An Hour with YDS Students: A Convocation panel reveals diversity and commonality

By Luanne Panarotti ’13 M.Div.

What will you discover if you spend an hour with a half-dozen YDS students?  A diversity of life experiences, academic interests, volunteer activities, future goals, reasons for coming to YDS—and a commonality of intellect, dedication and purpose.  Alumni found just that at a lunchtime panel during this year’s Convocation, deftly moderated by Dale Peterson, associate dean for student affairs.

Take Kai Hoffman-Krull, from the rural outskirts of Spokane, WA.  He’s a farmer—well, at least, that’s what he does when he’s not reading poetry.  A second-year M.A.R. candidate in literature, he chose YDS because of its partnership with the Institute of Sacred Music, one that “embraces cross-disciplinary study in a way that’s new and hip in the academy.”  When Hoffman-Krull isn’t cultivating the Divinity Farm, he’s tending a project in collaboration with an ISM music student, looking at the musicality of meter in poetry.

Student PanelFor second-year M.Div. student Whitney Waller, it was the emphasis on ecumenism and dedication to social change that drew her to YDS.  Now, she’s helping the school to better live out that commitment as a member of the Community Engagement Task Force.  Waller hopes her future ministry will foster interfaith communication and involvement among congregations.  “YDS is a place where we come to begin learning, not a place where we stop learning, or where we stop becoming; we should be forever engaging with the world around us.”

First-year M.A.R. Benny Chan spent last year “pretending to be a lawyer” as a legal advocate in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.  Though the work was rewarding, he found himself intellectually hungry, and yearning to address social issues in a way he could not while “in the trenches.”  He came to YDS because of its serious commitment to both faith and justice, but also appreciates the “phenomenal classes with distinguished scholars.”  Elected to the Diversity Committee, Chan will help ensure that the faculty, student body and courses at YDS reflect the rich multiculturalism of our society. 

Kyle Brooks, third-year M.Div., came to Yale College as a molecular and cellular biology major—“which, of course, leads naturally into divinity studies,” he quipped.   Following graduation, he worked for non-profits and teaching high school, but found himself asking questions about “the assumed theological frameworks that govern our lives,” and soon returned to the classroom.  “Many things we take to be ‘true’ can be seen from another side.  It’s always easier to preach about the taking of the Promised Land; it’s more difficult to talk about the perspective of the Canaanite.”  Brooks’ interests include the intersection of African American homiletical and literary traditions, and the power of language. 

Liza Ragsdale, a 1st year M.Div. and self-proclaimed “many, many career student,” is seeking ordination in the Episcopal Church after years of lay ministry.  Why YDS?  “My husband went to Harvard Divinity School, and we thought it would make football season fun!” Then, on a serious note, she admitted she came looking for “the meat,” for academic rigor.  What surprised her, however, was how moved she was by the worship at YDS.  “You find the spirit of Christ here . . . it’s like living in a theological womb.”

Questions from attendees generated further discussion about new models of church, the impact of electronic media, and the defining social issues for this generation of students.  In many ways, these topics all speak to the relevance and influence of the mainline denominations, many of which have shrinking and “graying” congregations.  It’s a concern that’s close to the hearts of both current seminarians, and to that of Rosemary Baue, ’98 M.Div. *  “One of the reasons I came to this discussion,” she said, “was to find out what your vision is for the future of organized religion.”

All of the panelists believe that better engagement—with scripture, with the community, with our own faith—can make a difference.  For Brooks, the viability of the church will depend on our willingness “to very vigorously engage with our questions about what the gospel is, and what it looks like when being truly lived out by a church.”   Ragsdale agreed, saying we need to make sure we’re showing “the face of what we want Christianity to be,” particularly to the vast numbers of the unchurched; “Radical welcome is the key.”  Waller thinks we’re trying to plug into systems that are broken, need to explore new ways to “create the connections that are necessary, because there’s a drastic disconnect between the privilege of being in this building, and the basic right to have food.”   Hoffman-Krull feels that many young people turn their backs on organized religion because they believe churches are only trying to support themselves, and offer up “easy answers” to complex questions. “That’s what we’re wrestling with at YDS: how to provide a firm ground of faith and prayer for people, while also inviting their questions, while saying there’s always more to be discovered in this journey we call ‘faith.’  The easy answers of the past?  We want to push against those.”

In response, Baue gave voice to both the hope and challenge palpable in the room: “I think it’s very interesting that you have the questions, and you’re not shooting out a lot of answers.  And I think that’s a really good sign.”

*Tragically, Rosemary Baue passed away just days after Convocation and Reunions, on Oct. 23, following a massive stroke.


Posted: 11/11/2011