VDS Voices

Welcome Class of 2018

Each year, VDS invites returning students to offer words of advice to the incoming class. We hope these stories and lived wisdom will help you navigate your own path at Vanderbilt!

by Robles, MDiv’17

As a people of many beliefs, ideas, identities, experiences, and walks of life, may I be able to use this reflection as a platform to encourage mutual connection, providing guidance and advice to the hearts and minds of all of your new beloved in this community. Blessed be.

Robles, a transgender Latinx student at VDS being themselves!

As you begin your journey at VDS, I enter my second year in the M. Div. program. Having only had a year of experiences at VDS I cannot say I have it all figured out, yet I hope this advice is useful for many and does not bring about unnecessary anxieties.

As I moved through my first year at VDS, all of my challenges were interconnected with various aspects of my own identities, histories, and experiences. In my experience, you have to be willing to have your life paradigms and ideologies deconstructed, shifted, and/or renewed. Some students may need to know or already know how rigorous and demanding the experience of graduate school might be. The one thing I was not prepared for was knowing how challenging divinity school would be simply because it is divinity school. Being in the halls of VDS my first week, I did not have a sense of how this particular experience would affect my sense of self, how I relate to people, and the need to create new practices of self-care.

At some point throughout this year you may find yourself asking an array of questions such as: questioning whether divinity school is the path for you, wondering, ‘why I am doing this?’ ‘What is the point?’ ‘Why is graduate school so exhausting?’ ‘How will this relate to what I am interested in?’ ‘In what ways may I be able to apply this to my life and/or in community?’ ‘What will I do with this degree after I graduate?’ ‘How is it that this professional degree just got personal?’

More questions like these may hit you as you move along in the program, but it is okay to have these questions. Hold onto them. Nurture them. Honor these questions and the struggles behind them. Holistically invest yourself in what you are doing here. But remember to take a step back as needed. You are not alone. There is community at VDS, at Vanderbilt, and in Nashville. Seek it.

Also, invite people into the conversation. There is always room to grow and learn. Be honest, open-minded, and introspective of your own context and identities. Speak only your truth and let the voices of other people around you be heard, acknowledged, and received.

Many of my peers say the first year is the hardest. Believe it, and do not give up. Ask questions. And be humble in your learning so that everyone can learn. Professors at VDS are great and you will have time to meet them. Turn to them and/or experienced students for additional help. Also, I suggest you take advantage of the different academic, professional/personal services and opportunities that VDS and Vanderbilt at large has to offer.

Final tips: Eat and sleep well. Make a schedule. Read your class syllabus. Back up your assignments. Read your emails. Make time for people. Attend activities. Explore Nashville and learn from people actively doing amazing work! Ask for help when you need it. Use resources available to you. These may be some of your worst and some of your best times. Have a good time and enjoy the journey.

To all first year Vanderbilt Divinity School students, may you receive this warm welcome! See you at convocation!

Blessed are you who listen to the stranger; may your heart and mind be open to people speaking their truth.
Blessed are you who change their perspectives; you will have new knowledge to share.

Blessed are you who fight for justice; may you be strengthened and supported as you continue to build community, responding to the active and eternal call of justice.

Robles
Gender Pronouns: they, them, theirs
Vanderbilt Divinity School, 17’
M.Div. Candidate

Vice-President, Vanderbilt Latinx Seminarians
Co-Chair, GABLE Vanderbilt Divinity School

 

 

 

 

Posted by Michelle Bukowski on September 2, 2015 in Feature, , , , , , ,


Let it go, and Relax

Each year, VDS invites returning students to offer words of advice to the incoming class. We hope these stories and lived wisdom will help you navigate your own path at Vanderbilt!

by Sharah Dass, MDiv2

To the incoming class at Vanderbilt Divinity School,

My name is Sharah Dass, and I am from Pakistan. As I started VDS last year, I knew I had long term goals in my mind, but I did not know the path I would take to achieve them. For me, the first year helped define my goals, the path to them, and it helped gain that courage I needed to express myself and who I am. There were stressful times during the semester but my advice would be to just ‘let it go, and relax.’ Let go of the stress, and your journey of learning will become peaceful and joyful.

First, you can set the pace for your journey at VDS. There were many times during the first semester when I felt lost, which is totally normal. I thought people around me seemed sure of what they were doing and of their journey; however, I have now understood that this is my journey, and I will proceed slowly toward my destination. For me, it is more about knowing myself; for others it may not be. So give yourself time to think what you want from it.

Stay healthy, hydrated, and fresh. This has been a lesson I learned the hard way. There will be times in the first year where you will feel the need to stay up at night to finish reading, writing a paper, or study for exams. These are part of our lives, but keep track of your health. We were told at orientation to have one activity apart from our studies that we enjoy to do and to take part in that activity at least once a day. It could be running, walking, cooking, listening to music, dancing (by the way Vanderbilt Dance School does offer discounted classes to students), or anything you like. This will keep you away from stress. (I think I will keep this advice with me for a long time).

