Wednesday, April 28, 2010

PTR: Assessing Seminary Education

During 2005, the Princeton Theological Review published "For Richer Soil and Stronger Root: Assessing Seminary Education."  Among the scholars noted was the Rev. Dr. Luis Rivera-Pagan.

Award Honors Making a Difference

Arrested for Justice

He made a difference. Sitting for justice and being arrested in the 60’s still sends a message today. The Very Rev. James Morton, retired dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, founder of The Interfaith Center, and prior recipient of the NYTS Urban Angel Award, received the Global Harmony award recently from the International Communications Association. Morton reflected, “I have gone to jail and I’m very proud of that.”

Let there be Light

Morton, a warm a colorful speaker, navigated a lighting problem gracefully with the aid of two hand-held flashlights. Let there be light!” he intoned at one point underscoring a higher hand in all we do. He recalled traversing from Chicago to be in Selma, AL for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “The week of nonviolent protest on one hand was contrasted by violence from state troopers on the other.” I wonder... have we really come a long way?

God’s Remarkable Creation

Activist, actress and writer Ruby Dee made a difference too. She was also honored by the New York Metropolitan Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolence, an NGO of the United Nations. “I deserve this award,” Dee chided. “I’m a human…one of the most remarkable creations on all the earth. And, I’m beginning to get the idea of who I am. What an astonishing part is the ‘me’ that is creation!”

Today is Ours

After quoting remembrances of Martin Luther King, Dee closed sparking the room with this poem:
Today is ours
Let’s live it
Love is strong
Let’s give it
A song can help
Let’s sing it
Peace is dear
Let’s bring it
The past is gone
Don’t rue it
Our work is here
Let’s do it
Our world is wrong
Let’s right it
The battle hard
Let’s fight it
The road is rough
Let’s clear it
The future vast
Don’t fear it
Is faith asleep?
Let’s wake it
Today is ours
Let’s take it.

Peter Zehren is Vice President for Development and Insitutional Advancement at New York Theological Seminary.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Land of My Birth

Going Home, a course offered by New York Theological Seminary every spring, is led by Dr. Eleanor Moody-Shepherd and Dr. Peter Heltzel.  This is a reflection of Dr. Eleanor Moody-Sherpherd's visit to Alabama, her place of birth.

After fifty years, I can analyze my feeling toward the land of my birth. I realize that I have harbored a love/hate relationship with this state in the heart of Dixie.  This land of my birth is located south of the Mason Dixie line in the center of the state of Alabama. I grew up during the turbulent period between World War II and the Korean Conflict.  It  filled me with the impetus to be part of the wind of change that was on the horizon....

The sense of anticipation struggled to overcome the life long reality of internalized fear─ fear for my life in a highly racialized society.  The first seventeen years of my life was characterized by racial oppression and abuse within a Jim Crow system that permeated every aspect of daily life. Every aspect is perhaps an over statement. The Black Church was the one community organization where blacks were nurtured and empowered.

In her book Your Spirits Walk Beside Us, Barbara Dianne Savage describes the relationship between African American religion and political struggle as poignantly and inextricably intertwined. She posits that the emergence in the late 1950’s of a Southern Civil Rights Movement with churches, church people, and church culture at the center was a powerful and startling departure from that story, rather than a normal progression. In many ways, the movement is best thought of not as an inevitable triumph or a movement of religious revival, but simply as a miracle. It was brief, bold, and breathtaking, difficult to replicate or sustain, and experience first hand by only a small remnant of true believers.

I am one of the small remnants of true believers who participated in the historic student sit-ins at Alabama State Teachers College (Alabama State University) in 1960. These sit-ins owed their success to the collaboration of the students in the academy, the church and the courts. The action of this coalition won students due process in education systems throughout the United States.(See Saint John Dixon vs Alabama) .

On February 25, 2010 The National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African-American Culture at Alabama State University honored a remnant of the Student Sit-in Movement participants at A One Day Conference celebrating the 50th Anniversary. During this celebration I realized the wisdom of my mentor and leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who said,  “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

Dr. Eleanor Moody-Shepherd is Vice-President of Academic Affairs, Academic Dean, and Professor of Women Studies at New York Theological Seminary.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Angels in Attendance at 2010 Gala

Purple light splashes, dazzling smiles hug. Art, music and angels graced this year’s New York Theological Seminary’s Gala. DeMarco Morgan launched the event with a thunderous “God is good” and reflected on the importance of acknowledging and supporting the angels around us.

We are all angels to someone,” said Carla Harris who accepted her award with a spirited testament of the multiplier effect. “If you want to multiply your treasure, give it away. Your investment will grow through others and come back to you.”

