Why Community Studies?

Second-year M.Div. student Shari Woodbury reflects back on the first year of the Touchpoint program

“We act ourselves into new ways of thinking.”  Meadville’s Touchpoint curriculum is built on this foundational insight about learning. That’s why first-year students spend eight hours per week volunteering at community agencies:  feeding the hungry, offering companionship to elders, supporting those struggling to break free of addiction, assisting refugees with job searches.

Each community site serves as a microcosm of humanity – a living, breathing, loving, aching “text” – through which the other assigned texts of the Community Studies seminar may be filtered and applied. “Where do you see beauty, brokenness, hope, religion at your site?” “Give some examples of the five faces of oppression.” In our cyber-connected student Dialogue Triads, we drew on our sites to engage such topics weekly.

I chose to volunteer at the Shalom Community Center, a day shelter serving homeless people. This brought me face to face with a level of misfortune and poverty that I have never personally known. At the hospitality desk, I handed out toiletries and checked peoples’ mail folders. I also wandered around wearing a badge with a picture of an ear and the words “I’m here to listen.”

People spoke of estranged relationships. Job interviews. Car problems. Growing up in foster care and the juvenile justice system. I heard about hopes for a new apartment. Diabetes and bi-polar disorder. Worries about a teenaged son skipping school. Some confided in me about their struggle to quit drinking. Their loved ones taken by cancer, by murder. The challenges of caring for a newborn. Their history of suicide attempts.prayer jar with listening badge

Now we all know that homeless people struggle to meet basic physical needs for food, shelter and safety. I witnessed a struggle, no less significant, to meet basic spiritual needs for hope, love and respect. I also saw firsthand both the love and fear, the judgment and generosity, through which different community members responded to homelessness.

The final project for the class was to help us integrate what we had learned over the year. I chose to write and record a song. The stories and struggles I witnessed were so personal and poignant that music seemed the best way to evoke them. (You can find the Shalom song at http://youtu.be/kUsrb_Gku7g). My classmates’ final projects – slide shows, rich papers, visual art creations, poems and more – likewise bore powerful witness to the people we served – people who have indelibly shaped our sense of community, love and accountability.

Lived knowledge is different than book learning. It goes deeper. It gets under our skin, slips around our egos, punctures our preconceptions, opens our hearts. It makes the once invisible, forever unforgettable. It can turn pray-ers into prophets, listeners into leaders.

Community Studies enriched my understanding of community, brought me closer to my bright and tender peers, and nurtured my nascent pastoral identity. Just as importantly, it deepened my conviction that to live up to its promises of unity in diversity and love without borders, Unitarian Universalism must put its values into action in the community… and not only that, but we must invite the silenced voices to speak in our spaces and to transform our faith, from the inside out. Together in community, we can act ourselves into new ways of being and make our world more whole.

From The President

ATS Re-Accreditation

ImageOver the last many years, Meadville Lombard has sought to create a vibrant ministerial formation process that is relevant for service in the 21st century while updating our facilities and assuring financial stability. In the necessary experimentation to reach our dreams we have sometimes stumbled, but always with a determination to strengthen this school and ultimately serve Unitarian Universalism through the ministers we prepare. Two years ago, with the Meadville Lombard TouchPointSM model of theological education fully introduced, our relocation to the South Loop completed, and economic sustainability realized, we felt we were at a brief resting place, a plateau from which to look backward with satisfaction and forward to new initiatives that will build on our success.

So I was taken by surprise by how emotionally affected I was when all that we had accomplished was decisively affirmed by the official letter I received from The Association of Theological Schools last week.

The ATS Board of Commissioners reaffirmed our accreditation for a full period of ten years, to spring 2023 and approved our four degree programs. That was wonderful news in and of itself. But then the letter went on to rave about what we have done here, encouraging us to maintain:

“The collaborative process engaged by the school’s leadership…[that] has established for this seminary a unique niche in graduate theological education…”

“…an imaginative curriculum that is creatively delivered to a distinctive audience.”

“The new sense of nimbleness that has led to an amazing turnaround over the last decade…”,

“…an agile model that is mission-driven, market-sensitive, and monetarily sustainable.”

My sense of gratitude is enormous. I am so proud of our Provost Dr. Sharon Welch and our awesome faculty, our small but amazingly efficient administrative staff, and the distinguished UU leaders who have served as our trustees over the years of tough decisions and brave initiatives. And I am also deeply grateful to all of you: our alums who daily prove the value of a Meadville Lombard education by your ministries, our supporters whose confidence is registered by your generous donations, and our students who have always believed in our future.