Take time away from studies and work and form community. For those who work and study, life could seem too busy to rest, or have fun and make friends. My advice is, take time off! Make your schedule in way so you have some time to yourself. Even one day every other week. Relax on that day, or sleep in, or pamper yourself. Make friends at VDS and work in groups. I have learned in the past year that group study sessions not only motivated me, but also helped me to learn things I missed during the lecture. I know it seems hard to do, but it is important for your sanity.

I have learned many great lessons from this first year, and I have met some amazing people at VDS. This journey will be as beautiful as you want to make it. Wishing you all the best in the upcoming year!

Sharah

 

Posted by Michelle Bukowski on August 26, 2015 in Feature, , , , , ,


Welcome to VDS

Each year, VDS invites returning students to offer words of advice to the incoming class. We hope these stories and lived wisdom will help you navigate your own path at Vanderbilt!

Welcome to VDS
by Hayley Elliott, MTS2

I can still see how the words looked as I read them and how they felt on my tongue before my body and spirit got used to the idea. Before I came to VDS, I hadn’t found a lot of spaces where the word “Welcome” came with any sort of authenticity; however, welcome has been a consistent theme within my time at VDS, so I want to be among the first to tell you that you are authentically welcomed here.

But the last thing you need right now is another testimonial. You’ve made your commitment and you’re here, so now what?

The beauty of theological education is that it is usually filled with curious people who have a lot of feelings. Feelings of hope for a more just world and feet that move those feelings to action are two of the best features of the community at VDS.

The feelings you have brought here with you are valid and important. But sometimes, those feelings won’t drive you (or me, or anyone else who has ever done this whole “divinity school” thing) to want to write papers and read the Hebrew Bible.

It’s still very important to keep those feelings in your greater perspective.

And while that perspective is potentially the most important thing to have in your divinity school toolbox, I’d like to suggest that you take the time to meet my best friend, balance.

Balance and I never became friends until midway through my first year of divinity school. But then school, work, activism, and relationships all piled up and I had no idea which way was “up” and which was “down” anymore. So it’s important to know your limits.

Take the time to learn your limits.

During my first year, sometimes I had to accept that there was no way I could accomplish all of the school stuff I needed to do that week. Giving myself some grace in that department did not entirely derail my academic career, and I lived to tell the story.

In absolutely related news, I had to learn to say “no” to some friend gatherings. All of my fellow ENFPs may gasp, but sometimes the best thing I could do for my spirit was to sit alone at home and do nothing at all.

Knowing my limits helped me achieve a form of balance that was crucial to a healthy and happy first year.

Balance is the key to a successful year. Don’t be alarmed if it takes you a few weeks (or months) to find yours. You’re here for a reason, whether that be divinely appointed or appointed by your own self. Maybe it’s both.

So go forth fearlessly into the chaos. I can’t promise you that you’re going to love it, but I can promise you that there are going to be people and systems there to support you and have your back every step of the way.

 

Posted by Michelle Bukowski on August 19, 2015 in Feature, , , , , , ,


READ THIS BOOK – August 2015

Each month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty to recommend a book they are currently reading. Our August recommendation is offered by Stacey Floyd-Thomas, Associate Professor of Ethics and Society.

 

 

 

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me
By Stacey Floyd-Thomas

On the first day of every ethics course I teach, I always begin with the statement, “Ethics begins where problems start.” By using case studies that are often “ripped from the headlines,” I seek to have my students encounter these scenarios in media res. In other words, my intention is to immerse them in the messiness of ethics rather than allow them the safe distance that presumed objectivity and theoretical abstraction usually afford. While asking my students to engage this epistemological journey of metaethics in a wholehearted fashion, finding accessible texts that bear moral witness, offer constructive insight and give real-lived texture to the perennial issues of racism, sexism, classism, and other social ills is rare. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is my most recent discovery.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years, there also have been so many commemorative moments that have transpired recently such as the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s end and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment as well as the fiftieth anniversary of both the Selma civil rights marches and passage of the Voting Rights Act. In light of these historic milestones in American race relations, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me highlights how much our society and culture has not changed. We only need to look at the massacre that occurred at the Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Dylann Roof’s act of racist terrorism on June 17, 2015, took place just one day after the 193rd anniversary of Denmark Vesey’s planned insurrection of enslaved Africans who founded Mother Emmanuel. In the struggle for freedom, justice, and equality by African Americans, things obviously have not changed for the better.

In the wake of Michael Brown’s murder and the freedom of his killer, former police officer Darren Wilson, Coates writes this epistle to his fifteen year-old son in order to give meaning to what has proven to be “old wine in new wineskins”—the illusory American dream which he says “thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. For more than two centuries, Coates argues, what has been described, as the “American dream” for the privileged alternately has been American nightmares for the rest of us, especially for those whose bodies are blackened and broken. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing.” (p. 50) He tells his son the hope of most parents, that he should be better than him and not fail as he had by believing in the lies America offered as fairy tales: “My great error was not that I had accepted someone else’s dream but that I had accepted the fact of dreams, the need for escape, and the invention of racecraft.” (p. 56) If we seek to not just commemorate past victories but actually correct and overcome the current assaults on the legacy of civil rights and divine freedoms, as Coates’ prophetic witness urges us, we need to deal with the messiness of reality in spite of our dreams. As faithful albeit fearful leaders of sickened social justice, we must attend to the virulent effects systemic inequalities and white supremacy have in our society and our world by opening our hearts and minds to the chasm that exists between our imagined world and our death-dealing realities.

