VDS Voices

Alumni/ae Tuesday: VDS Alumni @ Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt Divinity Alumni serve in churches, organizations, and institutions across the country and around the world. Some, however, choose after they graduate to make a transformative impact right here on campus. This series features VDS alumni who work at Vanderbilt, showing the range of work a theological education can prepare one to do. We hope you’ll enjoy getting to meet them!

Adam McKeever-Burgett

Adam McKeever-Burgett, MDiv ’11
Associate Director of Academic Services for Vanderbilt School of Engineering

How is your work at Vanderbilt shaped by having pursued a theological education?
Each day I speak with several (sometimes many) students in varying circumstances – some in academic or personal distress, some who simply need someone to encourage them, occasionally some at crisis level.  The ability to serve as a non-anxious, nonjudgmental presence that I practiced in Pastoral Care courses, as well as the ethos of inclusion that pervaded all of my other courses are learnings that I draw upon daily.  I can’t think of a better training for the work that I do than a theological education; I could not do my work without it.

In what ways do the Divinity School’s Purposes & Commitments inform your work at Vanderbilt?

I am lucky enough to speak with nearly every student who comes through Vanderbilt School of Engineering at some point during their undergraduate career, and speak with many of them frequently.  VDS’ commitments to combat, oppose, and confront  racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, homophobia are commitments that became ingrained in me through discussions with my classmates in ethics, theology, field education, and history of religion classes.  That I can draw upon the experiences shared by my former classmates to educate, empathize, or make my students feel more safe is a vital part of my role.  The VDS community that challenged me daily to see all people as worthy continues to challenge me to make sure that all undergraduates I encounter – many of whom are in vulnerable places at some point during their time here – feel safe, respected, and cared for.

What advice would you share with prospective students?

Use some of your electives to explore areas of interest.  One of the great things about VDS is that it’s just one of ten schools that comprise Vanderbilt University.  I used elective hours to take an education course at Peabody that helped me further discern exactly how I would be able to use my theological education in the real world.  Being able to take a course or two outside of the Divinity School can strengthen your vocational discernment and efficacy.

Posted by on January 5, 2017 in Alumni/ae Tuesday, News, , ,

Advent 2016

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in December 2015 and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

The long quiet has settled in the halls of the Divinity School. Students depart to visit family and friends across town and around the world. Faculty retreat to cozier spaces to grade papers and prepare for the new term.

Around our building, the staff is keeping the lights on, holding our steady vigil over daily tasks not beholden to the academic calendar. We know this silence well. In the summertime, we crack jokes about the ease of getting work done when there are no students around. But in the winter darkness, the mood is more somber, the silence aching to be filled with sound and life.

This is the season of waiting.

We read in the Advent story of a young woman whose body holds a secret treasure. From the dark and quiet stillness of her womb, Light and Life are about to emerge. She bears within herself the great mystery—that God will upend the status quo—not with princes and armies, but with a helpless babe, in a ramshackle stable, in a backwoods town. She waits to meet the one who will redeem a broken and brokenhearted world.

In our present time, my colleagues and I in the Office of Admissions are waiting, too. Who is even now walking the path that might one day lead them here? What gifts will they bring? What hopes? Fears? Possibilities? We wait to see how our small corner of God’s kingdom is about to be transformed.

In our wonder, we find pieces of our own story inside the stories of those who have waited in wondrous expectation before us. With thrill and fear, we are Mary, leaning into the “not yet” of the next stage of our life’s journey. We are Joseph, seeking to be faithful despite his surprising role in a story he could never have anticipated. We are God’s people, longing for the One who will bring plenty into a world that declares there is Never Enough.

We are all waiting to see what God will do next.

Perhaps the good work that God is about to do is in you, or in me. What might my small influence do to move the waiting world toward greater justice and compassion? Will I sing the song of Zechariah, praising the God who calls us toward greater mercy and peace? Will I shake up Bethlehem, dismantling its lies about who should be welcomed, and who is excluded? Will I welcome the refugee child and call him Son of God, God With Us?

