VDS Voices

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, , , , ,

Restorative Justice

Action Summitt

In my roles as a professor at Vanderbilt’s Divinity School and as the director of the University’s Cal Turner Program for Moral Leadership, I often find myself in classrooms, talking about the meaning and nature of justice.  We read Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Rawls together.  It can be exhilarating.  But I have also taught in Riverbend Maximum Security Prison.  I have been to a parole hearing when the family of the murdered victim expressed deep anger and unremitting pain, 25 years on.  I have friends who have been victims of violence and who have committed violence against others.  Perhaps they have been a victim of violence, or maybe they have been picked up by the police or arrested for a crime.  We know that people of color are disproportionally policed, criminalized, and incarcerated.

As a parent, a citizen of the United States, and as a member of the Nashville community, I know that for many people in our country, the question of justice is not simply a matter of intellectual exercising; it is personal.

In one way or another, members of our communities have become part of the “justice system” that is long on system and short on justice.  The counselor’s office, the back of a police car, the courthouse, the lawyer’s office, the prison, and the Parole office are the primary sites for conversations about justice for too many Americans.  For them, justice is no mere concept for classroom consideration.  The need for a healing justice is real, and the form justice takes in their lives matters.

Unfortunately, the system of justice becomes too often another vehicle of violence.  It tears at the fabric of our common life.  It damages bodies. It is de-humanizing and divisive, disrupting families and communities.  It undermines our national life and makes a sham of our highest ideals of justice for all.  Without a truer justice, we cannot flourish, individually or communally.  Justice matters.

Because justice matters so profoundly, the CTP is hosting a conversation about the means and purposes of Justice in the City.  We will take up the questions, “How are we to respond to violence? How can justice be practiced in our lives and in our communities?”  True justice seeks not simply to make violators pay for their actions; it seeks to mitigate, to heal, to repair, and, to the degree possible, restore—not simply order—but restore relationships, communities, and bodies.  On September 30, through October 1, the CTP will host a summit focused on Restorative Justice.  At this meeting, we will learn from experiments in restorative justice, an approach that focuses on harm and healing rather than violation and punishment, in order to make a truer justice possible. We believe that in this nation and in this city, when it comes to justice, we can do better.  Please join us in this work.

graham-resideby Graham Reside
Executive Director, Cal Turner Program in Moral Leadership for the Professions
Assistant Professor, Vanderbilt University Divinity School

Posted by on September 21, 2016 in Feature

READ THIS BOOK September 2016

annalisa-azzoniEach month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty to recommend a book they are currently reading. Our September recommendation is offered by Annalisa Azzoni, Senior Lecturer in Hebrew Bible. 
Professor Azzoni recommends Kara Cooney’s The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt.

In The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt, Cooney brings back to life a prominent and long forgotten historical figure, the first female long-time ruler of ancient Egypt. An Egyptologist and social historian, Cooney draws on her ample knowledge of the social world of ancient Egypt to ground her account of the extraordinary life of this woman who for over two decades managed skillfully to wield political and religious power over ancient Egypt yet is much less known in the modern world than Cleopatra. Cooney’s ability to narrate deftly Hatshepsut’s story so that if can be appreciated by this scholar who has been teaching about Hatshepsut for the past 15 years, as well as by the general public, for whom she has made this book particularly accessible. This is a remarkable feat, as this thin line is rarely walked in such a masterful way. The resulting portrait of Hatshepsut is surprisingly intimate and human, detailing the everyday life, with the help of archaeological and textual data, and painting a vivid picture of Hatshepsut religiosity, its connections with her ambitions and her sense of purpose, relatable in a way that is rarely found in scholarly treatments of this historical figure. This is also why I am particularly drawn to this book: in this unapologetically personal work, Cooney reflects on why this powerful ruler was ultimately rejected and then forgotten for more than two millennia. Although under her authority Egypt saw a period of prosperity, with remarkable buildings and monuments so impressive for us still today, she was vilified by those who followed her, who literally erased her very name and portrait from public displays to obliterate her memory. When, through archeological discovery and decipherment of ancient documents, the records of her life resurfaced, historians have much denigrated her and her ambition to that power which is too often identified with masculinity and was not for her to achieve. Even though the book is written with historical intent, its reverberations are remarkably modern and relevant to our context. Cooney’s candid and insightful reflections on Hatshepsut’s unique ways of addressing the implicit ambiguity of navigating a traditionally masculine role in a female body offer significant thought on the difficulties women, ancient and modern, encounter when they dare to aspire to political power.  Cooney’s discussion and compelling arguments regarding the complexity of Hatshepsut’s choice to represent herself with overtly masculine body and attire in a number of occasions shows that the intricacies of gender roles and their representation are not just a modern concern but a human concern throughout history.  In her balanced portrait, Cooney manages to set the record straight against those who have demonized Hatshepsut while at the same time avoiding the trap of transforming her into “a selfless, first wave feminist.” Finally, Cooney’s reflections on how Hatshepsut “remains an important example of humanity’s ambivalent perception on female authority” are as relevant in Eighteenth Dynasty’s Egypt as they are today in America. In Cooney’s words “her unprecedented success was rewarded with short memory, while the failures of other female leaders from antiquity will be forever immortalized in our cultural consciousness.”

