Convocation and Reunions 2009: New life and the unfettering of bonds

By Gustav Spohn
Director of Communications and Publications

At Convocation and Reunions 2009, not one—but two—of the four sermons delivered were based on the Gospel of John’s account of the unbinding of Lazarus, a story of renewed life and freedom from bonds that can hold people and institutions captive.

MossIn a sense, the Lazarus story provided a motif for much of this year’s gathering, where participants were treated to an alumni awards luncheon in a newly renovated Old Refectory—mothballed for the past decade; where the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered and Queer (LGBTQ) Coalition celebrated 30 years of activism for gay and lesbian rights with observations of how strong hostilities have gradually loosened at YDS over the years; and where alumni spoke of invigorated energies even as they grappled with the severe constraints imposed on the faith community in the current economy.

Otis Moss III ’95 M.Div., pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, delivered a stirring call-and-response sermon in the African American tradition that drew linkages between social justice and spirituality and drew a number of robust responses from the congregation.

His sermon on Lazarus noted that Jesus listened to the pleas of the sisters of Lazarus although they were women and that everyone present was enlisted to remove the stone from Lazarus’s tomb.

“It is the sisters who are at the center point, even though they live in a patriarchal society,” observed Moss.  “Jesus does not need to hear a male voice in order to respond.”

And the Gospel account of the removal of the stone, Moss declared, suggests a collective response to evil that binds and confines: “You must be involved in removing the stench in your community,” said Moss, adding, “There must be preparation before resurrection.”

Following Moss the next day, on Oct. 14, as preacher for the morning worship service was Sharon Watkins ’84 M.Div., general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  Like Moss, Watkins preached on Lazarus, calling on Christians to “reach out to each other to pull off those bonds, reveal the life that Christ has given us—abundant life, full life, life intended to be lived loving God and loving neighbor.”

WatkinsThen Watkins identified some of those bonds, including “bonds of prejudice against hard-working immigrants here separated from family;” “bone weariness around a single mother or a minimum wage dad working several jobs to keep food on the table;” “bonds of lingering racism that still hold us captive;” “bonds of loneliness and insecurity.”

Amid the gloomy economy, at a time when many alumni and their congregations are feeling the financial pinch, there was room for some good news and feelings of hope.

Members of the YDS Class of 1959 raised the bar several notches when class representatives announced a class gift believed to be the largest one-time YDS class reunion gift on record.  According to reunion gift chair Ralph Barlow, about one-third of the class contributed to the gift, which totaled $122,860, including a matching gift from the University.  The gift, announced at a reunion luncheon on the first day of Convocation and Reunions, will be used in support of a new Global Opportunities Fund providing financial aid to send YDS students abroad and to bring overseas students to YDS.

One of the sessions at this year’s gathering was devoted to the topic “The Impact of the Economy on Churches, Schools, Social Service Organizations, Families, and Selves.”  What emerged, along with a sense that the nation’s economic downturn has restricted churches and other non-profits entities, was the feeling that the heavy yoke of financial distress can be cushioned, if not lifted entirely.

Daniel Bonner ’72 B.A., ’76 M.Div., ’77 S.T.M. suggested that a focus on mission is the key to weathering the financial storm.

"I really think clarifying the mission...clarifying the compelling nature of what we do and just sticking with that is the single most important thing congregations or faith-based institutions can do,” he told fellow alumni.  He stressed the need "to live one's faith journey in the midst of a complex have a notion that we're about something bigger than the environment around us.  We're hope givers."

In his annual State of the School Address, Dean Harold Attridge focused much of his attention on the financial challenges caused by the ongoing economic downturn, yet gave a spirited assessment of YDS’s ability to cope with the situation.

LowryYDS is facing a projected 13 percent drop in endowment revenue for the next fiscal year, Attridge reported to about 60 alumni, spouses and YDS staff gathered in Marquand Chapel for the Oct. 13 session.
Despite the need for restrained expenditures, Attridge promised that several areas will not be adversely affected: “We're going to maintain our faculty. We're going to maintain our student aid. Those are the sacred cows that will be sacrificed last."

To do that, “a lot of other things must be tightened up,” noted Attridge, “The team has been working on this and is very serious about finding all kinds of creative and interesting ways of reducing our expenses.….We're also going to be looking at increasing our fundraising. And, we will pray a lot that the economy recovers and that the endowment at Yale grows sooner than later."