In the stillness of the season, may our words and works declare that light will outshine the darkness, hope triumph over despair, and new life emerge in the most surprising places.

by Katherine H. Smith, Assistant Dean for Admissions, Vocation, and Stewardship

Posted by on December 19, 2016 in Feature, News

Alumni/ae Tuesday: Jeanie Rice-Cranford

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.

Daily Presence

by Jeanie Rice-Cranford, MDiv’16

In faith circles, we often speak of the daily presence of the Divine. We reference our sacred texts and lift from their context the very promises attributed to the voice of our God promising to be forever faithful, always with us, a forever present help in times of trouble. We cling to these promises and embed them into the fiber of our being to feel strengthened and hopeful and able to continue forward doing the work to which we are called during such a time as this.

In life, as we encounter the world and one another via family and community, these experiences also become embedded—for better or for worse—and not only affect the very moment of occurrence, but often become part of our filter through which we see our surroundings. This filter contributes to whether or not we believe the world is good or bad or something in between. It often plays a role in the development of our attitudes toward situations and others and can dictate the decisions we make in our daily lives. Some of these experiences require overcoming and healing to help us find a positive tract to follow in life.

The knowledge and skills gained during my time at Vanderbilt Divinity School pursuing the master of divinity degree are forever present in my daily life. Studying theology at Vanderbilt helped me deepen my resolve and commitment to pursue the heart of God and also emblazoned the desire to pursue an understanding of myself while contemplating the mysteries of our Christian tradition and the ways in which I am called to love my neighbor.

Each day I find myself engaging in theological dissection of the world around us. Whether it’s a local situation with a specific person, analyzing popular culture, or our political climate, I’m constantly trying to find the roots of the meaning we are currently creating and the ways in which we embrace specific tenets of our faith and seemingly reject others. I’m constantly seeking that “why behind the what” beneath our speech, actions, and silence with regard to the issues of justice in our midst.

photo of Jeanie Rice-CranfordMy experience at Vanderbilt Divinity School encouraged me to imagine different perspectives, provided me new tools for analysis, and helped me construct a framework through which I can investigate my own faith.

Posted by on December 13, 2016 in Alumni/ae Tuesday, , ,

Alumni/ae Tuesday: Kitty Taylor, MTS’10

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.

photo of Kitty TaylorI never thought I would preach.

And I really never thought I would like it.

I blame Clinical Pastoral Education, both the six-month externship I experienced as a Vanderbilt Divinity School student and the yearlong residency I risked a year after graduation. I also blame my CPE supervisor and the best mentor I’ll ever know, the Reverend David Nowlin.

In retrospect, I’ve always been a talker with a purpose. I recently ran across a school newspaper from my eighth- grade year with a section titled “You would know something is wrong if…” and this rather astute classmate’s contribution to the list:

“Kitty didn’t have an opinion on an important issue.”

My earliest ambition for when I grew up was to be a teacher, then a lawyer, then a lifetime student, then a librarian, then a risk taker, and always a writer. Vanderbilt Divinity School invited me to imagine all these roles at the same time and to live them out in that word “vocation” that I’m still trying to figure out or, to use a good VDS term, “discern.”

Divinity School also taught me that still trying to figure it out is okay. It’s actually good.

Right now, discerning finds me in the role of professional talker, a.k.a. Prevention Education and Outreach Coordinator for the North Georgia Mountain Crisis Network, a domestic violence and sexual assault agency. By day I meet with civic groups, church groups, school groups, and service organizations to make sure people know that there are resources and to help people understand that not talking about domestic violence and sexual assault doesn’t make it disappear; it does, however, make survivors disappear. I try to build a small nonprofit’s social media presence one Facebook post at a time, hoping that a shared article or statistic or message of encouragement will reach one person who needs it and reminding myself that “likes” are not the same as effect. I send so many emails. I teach myself how to update a website using a free (read “limited”) host. I read and listen to stories of survivors who have waited years for justice and others who have waited decades to be believed. I try to blend theological education with statistics, and I struggle to blend grace with adverse opinions, cultural norms, and religious oppression.

