Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

7/31 2018

Trusting God in the Middle of Uncertainty

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Hurricane Maria damage

Photo credit: Roosevelt Skerrit  https://www.flickr.com/photos/rooseveltskerrit/albums/72157686922251424, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62690583

 

I live in San Sebastián, Puerto Rico. On Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane María struck our island as the strongest cyclone in modern history with winds up to 175 mph and rainfall measuring up to 37.9 inches. My mother is the executive director of El Guacio, Puerto Rico’s only Presbyterian camp. Here, we passed the storm.

 

Each of the events that occurred in the camp resulted in great stories of faith and resilience.

Power, water, and communications completely fell a few hours in. When we were able to come outside, we saw we were trapped beneath many feet of branches. With help of the community, it took two days to leave the house and around 10 days to visit our family.

The camp has its own water source, but the pipes were destroyed. The community united and we were able to bring water to the camp. People came to fill their water needs and with a generator do daily tasks like wash their clothes. Help continued, and with donations we have been able to provide laundry services, water, refrigerators, stoves, food, supplies, and clothes, among other things, to families in need.

Ice was one of the scarcest resources. and with the help of a Presbyterian church in New York the camp got an ice machine distributing up to 800 pounds of ice daily. The camp has become a hub for mission. People who come to help and rebuild stay at the camp to visit the communities.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance visited the camp this year and saw the needs and how we provided assistance. They granted funds to the camp to be able to rebuild its infrastructure and give to the community. We are currently working to make a garden to plant fruits and vegetables so that the community may have a steady food resource.

My church experience led me to know the importance of the service work that was needed and to trust God in the middle of uncertainty. Looking back, I wish I had knowledge of how to prepare and have the supplies needed. It is alarming that due to climate change a hurricane like this may strike again in the next years. Each of the events that occurred in the camp resulted in great stories of faith and resilience. Through it all we have seen how God cares for God’s people and that we are all intertwined in the mission to serve.

Natanael (Nato) Rivera Vargas participated in the Seminary’s Miller Summer Youth Institute, a program for rising high school seniors to earn college credit while exploring what God is calling them to do and who God is calling them to be.

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6/4 2018

Is It Christian Enough? Watching “A Wrinkle in Time” with My Daughter

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A Wrinkle in Time movie posterMy eight-year-old daughter and I left the theater and walked into the bright afternoon sun holding hands. We’d just seen A Wrinkle in Time. That’s a pretty good way for a dad to finish a movie about a daughter who travels billions of light years to rescue her less-than-perfect father from the clutches of evil.

As she clenched my hand, she asked, “Dad, would you say that was a movie about self-discovery?”

“That was part of it. What do you think Meg discovered?”

“That who she is is who she was meant to be.”

Pretty good, I thought. “And who she is is worthy—and capable—of love, right?”

She just squeezed my hand and smiled.

But I bet there were some moviegoers not smiling, disappointed that the explicit Christian message of Madeleine L’Engle’s book morphed into the gospel of Oprah: You are good enough, so believe in yourself.

Though there was more to the movie than that, I can still imagine their whining that Jesus wasn’t mentioned, as he is in the book. Buddha, Rumi, Einstein, Mandela, yes—but Jesus? No.

But that didn’t bother me. For me the question is whether the message of the movie is one I want to shape the mind and the heart of my daughter. To which I answer: Yes.

 

Worthy of Love

As in the book, Meg must discover that she is worthy of love, despite the faults and fears she thinks disqualify her. I cheered when African-American Meg rejected the fantasy of herself conforming to the image society tells her is beautiful, an image that includes having straight hair like my white daughter’s. And I cheered that my daughter finally got to see a courageous heroine who doesn’t look like her.

I know from experience that any of us can mistakenly believe ourselves unworthy of love. We imagine we are not smart enough, athletic enough, beautiful enough, thin enough, rich enough—whatever enough—to fully belong, to be embraced by the human family and by the Love that moves the planets and the stars, a Love at the heart of the book and the movie.

But Meg discovered that she is worthy of love just as she is. And I’m learning that I am. And my daughter got to see what the journey to discover this can look like, and that it’s a journey worth taking.

 

Warrior of Light

But Meg didn’t just learn that she’s worthy of love. She also found that she’s capable of love, and that such a love as hers can drive back the forces of evil. As one who can love, Meg becomes what Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which call a “warrior of light.” She’s joined a great army. She’s now a participant in a light that is greater than her, a light that is laboring to banish evil from the cosmos.