Posted by on September 18, 2016 in Read This Book, , , , , , , , , , ,

The First Year Experience: An Extended Introduction

By Amy E. Steele, MDiv, PhD
Assistant Dean for Student Life

schola prophetarum

The First Year experience at Vanderbilt Divinity School is an extension of the New Student Orientation. It is comprised of six sessions that focus on spiritual formation, stewardship, and vocation—or in other words, matters of spiritual grounding, money, and jobs. Perhaps these ideas seem tangential to formal theological education. Perhaps, we think that there is a certain amount of detachment required of students dedicated to the study of theology.  This perception is not false. Divinity School is a deep immersion in Biblical studies, ethics, theology, homiletics, and liturgics, but the idea of “detachment” is challenged by student realities.

Many of our students work, have family obligations, and organize rallies and protests. Other students secure internships, work in field education placements, pastor churches, or volunteer for nonprofits. They understand that immersion in study does not always afford the luxury of detachment (nor should it), but rather this kind of study is a springboard for a deeper plunge in the totality of experience: their own lives, the life of the community, the life to which they are called. The First Year experience communicates support for this kind of totality of experience. It understands that religious leadership demands the discovery, cultivation, and nurturing of a spiritual core whereby persons can examine the deeper inner connections they have to this field of study and the work they will pursue.

The First Year experience offers new students an intensive exploration of the spiritual and financial cost of a theological education. It provides new students exposure not only to various spiritual disciplines that we hope will grow organically or manifest naturally from theological study and reflection—Lectio Divina, embodied prayer, contemplative writing as spiritual formation, and yoga—but we hope also that it will inspire new students to become smarter financially by taking out fewer loans and living more simply and cooperatively with others. These and other sessions aim to assists students in adapting to the ethos, culture, purpose, and commitments of the School—one step at a time.

Much of what we offer in terms of student support services recognizes that our renown faculty, committed staff, competitive university, bustling city, engaged citizenry, opportunity for nonprofit, pastoral, and academic vocational development, make Vanderbilt Divinity School a one-of-a-kind-experience. The First Year experience not only enhances student opportunity for engaging one-another but also develops strong peer communities of support and offers the benefit of understanding the enterprise and blessing of theological education as preparation for living a life concerned with a just world. It is not a perfect place, but as our dean frequently reminds us, “It’s never dull.” For students taking their first steps in theological education, they often help create the most interesting aspects of the journey, every year.

Posted by on September 14, 2016 in Feature, , , , , , , , , , ,

Welcome from Luther Young, MDiv’2

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!

L Young

You have made the decision to embark upon an exciting and challenging journey through theological discourse and spiritual practice—congratulations, and welcome to VDS!

The coming year will be full of joys and concerns, friendships and hardships, and tests and triumphs (literally and figuratively). I’m sure you have many questions concerning the rigor of the classes, the culture of the campus, the graciousness of the professors, and the security of your future. More questions will arise in the coming months as you explore history, examine sacred texts, and engage in contemplative practices. You may even find yourself questioning your identity, your faith, your values, or your ability to continue theological education at VDS.

Don’t be afraid to question; it’s an integral part of the journey.

This past year I often questioned whether or not VDS was a good fit for me. While I am musically inclined, I do not have a background in humanities. My undergraduate education culminated with a baccalaureate in audio engineering technology. I am used to employing formulae and finding solutions. In my experience, questions have answers. This made for a difficult first year where questions posed often yielded few definite answers but instead prompted more questions. Many social issues were raised and addressed; however, even the brightest minds in the world cannot find a solution to world hunger, homelessness, racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia. Tired and frustrated, I wanted to throw in the towel.

But then I realized that my perspective was relevant and important.