It’s incredibly hard and incredibly worth it.

I came to this work by what some would deem a calling or a path. Maybe. It does make sense. After all, I know how it feels to be silenced in love with another person and I know how it feels to turn up the volume when you fall in love with yourself.

I remember falling in love with Eve, too, who was the first one to spark my interest in the rest of the story. Her story. Herstory. The one that was never written down. That was before VDS, though our love grew tremendously during those two years and it grows still. I also remember diving into the stories of Biblical women who had something to say but never had the opportunity to say it, or never had it believed. If given the chance, would Hagar disclose she was raped? If invited to tell their side of their story, would the wives Paul instructed to submit to their husbands open up about their fear of leaving because their husbands would take the children, the house, the money, and possibly their lives? And who are the Hagars and Ephesian wives sitting quietly in the pews today?

Here’s the thing about Divinity School: graduation doesn’t mean you’re done. It means it’s about to get really real. So are you.

Here’s the other thing about Divinity School: whatever it is that pulls you is going to find a way make it happen.

This year, it happened in a big way. As of March 29th, 2016, I can officially call myself a published, professional talker. In the biggest risk I’ve taken thus far as a writer, an essay I submitted was selected for publication in Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It: Life Journeys Inspired by the Bestselling Memoir. Condensing much of my Divinity School story into less than 1500 words and seeing it in print is never what I thought would happen, but I also never thought I would preach. It took a lot of years to recognize that telling my truth is preaching.

And I really like it.

Thanks, VDS. Thanks, CPE. And thanks, David.

Kitty Taylor
Prevention Education & Outreach Coordinator
North Georgia Mountain Crisis Network, Inc.

P.S. In wrapping up my first Domestic Violence Awareness Month as a professional talker and advocate, I recently shared some thoughts on domestic violence in the bible. It’s really real. So are its victims.

Posted by on November 8, 2016 in Alumni/ae Tuesday, , , , ,

READ THIS BOOK: November 2016

photo of Juan Floyd-ThomasEach month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty to recommend a book they are currently reading. Our October recommendation is offered by Juan Floyd-Thomas, Associate Professor of African American Religious History.  Professor Floyd-Thomas recommends “The New Abolition: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel” by Gary Dorrien.

Gary Dorrien’s The New Abolition stands as an insightful and challenging book that illuminates how the pioneering African American scholar-activist W.E.B. Du Bois wrestled with the complex interplay of race, faith, and politics in Progressive-era America.  Although sadly overlooked within the broad historical narrative of American religion, the Black social gospel arguably was one of the most relevant and influential religious movements of the twentieth century. As Dorrien defines it, the Black social gospel “affirmed the dignity, sacred personhood, creativity, and moral agency of African Americans and responded to racial oppression. It asked what a new abolitionism should be and what role the churches should play within it. Like the white social gospel, it had numerous ideologies and theologies, but here the trump concern was distinctly given, obvious, and a survival issue: upholding black dignity in the face of racial tyranny. Here the belief in a divine ground of human selfhood powered struggles for black self-determination and campaigns of resistance to white oppression” (p. 2).  Reading this statement against the backdrop of our current moment—an era that will marked by the bittersweet legacy of President Barack Obama and the awakening of the #BlackLivesMatters movement in addition to the toxic emergence of Trumpism and the so-called Alt-Right—Dorrien’s words should remind readers that our shared history is determined by moral choices and political actions that have a substantial and substantive impact on how we are going to live in the world.  In what presently seems to be a highly volatile and vitriolic moment in our nation’s existence, the author gives us a meaningful glimpse of how an earlier generation of activists, advocates, and allies of social justice refused to remain either silent or submissive in the face of racial segregation and white supremacist terror.