Posted by Michelle Bukowski on August 16, 2015 in Read This Book, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Alumni/ae Tuesday – Sarah Pinson, MDiv’14

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.

Charleston, Racism, and the Virtue of Imperfection
Sarah Pinson, MDiv’14

Charleston: the home of horse-drawn carriages, historic cobblestone streets, fantastic food, and beautiful beaches.

Charleston: the home of widespread if genteel racism, rampant income inequality, and, now infamously, nine black Christians killed by a white supremacist gunman.

It’s all a matter of perspective. Mine has changed.

Since moving to Charleston almost seven years ago, I’ve idealized this city. Everywhere I went (including Nashville), I sang Charleston’s praises to anyone who would or wouldn’t listen. But Charleston looks different to me now. It’s not that I still don’t love the city because I do. There is so much beauty here and so much potential for good. But over time I’ve begun to see Charleston more clearly, more for what this place is: a lovely and friendly city with serious social problems—problems of race, poverty, and division.

I have a history of developing what feel like deep and powerful attachments to people when I first meet them. No one can live up to the expectations I create during these encounters. It’s easy to idealize people when they’re living inside your head. It’s also easy to idealize any place if perfection is what you want to see. I romanticized Charleston for a long time and told myself and others the city was practically perfect.

This kind of half-seeing, this warped and self-centered perspective, is sinful. Like any good VDS alum, I don’t use the word “sin” lightly; I prefer less personal terms like “injustice” or “problematic structure.” People seem to feel less guilty around those words than they do when they hear “sin.” In this case, though, I’m willing to make an exception. When we don’t want to see, when we pretend the world looks how we want it to look, we are lying to ourselves and to those around us. That is sin, plain and simple.

In the wake of the murders at Mother Emanuel, many of us have narrowed our focus to see only the positive: the forgiving nature of the victims’ families, thousands of people holding hands across the Cooper River Bridge, millions of dollars donated to support church members in their time of need. It is wonderful and important to celebrate these victories, and they are victories; however, we cannot do so at the expense of the issues we still need to tackle as a city and as members of the human community. These issues are manifold. Many of the people that cook and serve our world-class cuisine can’t afford to feed their families at the current minimum wage, a paltry $7.25 an hour. Low-income people in Charleston (who are largely black) are being pushed out of their homes and neighborhoods as the cost of living rises and housing prices skyrocket. Since the shooting, at last count, seven black churches in five southern states have burned—and these fires cannot all be accidental.

If we ignore these realities, we cannot fully love one another because we will not fully see one another. Love requires honesty. Love requires clear-eyed commitment to making life better for one another. Love requires that we recognize the flaws and depths and hard edges of the people and places around us and still hold fast to them.

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good,” John Steinbeck wrote. No matter how pristine our façade is, Charleston is not perfect; the South is not perfect; the world is not perfect. We can no longer pretend that it is. When we see that, we can begin the work of making it good.

 

 

 

 

Posted by Michelle Bukowski on August 11, 2015 in Alumni/ae Tuesday, , , , , , ,


Alumni/ae Tuesday – Karl Plank, MDiv’77, MA ’80, PhD’83

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.

CAVE AIR

For me the ideal venue of worship is a cave—Ed Farley (1929-2014)

in memoriam

somewhere a cave
awaits
ingress

and introit|
at the edge
of sanctuary

a chant sotto voce
not disturbing
the fluted flowstone

the blind salamander
or the moist air
we breathe

in the dark
where You are

canons permit
candles
on the ledge

but better a taper
in hand
as faces emerge

from cowls of shadow
and walls
quiver quietly

inhale
exhale

but let words
be spare
hard-hewn

as the rock
and born
of its silence

whisper
here i am
(as at your mother’s

deathbed)
sigh yes
(as at your daughter’s

crib)
and little else

yours is to listen
for the pulse
of the wolf spider

in its courtship
dance
the drop of water

to a distant pool
and the high-pitch
of wind

in cleft
and crevice
from an opening

beyond
(where You are

also)

Karl Plank

Karl Plank (MDiv’77, MA’80, PhD’83) is the J.W. Cannon Professor of Religion at Davidson College in North Carolina. His recent poetry has appeared in publications such as Beloit Poetry Journal, New Madrid, Spiritus, The Cresset, and Poetry Daily.

 

Posted by Michelle Bukowski on August 4, 2015 in Alumni/ae Tuesday, , , , , , , ,


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, , , , , , , , , , , , ,


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