“Home from the Journey: Gathering and Remembering”

By Travis Helms ’13 M.Div.

As its title definitively declared, themes of journey and return lay at the heart of the opening celebration for this year’s historic Women’s Reunion Celebration at Convocation and Reunions—“Home from the Journey: Gathering and Remembering.”  In a unique service composed of songs, reflections and responses, members of the YDS community past and present had a chance on Oct. 11 to contemplate the variety of experiences and memories defining eight decades of women at YDS.

ForsbergFor the large number of alums, family members, students, and faculty members assembled, the Celebration was a chance to gather, reflect, and honor the contributions of generations of YDS alumnae while also engaging the challenges for those to come.

Appropriately, the Celebration began with “Gathering in Songs,” led by Interim Dean of Chapel Adele Crawford, inviting those present to join in singing three communal hymns. The words of We are Dancing in Sarah’s Circle, Laudate Dominum, and Shall We Gather at the River resonated as poignant reminders of the commonality in their exhortations to rejoice and praise. A “Welcoming and Opening Prayer” followed, delivered by Women’s Reunion Chair Talitha Arnold ’80 M.Div., which further extended the communal invitation to go deeper into worship.

In his welcoming remarks, YDS Dean Harold W. Attridge offered a preliminary, “facts-based” overview of the history of women at YDS. Highlighting significant moments from the matriculation of YDS’s first four women students in 1932 (in a non-degree program) to the moment, two years ago, when enrollment reached a 50-50 gender balance. Attridge asserted, “In the last 80 years, much progress has been made,” while referencing Maya Lyn’s extraordinary “Women’s Table” sculpture located in front of the University’s Sterling Memorial Library. Speaking of the persistent challenges facing women in the ministry—specifically noting the unwillingness of some denominations to ordain women priests—Attridge concluded, “We commit ourselves to going forward, to make hopes and dreams a reality."

An address from Gilbert L. Stark Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics Margaret Farley’73 Ph.D. followed. Farley cited the myriad struggles that have confronted women historically at YDS and those still besetting contemporary churches and society.  She encouraged listeners to live into real vocations in which “love asks you…to lay down your lives for others.” There are significant ways that YDS has become a “home” for many students, she said, challenging graduates to draw upon those experience to “go forth, but never in a sense of leaving.” In the face of much adversity, Farley insisted, “our relationships can hold; and a sense of dignity, justice, truth and call can glimpse possibilities of love.”   It all comes down to hope, Farley concluded, “This is at the heart of our movement into the future and our call.”

The audience responded with a standing ovation—and in the intensity of the moment former Associate Dean of Students and Women’s Advocate Joan Forsberg ’53 B.D. approached the podium to speak. Evoking memories and challenges of the heightened political and ecclesiastical climate of her tenures— both as student and dean—at YDS, Forsberg spoke movingly, drawing emphatic appreciation from the audience.

Many of Forsberg’s themes were carried forward in the reflections given by Emilie Townes, associate dean of academic affairs and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Religion and Theology, who conveyed her gratitude to the preceding speakers, acknowledging, “I would not been here if you hadn’t been.”

FarleyAfter introducing all current women faculty in attendance, Townes stressed the need to “live outside of the old wounds” that every community inherits, emphasizing the worth of recognition and significant inter-generational conversations to help identify and overcome the struggles facing a community. She insisted on the need to act, to move from “just talk” to analysis and strategy. Affirming that progress has been achieved on the equality front for women, Townes called on students to go even deeper in engaging issues of equality with precision and with rigor. To live “with humility but without apology,” Townes urged, is the way for YDS to embody its scholarly and ministerial best. “We dance Sarah's circle,” she declared, alluding to the opening hymn, “but also shake dance for a modern age which gets more sterile and unemotional each year.” It is time, Townes said, echoing an adage from her grandmother, “to get ‘em moving…and so we are.”

Following the series of reflections by Farley, Forsberg, and Townes, the audience had an opportunity to share their own experiences and thoughts with one another. Prompted by questions listed in the Ceremony booklet, audience members were encouraged to exchange stories relating to their individual journeys in ministry and study.

After a singing of Ubi Caritas, Alumni Board President Mary Ellen O’Driscoll ’02 M.Div. set the stage for a plea for contributions to financial aid at YDS, as a way to move from “talking about the past” and “to move into the future.”  One way to do that, members of the audience learned, is to contribute to the “8 Decades of Women at YDS Endowment Fund’,” which provides tuition assistance for current students, as “one way of living out of a sense of gratitude forward into a commitment to the betterment of future generations…So other women can build on those experiences.”

Following Attridge’s concluding remarks, the singing of a final hymn, and a benediction,  participants went forth “in peace” into the evening.