Angels send messages from the Creator. The Greek word ‘Angelos’ means messenger;” said honoree The Very Rev. Donald Reilly. Reilly encouraged us to acknowledge the everyday angelos moments or people, places and events where God is.

I’m no Angel,” confessed Maria Elena Girone as she accepted her award. “I am surrounded by an army of Angels—my parents, my staff, and people who support and believe in me.” She reflected, no matter how small, you can make a difference.

Angels reach us through transformative leadership. That was the theme of Rev. Benjamin Shin who accepted the Urban Angel Award on behalf of The Council of Korean Churches of Greater New York. NYTS’ urban ministry reaches out to people all around the world.

Angels remind us to serve. Hilda Rodgers, accepting the award for Hazel Dukes reflected that Dukes has “lead her life to serve the nameless, faceless and underserved.” She then quoted Proverbs 29:23 In service we receive more than we give…

One of the high points of the evening was a video that underscored NYTS’ commitment to excellence through diversity and accessibility. Check it out:

For more information, visit us at

Peter Zehren is Vice President for Development and Insitutional Advancement at New York Theological Seminary.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Revive 2010 is a renewed call for justice

Revive! 2010 is a revival, which spans many Christian denominations. The group is hosting an event in Trenton, NJ, between June 11-13 at Trinity Cathedral. The purpose of the event is to renew "Christian faith, dynamic worship, preaching, and conversation with some of the brightest minds and hearts of our era," according to event literature.

Featured prominently in the field of speakers is one of America's most provocative intellectuals, Cornel West. According to the Revive! 2010 biography for West, "his writing, speaking and teaching weave together the traditions of the black Baptist Church, progressive politics, and jazz."

Other speakers include: Brenda Salter-McNeil, Bart Campolo, Shane Claiborne, Gabriel Salguero, James Logan, William Nemon Heard and Jonathan Walton.

According to the group, Revive! 2010 is about "reviving justice." Consequently, the upcoming event will focus upon "the prisoner and the stranger, we will center on two of the great issues of our time: incarceration and immigration."

The steering committee for this group is comprised of Presbyterians, Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians, non-denominationals, Evangelicals, Mainliners, and everything in between.

NYTS is not affiliated with this event, but it is wonderful to see this kind of work being done. For more information, go to

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Attending to the Youth is a Justice Issue for the Next Generation

Pulpit Survey

One of the joys that comes with being the President of New York Theological Seminary is in receiving numerous invitations to guest preach in churches.  Many of these are urban congregations who partner with the Seminary in one way or another.  Week after week I get to stand in a different pulpit and look out upon a new congregation.  While it is by no means a scientific survey, I get to see a number of trends and patterns emerging over time in urban church life.

Personal Concerns Over Social Issues

A number of commentators have noted in recent years what I would call the inward turn in urban ministry and urban church life.  I don’t know how many pastors have told me that their members want them to talk more about personal spiritual concerns in their sermons and not be preaching so much about prophetic justice or transformation.  “My people need help with day-to-day management issues,” one minister told me.  “They don’t want to hear about social issues in my sermon.”

Urban Youth Programs Strong

While this may be a general trend in the culture, one place where I have seen an opposite pull is related to urban youth.  There is a new emphasis in churches on urban youth leadership training, evidenced in the strong turn-out for programs such as the Latino Leadership Circle’s Urban Youth Leadership Training program which has been going on for several years.

Reinforcing Youth in Worship

At Good Will Baptist Church in the Bronx, where I preached several weeks ago, the Rev. Dr. Booker Sears identifies young people in the congregation by name during the Sunday morning service and talks with them about their successes as well as challenges in public school each week.  The fact that there are young people in the Sunday morning worship service in the church is itself an important sign of health as far as the future of the congregation goes - to say nothing of the future of the church universal.

Urban Youth the New Social Justice

I wonder if addressing concerns of urban youth is not the new social justice frontier in urban ministry.  Churches are organizing around issues of education and health care for children.  Intervention programs for so-called “at risk” youth, such as “Uth Turn” in New York City are manifestations of a deeper realization that caring for the well-being of youth is a justice issue, to say nothing of taking care that the church will survive for another generation.

Dale T. Irvin is the eleventh President of New York Theological Seminary and Professor of World Christianity. He is the co-author with Scott W. Sunquist of History of the World Christian Movement. Dr. Irvin is also the author of Christian Histories, Christian Traditioning: Rendering Accounts (Orbis Books, 1998), and The Agitated Mind of God: The Theology of Kosuke Koyama (Orbis Books, 1996), which he edited with Akintunde E. Akinade.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tutu Says God Calls Fundraisers to Change Injustice

As we stood applauding, Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke a warning, “Provide a preacher a podium and a captive audience and you cannot expect me to remain within the timeframe.” As keynote at the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) 47th International Conference in Baltimore, Tutu lauded over 3,000 fundraising professionals for making possible the peaceful transition out of Apartheid. Tutu explained U.S. donations supported many of the anti apartheid efforts.

