Neichelle Guidry ’10 M.Div.
B.A. Clark Atlanta University 2006
Three years ago, I entered YDS with a simple plan: getting the Master of Divinity degree so that I could pursue my callings to ordination, congregational ministry and liturgical singing. With this simple plan in mind, I hit the ground running. Thoughts of both my friends and family and those to whom I would eventually minister constantly motivated me. I was eager to continue studying the Bible, theology and the practice of ministry at a rigorous academic level. As a Religious Studies major at Clark Atlanta University, an historically Black institution, I was already thinking about the role of religion in African-American communities. As a daughter of the African-American church, my life is a witness to the profundity of religious experience and its formation of individual and collective identities.
Shortly after I began my work at YDS, I began to see the relevance of history and memory to contemporary religious communities, and the religious and liturgical practices that distinguish them from one another. In the spring of my first year, I worked on a conference entitled Middle Passage Conversations on Black Religion in the African Diaspora with Dean Emilie Townes and Christiana Peppard, a Yale doctoral student. This conference was unique in that it offered Black scholars from throughout the African Diaspora a space to converse on topics relating to Black religion that ranged from history and responsibility to language and music. As the student assistant on staff, I was only able to hear the panel conversations in passing. However, there was something deeply transformative about being a part of such a space. As I listened to that cadre of brilliant Black thinkers for those three days, I was beckoned to pause and take the process of developing my mind a little more seriously. My simple plan had quickly become complicated by the revelation that my mind might be just as valuable an offering to the church as my spirit, my singing, my preaching and all of the other ideas that I had in mind. During this conference, I was extremely blessed to participate in a play, Living Water, written and directed by a student, Meredith Coleman-Tobias ’09 M.Div. My character was a young woman who found the strength to navigate a difficult situation with help from her ancestors. Shocked at how closely I resembled this character, I opened myself to the creative and redemptive process that I underwent as an artist, a woman and a person of faith. What came of it was a profound and enduring consciousness of the reality of racism, the ever-presence of my ancestors, and the intelligence and illusory power of the Spirit.
In my first year, I reread Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Reading the life of Janie Crawford theologically urged me to begin “watching God” from a different angle. Like Janie, I have turned my gaze inward and learned that my impulses to create and to be lead by the Spirit serve multiple purposes. On one hand, they connect me to others who are willing to imagine God in unscripted fashions. On the other, they emancipate the inner woman who is deeply convinced that her own life—and the stories that come from it—just as they are, and with all that they encompass, are able to impact communities in new and creative ways. Janie Crawford says it well in the opening pages of the book:
“If they wants to see and know, why they don’t come kiss and be kissed? Ah could then sit down and tell ‘em things. Ah been a delegate to de big ‘ssociation of life. Yessuh! De Grand Lodge, de big convention of livin’ is just where Ah been…”
It was no coincidence these experiences came during my first year. I became more aware of my body and presence in this space, what they symbolized and what they meant, and the fact that they meant very little if they were not connected to others in an effort to foster real and sustaining community. I began to see my studies and scholarship as integral to my ministry. Therefore my notions of ministry were broadened to include more than the congregational ministry, preaching, and singing that I had originally intended to do. This broadening has continued throughout my time here at YDS. It has been facilitated by classroom and congregational encounters, but also by international travels and redemptive relationships. Last summer, I travelled to Jerusalem, where I studied Kabbalah with Dr. Eliezer Shore, worshipped at the Kotel and cleansed in the Dead Sea. I spent the New Year in China, where I studied and toured with a group of 50 Yale graduate and professional students for about two weeks. I have performed in several dramatic presentations, including Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. Most recently, I fulfilled my Supervised Ministry requirements at Mount Aery Baptist Church in Bridgeport, CT. During this time, I began synthesizing the knowledge I have gained here with the practice of ministry. Lastly, I was initiated this semester into my sorority, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., through the New Haven Alumnae Chapter, which is representative of the connections I have made on multiple fronts. Through it all, I have been held and supported by my family and a few other invaluable individuals whose presences have signaled God’s faithfulness during a time of difficult, yet beautiful, transition.
In July, I will be ordained in my home church in San Antonio, TX. I will spend the next year working in ministry, developing and blending my pastoral and artistic identities. In the fall of 2011, I will begin a Ph.D. program in liturgical studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL. Currently, I plan to study the aesthetics of African-American worship and to build upon the work of “full-bodied autobiographical liturgical Biblical interpretation” that I began last semester for Professor Diana Swancutt. I am now more assured of my place at the intersections of the church and the academy; I hope to plant a church and teach religious studies with emphases on aesthetics and performance. I am grateful for the changes and transitions that I have undergone as a student at YDS. I have learned lessons that I could not have learned any other way or in any other place.