It’s a calling I face every day: Don’t just bask in the light of love, like a cat curled up on a warm windowsill, but love—love fervently, actively, persistently. And it’s a call I hope my daughter is hearing. Encompassed by love, she too can love in simple, poignant, powerful ways.

Who knows what hope an eight-year-old’s love might unlock in this world?

 

The Name of the Light

My daughter woke up early the other morning and caught me in prayer. I was reading the assigned text for the day from the third chapter of John, the familiar passage about a God who loved a cosmos enough to send a Son.

The passage ends with a contrast between the way of light and the way of darkness. Those who follow the light experience the joy of knowing their “deeds are done in God.”

I gestured for her to join me in the La-Z-Boy. She walked over in her orange Halloween pajama bottoms, a too-large flannel shirt, and a menagerie of stuffed animals in her arms. When she climbed into my lap, I said, “Listen to this. I think it might remind you of the movie we saw.” And I read aloud the verses from John’s Gospel.

When I finished, she looked up at me and smiled knowingly, just as she did in the parking lot after the movie. She is loved. She is capable of love. She can be a warrior of light. And she knows it.

And she knows the Light’s name. She doesn’t need Hollywood to tell her that.

 

The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of Christian spirituality and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches courses in the MDiv, Doctor of Ministry, and Continuing Education programs. Before coming to PTS he served urban and rural churches for eight years in North Carolina as co-pastor with his wife, Ginger. He has written multiple books including The Shape of Participation: A Theology of Church Practices which was called “this decades best work in ecclesiology” by The Christian Century.

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5/31 2018

Dark and Lovely: Is God In It?

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In early May 2018, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary hosted Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes who spoke on “Race, Gender and Imago Dei.” Following the event, the Rev.  Oghene’tega Swann, a Doctor of Ministry Urban Change focus student at Pittsburgh Seminary, shared her reflection. The following post has been edited for length; the original blog “Dark and Lovely: Is God In It? A Reflection on the 2018 Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Schaff Lectures on Race, Gender and the Imago Dei” can be accessed on the CBE-Voices of Color Chapter website.

Pittsburgh Theological Seminary has been a theological haven since I first discovered it four years ago while searching for the ‘right’ place and focus for my Doctor of Ministry program. Something very warm stirred in me as I encountered their commitment to creating and holding dedicated space for social justice issues and their commitment to diversity and inclusion. I almost yelled “hallelujah!” when on my first day on campus, I ran into three people of color faculty members, who were not just men of color, but also women of color. A Black woman was head of the Metro-Urban Institute, a Black man was one of the Deans, two Black men headed two departments, a Black woman (ooh, I was so excited to sit it on her class – c’mon now!) and an Asian man were theology and church history professors respectively….

Long before my program would start, I’d sign up for credit course work in Environmental Justice and sit on a Black Women in Theology class. I would attend these classes that were like water in a thirsty land, and leave in an all time high as professors, White and Black, demonstrated their awareness and commitment to social justice issues as a Christian issue! I’d finally found a place that reconciled my faith with my commitment to social justice issues. I was home!

It was as though, like a good lover, the seminary wanted to keep the fires of our love burning hot by not slacking on that which I fell in love with. The seminary successfully ensconced its place in my heart with several periodic seminars every year, dedicated to social justice issues of gender and racial equality and which were often led by people of color. People who were concerned (and there are a lot) came from all over Pittsburgh and beyond for these events. I remember attending my first social justice event. I had just started reading the most fascinating and theologically sound book on racial equality and the Imago Dei by Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, when I found out he would be the guest speaker at one of these seminars/conferences. It was on! Come hail or high water, I would be there and I was!

Pittsburgh Theological Seminary has done a marvelous job of demonstrating what matters to God’s heart to its surrounding community, as it has faithfully served as the center for healing and reconciliation by providing resources and space for learning about and becoming equipped to tackle social justice issues for the entire community. These programs, which are open to the public, draw a wide audience from all spheres of life–secular and religious–and unites them in one purpose: to learn to love and practice justice and show mercy.

 

Race, Gender and Imago Dei

Getting my time with Dr. Walker-Barnes
Getting my time with Dr. Walker-Barnes

 

This year’s Schaff Lectures was no different. People came from far and wide to hear Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes speak on “Race, Gender and Imago Dei.” This was a must-attend for me, as I’d been enthralled since day one of reading Dr. Walker-Barnes’ book Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength about five years ago.

The first day at PTS, Dr. Walker-Barnes spoke about “Until All of Us Are Free: How Racial Reconciliation Fails Black Women” and “Tell the Storm I’m New: What Real Reconciliation Looks Like.”