Enmeshed within a great cloud of prophetic Black witnesses such as Ida B. Wells, Alexander Crummell, Henry McNeal Turner, Nannie H. Burroughs, George Woodbey, Adam Clayton Powell Sr., Richard R. Wright Jr., and Reverdy C. Ransom among countless others, the author clearly illustrates that Du Bois poses a considerable paradox within the academy and the church both then and now. Having frequently taught courses focused on Du Bois for nearly two decades, I always found it ironic that throughout his life he was often deemed much too religious for secularists but also seemed too secular for religionists. As if the answer to a silent prayer, Dorrien argues, “Du Bois was not a godless intellectual removed from the biblical cadences and imagery of the black church.  He embraced the prophetic ethical religion of Jesus. He defied a white oppressor that did not see the beauty and genius of [African Americans]… And he wanted black Americans to believe that their liberation from oppression and exclusion was coming” (p. 229). Thus, the author situates Du Bois’s efforts to promote social justice as being indispensable to a more robust and pluralistic vision of American religion. In the realm of American society and culture, the author depicts Du Bois as a radical visionary in terms of religious belief as well as racial politics whose message is just as imperative in 2016 as it was over a hundred years ago.

Without question, The New Abolition will be a vital addition to scholarship on the life and legacy of Du Bois.  While a growing number of scholars are exploring the role of religion in Du Bois’s worldview, Dorrien’s thoughtfully persuasive and provocative writing ably demonstrates that there is great need to revisit and reclaim such insights in future research.  In ways both large and small, The New Abolition thoughtfully evokes both the spirit and substance of Du Bois’s moral worldview in ways that will certainly make it essential reading to anyone genuinely interested in U.S. religious and intellectual history.


Posted by on November 7, 2016 in Read This Book, , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Danger of American Civil Religion

The 2016 presidential election carries with it the enormous gravity of deciding not only who will be the next President of the United States—and, by extension, the leader of the free world—but also of determining if this culturally-constructed public theology that is manifested in the legacy of American Civil Religion (ACR) will undergo a desperately needed reformation. The Donald Trump campaign represents a legacy of American Civil Religion that sees as the “other”—nonwhites, immigrants, LGBTQIA, and women—as outside the tradition of American exceptionalism.

Although patriotism, nationalism, and white supremacy are secularly-based tenets, they have been afforded eschatological preeminence since the arrival of Europeans five centuries ago.  Today, these tenets have become a public theology embedded in the United States’ legal framework, customs, and religious practices.  The early indication of this public theology is reflected in the fact that white, male, and landowning Protestants, who abided by professed hetero-normative standards, was the only group recognized as fully human.

In addition to the policy differences between the two candidates, a major issue is whether the national theology espoused by Trump—one fastened by white supremacy, sacralized patriotism, and white nationalism—will win on election day.  For those of us who dedicate out lives to theological study in the Christian tradition, the Bible offers a counter-narrative for understanding the relevance of civil religion.  This narrative, as exhibited in Genesis 1:26: “[Then God said]…Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…”; however, many would-be adherents on both sides of the political aisle have largely failed to make this distinction.

The public religion pronounced in Genesis has been espoused by Dr. Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, and an emerging remnant of other Baptized Christians who are living into their faith through their active support of Black Lives Matter (BLM), an overwhelmingly nonviolent social movement that is providing a prophetic witness to the ongoing systemic racism that continues to circumscribe the life chances of black and brown persons in this nation. BLM has performed a liturgy of lament in the streets across this nation. This work of the people has given voice to the pain and frustration of persons for whom justice is not a reality. This movement is a response to the deafening silence of the Church, the institution that has been empowered by the Resurrection power of Jesus to transform the world.

