Thursday, March 31, 2011

Equipping People for God's Mission

By Hall Kirkham

Episcopal Divinity School is a magical place. It felt that way to me the first time I bumped into it on a walk down Brattle Street fifteen years ago when I wandered through the campus during a February snowstorm. It has played a crucial, transformative role in my formation as a clergyperson and human being. This formation is ongoing and – if I am fortunate – will always be. Three learnings come to mind when I try to describe my experience at EDS.

First, if sin is separation from God, then oppression is separation from each other, and racism is the particular sin of oppression of the United States. It is the lens through which we who live and operate in the United States can view oppression in all its forms.

“Foundations for Theological Praxis” is training in anti-oppression and anti-racism, and is the first course all students encounter at EDS. It provides the language and orientation that inform all subsequent work at the school and interactions within the community. It is the main ingredient in the EDS mission to form leaders of hope, courage and vision who serve God’s mission of justice, compassion and reconciliation.

It seems to me from this work that these efforts – anti-racism and anti-oppression – are not just good ideas. They are THE ideas, if we are to have any hope for this wonderful project of God and God’s dream.

No one gets out of Foundations unscathed or untouched. All discover things that are profoundly unsettling and profoundly reassuring about the way we humans are with each other, and about the way we can be. This is work that everyone should do, and the earlier the better, because then one has more time to practice and be liberated by it.

Foundations introduced me to my varied privileges, privileges well beyond my due or awareness, that enable me as a white male to do things in America that will meaningfully add to or detract from my own and fellow travelers’ journeys towards God’s dream. So I continue to try and seek and serve the marginalized other, particularly the sick and in prison, in my work inside and outside the parish.

My second major discovery at EDS was that community matters. At the very least, our shared experience from Foundations enabled each of us to help in the learning and recovery process over lunch, during the week, and as we moved through our days. Community at EDS was exhilarating and redeeming, words I’d never used to describe anything in my life before. We hear a lot about community at EDS, and I’m not entirely sure how it happens or what it means when folks say, “We do community well.” But EDS does.

When my wife and I were expecting twins, the community celebrated alongside us in each of the milestones of pregnancy. When those twins were delivered to us at 21 weeks and were unable to survive for more than a few hours, the community mourned and wept with us, and helped us get up and step back blinking into the daylight.

Community – and, in particular, community bonded by a shared faith – is one of those things I recognize when I experience it. Something primal and organic now guides me to try and to nourish it. Maybe community in its best sense is common fare in God’s dream?

My third learning was in the work EDS invited me to do – along with all of my classmates– in finding “voice.” Not every one of us joins the ranks of clergy, but each of us is responsible to figure out how to express what our experience has given us. Doing this helps carry us further towards God’s dream.

I am a great fan of Woody Guthrie, who would have loved EDS. I think he would have loved it so much that I decided to “try on” as a voice his music and lyrics. One sermon I preached in a class combined my spoken text with quotes from Woody, sung through his music (guitar and all). It resulted in an unusual – albeit probably incomprehensible – sermon.

We won’t all speak or preach. Some of us will write and paint or play music or dance, or even offer our presence in silence. I think that our voice is how we share the gifts that we discover within ourselves and that emerge from our shared experiences. EDS worked hard to help me find a voice that I am still learning to use effectively.

EDS isn’t just an important resource for the formation of leaders in the Christian faith. It is vital. And it is vital for the Diocese of Massachusetts, the national Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion and – hear me out on this – God’s mission. And I look forward to sowing and harvesting its gifts, and sowing and harvesting again, for the rest of my life.

* The Reverend Hall Kirkham, M.Div. '08, is Assistant Rector at St Peter's Episcopal Church in Weston and a trustee of the Episcopal Divinity School.


  1. Well worded Hall! Thank you for sharing your experience with us. I found myself agreeing with you and cheering you on throughout this post! What you said really resonates with my experience of EDS too.

  2. Great explanation of key pieces that have formed so many of us in at least the last decade--I agree on all three points!