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Disrobing at Yale Divinity School: Private Selves, Public Identities

By Jonathan Wills, M.Div. '06

It was over a pitcher of beer at Archie Moore's that the theme for this year's All-School Conference was decided—“Disrobing: Our Private Selves and Public Identities.” Moore's has long been a favored watering hole where students from Yale Divinity School let down their hair, and one story heard about campus lately, perhaps apocryphal, has it that theological legends Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr even frequented the place. Thus, the popular establishment a few blocks east of YDS was a particularly fitting location to discussTaking Notes robing and disrobing.

“Many of the concerns that were coming across were individual lifestyle in dialogue with ministry,” said Conference co-coordinator, Joshua Rinas, M.Div. '06, in describing the Conference. “The robe represents the public self in contrast with the private.”

Sponsored by the YDS Community Life Committee, the Jan. 24-28 Conference hosted a series of panel discussions on materiality, spirituality, sexuality and psychology in relationship to ministry. The goal was to play with the duality of the private and the public, Rinas said. The two do not necessarily integrate.

Organizers hoped to shift some of the boundaries concerning public and private life in order to examine them, said conference co-coordinator Matthew Haugen, M.Div. ‘'06, “to reaffirm the boundaries we have in place or to make a change.” It was about self-awareness and self-examination.

The 2005 All-School Conference opened with student and faculty assembling outside Marquand Chapel. Event co-coordinator Leslie Woods, M.A.R. '05, asked those gathered to consider the significance of the robe, whether it is a bathrobe or a choir robe.

“We shed our outer layers in order to enter this worship space,” said Woods, as she invited students and faculty into worship.

Noelle Damico, representing the University of the Poor, the educational arm of the Poor People's Human Rights Campaign, took on the topic “material selves.”

Assembled in the Common Room and drinking free-trade coffee provided by Equal Exchange, students heard Damico call YDS students to social and environmental responsibility. So often when we talk about poverty we talk about statistics instead of people who are poor, she said, noting that The University of the Poor got its name “because it was poor people who started it.”

Much of Damico's presentation addressed the effectiveness of boycotts as a means to bring about social change. As an example, Damico offered the boycott of Taco Bell fast-food restaurants in protest of what she claimed was the company's refusal to address alleged exploitation of workers who harvest tomatoes. According to information provided by the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers, farm workers earn $50 for every two tons of tomatoes hauled.

This message may seem ironic coming from someone whose public identity is a middle class white pastor, Damico acknowledged. She called on the audience to leave her presentation thinking of themselves as more than consumers or people of faith but, additionally, as people ready to engage in the helping of others.

“There is really incredible work going on right now, and I would encourage you to learn more,” she said.  

Psychotherapist and spiritual director Judyth Branson discussed "spiritual and psychological selves" at a fireside chat sponsored by the James E. Annand Program for Spiritual Formation at YDS.

Addressing relationships and their effect on psychological development, Branson offered her insights on how people choose who they love. We choose partners who reflect back to us the positive and negative traits of our caregivers, she said. In understanding those caregiver relationships, one can understand how partner relationships lead to psychological fulfillment, she said.

Although psychological fulfillment is easier to achieve than spiritual fulfillment, she said, we need to mature spiritually as well as psychologically, which includes a grown-up conception of God.

Addressing sexuality in the context of “Private Selves and Public Identities” were YDS graduates Mike Morand, M.Div. '93, and Jamie Manson, M.Div. '02, at the panel “Being ‘Out' in the Workplace.”

Morand, the University's associate vice president for New Haven and state affairs, said being “out” at Yale was not terribly difficult, though it did come with its challenges.

“I knew that Yale was a place where the true self I knew could find a home,” recalled Morand, who graduated from Yale College in 1987.

For all the progress that has been made, there is still more to be done, he contended. As the first openly gay elected official in Connecticut , Morand had proposed a domestic partnership ordinance that lost by just one vote, he said. Today, as a Yale official, Morand continues to be open about his sexual orientation – “the only way to be,” he suggested. “ . . . open with ourselves and open with each other.”

Manson, director of publications at the Divinity School , argued that one of the tragedies of the church when it comes to sexuality is that the church has narrowed sex to a purely animal function. This fails to give justice to the emotional and spiritual power of sexuality, she said.

“All of these things are part of who we fall in with,” said Manson. “They define who we are attracted to.”

From year to year at YDS, Manson said, there appear to be fewer and fewer gay students and faculty. She suggested that that might be because people are feeling less comfortable being open with their sexuality, which she described as complex. Seminaries should grapple with these complexities, argued Manson, because churches have so much power over who we are.

“It makes me sad that the church and even the seminaries have not begun to deal with this,” said Manson. “Seminaries can unfortunately become bastions of repression.”

Sexuality was also a subject of the All-School Conference community dinner sponsored by the YDS Student Council. The conference concluded with a Fatted Cafe Dance Party cosponsored by the Yale Black Seminarians and the Yale Committee for Social Justice.

The Conference was organized around a budget of $2,000. “We were blessed to have speakers who came free of charge,” said Rinas. “We focused on what we do not normally pay attention to in this community.”

 

 


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