Using Alice Walker’s The Color Purple as the lens through which she wanted the audience to envision the struggle of Black women, Dr. Walker-Barnes helped us identify how talks of racial reconciliation still leaves out justice for Black women. In a message that I have paraphrased, she showed us how in a world that treasures male and  White skin, Black women still can’t win. She went on to delineate how what we typically wrap up as reconciliation talks really further marginalizes Black women. And the crowning point of her message (for me): was the message that a Black woman’s equality comes from her own wrestling and confronting the injustices she experiences; her equality is not something that’s handed to her from the outside, rather it’s something she takes on her own. She realizes she is inherently worthy and she claims her space and place in society – on her own terms. Too often, the costly Band-aid approach to racial reconciliation eliminates Black women’s space and place because it does not allow the Black woman to present her self-realized self to the world. Instead, it’s the world still trying to define her place for her. Finally, she let us know that reconciliation is a journey. It’s not something you accomplish just by sitting at the table. Dominant people groups have to take ownership for how their privilege comes at great cost to others. Just like Celie in The Color Purple, marginalized people groups and women of color have to be allowed to work through (not rushed) the effects of misogyny from all men and White women and after all this, the world needs to be ready to take women of color on her own terms!

 

Truth-telling

These lectures were attended by Caucasian men and women, as well as men and women of color. Hard questions were asked by all, and even harder answers were given, but there was a true spirit of humility, repentance, and a willingness to hear and affirm the message. White and Black men genuinely wanted to know how they could do better. In addition to recommending educational material, Dr. Chanequa told them, “Stop demanding our silence and stand beside us in our demand for justice.”

The morning before Dr. Walker-Barnes ended the Schaff Lectures, the Seminary put together a special breakfast just for Dr. Walker-Barnes and the women in ministry in the area. It was an amazing time of healing, sharing, learning, and encouraging one another facilitated by Dr. Walker-Barnes. But, nothing could have prepared me for Dr. Walker-Barnes’ closing words at the Schaff Lectures.

The Lectures ended with her sermon in chapel “When Their Sin Makes Us Hate Our Skin.” The texts were excerpts of the Shunamite’s soliloquoy from Song of Solomon 1:5-6

Dark am I, yet lovely,
daughters of Jerusalem,
dark like the tents of Kedar,
like the tent curtains of Solomon.
Do not stare at me because I am dark,
because I am darkened by the sun.
My mother’s sons were angry with me
and made me take care of the vineyards;
my own vineyard I had to neglect.

Reiterating the age-old struggle of the theologians and the church to identify the place of Songs of Solomon in theology, yet used these two verses to show how society continues to shame women of color, particularly Black women. She showed how society still only affirms women of color the closer they approximate White beauty standards, but how the Shunamite’s affirmation of her dark skin, was in itself an act of resistance: “Dark am I,…lovely.”

I leave out the word in between “I” and “lovely” because of the focus Dr. Walker-Barnes drew to it. For example, the fact that many translations qualify the Shunamite’s loveliness as despite her ‘blackness,’ thereby, furthering the notion that Black is not an acceptable beauty standard. Yet, she says, that the Shunamite’s speech and affirmation of her dark skin, was her piéce de resistance: Dark am I and lovely.

Dr. Walker-Barnes treatise of the Shunamite’s standing up for herself and asserting her worthiness (before men of her own heritage and men and women of lighter-skinned heritage) as one equally created in God’s image, summarized and affirmed the growing movement of women of color to stand up for themselves and affirm their worthiness just as they are: dark skin, kinky hair, thick lips, etc.

The Shunamite woman stands in the canon and reminds us of both the age-old struggle to suppress Black women and other women of color and the righteous resistance such women must put forth: dark am I, and lovely.

Our blackness is not an apology. It is a declaration that we are made in God’s image.

Perhaps, with Dr. Walker-Barnes’ treatise, Bible scholars and theologians may have found the purpose of Song of Solomon after all. The declaration of the Imago Dei in the bodies of Black women. Thus, she concluded: Maybe God is in it (the Song of Solomon, as well as the bodies of Black women) after all. I agree.

I will always be grateful to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary for using its resources to amplify the voices of the marginalized, as I cannot recount the countless times this seminary has pulled together the secular and religious community to hear ‘hard truths.’ No flinching, tell it as it is,  and then let’s find a way forward truth. Through this service, PTS maintains a prophetic presence and witness in the city of Pittsburgh, as it has become a place that affirms and confronts the brokenness in our humanity and communities, and then models the posture of humility and repentance for the community. I love Pittsburgh Theological Seminary! Did I already say that??? Oh, well!

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