of my friends from different collectives and groups attended the national LGBTQI conference last year. I have wanted to go for a few years now, and I am grateful for the opportunity that I was given this year by Vanderbilt Divinity School. I was excited to attend to meet other black and brown organizers, youth, and trans folks. I also was praying for the possibility of meeting another transqueer Latinx they, them, theirs person because these folks were always missing for me in communities. I have for a long time felt alone in my multifaceted intersectional lived experiences and identities. I was thirsting for authentic community. Before leaving for Denver for the conference, I knew that I wanted to learn about how young trans non-binary people were organizing for racial, trans, and economic justice while also authentically building community, relationships, and doing justice work. I was particularly interested in gaining a better understanding of how queer and trans black and brown organizers in all social movements, grassroots organizing, and movement building are grounding themselves and their justice work in places of faith. As people who often experience many forms of violence such as police brutality and sexual violence, racism, classism, ableism, ageism, etc., what is it that keeps us going? Where do we pull from to continue our lives and the work?

When I arrived I was overwhelmed with the fierceness, strength, and beauty of the folks at the conference. During the conference I attended a range of sessions including a workshop by our very own recent VDS alum, Alba Onofrio on sexual liberation at the intersections of race, class, age, and (dis)ability. I was surprised that in that space I engaged in a deep spiritual and healing work of self. I was also fiercely held in community when I was feeling vulnerable. While some of those experiences caught me off guard at first, I learned about what I need when I am in need of support and to practice allowing myself to ask for those things.

Another fierce session I attended was on building a gender nonbinary transgender movement. The workshop began a dialogue around the celebration of non-binary identities within the trans movement, strategizing what a non-binary agenda looks like, and how these can be incorporated in to the larger trans movement and trans community organizing. It was life giving to see a room overflow in max capacity with over 80 people who identified with they, them, theirs gender pronouns within distinct gender non-binary, genderqueer, and gender nonconforming identities as well as distinct racial and ethnic identities. This intersection of folks really made the session powerful. The workshop brought me to tears because it was all organized by young people, and as a queer and trans youth of color organizer, this brought me immense happiness. I also was affected by the space we created and the authentic sense of community that we all had by the end of the workshop. This session brought me to tears also because there I met a fellow transgender Latinx they, them, theirs person. They had stuck out to me from across the room during the workshop. Shortly after we had finished we started talking and realizing how our identities and experiences in our families and communities overlapped. It was like finding a long lost sibling. We were both shocked and dropped what was in our hands to hug excitedly, as we screamed with joy, realizing that we had both finally found the person for whom we had been looking—someone to connect with intimately. Our souls became alive as we got in touch with our pains of loneliness but were now being overwhelmingly transformed with feelings of community.

Robles, a transgender Latinx student at VDS being themselves!

Since attending Creating Change I have noticed how much more powerful, meaningful, and valuable I feel. I have used this bit of light to continue providing some light to the paths of those in the many communities to which I belong. And sometimes the light is a light that provides comfort in the darkness, and sometimes the light is generously educating folks in this community about my identities as well as the intersections of trans and racial justice. I want to see this VDS community to continue prophetically expanding and radicalizing our sense of community and the work we are doing because there is a need for more. May we be goddesses, justice warriors, fierce organizers, and push to be active agents of change as a Schola Prophetarum (School of the Prophets) everywhere we go. And I challenge the VDS community to be involved, to ask questions, but also to listen beyond the ears of inclusion—to listen in solidarity and take action with those in the struggles, to those doing the justice work already, and to our ancestors who have come before us fighting for liberation.

Robles, MDiv2
Gender Pronouns: they, them, theirs
Carpenter Scholar

 

Posted by Michelle Bukowski on May 20, 2015 in Feature, , , , , , , , , , , ,


READ THIS BOOK – MAY 2015

Each month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty to recommend a book they are currently reading. Our March recommendation is offered by Victor Judge, Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs.

 

 

 

 

 

Prayers of a Literary Theologian

A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor, edited and with an introduction by W.A. Sessions, published with facsimile of entire journal in author’s handwriting; New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.

