Cross-Cultural Program Enriches Beyond Imagination

By Sara Milford

Students from The School of Theology who are on the M.Div. track are not required to engage in a cross-cultural experience, but if current engagement is any indication, full participation is not far off. The contextual education program provides a way for students to begin to reflect on their ministry in a post-Christendom era by seeing the world and their racial, religious, and social group from another culture’s perspective. Students who participate in the program most often find their education enriched beyond what they imagined.

The Rev. Holly Scherff, T'15, from the Diocese of Iowa, received a Seminary Consultation on Mission (SCOM) grant that funded a large portion of her trip to the small country of Swaziland, Africa, last July. Previous mission trips to the area fueled her desire for a return trip, but on this trip, Scherff brought with her a sharpened sense of listening and sharing that had been cultivated by her work at her field education site, the Magdalene House in Nashville, Tenn., a program for women who have survived lives of prostitution, trafficking, addiction, and life on the streets.

Scherff spent one morning during her time in Swaziland at a women's rehabilitation home that consisted mostly of teenagers. On this occasion, she was asked to share the word of God and a brief testimony with them. “Sharing a story from my life with these women, connecting my story with their story, and connecting their story with the women at Magdalene House brought the whole experience full-circle,” Scherff says. She told the women, “We all have to stand in solidarity, no matter what the abuse.” Sensing that this was a significant experience not only for herself but also for the young women, she asked the home’s mentor, Mother Orma, what it meant for them. “It means,” Orma replied, “we were connected as sisters, and that they see hope.”

Hope is a precious commodity in an area where feeding stations for school children exist by the generosity of others, and where little girls “go nuts” when they find glittery shirts in their size in the bundles of donated clothes that mostly consist of men's shirts. Such observations altered Scherff's perspective on money and true need. “Six hundred dollars per month provides food for four feeding stations,” she said in disbelief, thinking about the cost of her plane ticket alone. Showing pictures of the kids with their plates heaped high, she reflects that, for some, it was their only meal of the day.

Josh Stephens, T’16, traveled to Cuba during Christmas break with a group of students and faculty from The School of Theology. This was not the first time that several in the group had been to Cuba, but Stephens was moved by it being his first experience there. “We spent a lot of time with the clergy—priests and deacons who serve one small parish on Saturday and then hitchhike for hours in order to celebrate the Eucharist Sunday morning elsewhere,” explained Stephens. “It seemed to me that they are not only ordained leaders but they are also disciples of Jesus who are willing to serve God at great personal cost. It forced me to reflect on what priestly discipleship really looks like. The parishes we visited loved their priests deeply but each member of the church had a ministry that they made their own. The parish is brought to life by the laity claiming their own baptismal ministries.” 

“The next generation of church leaders are going to be working in an increasingly diverse world,” says the Rt. Rev. J. Neil Alexander, dean of The School of Theology, a leading advocate for the cross-cultural program. “My privilege as bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta was that I got to travel across the Anglican Communion. Seeing firsthand the diverse contexts—how church in those places functions and gives witness to Jesus—was tremendously formative. Those studying for ministry have to be increasingly conscious of cross-cultural realities, not only how things are different across the world but also within North America.”

The School’s cross-cultural program reflects that geographic range by allowing for both international and domestic opportunities. The Rev. Nancee Cekuta, T'15, from the Diocese of Atlanta, was also a recipient of a SCOM grant and was the first seminarian in 20 years to serve on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. The impact of the almost nine-week experience under the mentorship of the Rev. Dr. Lauren Stanley sends Cekuta into her future ministries with great passion to “take a sense of justice to help the invisible be seen.”

“Living on the Rez, the psalms come alive, and the Old Testament is palpable because of the geography and characteristics,” describes Cekuta. It was “like living in the early Episcopal Church.” The churches on the reservation were built in the late 1800s and parsonages were on the glebe—property owned by the church. The parsonage in which she stayed was next to a parish and an old boarding school that had been converted to a dormitory for visiting mission groups. Stories from the past were as much a reality as the despairing present.

“The Lakota intuitively know who is authentic and who's not,” says Cekuta. “Living with them those nine weeks, I gained a bit of this insight.” This insight revealed for her the importance of relationship in mission work, of working with a community. Living with the Lakota enabled her to see reservation life firsthand: houses with less than 600 square feet holding 15 people, food stamps not covering the high cost of food, and watching traditional ways die with the elders (many whom are fortunate to live past 50). Within these conditions, Cekuta said, she was “constantly trying to balance the past, present, and future” while “trying to carry the message of hope that ultimately sustains us.”

One of the key features for the cross-cultural program is experiencing how Christian hope is lived and practiced in various contexts. Although something the School has always offered, the rev. Kammy Young, the School’s director of contextual education and lecturer in contextual theology, has brought new energy to the program through her personal experiences in Peru, Haiti, South Africa, and the Taize community in France. She also redesigned the program’s infrastructure, meeting with each student individually to customize their experience by building on their existing passions and relationships or developing those that will be utilized by their diocese or church.

The Rev. Kemper Anderson, T'15, also journeyed to Africa for his cross-cultural experience. “Tanzania was not my idea,” he confesses, and gives credit to the Holy Spirit for a persistent call. Nor was it his intention to do anything but observe while in the Diocese of Central Tanganyika, the sister diocese of his sending Diocese of Atlanta. Anderson thought he would be shadowing the Rev. Daudi Chilemu, the local Anglican priest, through his daily rounds, but Chilemu had other ideas. Instead, Anderson participated in two weeks of intensive evangelism, of which Anderson was to be the star.

“Though I felt unprepared to be an evangelist, I came to understand that God would provide me with everything I needed to accomplish the task that had been set before me,” Anderson said, sharing the most significant experience of his trip. “Being taken completely out of my routine allowed me to take a real leap of faith.” Viewing photographs of Anderson with guitar in hand or sharing a grateful smile with those offering gifts, one realizes that he was indeed well-equipped to sing and to share with the people who showed him a different way to survive and thrive, a different way to walk the road of discipleship.

Every cross-cultural experience is as unique as the student. The value and transformation depend greatly upon the willingness of the student to reflect deeply and to be changed. Whether the experience is at home or abroad does not matter as much as the intention to engage sincerely. As students travel between communities, they strengthen the global network in which the seminary participates, but it is not just about places and numbers. Relationships are being developed and nurtured as sisters and brothers greet each other in the name of Christ, sharing a message of hope across all cultures.

Young shares Alexander's enthusiasm for the program and for its continued growth and success, saying, “The School of Theology’s vision is to build up opportunities and funding so that every student can have a cross-cultural experience.”

“We tend, by default,” Young shares, “to view the world primarily from a place of familiarity. But the world is an ever-widening circle, moving us in the direction of greater awareness and fullness of being. This is so much more like the world as God sees it and this kind of extending beyond the familiar leads to soulful and societal transformation. These are exactly the kinds of insights that Alexander and Young hope will equip all students at The School of Theology with the motivation, skills, and sensibilities that the missional Church needs.

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