I was proud at that moment to think of New York Theological Seminary’s former President Moses William Howard, Junior’s work as president of the North American Regional Conference on Action Against Apartheid, the largest United Nations-sponsored conference of anti-apartheid activities ever held in the United States.

Tutu went on,“Philanthropy is the opposite of selfishness.” And that, as we all know, extends beyond dollars. Tutu’s eyes teared as he remembered Berkley students in the 70s protesting against injustices happening 10-thousand miles away. “Without the honorable calling of fundraisers,” he said, “we would not be free today. And, Nelson Mandela might have died in prison, not living to be acknowledged as a global icon of forgiveness.”

Tutu reflected, “Yours is a very noble profession. Our civil society efforts would have been hobbled if not for your generous support.” He went on to caution, “Structured help is another chain that binds; what is needed is an understanding free of chains.” In other words, when aid programs neglect to factor in a cultural understanding, they can be more restrictive than helpful. “Help should empower people by partnering equally, uplifting them.”

I was proud when Tutu’s lilting voice rang out, “You actually have a noble profession, a noble calling, a noble vocation.” He added, we must all work towards equality, a world where those who have more help those with less. “When those who are different are ignored, it presents a recipe for disaster… a dire, unsustainable situation. That is not how God intended it to be.”

Tutu whispered gracefully, “God is saying hey, hello-o-o, we are all family.”  He closed by thanking all of us for being part of “philanthropy’s noble calling to help change situations of injustice.”

Peter Zehren is Vice President for Development and Insitutional Advancement at New York Theological Seminary.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Examining faith in the face of repression

At Princeton University Press, Susannah Heschel has authored The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany. This is obviously an uncomfortable topic for many. Yet, German theologians, among them Dietrich Bonhoeffer, went to great lengths to defend their faith. In Bonhoeffer's case, of course, that also meant him giving his life.

While the Nazi Era of repression brought about horrors that directly attacked the message of Jesus Christ, it is a relatively recent event historically. Similarly, slavery and all of the abuses to life and human dignity remain difficult subjects, even today, when examining U.S. history, specifically in the American South. In the case of the development of the Evangelical Movement in the Southern United States, there are great works by theologians, among them New York Theological Seminary's Dr. Peter G. Heltzel, which examine the transformational possibilities of faith.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Reflections from Seoul on Mission in a Global City

Seoul is an extraordinary city.  I am here for six days to visit NYTS alumni/ae and current students, deliver a lecture, and preach in various chapel services and in Sunday morning worship.  I arrived on a Tuesday at 3:00 in the morning with the coordinator of our Korean Ministries program, Dr. Chang K. Behk.  Our first stop was in one of Seoul’s numerous saunas where business people regularly go in the morning to start their day.  Ours was on the 12th floor in the Cerestar office building in the central district.  After some time in a han jeung mak or kiln sauna, a shower, and a change of clothes, we headed off to a full day of work.  Since then it seems we have been continuously on the move from early in the morning until late each evening, traveling through the streets by cab or driven by our various hosts in what seems like an endless unfolding of lights, skyscrapers, and people.  In between travel times we meet with small groups of alumni and alumnae or visit campuses of theological institutions with whom NYTS has developed relationships.  I will end the week on Sunday morning in the Hallelujah Community Church where I will preach during the three morning services before returning to New York.

Two kinds of visual symbols have grasped my attention in the city during this trip.  The first is the proliferation of ads and other signs of consumer goods from around the world that are central to the economy of the global city.  Cosmetic products and clothing are especially prominent, with huge images hung on banners covering large parts of the sides of buildings or posted on billboards.  Often above them are the names and logos of corporate entities that are everywhere throughout Seoul.  Many of these are familiar symbols of the global economy.  Especially prominent are those of the electronic industry such as LG and Samsung, or the industrial giants such as Lotte or Hyundai.  While the names of the major industries and conglomerates tend to dominate the upper floors and top levels of buildings across the city, I note that the street level tends to be dominated by the signs and images of smaller companies, local restaurants, food stores, clothing vendors, and the like.  Throughout the city there are goods for sale everywhere along the streets:  lamps, chairs, rugs, electronic items, and more.  In one neighborhood there is a stretch of stores a block long offering stainless steel industrial restaurant ware out on the sidewalk.  In another we pass industrial machines with workers cutting metal beams that stretch across the sidewalk into the street.  Life on the streets has the “everyday” feel of a local economy, while the skyline is dominated by symbols of the global economy.