On the ruled pages of a Number 110 Sterling Note Book, twenty-year-old Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964) began composing prayers to God from Whom she sought Divine guidance during her graduate education at the University of Iowa. From January 1946 to September 1947, O’Connor penned her most private petitions as she discerned her vocation as a writer, and the publication in 2013 of her prayer journal introduces another literary genre to her canon. Readers of O’Connor have encountered her as a writer of short stories, novels, essays, and correspondence; however, her voice is heard now in the genre of devotional literature.

As a preconciliar Roman Catholic, O’Connor’s catechetical religious education bequeathed to her the traditional, formal prayers of the Church, but as one reads the pages of her prayer journal, one discovers a theological grammar less restrained and more intimate than in the verbal arrangement of congregational liturgical prayers. One hears repeatedly the first-person pronoun “I” in prayers to become the humble servant-writer: “I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them….Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine….I want to be the best artist it is possible for me to be, under God. Dear God please help me to be an artist, please let it lead to You.”

A Prayer Journal represents a significant contribution to O’Connor scholarship, especially in the 2014-2015 academic year as the world celebrates the ninetieth anniversary of her birth, the fiftieth anniversary of her death, and her induction into the American Poets Corner at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City. The volume represents also a contribution to the body of devotional literature—that repository that holds the fears, doubts, questions, and hopes of the faithful. When reading A Prayer Journal, one finds one’s voice joining the voice of O’Connor in a prayer for spiritual direction and vocational discernment.

Posted by Michelle Bukowski on May 17, 2015 in Read This Book, , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Creating Change 2015 – Sarah Connette

The 26th National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change made its home in downtown Denver, Colorado, February 4-8 2015.

We had nearly 4,000 people from all over the country attend our five-day program that featured over 390 workshops, training sessions, meetings and events, and four unbelievably
spectacular plenary sessions.

Vanderbilt Divinity students Sara Green, Robles, Sherry Brewer, and Sarah Connette attended, along with The Carpenter Program’s Carlin Rushing (Program Coordinating Fellow) and Lyndsey Godwin (Assistant Director). This year the Divinity School also partnered with the Center for Gay and Lesbian Studies at the Pacific School of Religion to co-host a caucus called “Queering Theological Studies;” and our Assistant Dean of Admissions, Vocation, and Stewardship coordinated with over a dozen schools from across the country to co-host the first ever Theological Schools reception at Creating Change. Vandy’s attendees presented workshops, engaged in discussions, and  met with activists, educators, and faith leaders from across the nation, particularly in Creating Change’s “Practice Spirit, Do Justice” track.  This track of workshops is sponsored by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, the same foundation that supports our Carpenter Program and through which our attendance was made possible. This weeks post was written by Sarah Connette, MDiv3.

photo by Sherry Brewer

On the first day of the 2015 Creating Change Conference, I attended the “Practice Spirit, Do Justice Day-Long Institute: Radical Connectedness, Liberating Particularity.” This institute brought together interfaith perspectives to re-map theological terrain and engage in conversations to see how the particulars of our contexts might strengthen the essentials that we share. Often we hear about the roadblocks and challenges that religion presents in the struggle for LGBT equality, but I was encouraged by the asset-mapping approach of this institute. We explored how our various faith traditions actually provide rituals, resources, stories, liturgies, and theologies that promote radical inclusion and welcome, along with anti-oppressive spiritual care.

Some of the other workshops I attended included: The 90 Minute Master’s in Social Change, Engaging the Globalized U.S. Culture Wars, Global LGBT Activism and Solidarity, NAACP and LGBT Engagement in North Carolina, Effective Leadership and Communication Styles, Fostering Resilience in Homeless Youth, and A Queer Response to Climate Change. The intersectional nature of exploring LGBT issues across political, economic, and social contexts helped develop my understanding of the interdisciplinary nature of fostering systemic change.

