Apr 11 2008

Famous Last Words

A new, end-of-the-year tradition came into being around the time I enrolled at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Each April, as the dogwoods blossom and graduation seems just around the corner, the Candler community gathers to honor the faculty members who are retiring that year in an event known as “Famous Last Words.” This year, Dr. Jon P. Gunnemann, Professor of Social Ethics, and Dr. M. Thomas Thangaraj, the D.W. and Ruth Brooks Associate Professor of World Christianity, are both retiring from Candler and shared some of their “last words” with this us on Wednesday. As Dr. Thangaraj started he said, “Famous words?…certainly not. Last words?…I hope not!” Both professors playfully shared some of their fondest memories and celebrations from their time at the seminary. The luncheon was a wonderful reminder of how special Candler is, not only to its students, but to the faculty and staff who are living out their vocational call here.

Both Dr. Gunnemann and Dr. Thangaraj reflected on their time of teaching and being in community at Candler. It was evident through their words, laughter, and memories that Candler has shaped them and their theology in profound ways. Not only have they been shaped by Candler, but the Candler community has also been shaped and reshaped during the years they taught here. One of the classes Dr. Thangaraj teaches each year is Images of Christ in World Christianity. He shared with us that the first semester he taught at Candler in 1988, he had eight students in the class from six different countries. In his final semester teaching, he offered an open enrollment so that every student who wanted could take the class. Dr. Thangaraj has 80 students in his Images of Christ in World Christianity class this semester. As he said, “It took 20 years to perfect it.”

In a similar vain, Dr. Gunnemann talked about the variety of changes and transformations of Candler and Emory during the 26 years he has taught here. As he named all the people, projects, and resources he was grateful for during his tenure at Candler, he opened by reflecting on the faculty who were already at Candler when he arrived in 1981. These courageous faculty members laid the groundwork for change and social justice, particularly in helping integrate Candler, which was the first school at Emory to admit African American students. That naturally led into him celebrating Candler’s commitment to diversity.

Dr. Gunnemann shared that when he first arrived at Candler in 1981, only 5% of the student body was African American and only 26% of students were woman. We have certainly come a long way in nearly 3 decades, and we can proudly boast that 50% of our student body is women, 25% is African American, and 10% is international students. Just over 40% of our students are United Methodist, and we represent over 50 different denominations and faith traditions throughout our student body. Dr. Thangaraj described that when he first arrived at Candler, when anyone mentioned the word “world” everyone would look as him, “as if I was in charge of it,” he said. But now he and Dr. Gunnemann both celebrated that we are all talking about the world and realize that the whole world matters, particularly as we prepare students for Christian service and leadership.

Both Dr. Gunnemann and Dr. Thangaraj spent significant time talking about how much they love teaching. Each, in his own way, thanked the generations of students who have helped teach them a thing or two. As Dr. Thangaraj put it, “Teaching has become my way of learning.” Dr. Gunnemann is grateful for those students who have pushed him and have also been receptive to thinking about the world and theology differently.

Dr. Gunnemann closed by encouraging us to boldly live out the Great Commandment and ended by quoting Micah 6:8 by saying, “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” These famous words from scripture resound in my heart and continue to call me to action every time I hear them. On further reflection, we did hear some famous (last) words on Wednesday—words that have been taught, preached, and lived out for generations; words from the living gospel; words that heal, offer hope, and call us forward. Dr. Gunnemann and Dr. Thangaraj’s words offer a witness to how words can become a living truth and move us to a deeper relationship with God and with our neighbors here at Candler and in the world.

There will be many more opportunities to hear famous words spoken, prayed, and taught here at Candler. If you are discerning if seminary is the next step in your faith journey, we hope that you will seriously consider Candler School of Theology. For more information about applying to Candler, please visit our website, email us at candleradmissions@emory.edu, or call us at 404.727.6326. You can also find us on Facebook, MySpace, and Second Life and would enjoy interacting with you through those social networking sites.