The Common Good
September/October 2011

Teachable Moments

by Avedis Abovian, Nikia Smith Robert, Melanie Weldon-Soiset, Joshua Daly, Duke Kwon, Lisa Yebuah, Kathryn Anderson | September/October 2011

Seminary graduates share what they learned about God's call to social justice.

The Noise
By Avedis Abovian

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One morning while  I was doing my clinical pastoral education, I was praying in the chapel at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. There was nobody else in that small room. The conditions were perfect to be alone with God. What else did I need at that beautiful moment to feel an important part of God's kingdom?

At that very moment my thoughts were interrupted by noises from the other side of chapel doors.

I stopped. I was amazed.

It was a revelation: "You cannot just know about people on the other side of your doors. Just listening to their cries and understanding their struggles can never be enough as long as they are on the other side of your doors. This is not about 'big plans' that may bring positive changes. It is about connecting person to person; having them sit next to you at your dinner table; praying not just for them, but with them. This is about opening your doors and bringing everyone in and making them 'you' -- turning yourself into ‘them’ and together becoming God's people."

We are never alone with God. There is always the noise that should become our being, our prayer, and our connection with God.

Avedis Abovian is a priest and the youth director for the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America. He received his master’s in divinity from Claremont School of Theology in 2008 and his bachelor’s from Vazgenian Theological Seminary in Sevan, Armenia, in 1997. He lives in Burbank, California.

Everything is not Eschatological
By Nikia Smith Robert

Everything is not eschatological: Everything is not otherworldly or heavenly bound.

This statement was my introduction to seminary, and I immediately perceived this assertion as an attack against the core beliefs I inherited as a product of the black evangelical church. How could a white male, whose privilege was embodied in his skin, identify with my forebears who found solace in the stanza "and before I'd be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free"? How could he tell me that this was not the same home to which my mother referred as she fought the social stigmas against a single parent and prayed for a home where "the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest"? This eschatological hope is what Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. relied on when the prevailing pressures of death seemed more imminent than life.

However, this white man's antagonistic assertion allowed me to ascertain a new approach to understanding God: Everything is not eschatological. There are some things that must be demanded now. Justice is now.

Where education is the leading factor to reduce recidivism rates, Pell grant eligibility for incarcerated persons needs to be restored today. With HIV being a leading cause of death among African Americans and where there is a newly infected person in the U.S. every nine and a half minutes, there is an urgent need for funding toward research and a cure. With warfare that results in millions dying and families torn apart, world peace needs to be established today. And after more than 40 years since King's Poor People's Campaign, the minimum wage needs to be a living wage today. Why? Because everything is not eschatological; the Kingdom of God is now, today, and our calling is to join with the Spirit in making it manifest here, from Harlem to Haiti.

Nikia Smith Robert graduated from Union Theological Seminary in 2009. She is an associate minister at First AME Church Bethel in Harlem and a senior associate at Ernst & Young LLP.

Whole-Person Justice
By Joshua Daly

When I finished my undergrad time at Loyola New Orleans, I was intent on saving the world. My relentless dedication to "the cause" -- through living in a Catholic Worker community and working with the Catholic Campaign for Human Development -- would be enough to sanctify my soul and "this filthy, rotten system." Or so I thought as a brazen, hopelessly idealistic 22-year-old.

As you might expect, I hit a brick wall or two or 10. Hard. This set the stage for one of the most important lessons I learned while in theology grad school: that I couldn’t avoid my own personal struggles by throwing myself into struggles for justice. If the world was to be saved by beauty, as Dorothy Day was fond of paraphrasing from Dostoevsky, then I had to discover and attend to the beauty and grace and healing God pours out right in the heart of a suffering world, in the heart of my own brokenness.

Self-care isn't an add-on to "real" social justice work -- especially not if that work is rooted in faith. Care for the whole person ("cura personalis" in Jesuit-speak), honoring others' dignity and our own, is at the heart of following Jesus.

Joshua Daly is assistant director of university ministry at Loyola University in New Orleans. He received a master’s in theological ethics in 2008 from Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Ontario.

The Call to Care
By Duke Kwon

One of the most important lessons that I (re-)discovered in seminary is fairly simple, even basic: God's passion to create a whole new social order absolutely saturates the entire Bible.

I remember a class I took on the gospel of Luke. I can still picture my professor weeping on several occasions as we encountered Jesus' compassion for the poor, powerless, and outcast. We saw it in our savior's teaching; we saw it in those colorful portraits of his encounters with ordinary people -- the blind beggar, the rich young ruler, Zacchaeus, nameless "nobodies" whom he touched and loved.

In that study of Luke, I was reminded that, quite simply, God really cares. Social inequities, abuses of power, the misuse of wealth -- these things matter to God. And so they matter to us, as we attempt to respond to the radical, and sometimes exhausting, call to build communities that seek justice and reconciliation. As a church planter, it changes everything to be reassured that this call arises from the Word, not our own good ideas or intentions.