Through these engaging workshops and conversations at the conference, I am still left thinking about the intersectional work to be done, especially in response to the increasing number of “religious freedom” acts and bills. With the wave of these legislative measures rising throughout the nation to counter anti-discrimination laws, the momentum of LGBT equality faces a critical roadblock. These exemptions claim an affirmative right to discriminate based on certain religious beliefs. Especially for religious leaders in the South, we are faced with a greater challenge of mobilizing resources, networks, and voices to challenge discriminatory laws from a faith-based perspective. As I learned in the NAACP and LGBT Engagement in North Carolina workshop, just 3% of all LGBT funding goes to the South, while 31% of the LGBT population lives in the South. These numbers expose a significant challenge and also a great need. How might our intersectional alliances and networks be mobilized across issues in order to pursue comprehensive, creative, resilient and enduring social change? How might they be transformative instead of merely transactional? Perhaps we could start with a simple exercise from one of the workshops, in which we all turned to the folks next to us and told them, “I see you, neighbor. I hear you, neighbor. I respect you, neighbor.”

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by Michelle Bukowski on May 13, 2015 in Feature, , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Ministering to a Yup’ik Eskimo Community at Eastertime

by Bruce Morrill, Edward A. Mallory Chair of Catholic Studies

View from the church porch looking northwest toward the Bering Sea

Back in 2000, while making the annual eight-day silent retreat required of us Jesuits, I found myself moved to offer pastoral service, as my schedule might allow, to Yup’ik Eskimo villages along the Bering Seacoast of Southwest Alaska. I had been a Jesuit (lay) volunteer in a village on the Yukon Delta back in 1981-82, the year between my graduation from Holy Cross and entrance into the New England Province of Jesuits. A decade of “formation” (novitiate, studies in philosophy and anthropology, high-school teaching, and divinity school), followed by doctoral studies led to my tenure-track appointment at Boston College in 1996. By the summer of 2000, with three books and several articles published, my tenure case was in good shape, giving me room to breathe pastorally, whereupon Holy Breath (aka, the Holy Spirit) blew me across the continent to villages on Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta annually, sometimes semi-annually, from 2000 to 2010.

Community assembling in church for the Good Friday service

My move from Boston College (a Catholic institution taking several days off before and after Easter Sunday) to Vanderbilt Divinity School (with only Good Friday off) has over the past few years prevented my getting away for the nine days needed to assure service from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday. The airfares are expensive (taking jets as far as the mega-village of Bethel, then prop jobs out to the villages), total travel time runs approximately 20 hours in each direction, and one must account for weather conditions delaying flights in or out of the villages, served as they are by small propeller planes on gravel airstrips. This year my good fortune being on leave in a visiting chair at Fordham University (another Catholic institution) afforded me the opportunity to get away for Holy Week and Easter to Scammon Bay—population 474, 96 percent Yup’ik residents, 49 percent age 18 and younger, of whom 49 percent live below the poverty line.

This was my first visit to Scammon (per the decision of the Jesuit superior in that region, who with just four other priests has responsibility for nearly twenty villages, none of which are connected by roads). My numerous prior experiences of contemporary Yup’ik culture eased my entry into the living conditions, the social conventions, religious and ritual patterns of practice, the beautiful and tragic characteristics of a people caught between American techno-consumer culture and their indigenous heritage. Parishioners were grateful to have a priest for the series of liturgies beginning with Palm Sunday, followed by daily masses for the first half of Holy Week, and then the most important liturgy of the year, the three-day Paschal Triduum comprised of the Thursday evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Friday evening Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion, and Saturday night Easter Vigil, followed finally by an Easter Sunday morning Mass that included baptisms.

Eucharistic Liturgy during the Easter Vigil

Participation at the Palm Sunday and then Paschal Triduum and Easter morning services were full (seating capacity 100), with various members at ease taking up the roles of lectors (proclaiming scripture readings), music leadership, and other smaller ritual parts and forms of assistance—all done with minimal-to-no rehearsal or preparation. Knowing the latter simply not to be part of the Yup’ik way, I am always gently challenged to set aside my own need for carefully planned execution. Any and all ritual in Yup’ik culture is a matter of process taking its own time, finding its own way, tapping into customary patterns from past practice and, ever so slightly, making room for slight innovations. While quick to adopt the ever-changing means of communication (cell phones, dish television), travel (advances in snowmobiles and four-wheeler ATVs), and commercial culture (styles of jeans and sneakers, professional sports logoed apparel, pop music), the people take a highly conservative approach to religion, a syncretistic blend of Roman Catholic and indigenous rituals, symbols, myths, and beliefs comprising the present state of their tradition.