The preeminent issue at stake for this election is not a platform issue of either candidates. The issue is upon what the platform is constructed: Identity. This campaign embodies the ongoing contestation of identity that has been waged since before this nation was a nation. The electorate is responding to the ancient whispers of the meticulously crafted national myth—a myth rooted in misogyny—that asks of Secretary Clinton’s candidacy, “Who gives account for this woman?” It requires that she belong to someone and that she does not possess full human agency.

In a real sense this election has been reduced to a domestic dispute in the public imagination. The dispute began two decades earlier when Bill Clinton’s political scandals surfaced. The nation’s patriarchal gaze focused on Hillary causing her to become the ire of public spectacle, not Bill—the one who transgressed. In ACR’s configuration of what it means to be human, after being white comes male. The linear distance of power that exists between being white male and being white female has been placed on full display during the course of this election.

In this domestic dispute, Donald Trump simply stands in for Bill Clinton during the course of this election—The Donald is the man who gives account for her. This insidious act is performed despite the fact that Secretary Clinton is regarded as the best qualified presidential candidate in modern history.

The power and danger of public theology is that it bestows divine sanctioning onto nationalism. People tend to double-down on their beliefs when they interpret them as being God-ordained.


Photo of Keith Caldwellby Keith Caldwell, MDiv’15

Posted by on November 1, 2016 in Feature, , , , , , ,

A Reflection on Seven Years in the Divinity Library Exhibit Programs

By Charlotte Lew, Exhibit Preparator and Collections Assistant

article imag

The renovation of the Divinity Library in 2006 set the stage for the exhibit programs. At the completion of the renovation, the addition of six exhibit cases spotlighted the library’s potential as a suitable location where art and theological education are integrated. The library has an envisioned goal to provide an environment in which the visual expressions of the spirit can be as essential as the written words. Retrospectively, it was a leap of faith to dedicate valuable space in the new facility to a program not yet developed. Ten years after the renovation, the exhibit programs continue to thrive and prove what can be achieved with appropriate facilities and administrative support.

Along with one hundred forty years of the Divinity School’s growth, the library collections have been expanded and enriched. The treasures of collections formerly underpublicized and underappreciated have become star attractions thanks to the exhibit programs. One important aim of the exhibitions is to promote, interpret, and encourage the use of the collections. Exhibitions are designed to stimulate new audiences and researchers to pursue new ideas. For seven years, I have been contemplating whether my endeavor to adhere to the goals of the programs has proven to be fruitful. A review of the exhibits may provide an answer.

Soong’s Saga in 2009 and Brockman’s Mission Life in Asia in 2011 exemplified contributions from the Divinity community to bring visitors in to the library from as far away as Ohio and North Carolina. Books as Art: Sacred Texts in 2012 displayed jewels from the rare book collections to draw viewers to Special Collections to learn more about materials on display. God in Music City in 2013 showcased faculty achievements that promoted interdisciplinary research and teaching on campus. The Fight for Freedom: Religious Rights in 2014 highlighted the important role played by Divinity faculty and students in the local and national Civil Rights Movement. Vanderbilt Judaica Collection: 70 Years in the Making in 2015 collaborated with the Jewish Studies Center and Congregation Micah to publicize the strength of the Judaica Collection. The current exhibit, Syriac: Preserving an Endangered World Culture, shares the Vanderbilt research collaborations of an international team of scholars in an online reference hub to raise awareness of the role of Syriac culture in world history. An interactive touch screen recently installed features materials that cannot fit into the display cases. The new interactive display brings the exhibit program to a higher level.

Using exhibitions as opportunities to cooperate with library friends, donors, students, and faculty takes considerable time and energy. To design the exhibit to feature the materials in appealing ways and with striking presentation poses challenges; nevertheless, creating a welcoming public space as a forum where the educational experience can be cultivated and personal and spiritual formation can be encouraged is validating and even gratifying. As the exhibit schedule changes in the coming months, again I surrender myself to God’s provision. Just like Elisha’s widow, whose oil sufficiently reached her neighbors, I hope a small jar of my oil can also witness God’s boundlessness that flows to you and to the community.