If you want to read the entire text of the ATS letter, you can find it here.

This is a great day for Unitarian Universalism as we celebrate Meadville Lombard as a seminary that is indisputably recognized as a leader in theological education – the way it should be!

Sincerely,

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Rev. Dr. Lee Barker

President and Professor of Ministry

A Life Changing Experience

Doug McCusker, a third year student at Meadville Lombard Theological School, shares his experience in El Salvador:

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The school as we left it – another delegation is due to come in August to do the brick laying.

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The soccer field in the middle of the village right after one of the daily torrential downpours

My experience in El Salvador was truly a life changing event. For 18 days I was part of a delegation from River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation that crossed ethnic, class, and language borders to be in solidarity with rural indigenous people of the El Roble community in reconstructing their village elementary school which was destroyed during El Salvador’s bloody civil war. We were witnesses to disturbing testimony of the atrocities and violence that Salvadorans lived with for 12 years, which was fueled by military assistance by the United States to the tune of $1M a day between 1980 and 1992. We learned about liberation theology and about the courage of Monsignor Oscar Romero who is revered as an unofficial saint by the poor people of El Salvador.

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Me and the horse that I rode into the jungle to help my host family work on their corn field along the slopes of the volcanic mountain

Almost immediately, the community adopted us and integrated us into all aspects of their daily lives. The delegation consisted of 13 youths and 4 adults. We all lived in the homes of our hosts, ate food that they prepared for us, played with their children, and shared stories about our families and cultures. We took daily baths by pouring buckets of cold water over our heads. We ate fruits pulled from trees that were all over the village. However, I never got used to the mangoes that fell with a crash on the corrugated aluminum roofs in the middle of the night. The ladies cooked for us and washed our sweaty clothes every morning at the communal washing pilas. In the jungle where we stayed, it was the rainy season and there was no escaping mud everywhere. Unfortunately, because the children do not have a school in their

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The young girls of the village performing a traditional dance on our last night in the village

village, they have to walk 10 kilometers on muddy roads straight up the volcanic mountain to the next village. We took turns each day walking the children to school. We worked alongside the men of the village in the searing heat. We used sledgehammers to demolish what was left of the bombed out school. We dug trenches with shovels and picks and poured buckets of cement into rebar structures that we built by hand to establish the foundation of the new school. The work was hard, but knowing that we were not only building a foundation for the school but an educational foundation for generations of youngsters made it a labor of love.We found a way to have fun as we built a solid multicultural team of construction workers. I enjoyed watching the youth make mundane tasks like carrying 1700 bricks up the hill into a game. I cherished my siestas in the hammock and the soccer and softball games after work.

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The father of the home that I was staying at as he looks over his corn field

One of my jobs was to lead the nightly worship and reflections. As the days went on, the youth delved deeper and deeper into the new experiences and connections that they were making. I was also one of few Spanish speakers in the delegation so I served as a translator on many occasions. On the 4th of July we joined another delegation of medical students from Indiana University who were working in a clinic nearby to treat the village to a historical presentation of the signing of the declaration of independence and a musical performance of the Star Spangled Banner. We held a barbecue, ate watermelon, exploded fireworks and sang songs from both our cultures around a communal bonfire. Then on the last day, the community threw us a farewell fiesta complete with children dancing to traditional songs in their folklore costumes. Of course we all danced to salsa, hip hop, and disco music. I’ll never forget the emotional goodbyes as we went from house to house to thank everyone for welcoming us into their community with such open and loving hearts. As we walked the muddy road it seemed like all the dogs and chickens joined us. At every home we were showered with hugs and tears forged by the universal kinship of deep human relationships.

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RRUUC delegation with the village children as we were saying goodbye to all the families

Before leaving the country we spent a day on the beautiful beach of La Libertad body surfing to the warm crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. I actually had 2 bonus days in El Salvador because one of the youth got so sick just before leaving that she couldn’t board the plane. I stayed behind with the sick girl and her sister until we could get a flight out. We made the most of our free time in San Salvador by seeing sites and relaxing in the home of friends that we’d made along the way. The non-profit organization that coordinated our trip, Companion Community Development Alternatives (CoCoDA) took good care of us and made sure that we had a well-rounded experience of fun learning, meaningful work, spiritual faith development and multicultural border crossing at the human level.