This year’s Alumni Awards Luncheon began with an intriguing journey to what might be considered sacred space—the Old Refectory, recently renovated after being mothballed for most of the past decade.  For many alumni at Convocation & Reunions 2009, the luncheon setting undoubtedly represented a pleasant return to a place they remember well for the many meals and good conversation shared there.

Honorees included Bonita Grubbs ’84 M.A.R., executive director of Christian Community Action in New Haven, the Lux et Veritas Award; Peter Laarman ’93 M.Div, executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting of Los Angeles, the William Sloane Coffin ’56 Award for Peace and Justice; Don Saliers ’62 B.D., ’67 Ph.D., the William R. Canon Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Theology and Worship at the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Distinction in Theological Education; and Nancy Taylor ’81 M.Div., senior minister of Old South Church (UCC) in Boston, Distinction in Congregational Ministry. 

Another of the highlights of Convocation and Reunions 2009 was the 30th anniversary celebration of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered and Queer (LGBTQ) Coalition.  Coalition supporters gathered in the Common Room for an hour-long discussion of the group’s presence at YDS, past and present.  Thirty years after its founding, the Coalition’s legacy was described as one of significant accomplishment, nurturing widespread acceptance of the LGBTQ community at YDS underscored by increasing institutional support.

Jason Peno ’10 M.Div., who serves as a liaison between undergraduate students and the Coalition as part of the Supervised Ministry program, said, “We have the power to continue to tell and broaden the story and move from lament to celebration.”

Indigo Girls musician Emily Saliers and her father, Don Saliers, a liturgical musician and former Yale Divinity School professor of theology, entertained an enthusiastic Convocation and Reunions crowd at Battell Chapel Oct. 13 with a richly woven tapestry of musical offerings and stories drawn from both the secular and the sacred.  The evening of music and conversation was sponsored by the Institute of Sacred Music.

Father and daughter concluded the Battell gathering, which was sponsored by the Institute of Sacred Music, with the Indigo Girls’ classic call to action, “Hammer and a Nail,” transitioning without pause into the hymn “Let us Break Bread Together” in a graceful liturgical move that connected the communal action exuberantly advocated in the Saturday night verse “Gotta get out of bed, / Get a hammer and a nail, / Learn how to use my hands” with the Sunday morning breaking of the bread.

The structural backbone of Convocation and Reunions was provided, as usual, by two main lecture series, this year the Lyman Beecher Lectures and the Nathaniel Taylor Lectures, each delivered in three parts.

Homiletician/musician Eugene Lowry delivered the Beecher Lectures on the subject Keeping Time with the Word: The Sound of the Sermon.  German theologian Michael Welker gave the Taylor Lectures on the topic The Theology and Science Discourse on Anthropology.

Lowry’s lectures were intended to explore the idea of the sermon as an event in time rather than as an object in space, viewing the sermon as akin to art that is time-sequenced such as music or drama, focusing on narrative plot.  He argued for an appreciation of the sermon as an oral form of communication that celebrates the ongoing power of the human voice and avoids a general tendency toward summary conclusions that Lowry believes often characterize lectionary selections.

In his lectures, Welker laid out a set of suggested answers to the question, “What Can Theology Contribute to the Theology and Science Discourse?” focusing on the area of anthropology.  He concluded that the most promising of the answers is grounded in discourse that attempts to “build small bridges at the boundaries of each side’s areas of knowledge.”

During his final lecture, Welker noted that, on the surface, concepts that have a natural home in religious discourse, such as “soteriology” and “eschatology” might seem to be stumbling blocks to the theology/science conversation. But, he pointed out, “I would like to argue that scientific research, which is in a deeper way goal-oriented, is at least in implicit and latent ways guided by emotional and pre-cognitive factors which draw from values that soteriology and eschatology try to bring to the levels of language and cognition.”   A mutual indwelling of natural and spiritual existence shared by theologians and scientists alike, said Welker, leads to “an ultimate reality which is by no mans simple and certainly hard to access but which is worth the finest collaborative efforts of scientists and theologians.”

Other lectures at Convocation and Reunions included Gabriele Winkler’s Aidan J. Kavanagh Lecture, sponsored by the Institute of Sacred Music, on the subject Some New Considerations Concerning the Relationship between the liturgies of St. Basil and St. James, and the Louis Wetherbee Pitt Lecture, sponsored by Berkeley Divinity School, by Anglican Bishop Musonda Trevor Selwyn Mwamba of Botswana, entitled God of Wonder, Grace and Surprises.