Karen Anne Halac, ’04 M.Div., ’07 S.T.M.
B.A., B.B.A., Texas Christian University
I have learned to never be too rigid with plans for tomorrow, because tomorrow really will take care of itself. To begin with, I never planned to apply to divinity school. In 1999, I first entered Marquand Chapel to attend a friend's installation as rector of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. When I greeted her, she took both of my hands and insisted, “You belong here. You would love it here. You must apply.” She was right.
Ever since a mission trip to Tanzania in 1998, I was growing disenchanted with my work in the financial services world. While that mission trip did not change my worldview, it certainly confirmed it after I personally witnessed unimaginable suffering and injustice. Returning to work in an international asset management firm with a designated minimum account size of $25 million was no longer bearable after seeing children die of disease and hunger for lack of what we count as pocket change. My volunteer work with World Vision, Greenwich World Hunger Association, and other charities was no longer enough. A health crisis following that mission trip pushed me further. I received a bewildering fatal diagnosis, and my husband and I spent two weeks contemplating this news and deeply evaluating our lives and choices before the hospital confirmed a laboratory error. At that point, the question “how then shall we live” had gained both urgency and poignancy. I walked away from Wall Street and into Yale Divinity School and have never looked back. Each day since confirmation of the mistaken diagnosis feels like ‘bonus time' in which I have greater freedom to make counter-cultural choices and pursue causes that the world does not necessarily affirm or even understand.
We also never planned for me to serve at the American Church in Paris (ACP) upon completion of my M.Div. in 2004, and yet the opportunity and call happened in a matter of weeks. During my supervised ministry in 2003 with YDS trustee and alumna Brenda Stiers '83 M.Div., she advised me to give myself to the life of a church for a year. The very next week, I noticed in the YDS newsletter Q-Source that the American Church in Paris was seeking a seminary graduate to serve as pastor to youth and young adults for a year. I joined ACP as a junior studying abroad in 1982 and was baptized and married there in 1983. My French husband, Jean-Luc Sinniger, and I were active members of ACP until moving to the United States in 1987. Returning there to serve in 2004 remains one of the greatest joys of my life, and the astonishing experiences in ministry there have expanded my faith and deepened my commitment to being what Brother Roger of Taizé called a “vocational ecumenist.” In working with Christians of very different backgrounds, my goal is always to affirm each believer in his or her own best understanding of what faith means and requires. It was a challenge at times to make safe and welcoming spaces for so many without diluting the essential on one end of the spectrum or being cornered into someone else's personal orthodoxy on the other. Because I believe strident and exclusionary claims to be far removed from the heart of Christ, I wanted to test what inclusive and all-embracing hospitality might look like in that very diverse population.
At a time when much of Europe is characterized as post-Christian, I am convinced that interdenominational Christian communities capable of living in unified and reconciled ways lift faith from perceived obsolescence and serve as beacons for a world bewildered by rapid globalization. Honoring the particularity of each member's specific denominational and doctrinal histories, beliefs, and hopes is easy. Balancing diverse points of view without allowing any of them to trump or over-ride the particular claims of others is more complex. A favorite rabbi calls it the “humility to disagree agreeably,” asserting that what unites us is far more precious than anything that divides us. Visitors to ACP are always astonished to see a joyous and worshipping community that looks more like the General Assembly of the United Nations than any church they have ever attended. An ecumenical community goes beyond mere “tolerance” of one another's particular truth claims to “toleration.” Ethicist Michael Walzer insists that one cannot possibly impose “tolerance” (a feeling), but can strive meaningfully for “toleration” (a set of agreements about how to live respectfully and creatively in a diverse community and pluralistic society).
The diverse environment of Yale Divinity School and the creative and faithful risks that take place in daily worship in Marquand Chapel offer wonderful preparation for ministry in multi-cultural settings. A recent panel of alumni asked students what training would better prepare them for ministry, and the overwhelming reply was “ecumenism.” While we have all greatly benefited from the experiential ecumenical learning environment of YDS life and chapel, students expressed the need for classes about how to “do” (and teach) ecumenism. Many YDS students deplore the destructive conduct and rhetoric wreaking havoc in their own particular denominations and wonder how healing and reconciliation can take place. I spent some time during summer 2006 at the World Council of Churches in Geneva looking for answers to such questions and returned there this summer looking for additional ways to support international and interdenominational communities when the delicate balance of mutual respect and toleration is threatened by persons attempting to dictate the right way of being church. A WCC publication, Participating in God's Mission of Reconciliation , as well as an interview with Simon Oxley (WCC coordinator of Educational and Ecumenical Education), have proven helpful at the congregational level and also point to ways in which our global Christian community can be healed. Oxley grieved about the ways in which we will all be accountable to God for important things left undone while we allow church fights – local and global – to blind us to the needs of the stranger in our midst.
I spent this summer in France doing research, writing, visiting Taizé, the American Church in Paris and the World Council of Churches in Geneva to continue to explore the ways in which Christian ecumenism practiced thoughtfully and with humility can point to peaceful and creative ways forward for a world troubled by the complexities of pluralism. In the fall, I return to teach ethics courses at the University of New Haven while preparing my own Ph.D. applications. But, as I said at the outset, I have learned never to be too rigid with plans for tomorrow…
As for the recent past, I am profoundly grateful to more Yale faculty, staff, and students than I could possibly name here for all that they have taught me in classrooms, conversations, and, most importantly, by example.