Preaching is one of the greatest yet most rewarding challenges each time I serve a village. Narrative is crucial, since Yup’ik linguistic thought processes are fiercely practical and adverse to abstraction. Thus, I find myself tapping into stories I’ve amassed either from listening to the experiences and traditional tales people have shared with me or from my own growing repertoire of events worth recounting from now years of pastoral visits among the villages. Regularly people request “house blessings,” invitations for the priest prayerfully to douse the walls and family members present with holy water, which always prove occasions for inquiring into the troubles being suffered, the worries sustained, as well as often for celebrating with the elderly the sacrament for anointing the sick.

Bruce Morrill joining in Eskimo dance practice (“yuraq”) on Easter Monday evening

My recent ten days in Scammon Bay proved no exception to such pastoral calls; indeed, more than once I listened to a parent’s heartbreak over a teenager or young adult’s suicide. But there is also much gentle humor and eager desire to share traditional foods (dried fish, seal oil, fried bread), Eskimo dancing (I became quite adept back in 1981-82), occasional invitations on hunting or fishing expeditions, and even overnight stays at family fish camps (tents on the tundra) when I’ve been able to visit in summer. Privileged by the welcome into their lives, I do my best to make a return-gift by delivering homilies and leading prayer wherein the divine works of creation and redemption might come into a bit clearer light among a people accustomed to celebrating life yet not unacquainted with long stretches of darkness.

 

Posted by Michelle Bukowski on May 10, 2015 in Feature, , , , , , , , , , , ,


Creating Change 2015 – Sara Green

The 26th National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change made its home in downtown Denver, Colorado, February 4-8 2015.

We had nearly 4,000 people from all over the country attend our five-day program that featured over 390 workshops, training sessions, meetings and events, and four unbelieveably spectacular plenary sessions.

Vanderbilt Divinity students Sara Green, Robles, Sherry Brewer, and Sarah Connette attended, along with The Carpenter Program’s Carlin Rushing (Program Coordinating Fellow) and Lyndsey Godwin (Assistant Director). This year the Divinity School also partnered with the Center for Gay and Lesbian Studies at the Pacific School of Religion to co-host a caucus called “Queering Theological Studies;” and our Assistant Dean of Admissions, Vocation, and Stewardship coordinated with over a dozen schools from across the country to co-host the first ever Theological Schools reception at Creating Change. Vandy’s attendees presented workshops, engaged in discussions, and  met with activists, educators, and faith leaders from across the nation, particularly in Creating Change’s “Practice Spirit, Do Justice” track.  This track of workshops is sponsored by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, the same foundation that supports our Carpenter Program and through which our attendance was made possible.

This was my first Creating Change. I had heard about this life-changing experience from friends who attended the national LGBTQI conference last year. They had told me of all the things they learned and all the people they met. When I was chosen to represent Vanderbilt Divinity School, I was thrilled—even more so to share the trip with good friends. This year at Creating Change, the weather was warm in Denver, and I was ready to learn.  Before getting to the conference, I noted that I wanted to get new ideas about self-care and social justice work, and more of how spirituality plays into queer identities. When I actually arrived, I was overwhelmed with the volume and fierce energy of the people around.

The first session that I attended was the day-long embodied leadership workshop that included a lot about self-care in the first half of the day and movement exercises in the second half.  The self-care portion was amazing. I heard from fellow VDS student, Asher, on ways that we can reclaim rituals that are meaningful to us and about other healing justice work being done in Portland, Maine. The second portion of the class really got me convicted on a few things on which I have been working. I was able to see my tendency to shrink at work in certain exercises as well as my habit of creating a portrait or façade of what I want the world to see of me. Some of those exercises caught me off guard with regards to what I would learn about myself.