In order to influence and be of service to a diverse world, we need a diversity of views among the prophetic voices of spiritual development and social action. Many of my questions are still unanswered, but I no longer second guess the importance of my presence and the validity of my perspective.

As you navigate the unfamiliar territory known as Vanderbilt Divinity School, remember that this is a journey and that many of your questions will not be answered immediately. I encourage you to keep questioning because questions are tools for discovering yourself, strengthening your faith, and changing the world.

Luther Young, Jr.
Program Assistant, Religion in the Arts and Contemporary Culture
Vanderbilt Divinity School

Posted by on August 31, 2016 in Feature, , , , , , , , , , ,

Welcome from Lee Catoe, MDiv’2

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!

To my siblings,

ILee Catoet is with great joy that I welcome you all to this prophetic community that is Vanderbilt Divinity School. I often ask myself how I got here, and to be completely honest, I have no idea.  As I was growing up in rural South Carolina, the thought never crossed my mind that I would be spending my young adult life in theological education.  My original goal was to become a doctor and work in public health; however, God works in mysterious ways.  I quickly learned that my voice and passion did not belong in the medical profession but found its home in the world of religion and church.  VDS has been the catalyst and the guide for my present endeavors and my future ministry, but (going to be real with you) it is no easy task. We all cope differently; however, here is my advice: listen to others; listen to yourself; and breathe.

One of the most life-giving elements of my time here at VDS has been the ability to listen to other voices, to other passions, and to other stories. Listen to your professors, but also listen to your classmates and colleagues.  Develop, value, and nurture those relationships because it is through relationships that we can be transformed.

Listen to yourself and rest. There are some days when you will not be able to read all that is on the syllabus, and there are some moments when you just can’t make yourself write one more word. Don’t get so caught up in the work that you miss the foundation and reason that we are here at VDS – to serve and prophecy.  Listen to your bodies. When you need to eat, eat.  When you need to sleep, sleep. When we listen to ourselves, we can then truly listen to others.

Lastly, sometimes you just need to breathe.  VDS can be overwhelming with studies, social engagements, protests, heated discussions, etc. Often times, I find myself just sitting and taking a breath. Take time to reflect and to take it all in because the years pass by quickly.  Prayer has been my saving grace in times when I need to process events or get away from the real world.  Find ways to center yourself.

It is here at VDS where you will be challenged, stretched, molded, encouraged, mind-blown, and the list goes on and on.  It is here that you will find your voice and when the Spirit moves, learn how to shout.

Peace and Love to each and every one of you,

Lee Catoe

Posted by on August 24, 2016 in Feature, , , , ,

Welcome from Joy Bronson, MDiv2

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!

Joy Bronson and Merry-Reid Shaffer, MDIV2 - #SquadMember

Joy Bronson and Merry-Reid Shaffer, MDIV2 – #SquadMember

As I round the corner into my second year at Vanderbilt Divinity School, I have a few reflections on my past year that I hope will be helpful for first-year students:

  • Do your best to know your “why.” Ask: Why do I believe I am here at VDS? Why am I taking this class? How does this choice fit into and aim me towards the greater narrative that I sense or envision in building my future? We have a limited time to do pretty much everything—including study so it’s crucial and incredibly helpful to be able to identify and prioritize where we focus our heart, spirit, and attention. Reflect on your “why” mid-semester and at the end of the semester, and start over at the beginning of the next. The answers change and evolve just as we will, and following those questions and answers will help us to flow with and follow that evolution. There may still be bumps in the journey, but significantly less than if the journey were just “happening” with us unaware.
  • Seek your #squad. Pretty much everyone at VDS is the nicest person you will ever meet, which makes this difficult for me because I always want to be friends with everyone. That being said, most of us do have specific reasons for being here, and our squads are the folks who will help us to achieve them—either because of their love and support, because we have similar goals and can help one another, or both. I will carry every person in my class with me in my heart and spirit always because just being with one another through our first year we had such profound influences upon one another. But it will be discovering the people who best support and encourage you—who even align with you vocationally—that will enable you to to excel in your time here.
  • There are many people who have gone before you—call on them; lean on them; use ask us for help. There are second- and third-year students in the building or sitting with you in the Common Room or Reading Room. Introduce yourself. Tell us your interests. Ask for #AllOfTheAdvice— about classes, about professors’ teaching styles, about buying books (check the library and with prior students to see if they have them first), about great places to study or chill in Nashville, about where you might move next. Don’t waste time reinventing the wheel when there are people sitting literally next to you who have already done this. And alumni/ae? If you know what you want to experience in Nashville for fun or vocationally, ask advisers, professors, fellow students, Lillian, Niger, or Angela; they’ll know an alum in the area who may be able to help.

