By STHConnect

How to Engage Occupy as a Seminarian

November 29th, 2011 in Uncategorized 1 comment

A walk through the Occupy encampment in downtown Dewey Square, or a web search of the ‘Occupy’ movement reveals a myriad of voices speaking out about the current economic and social conditions of our country:

  • Concerned citizens calling for greater accountability for financial institutions, corporations and government bureaucracy.Occupy Article Image
  • Labor unions, employed, under-employed, and unemployed citizens calling for jobs and job security in a time of unemployment unprecedented since the Great Depression.
  • A student movement calling for forgiveness of private-gain, public-risk student loans which have increased exponentially in recent years.
  • Occupy the Hood and Occupy the Barrio, two movements representing the voices of communities of color, calling for a response to the poverty and violence which have plagued their communities for longer and more profoundly than any other community within the Occupy movement.
  • Veterans for Peace advocating the end of America’s foreign wars, and memorializing and mourning the deaths of their loved ones.
  • Pro-Palestinian activists calling for the end of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian occupied territories.
  • Feminists calling for women’s rights and an end to gendered violence.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is not one homogenous movement. The diversity of voices within the Occupy movement has been formed by the diversity of lived experiences among its participants, and while the inclusion all of these voices in the movement has been a great plus, they can also cause confusion or division within the movement as it grows.

Should seminarians and faith leaders engage this seemingly disparate, chaotic Occupy movement? 

Already, believers from many faith backgrounds (e.g. Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist) have shown their solidarity with the movement. The presence of a faith and spirituality tent at some rallies, as well as protest chaplains from various faith and denominational backgrounds, beckons seminarians to become involved with the movement. Among Christian groups, organizations and seminaries such as #occupychurch, Sojourners, and Union Theological Seminary, have made particularly vocal statements of support for the Occupy movement.

Whether or not we agree with the mission or the means of the Occupy movement, as leaders of faith, are we not called to respond to the contentious and significant issues of our time? This is an opportunity and challenge – not only to make ‘Occupy’ relevant to church, but for Christianity to be relevant within and for the generation of ‘Occupy.’

Here are a few ways we can engage ‘Occupy’ as part of a theological community.

Educate Yourself

If you are in seminary or graduate school, you’re likely already generally informed about many of the social and economic issues of our country today. But truly knowing and understanding the issues is different from being informed by the scholarly articles, news articles, and blogs which so often fill the life of a graduate student. To truly understand the movement means to stand beside those involved with and impacted by the movement, and to listen to them and to engage them in dialogue.

So if you haven’t already had a chance to go down to one of the ‘Occupy’ protests or encampments, I encourage you to do so.

You don’t have to hold a sign at first – or ever. Simply engage in the practice of active listening, ask participants about their involvement, and dialogue with others who are for or against the movement. Where do their critiques and/or supports come from – a logical or emotional stance?

If they are coming from a place of logic, research their data.

If they are coming from a place of emotion, don’t cast their argument aside; take into account their story and the richness that it brings. Only then can we truly understand the richness and diversity of this movement, and, ultimately, the good it may do.

Reflect on Your Own Position

It’s not enough just to educate ourselves through listening and dialogue. We also have to practice the art of personally reflecting upon each of our backgrounds, experiences and privilege, and understand how those have formed our personal understanding of the movement.

How has your privilege affected our understanding of the Occupy movement? If you’re in seminary, this likely means that you’re working towards at least your second degree in higher education. Can you truly call yourself underprivileged compared to persons who have not had the opportunity or means to pursue a graduate degree, or even a college degree?

Whether through education, class, gender, race, religious background, and/or sexuality, how have these privileges affected those outside and within the Occupy movement? How has it informed your varied and diverse understandings of the systemic oppressions which the Occupy movement is protesting?  Your diverse experiences have surely contributed to your willingness to be open to and trust certain perspectives of the ‘Occupy’ movement and to discredit or reject other perspectives (particularly those that push you outside of your comfort zone).

Rather than being discouraged that we are all at times blinded by our own privilege and experience, we must lend ourselves to a practice of humility. Humility in the context of ‘Occupy’ can be enacted through a willingness and openness to learn from others who have had different experiences and perspectives than your own. We can also be hopeful that that our experiences and privilege – which at times may have contributed to our own blindness – will provide us gifts to promote the message and mission of Christ within the world.  

Take Action

Life experience, education, dialogue, and reflection equip us with a critical understanding of how we might best engage the Occupy movement and use our gifts. The gifts you bring to the table are unique, as are the gifts of your congregation or faith community. Just because you’re not camping out at Dewey Square doesn’t meant that you’re not part of the movement. Dialogue and action – whether in the blogosphere, in your local university general assemblies, in classrooms, or through community activism – are all critical components of this movement.