The other symbols that catch my eye are the red illuminated crosses that are up on top of churches throughout Seoul.  Many of these are visible especially in the evening as they shine in the simplicity of a red light outline forming the shape of a traditional Latin Christian cross.  But I have noted that they are not nearly as prominent as they once were in Seoul.  I remember being struck during my first visit to the city twenty years ago by the manner in which these crosses dominated the skyline especially at night as they shone out over certain neighborhoods.  During this visit I notice how much these crosses have been diminished in the overall skyline of Seoul.  This is so not necessarily because the crosses are fewer in number, although they may be.  Rather, it appears to be on account of the explosive growth of the commercial aspects of this city where office buildings, apartment buildings, and shopping centers overwhelm the visual so that even the largest megachurches now tend to recede into the neighboring cityscape.

My colleague at NYTS, Dr. Peter G. Heltzel, recently posted a blog on the Huffington Post on “Resurrection City.”  Resurrection City was the name of the tent city that Civil Rights leaders constructed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in the days following the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April of 1968.  Dr. Heltzel notes that King died while leading a campaign for a living wage for sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968.  He urges us to continue the struggle today in New York and in other cities in the USA, in an effort to secure economic justice that is informed by the hope for a Resurrection City.
Seoul in its own way is a Resurrection City as well.  Seoul was in ruins in 1953 as the Korean War came to an uneasy truce.  Over the next two decades a major industrial city arose from the rubble, with its vast slum neighborhoods populated by the urban industrial poor.  During the 1960s, 70’s, and ‘80s, its streets were often the scene of battles between students and other human rights activists demonstrating for democratic reforms on the one side, and police and government forces on the other.  I visited the Myeong-dong Cathedral again this week and was shown the steps where the police used to stop as they pursued demonstrators taking sanctuary in the Cathedral during those years.

What arose from the industrial city is now a global city, with cell phones replacing bull horns in the streets.  The global urban rhythms of hip-hop music occasionally blare from cars or in a sidewalk cafĂ© throughout the city.  Multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism are replacing older homogeneous cultural formations. A new generation of younger Koreans is coming of age that is more highly educated than those who came before them.  They work in the corporate offices or in the service sector, engage in social networking online, and are far more sophisticated about consumer products.  Many of them no longer hold on as strongly as their parents did to the ways of their elders in matters of religion and culture.  They are still Christian, but they are bringing guitars and drums into worship and tend to wear jeans in church.  Out on the streets I cannot tell the difference in young people who are Christian, Buddhist, or possibly secularists without any formal religious affiliation at all.

I am hearing two currents of theological response to the realities of this new global city among the church leaders and in the theological schools that I visit in Seoul.  The first I will call for the lack of a better term “traditional global missions.”  Korean churches, I heard one person say, have been called to take on the responsibilities of being the new global missionary force, carrying on the tradition that they received from Western missionaries who first brought the Gospel to them.  Another theological educator pointed out to me that with the slowdown and even decline in church growth in Korea, the theological schools in the land are producing more graduates than there are openings in churches for pastors.  Koreans are going to have to turn increasingly to global missions, he said, to find jobs for these candidates.

That is one response I am hearing.  But a second, although not necessarily antithetical response, is one I would call a new or renewed theology of the neighbor.  Christians in Korea must learn in new ways what it means to become a church for others, one pastor told me.  Christians must learn that evangelism begins with service, another theological educator said.  Ministry is the manifestation locally of the transformation God intends globally a third pointed out to me.  A new conversation about public theology and public faith is emerging in Korea, said a fourth.  This second type of response is no less missional in character, but it begins with the question not of what does the church need.  Rather, it takes as the starting point for mission the question of what does the world need?  What is most compelling in the city or in the world, this approach is asking, and how should the churches respond in mission and ministry?  Such questions, I realize by the end of the week, are not unique to Seoul, or to the global city in general.  This second response seems to me to entail a deeper engagement with the Gospel message that asserts, “for God so loved the world.”