Take what you will and are able from this; please share what you are able with fellow travelers. Blessings and love to you on your journey, and I look forward to the time and opportunities that we have to walk together.

Posted by on August 17, 2016 in Feature, , , , ,


20150510TL065Each 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 Joe Pennel, Professor of the Practice of Leadership.
Professor Pennel recommends The Triumph of Faith: Why the World is More Religious than Ever by Rodney Stark.

After reading Rodney Stark’s book titled The Triumph of Faith: Why the World is More Religious than Ever, I have reviewed my previously held notions about the demise of faith in today’s world. Stark, a sociologist of religion, explodes the myth that people around the globe are throwing religion out the window. He relies on surveys from 163 nations to explain why religion is growing.

He argues that the world is not merely as religious as it used to be. It is more religious than ever before. The chapters present statistics on the global religious awakening, giving special attention to large geographical regions. In growing numbers, people in many parts of the world are attending temples, mosques, pagodas, chapels, churches, and small religious groups. According to the surveys, most people who do not attend say they are religious.

He explores both the bright side and the dark side of this growth. In writing about the dark side, he demonstrates how religious enthusiasm can be the root cause of religious hatred and acts of terror. Pain is caused by the combination of globalization and the worldwide intensification of religiousness. On the bright side, Stark documents how people do think about meaning and the purpose of life. People from around the world would not say that life has no design, no meaning, and no purpose. Deep in the heart of people there is a desire to love and be loved and to belong to community. Religion provides answers to these everyday existential questions.

Rodney Stark relies on surveys of more than a million people who live in 163 countries to show that religion is not on the wane. He states, “Eighty-one percent claim to belong to an organized religious faith; 74 percent say that religion is an important part of their lives; 50 percent say that they have attended worship in the past seven days; 56 percent believe that ‘God is directly involved in things that happen in the world’; in very few nations, do as many as 5 percent claim to be atheists; and only in Vietnam, China, and South Korea do atheists exceed 20 percent.” His research points to the fact that only in parts of Europe are the churches are more empty than full. The author maintains that this is not the result of secularization. Europe is a continent of “believing non-belongers.”

Stark argues that secularists have been predicting the near death of religion for generations. He maintains that they are wrong and that the global family is more religious than ever. Some will not agree with his conclusions, but his book has caused me to have second thoughts about what I thought I knew.

Posted by on August 14, 2016 in Read This Book, , , , , , , , ,

Reconciling Peace

A Metadiscourse on Remembering Religion and the Troubles in Belfast

By: Stephanie Downing, MTS2

“Ireland, the continual past.”[1]

This stage direction sets the stage for Northern Irish playwright Stewart Parker’s masterpiece Northern Star. There is perhaps no better setting for a play written in 1984 about the failed 1798 rebellion, led by the United Irishmen, which speaks to the continual challenges, struggles, rebellions, revolutions, and quest for answers to questions of identity, nationality, sovereignty, and freedom that have marked modern Irish history. Towards the end of my trip to Belfast, I saw a production of Northern Star at the Lyric Theatre, 32 years after it premiered in the very same theatre. The play embodied the complex mix of hope, sadness, history, and future I had found in my research and made a profound impact on how I viewed what I had learned. But before we get to endings, we should start with beginnings.

Thanks to the Imagination Grant from Vanderbilt, I was able to travel to Belfast in May to study how the religious dimensions of the Troubles are remembered and discussed. The Troubles refers to the decades of sectarian violence between Catholics/Republicans and Protestants/Loyalists in Northern Ireland, from roughly 1968 until the late 1990s. In my research, I specifically looked at how presentations of religious history intersect with reconciliation efforts. Living in the city gave me a deep appreciation for the complexity of both the Troubles and the reconciliation efforts. Below are some of my reflections of the various places and organizations which contribute to an overall public history of the Troubles and how their presentations intersect with reconciliation efforts.


A wall of murals on Falls Rd (A Catholic/Republican neighborhood)

A mural on the side of a pub near the city centre

A mural on the side of a pub near the city centre

A Catholic/Republican Mural

A Catholic/Republican Mural

A Protestant/Loyalist Mural

A Protestant/Loyalist Mural

Examples of the murals and visitor messages on the Peace Walls

Examples of the murals and visitor messages on the Peace Walls


Examples of the murals and visitor messages on the Peace Walls

It is hard to overstate the prevalence of murals in Belfast. They are everywhere. Murals range from commissioned art pieces to elaborate unofficial community bulletin boards. Murals, along with flags, also serve the purpose of marking neighborhoods and declaring identities and loyalties. West Belfast also has a number of Peace Walls which have become another form of public art.

