Marissa Rohrbach ’12 S.T.M. reflects on week at Human Rights Campaign Summer Institute
Editor’s Note: Marissa Rohrbach is Master of Sacred Theology Candidate at YDS, where she received her Master of Divinity in May. She is pursuing ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church and hopes to combine her call to serve the Church with her academic interest in the intersection of liturgical, theological, gender, and queer studies. She is particularly interested in ritual practice and the ways in which liturgy serves as a site for justice, hospitality, and reconciliation. Here, she reflects on the week she spent this summer as a fellow at the Summer Institute of the Human Rights Campaign, hosted by The E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, TN.
By Marissa Rohrbach ’12 S.T.M.
During the first week of August, I had the great privilege of attending the “Summer Institute,” a weeklong mentorship program sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) designed to “encourage and promote LGBTQ and allied students pursuing religious studies and theological scholarship.”
This year HRC selected sixteen student fellows at various stages of writing projects and invited us to spend a week at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Over the course of the week I learned about the projects of my colleagues while reflecting on my own project, which will focus on the connections between liturgy, gender, and sexuality with an eye towards politics and justice in a post-modern worship space that is very much affected by the society surrounding it.
During this week of dialogue with each other, we learned from distinguished speakers about the tenuous balance between scholarship and activism. Institute facilitators Ken Stone of Chicago Theological Seminary and Rebecca Alpert of Temple University led us through busy days filled with lectures, small group gatherings, and discussion sections. Throughout the week we also spent time with small group mentors talking about the writing and publication processes and attending lectures and conversations led by scholar-activists like Mary Hunt, Traci West, Jay Michaelson, and Emilie Townes, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at YDS.
The stated goal of the Institute, which ran from July 31-Aug. 5, was to encourage and nurture the work students had already begun, while offering us the opportunity for relationship with people who might be companions along the way, however the many gifts of this experience far surpassed this goal. As a large inter-faith group, we focused a great deal of attention on how to be a “community,” on the act of seeking to understand, and on what it means to be an ally across a broad range of situations of privilege as we pursue theological scholarship. We also spent a significant amount of time talking with our guest speakers about the important role that activism plays and the ways in which our scholarship and activism should inform each other. Our conversations were deeply enriched by the sharing of our facilitators, mentors, HRC team members who planned and led the Institute, and, of course, by the many scholars and activists who came to tell us their own stories.
Having had some time to reflect on our very full week together, I am incredibly grateful for new relationships and I continue to be profoundly moved by the stories our speakers shared about their own scholarship and activism and the ways in which they have integrated both of these into their own vocations. It was an incredible gift to learn about the new work being done at the intersection of theological and queer studies and to spend the week giving life to new relationships and communities of accountability. Added to these blessings was the opportunity to learn from scholars who continue to navigate the divide between theory and practice, who in many cases believe that both their scholarship and activism are integral parts of their “work”—work that is motivated by both faith and conviction.
HRC’s Summer Institute is a unique and transformative opportunity for anyone who feels called to the work of scholar and activist in relation to the fields of theology and queer studies. It was a privilege and a blessing to spend a week with the brilliant scholars who will shape their fields in the coming years and to begin to call them both colleagues and friends.