For the rest of the conference, I attended a wide range of sessions including Carlin’s workshop on healing from spiritual trauma, polyamory 101, and queering theological schools. All of the sessions were so affirming and inspiring; it was a quick growth spurt in my life. When I think about what is the one thing that sticks out to me most from my experience at Creating Change, I would have to point to the conversations I had during Carlin’s spiritual trauma workshop. I have noticed, since attending Creating Change, that too many organizing spaces (especially in the North and West) leave spirituality/Christianity unaddressed. For me this raises several issues: 1) that people have not had much contact with progressive and affirming churches, thus they continue to refer to “The Church” as a single-faceted oppressive-in-nature institution; 2) Southerners who enter in these spaces feel odd about bringing up spirituality in their local organizing work; and 3) we are missing out on opportunities for even more intersections by not talking about ways in which religion can be anti-oppressive. I can’t wait to go to Creating Change next year to further this conversation at the intersection of sexuality, spirituality, and social justice. I want to see us push ourselves in ways that expand our definition of community and inclusivity. I can’t wait to go to next year’s conference to celebrate the progress that my queer social justice warriors have been making in their communities.

Sara Green
MDiv’17

Posted by Michelle Bukowski on May 6, 2015 in Feature, , , , , , , , , , , ,


READ THIS BOOK Roundup April 2015

    Each month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty to recommend a book they are currently reading. Here is a roundup of the faculty and their recommendations from the 2014 – 2015 academic year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

March 2015
Evon Flesberg, Assistant Professor of the Practice of Pastoral Theology and Counseling
Alone Together:  Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle

February 2015
J
ames Hudnut-Beumler, Anne Potter Wilson Distinguished Professor of American Religious History
Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics by Ted A. Smith

January 2015
Phillis I. Sheppard, Associate Professor in Religion, Psychology, and Culture
A Womanist Pastoral Theology Against Intimate and Cultural Violence by Stephanie M. Crumpton

December 2014
Herbert Marbury, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible
Eighth Century Prophets: A Social Analysis by D.N. Premnath

November 2014
Ellen Armour, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Chair in Feminist Theology, Director of the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality
God, Sex and Politics: Homosexuality and Everyday Theologies by Dawne Moon

October 2014
David A. Michelson, Assistant Professor of the History of Christianity, Affiliate Faculty Member in Classics and Islamic Studies
On Asetical Life Saint Isaac of Nineveh translated by Mary Hansbury

September 2014
Paul Lim, Associate Professor of the History of Christianity, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Affiliate Professor, Department of History
Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery by Siddarth Kara and Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen

August 2014
Bonnie Miller-McLemore, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Religion, Psychology, and Culture
Writing Methods in Theological Reflection by Heather Walton

Posted by Michelle Bukowski on April 12, 2015 in Read This Book, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Alumni/ae Tuesday: Jane Ellen Nickell

Our monthly Alumni/ae Tuesday Guest Post series on the VDS Voices blog highlights posts written by VDS and GDR alumni/ae. Hear firsthand about their important work in the community, collaborations with other alumni/ae and faculty, and much more.

Be sure to also check out the Divinity School Instagram feed every Tuesday for our Alumni/ae Instagram Takeover Day. Each week, we will showcase a different alumnus/a as they document their day in photos. Follow @VUDivinity on Instagram today!

If would like to contribute a post to the Alumni/ae Tuesday Guest Post series, or participate in our Alumni/ae Instagram Takeover Day, please email Addie Sullivan (addie.sullivan@vanderbilt.edu)  in the Vanderbilt Divinity School Alumni/ae office.
My recent book, We Shall Not Be Moved: Methodists Debate Race, Gender, and Homosexuality, is the product of both an academic inquiry and more personal questions that have been with me since 1984. That year, the United Methodist General Conference passed a prohibition on the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” and my gay friends began leaving the denomination. Division on this issue ran deep in my local congregation and even my own family, leading me to wonder, how could such loving Christians exclude others in God’s name?

