Recently, I’ve spent some time reflecting on my experience at Candler School of Theology. One thing that continues to stick out to me about why Candler is a great place for a seminary education is its focus on context. This context plays itself out in the classroom but also in our city. Atlanta is an international hub of activity – an urban epicenter – but nestled in an otherwise rural region. Candler students discern their vocation while serving Church and secular organizations addressing issues like homelessness, immigration, and equal rights among all people.
Context is built into the academic program for most students through Contextual Education; the MDiv degree requires that first year students serve four hours a week in a social service agency and second year students serve eight hours a week in an ecclesial setting. My first year offered the opportunity to serve at the MUST Ministries in Cobb County. While serving at MUST I learned a great deal about ministry with those experiencing homelessness. I remember helping one gentleman with an online job application, and he was more grateful for my help than I expected. It wasn’t just about being one step closer to a job; it was about overcoming the injustice of getting a job with an unaccommodating application process for those who had the job skills but lacked the computer skills necessary to apply for it. Furthermore, he told me that he would be able to sleep that night thanks to the peace that came from submitting a job application. My heart was broken as I considered the few nights of sleep I’d lost worrying about money or finding a job. How much more stressful it must be to want so badly to work, but not be able to. I learned quickly to respect those who are experiencing homelessness. Their ability to survive and cope is admirable amidst a world that often chastises rather than helping them in appropriate ways. Fortunately, the academic side of ConEd meant that we also had weekly reflection groups to help us process these new experiences and ways of seeing the world through a theological lens. But, the transformation I experienced at MUST made contextual education much more than an academic exercise.
Context is also experienced through voluntary service: a central part of the community life at Candler. Most student organizations and individuals are highly involved in outside programs that continue to contextualize this education. Some organizations focus on being in service to those within our community while others focus on issues that are world-wide. The leaders of student organizations gather every other week to make proposals and allocate student activity fund money to programs that center on justice issues. One local work day, organized by a fellow justice minded student, offered us the opportunity to get to know each other better, learn some new skills, and to make someone’s holidays a little better by helping them have their own home to celebrate in. Spending the day on a Habitat for Humanity build with other Candler students reminded me of the conditions of those more immediately around us. In the past month the Social Concerns Network also raised over $3000 for Haiti. In one event students from all of Emory were invited to participate in a chili-cook off and students who have served in Haiti presented on the organizations with which they served. The cook-off proceeds then went to support those organizations. It was great to see so many students from other schools come out and rally around an urgent need. In another event the community donated hundreds of shoes for a region that has no paved roads, very little electricity, and no public sanitation. The shoes will help prevent disease and gave the community an opportunity to give to a cause in which they might not have been able to otherwise. There are often opportunities to be involved like this for local, national, and international causes. It gives me a lot of hope about our future as the church to work and study with people whose hand is always on the margin.
I am grateful to be in a place that generates so much energy around contextualizing our vocational discernment process. Whether next door or on the other side of the world, there are a multitude of opportunities to be in service and to experience transformation. I am hopeful for the future of the church in which I intend to work because of the way I see and experience the preparation Candler offers.
Patrick is a second year MDiv student from Hutchinson, KS and a Student Ambassador. In addition to his time serving the community, he serves as a class representative to the Candler Coordinating Council and is a member of the Candler Singers.