Generations of Faith and Witness: Reflections from five alumnae
By Travis Helms ’13 M.Div.
In the spirit of the preceding day’s Women’s Reunion Opening Celebration, an Oct. 12 panel discussion—YDS Women: Generations of Faith and Witness—lifted up the experiences of women at YDS through a medium of candid, open sharing.
As moderator and Alumni Board Member Myra McNeill '08 M.Div. explained, the panel was conceived to allow “as many voices to share their experiences as possible.” Following autobiographical remarks from the panelists, audience members were invited to offer their own reflections and contributions in a forum of “real conversation.”
The panel featured five alumnae representing five generations of scholarship at YDS. The experiences of Jessica Anschutz ’07 M.Div., Shelley Best ’00 M.Div., Kate Latimer ’85 M.Div., Ann Hallisey ’75 M.Div., and Bernice Cosey Pulley ’55 M.Div., distinct though they were, conveyed a remarkable sense commonality and continuity, particularly in the expression of the impact their time at YDS had both on their lives and ministries.
Anschutz, YDS’s chair of class agents and associate pastor at Park Avenue United Methodist Church in New York, entered YDS from a career in campus ministry in 2004—the same year the Methodist church celebrated 50 years of ordaining women. She spoke of the liberating experience of pursuing studies “in a place where the possibility of ordination for women was widely recognized” and described her time at YDS as “a breath of fresh air, where one could freely study.” Her description of the leadership roles women were holding on campus, the strong support offered students by financial aid, and crucial dialogue events like “The Vagina Monologues” seemed a poignant testament to dramatic changes for women on campus over the past eight decades.
Even so, Anschutz acknowledged the continuing challenges in the broader church, for example, the refusal of many denominations to ordain women. She closed her remarks with a challenge to successive generations of YDS ministers and scholars to “carry on the work women have done before,” a call to inter-generational continuity that seemed to undergird the panel deliberations as a whole.
Ann Hallisey entered YDS in 1971 as a Roman Catholic and M.A.R. candidate planning on eventually doing a doctorate in church history. At the time, there were 10 women and 100 men in her class. “I felt that I had both been thrown into the deep end and that I had arrived in heaven,” she quipped.
A major reason she came to YDS, Hallisey explained, was that she was offered a scholarship, and that scholarship eventually led to her becoming just the second woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Northern California. Ironically, Hallisey lost her scholarship after marrying a fellow YDS student at the end of her first year. “When I married that other student,” she recalled, “I lost my scholarship because they wouldn’t consider that we were putting ourselves through graduate school separately.”
Citing the new “8 Decades of Women at YDS Endowment Fund,” Hallisey said she is committed to maintaining financial aid for students at YDS as a way of being “invested in seeing others coming along” in women’s ministries, especially in denominations where doors remain closed.
Shelley Best came to YDS at the age of 36 from a multi-ethnic, anti-Zion congregation setting, “from a denominational tradition that didn’t necessarily require education” for its ministers. She spoke of the particular experience and challenges of being a female African-American student at YDS and cited the ways in which YDS provided her a chance to move into a more powerful sense of presence as a minister. That, she said, has allowed her to “use the privilege (of her education) to open doors for other people in the ministry, especially women not expected to have theological training.” Currently, Best serves as president and CEO of the Capitol Region Conference of Churches in Hartford, CT.
UCC minister Kate Latimer entered YDS in 1982, having felt called to the priesthood after years as a social worker, hospice volunteer and nurse at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Encouraged to enroll by former Associate Dean for Student Life Joan Forsberg while still at Yale-New Haven, Latimer sat in on a class with feminist theologian Letty Russell on “Theology and Vocation,” which greatly influenced her. Poignantly, she described the experience of sitting in an empty classroom near Marquand Chapel one morning, listening to an organist rehearsing. “I thought, this is heaven,” Latimer recalled, “a place where every human being gets a chance to study really deeply what makes their heart come to life.”
One of the early African American women graduates of Yale Divinity School, Cosey Pulley entered YDS in 1951. In her remarks, she raised the question of Martin Luther King’s purported denial of admission to Yale, while acknowledging that records have not been located that would shed light on that assertion. Cosey Pulley also questioned why no documentation exists of speeches King may have delivered at YDS. She challenged the younger generation “with longer legs” to seek out answers to difficult questions like those, asking, "How big of a price are you prepared to pay to state this truth?”
Following the panelist reflections, audience members were given the chance to contribute their own thoughts and memories to the conversation. One after another, alumni stood up and shared their own unique experiences of studying at YDS. Commonalities and differences were highlighted in a moment resonant with a deep sense of the meaningful contributions generations of women have given to YDS—and also with a sense, for future generations, of all those still to come.