Duke Kwon is the lead pastor of Grace Meridian Hill (www.GraceMeridianHill.org), a new congregation in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C. He received master’s degrees in divinity (2003) and theology (2004) from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

A Holy Interruption
By Lisa Yebuah

I grew up in the church. I remember feeling so unsettled by the images that flashed across the television screen during the 1994 Rwandan genocide -- but in no way did I connect that uneasiness with anything I was learning or doing in my own faith community. At best, my earliest formation in the church (and it was beautiful and deeply meaningful) compelled me to be a good Christian. However, I had not been taught what it is to be a co-laborer with the God who loves justice.

Then I went to seminary. Duke offered the gift of a "holy interruption" in my thinking. For the first time in my life, someone was actually asking me, "How will you be Christ's hands and feet in the world?" I learned to think differently about my partnership with the incarnate God who stepped into the sloppiness and messiness and even into the genocides of this world. Duke had me convinced that faith in Christ could not be lived like one who stands behind a large glass window, fingers pressed against it, watching the world go by on the other side. Resurrection changes our job description to stand on the other side, pressing into the world’s hurts with the God who redeems them. Thanks be to God for holy interruptions!

Lisa Yebuah serves as the pastor of Inviting Ministries at Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. She earned her master’s in divinity from Duke Divinity School in 2004.

Liberation for All
By Kathryn Anderson

I used to have a rich people problem: I couldn't stand them. At the Catholic Worker house where I volunteered in college, a fellow volunteer and I would make fun of rich white people and their misplaced priorities. (Eyes rolling: Look at them buying salad spinners because heaven forbid their lettuce be wet!) They embarrassed us with their misdirected attempts at charity and failure to understand equality and social change. I was angry at Whole Foods, which I regarded as a vehicle for rich white people to assuage their guilt: "Oh sure, you people can afford cage-free eggs and grass-fed, organic beef! Do you even understand what it's like to be poor?" my internal monologue railed. I felt my heart hardening. I felt my love pulling away from all people and directing itself to only some people. And I felt my love for those, my love for Lady Poverty, to be hollow.

When, later, I returned to school to study pastoral ministry, we read Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire begins by asserting that both the oppressed and the oppressors have a role to play in the work for liberation. The guests at the Catholic Worker, the suburbanites who spent one Sunday a month volunteering in the soup line, the suits downtown who didn't know we existed, and the middle-class college students who spent a summer there -- all needed community, justice, liberation, and salvation.

From time spent with Freire, I began to see my ministry as giving everyone a chance at liberation by offering all the chance to participate in transforming our unjust society. All of us -- rich and poor alike -- are to be believed in. All of us have a tremendous responsibility and a tremendous ability. And all of us -- rich and poor alike -- are to be loved.

Kathryn Anderson earned a master’s in pastoral ministry from Boston College’s Institute for Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry in 2008; she currently serves as director of social justice ministry at Centro Altagracia de Fe y Justicia in New York City.

Primary Love
By Naomi Brown

In my second year of seminary, I traveled with a poverty organization to Mississippi and Tennessee to study poverty. In Mississippi, blacks and whites worshipped in separate churches and were buried in different cemeteries. It was 2008: Where was the love? Some seminarians simply observed; those who walked in the love of Christ sought a remedy. We wanted to address it, not to discuss it.

Rhetoric is futile; love is true fruit from the vine.

Naomi Brown, after working for the U.S. Department of Justice for 25 years, attended Union Theological Seminary, graduated in 2009, and is pursuing ordination while in ministry at New Greater Bethel Ministries in Queens, New York.

The Least of These
By Melanie Weldon-Soiset

Before my Master of Divinity studies, I never would have associated children's ministry and social justice. Though I enjoyed being a camp counselor in college, I did not perceive how playing with kids related to advocacy and hospitality.

This changed in my ethics class, examining the ethics of marriage and family. Never before had I considered why the church is called to invite children into service and worship. I had never pondered how many people, and lamentably many Christians, treat children at best as a fun distraction, and at worst as a liability or faction to exploit.

Jesus reminded the indignant religious leaders of his day that God ordains praise from the lips of children (Matthew 21:15-16). Children are not empty vessels -- they have their own praise and calling to offer to God. When we stop seeing any group of people merely as helpless dependents, and instead recognize their God-given dignity, potential, and ability to bless us through relationship, then we are heeding God's call to social justice. Seminary helped me see that call not only through working with immigrants and refugees (who are often the ones who care for children), but also in children’s ministry.

Melanie Weldon-Soiset is the director of Christian education at Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. She received her master’s in divinity from Wesley Theological Seminary in 2010.

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