Posted by on October 19, 2016 in Feature, , ,

READ THIS BOOK: October 2016

Photo of Laurel SchneiderEach month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty to recommend a book they are currently reading. Our October recommendation is offered by Laurel C.Schneider, Professor of Religious Studies, Religion and Culture.  Professor Schneider recommends “Green Grass, Running Water ” by Thomas King.

Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water is a brilliant, quirky novel that plays havoc with the lines between text and reality, history and presence, spirit/s and everyday life.  King is a writer of mixed Native American (Cherokee) and European heritage whose primary experience of life has been in the colonized world of Christian Native America.  The novel has several synchronic (synoptic?) stories that run alongside each other throughout the book.  There are four Native American young adults returning to the reservation where they were reared to celebrate the 40th birthday of one of them.  Theirs are everyday stories of family difficulties, lost loves, professional hopes, and uncertain identities in a modern world.  There are four old people – strange figures who start out in a mental hospital somewhere in the upper Midwest and whose names change, as do their apparent genders, as do their ages and other identifiers, as they go along.  All we know of them is their dialogue, their focus on telling the story right in order to fix something (again).  Then there is the hapless hospital administrator and canny nurse who discuss these four, and decide to follow them when they disappear from the ward.  And finally, there is Coyote and the narrator, who wander around the other stories.  Four stories, four directions.  A less than orderly tale.  We could say that this is a very Native American novel.

Almost everything in this novel is biblically inflected. Almost everything in it is funny.  Much in it is not funny, even when it is.  Choctaw Biblical scholar Steve Charleston wrote about “the old testament of Native America” in order to demonstrate a different perspective on the Canaanites, turning the tables on those biblical readings that valorize the settler colonial Israelites.  King’s novel can be read as a kind of narrative exegesis on the Genesis themes of creation, fall, and the role of water.  Beyond those biblical themes, the theological importance of this novel is its ability to point past the modern obsession that relegates all strangeness to delusion and all spirits to fantasy.  As Edward Farley noted in his wonderful little book Deep Symbols, our era has lost its capacity for enchantment.  What if there are four elders who walk the earth unburdened by the dichotomy we draw between fiction and fact?  What if Coyote does slink through all the ordered doctrines?  What if these are metaphors, but not just metaphors?  Theology has a long way to go to reintroduce the possibility of enchantment, not solely as a means to understanding, but as a description of the world beyond the brittle line we draw between fact and fiction.  In another wonderful novel entitled Alif the Unseen, a character exclaims, “Find me someone to whom the hidden folk are simply real, as described in the Book.  You’ll be searching a long time.  Wonder and awe have gone out of your religions.  You are prepared to accept the irrational, but not the transcendent.”  Green Grass, Running Water, I suggest, is a hefty portion of both.

Posted by on October 9, 2016 in Read This Book, , , , , , ,

Alumni/ae Tuesday: Julia Nusbaum, MTS’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.

photo of Julia Nusbaum, MTS'14

I’ve written about the origin of my blog hundreds of times, or at least it feels as if I have. You probably don’t know about it; not many people do, and that’s okay. It’s growing. It’s becoming something, so let me tell you about it how it came into being.

I was graduated from Vanderbilt Divinity School in 2014 with absolutely no idea what I was doing in terms of finding a job. I’m happy to say that after a lot of searching (and so much stress) I do have a job, a good job, one that actually utilizes my degree on a daily basis. Don’t worry, those of you on the cusp of graduation; it can be done.
Aside from securing an actual grown-up job, there is something else that came out of my time at Vanderbilt of which I am much more proud—My Blog: HerStory. HerStory developed from my field education work at Thistle Farms, a nonprofit and social enterprise here in Nashville that helps women who have survived trafficking, addiction, and life on the street. I spent most of my last year of divinity school working alongside the women in this program and learning their stories. In the last few months of my internship, I started a creative writing class that met every Tuesday afternoon. I assumed one or two women would show up; we would write silly stories, and that would be the end of it. I didn’t have big hopes. I had never taught a creative writing class, but to my surprise, on that first day, there were nearly twenty women sitting in the room. It was three years ago, and I still remember the lump in my throat from the overwhelming emotions of so many women wanting to write.