Black Taxi Tours around the Peace Walls are some of the most popular tourist attractions in Belfast. All the tours tend to go to same places; while on my tour, I counted nearly another dozen taxis tours at one stop alone. The murals themselves change to reflect concerns, temperaments, and issues; most of the ones I saw on the tour were memorials. I was surprised by the overwhelmingly political nature of the memorials and the general lack of any of type of religious iconography. Religious language/ symbolism was most prevalent in the messages visitors scribed on the Peace Walls.

Murals, along with flags, buntings, and pendants, are ways for communities to articulate their identities, cultures, and concerns. The lack of religious iconography is indicative of the ethno-cultural-political nature of division between Catholic/Republicans and Protestant/Loyalists. Although religious monikers are used to identify sides, the theological differences between them have been subsumed into political, cultural differences.

Duncairn Centre for Culture and Arts, 174 Trust

Duncairn Centre for Culture and Arts, 174 Trust

174 Trust is a Christian organization which aims to be a transformative presence in the community “restoring hope, promoting justice, building peace and providing leadership.”[1] They recently opened the Duncairn Centre for Culture & Art, a multi-purpose space, which includes a preschool, afterschool programmes, various art spaces, and a café. They focus on creating a safe, hospitable space in which all feel welcome; and in doing so, they encourage people to interact with the “other.” Conversations around the past are woven into experiences which foster relationship building and recognition of a shared humanity.

The outside of St. Anne’s Cathedral

The outside of St. Anne’s Cathedral

The Chapel of Unity

The Chapel of Unity

St. Anne’s, also called the Belfast Cathedral, is the cathedral church of the Church of Ireland (Anglican) in Belfast. As such, it occupies a prominent place in the city’s physical and religious landscape. While the church does not specifically mark the Troubles, it tries to create a space in which people of a variety of faith traditions feel welcome. Healing services in the Chapel of Unity have drawn people of various faiths for several decades. A recent series of theological discussion classes has also been very successful, drawing people from many religious and non-religious backgrounds. These courses offer a safe space for people to talk intentionally about theology and its impact on public issues. While not specifically courses in public theology for reconciliation, courses like these give people a place to start to work through and understand the impact of theology on worldviews, politics, public relations, and communities.

Queen’s University Belfast

Queen’s University Belfast

I am particularly interested in how research done by scholars in a university setting is shared with the public. To that end, I met with several professors from various universities in Belfast to ask them about how their work affects the communities around them. All the professors were deeply involved with the communities they studied and made a specific point to be available to them before, during, after, and apart from their research projects. The week I conducted my interviews most of the professors I spoke with also had community speaking engagements.

To highlight one example, Dr. Johnston McMaster and Dr. Cathy Higgins have worked extensively in communities on reconciliation and conflict resolution by teaching adult education courses. Their courses explore theologies and their consequences, including the historical roots of the theological views. Over the years, these courses helped increase mutual understanding, build relationships between Protestants and Catholics, and foster the development of a public theology which acknowledges its historical roots (and consequences) and aims to create a better future.

My trip to Belfast gave me a great respect for those who are working for reconciliation in Northern Ireland. They face a tremendous task to which there is no clear, easy, or universally applicable answer. It can be tempting to look from the outside and wonder “why don’t they…”, “can’t they just…”, “if they only…”, or to visit a peace wall, write a message, and think “I am advocating for peace here.” Peace and reconciliation, however, are not abstract concepts which can be bequeathed to people. They are deeply personal and interpersonal, tied to context, place, and history, and worked out daily in all areas of life. Moving forward in peace and reconciliation requires an understanding and recognition of the past as well as a dedication to the hard work of moving forward in new ways on a new path. I am profoundly thankful for the opportunity to have seen this work in action.

Stephanie Downing, Belfast Castle, Cave Hill Country Park

Stehanie Downing, Cave Hill Country Park (with Belfast in the background)

[1] Stewart Parker, Northern Star, Plays: 2 (London: Methuen Drama, 2000. 1-82. Print.

[2]“Strategic Plan,” 174 Trust, accessed June 16, 2016, http://www.174trust.com/home-horizon/.

Posted by on August 3, 2016 in Feature, , , , , , ,


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