Dale T. Irvin is the eleventh President of New York Theological Seminary and Professor of World Christianity. He is the co-author with Scott W. Sunquist of History of the World Christian Movement. Dr. Irvin is also the author of Christian Histories, Christian Traditioning: Rendering Accounts (Orbis Books, 1998), and The Agitated Mind of God: The Theology of Kosuke Koyama (Orbis Books, 1996), which he edited with Akintunde E. Akinade.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Emergence at the Edge

Emergence (n.), emerge (v.)
from the Latin ex, meaning “out of” and mergere, “to dip, to plunge”; emergence is the counterpart to immersion.

definition: the act of arising, of coming forth from concealment, of unpredicted appearing
“The ‘true’ is always marked and informed by the ambivalence of the process of emergence itself, the productivity of meanings that construct counter-knowledges in medias res, in the very act of agonism, within the terms of a negotiation (rather than a negation) of oppositional and antagonistic elements.”
-- Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”
-- Walter Benjamin

Homi K. Bhaba is right, even if he is hard at times to understand. The ‘true’ is always something that is in the process of emerging, always something that is arising in the middle of things, and always something around which controversy or conflict swirls. The true is always emerging from the midst of knowledge and counter-knowledge, from what currently counts as settled belief and what is discounted as new opinion or perception. Walter Benjamin, no apostle of clarity in his own right, adds the point that the state of emergence is also always a state of emergency, and that those who are on the underside of power, ‘the oppressed’ as he calls them, know this to be not the exception but the rule.

My institution, New York Theological Seminary (NYTS), is an emerging institution. It has been for more than a century. Those of us who have had any contact with the school know that as a community we are quite familiar with negotiating oppositional and even antagonistic elements, finding ways to make connections where others cannot see them, seeking always the true as it lives emergent. NYTS is immersed in the life of the City, meaning New York City in the first instance, but other cities around the globe as well. Immersed in the City, we emerge from the city, not unlike the way a candidate emerges from the baptismal waters in Christian tradition, and not unlike the manner in which Jesus emerged in Resurrection so long ago.

This spring we are launching a new effort to allow some of these emergent perspectives to be heard, debated and encountered. The conversation will be taking the form of a blog, this one first and others expected to follow. My intention in these pages is to foster the kind of conversation I think a school of theological education located at the intersection of global processes (in medias res) ought to be fostering. I and others in these pages will be taking a fresh look at emerging issues in the life of the churches and other communities of faith throughout the city, across the nation, and around the world. You can expect to read about topics that emerge from the middle of things, but consistently point toward the edge of things.

Defining “emergence”

In philosophy and science, “emergence” names the phenomenon in which complex systems arise out of the interaction of simpler forms or agents. None of the simpler forms or agents contains in themselves the patterns that define or determine the more complex systems that arise. No one agent or part holds a blueprint of the whole. The blueprint or pattern is emergent. It is the process by which bees form a hive, ants form a colony, or human beings form a city.

Key to the phenomenon of emergence is the process or practice of interconnectivity, a form of association (often non-hierarchical in nature) in which all parts of a complex system interact with all others. The term that best names interconnectivity in Christian theology is the Greek word koinonia that is found in the pages of the New Testament. it is often translated as “fellowship” or “communion” but literally means “sharedness” or “commonality.” The term that the ancient theological tradition offered to describe the manner of movement associated with interconnectivity is perichoresis, which describes in particular the Trinitarian movement of the divine life, of one living with and in another, or of the dance that God is. In the Trinitarian life, God can be said to be eternally emergent.

Referring to the church, “emergent” or “emerging” names a recent conversation taking place especially within (post)evangelical circles and seeking to rebirth the community of faith in a postmodern context. Emerging churches are strongly missional in identity. They often take the form of a house church or a cell church in structure, and they usually embrace the notion of interconnectivity with a passion, as Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger point out in their recent book, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures.

Finally, emergence at the edge often becomes an emergency, which is emergence with urgency attached. An emergency is a situation or occurrence of a sudden and serious nature, usually demanding immediate attention. Should not a church or seminary that seeks to be emergent not in some sense also be capable of addressing emergencies? And should not a church or seminary that is mindful of the oppressed, whom Jesus called “the least of these” (Matthew 25) take the “state of emergency” to be its norm?

Listen in with me this week after Easter to hear where the new is emerging in our midst. Listen in on the conversations taking place around the efforts to eradicate poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, heath care, multifaith community, environmental degradation, and more. “Emergence” names the creative edge. Its horizons are the ends of the earth, which is where the disciples soon found themselves being sent by the Risen Lord.

Dale T. Irvin is the eleventh President of New York Theological Seminary and Professor of World Christianity. He is the co-author with Scott W. Sunquist of History of the World Christian Movement. Dr. Irvin is also the author of Christian Histories, Christian Traditioning: Rendering Accounts (Orbis Books, 1998), and The Agitated Mind of God: The Theology of Kosuke Koyama (Orbis Books, 1996), which he edited with Akintunde E. Akinade.