I figured out quickly that the women were not there to write goofy stories. They weren’t there for a creative writing class. They were there because they were ready to write about life. They were ready to write about their real and raw experiences, and they were ready to talk about their journey to healing. I realized their main reason for writing wasn’t to be creative but to tell their stories, to get their truth on paper for other people to read and understand.

As the women wrote, I wrote. My story was different but in a lot of ways the same. My search for love and belonging rang just as true as theirs. I wondered: Did more women have stories to tell to which no one was listening? I studied history in college and specifically studied women’s history. Isn’t that funny—women get their own section of history—as if we all aren’t living in the same world? As if all of our histories don’t overlap? I thought about women, and I thought about history, and I wondered how many voices were being left out because their stories weren’t “interesting” or simply because they were the stories of women and weren’t important enough for the history books.

During my last weeks of divinity school, I spent hours writing out plans for HerStory, a blog that would empower women by giving them a space to tell their own stories. I filled an entire notebook with ideas while I should have been paying attention to my theological ethics lecture (sorry Victor Anderson!). It took me an entire year to work up the courage to start the blog. Would women want to tell their stories, I wondered? Would they trust the space I was creating? Would they just think my idea was lame, boring, and who knows what else? Of course they did not. The blog was embraced almost immediately by my friends, by acquaintances, and most astounding of all, by women all over the world. Women I had never met started writing in and sending me their stories. They told me how inspiring they found the blog, how wonderful it was that there was a space for women to write and be creative and not be judged. I was overwhelmed, overjoyed, and humbled.

It has been a year and two months since I officially started the blog, and its becoming more than I ever dreamed. Every time people asked me how divinity school has helped me in life, I tell them about HerStory. I tell them about how I believe when we understand our own narrative we can better understand the world. I tell them how I never would have discovered this truth unless I had been given that year at Thistle Farms where I listened to the stories of beautiful women, thought about my own story, and wondered if there were anyone out there who was looking for a place to be heard. I believed there was, so I created a space—and into that space flooded stories and voices from some of the most beautiful women I have ever met.

Posted by on October 4, 2016 in Alumni/ae Tuesday, , , , , , , ,

FIRST FRIDAYS Spouses and Partners Breakfast

Beginning graduate theological education is an exciting time for new students, yet we know that Vanderbilt Divinity students don’t undertake this journey alone. Family members, friends, congregations, and many others walk alongside us through the “thick and thin” of professional school. Spouses and partners, in particular, often describe the unique joys and challenges of experiencing divinity school even if they’ve never been in the classroom!

As part of Vanderbilt Divinity School’s effort to create broad communities of care for all students, this fall we are launching a new, monthly Spouses & Partners gathering* to help build community among the beloved members of our households who make the Divinity School experience possible. Our first gathering, held in early September, was a great beginning for what we hope will be a new ritual in the life of the extended VDS community. A brief reflection of our gathering is included below, with special thanks to first-year MTS student Stephen Nelson for his reflections!

A group of VDS students and spouses/partners met on Friday, September 2, for breakfast at Fido. Dean Katherine Smith and Rev. Niger Woodruff hosted the group. Everyone shared their experience as students and spouses/partners while enjoying coffee, tea and breakfast. Spouses spoke of the unique experience they have in common.

Stephen NelsonStephen Nelson, first year student says, “I enjoyed the conversation and am pleased that my husband was able to share and gain insight into others’ experiences as students and spouses. We are both looking forward to more of these gatherings.”


*Have an idea for a permanent name for this group? Email katherine.smith@vanderbilt.edu with your suggestions!

Posted by on September 28, 2016 in Feature, , , , ,


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