At Vanderbilt I began to study the issue, taking Lloyd Lewis’s class on Homosexuality and the Church, and I continued that research in graduate work at Drew University. There I examined the writings of conservative United Methodists, and I was struck by their fearful tone. Of what, I asked, are they so afraid?

An explanation began to take shape in a seminar on French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who describes power dynamics that are so deeply entrenched that we are unaware of them.  Humans create social institutions such as religion, which in turn shape us. This socialization process predisposes us to recreate the authority structures of previous generations, and those in power resist any challenge to their leadership.

The fear in allowing ordination of gays and lesbians, then, is that social structures that have defined our lives would change radically. Furthermore, challenges to authority structures tend to occur during periods of social change, amplifying that sense of disorientation.

Now I had a new question: Did the church face similar challenges to the leadership of African Americans and women? I examined transcripts from Methodist General Conferences when these conversations occurred, looking for evidence of such opposition. Surprisingly, I did not have to read between the lines to find out; instead, resistance was stated overtly, as many in the 1920s claimed, for example, that the time for women’s ordination “was not ripe.”

Instead of yielding a solution to the UMC’s current impasse, this project demonstrates what a long and painful process change is. Women first applied for ordination in 1880, and were finally granted full clergy rights in 1956. Black Methodists were restricted to serving black congregations until 1968. Even with institutional barriers removed, female and black clergy still face resistance to their leadership.

My hope is that this look backward can help the church navigate its current tensions around sexuality, and whatever issues it faces in the future.

By Jane Ellen Nickell, MDiv’00

 

 

Posted by Michelle Bukowski on April 7, 2015 in Alumni/ae Tuesday, , , , , , , , , , ,


Three Questions with Daniel Siedell

Daniel A. Siedell is an art historian, critic, and author of God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art. Mr. Siedell will deliver a special lecture, “Thinking Theologically about Modern & Contemporary Art”,  at Vanderbilt Divinity School on Wednesday, April 8, 2015. For our readers to become acquainted with Mr. Siedell, we asked him to respond to three questions.

 

    1. What spiritual/meditative disciplines, if any, do you practice?

First, I do practice some form of spiritual and meditative disciplines; second, an important part of those disciplines is in their privacy. But, I will say that I get up very early and spend time alone. I live right next to the Atlantic Ocean in south Florida, so I try to walk on the beach regularly, often with my wife as a way to reconnect outside the busyness of life. An important realization for me was that the spiritual cannot be separated from the physical—and so eating, drinking, exercising, etc. are just as important spiritually as prayer, meditation, reading, etc.  And lastly, I try to spend a lot of time in art museums. In the New York Times Sunday paper last week, the Project Runway star Tim Gunn was featured in the “Sunday Routines” Series and it describes how he spends the entire day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a means of healing. I deeply empathize with that. [Here is the profile link, btw]:

2. Name one or two places (events, etc.) that were formative influences in your life.

Although I live with my family in south Florida, I teach in New York City, and so I spend an inordinate amount of time with my students at art museums and art galleries. The Museum of Modern Art is very special to me—as a young kid from Nebraska in graduate school in New York City, it became a magical place, both comforting and discomforting in the best possible ways. It filled me with hope—hope that I would be able to devote my life to art in a way that would make MoMA an important part of it. And so, when I’m in town and have some time alone, I’ll go there just to be alone with the building, the old friends that hang on the wall, and express gratitude that my prayers were indeed answered. And over the years it’s become an important place not only to me but for my family as well, especial my wife and daughter, who attends college in New York City.

3. What was the last movie you saw in the theater? Did you like it?

The last movie I saw was Birdman. It was a powerful expression of the faith and risk of and for art. I was deeply moved by it and in some ways found myself described, interpreted, challenged by several of the characters.

 

The lecture is sponsored by VDS Religion in the Arts and Contemporary Culture. For more information, click here.

 


Posted by Michelle Bukowski on April 1, 2015 in Feature, , , , , , , ,


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