Furthermore, as the winter weather comes and more measures are taken to ensure the ‘security’ of the Occupy encampments, the physical presence of occupiers in the downtown financial districts throughout the United States will inevitably come to an end. What happens then – in the next phase of the movement – will be critical in determining the significance and success of the movement in actualizing change.

Be Critical

If you aren’t quite sure of the movement yet, your critical voice is still valuable. Each skeptic who critiques the movement sharpens the movement by questioning its weaknesses and activating untapped imaginative possibilities.

Which issues of the Occupy movement speak to the experiences of those in your congregations, and how can you engage the questions of the Occupy movement with your congregations across lived experiences of class, race, gender, sexuality and politics? How can you make your faith relevant to a movement which has already made itself relevant to multiple experiences of faith?

For seminarians, this is a great opportunity for education and training. This will not be the last socially contentious event you will have to deal with as a leader of a community of faith, so embrace this opportunity, even if you don’t find yourself embracing every aspect of the movement itself.

Kelly Hill is a 2nd year Master of Theological Studies student focusing in Religion and Conflict Transformation. Join the Occupy panel discussion: “The State of America: How did we get here? What can we do?” on Wednesday November 30, at 7pm in the BU Communications Building, Room 101. BU Occupies Boston will participate in a Unity March/Rally on December 3rd in collaboration with various other Occupy groups beginning at Marsh Chapel in the morning and culminating at Copley Square from 1-4pm.

How To Integrate the Pastoral and the Psychological

November 14th, 2011 in Uncategorized 4 comments

When I was just beginning my training at the Center for Religion and Psychotherapy, one our professors shared his experience sitting with a new client.

As he listened to the many difficulties the man was experiencing, and feeling overwhelmed, he said “you really need to see a therapist!” Sheppard Picture

Even though he was a pastoral psychotherapist, was sitting in the therapist’s chair, and would receive payment for the work he was doing, he hadn’t yet developed an identity he could claim as his own. He hadn’t developed an identity that let him be a psychologist and a pastor, which would let him provide the pastoral counseling that would benefit those who came to him.

Students and consultants often ask me how to develop such a professional identity. In this article and the two to follow, I’ll explain the three aspects of becoming what you are trained to practice:

  1. Claiming the influence of your faith/religious tradition
  2. Recognizing that pastoral psychotherapy involves integrating multiple languages of practice: theological, psychological, clinical
  3. Life long professional development and involvement

In this article we’ll discuss number 1, because you can’t move on to step 2 or 3 without it. 

Know your Tradition

The “pastoral” in pastoral psychotherapy or counseling has to mean something to you. It might mean something related to call or it may indicate the context in which you will embody your training. But it also needs to mean something in terms of your faith or religious tradition.

So what does pastoral mean in your tradition?

If you are Christian and Methodist, what do you know about Christianity’s historical use of the term and how the Methodist denomination has understood the term? What does this history mean for you as you live into your pastoral role, whether providing care or counseling?

Or, if you are Jewish and Reformed, is “pastoral” an historically relevant term and how is it used in the Reformed movement today? Rabbi Dayle Friedman, in her edited volume, Jewish Pastoral Care: A Pratical Handbook from Traditional & Contemporary Sources, reminds us that “the term pastoral care is one that was developed in the Christian community. It has clear roots in the Hebrew scriptures . . .” And, Rabbi Charles Sheer makes this point when he says that along with what he learned in his CPE experience, his “assessment and responses are guided by sources that preceded CPE by millennia. I come from a tradition that places much stock on the written word . . .. I am accompanied by the documents of my Jewish heritage.”

Roman Catholics historically made administering the sacraments a central focus of pastoral care. What this indicates is that pastoral practitioners are in dialogue the traditions that have shaped them as pastoral leaders.

You do not leave these influences at the door of your pastoral care and counseling classes. Conversely, you must work to articulate clear statements about how they inform what, why and where you provide pastoral care and counseling. And so I ask, do you know how your tradition has informed your current understanding of “pastoral”?

Pastoral Identity Doesn’t Just Happen

We should consider, for a moment, why integrating clinical practices and pastoral identity is difficult. One reason is because it is a professional developmental task. It takes intentionality, an educational setting that takes the pastoral aspect of your work seriously, and requires that in your educational program the formational dimension is explicitly attended to as an integral part of the program. In fact, it must shape the creation of the program. So, it takes commitment from multiple parties. You, but also your educators.

If you are thinking this is not easy—you’re right! It takes a community of pastoral practitioners to help you achieve an integrated pastoral identity. But the result is one that benefits you as a practitioner and those who come seeking help from you.

For example, when someone comes to you for assistance, they are likely coming because you have “pastoral” preceding your clinical designation. For those who seek a pastoral psychotherapist or psychologist, they hope you will be able to understand the religious, spiritual, and moral impulses that frame their concerns and view of life. Not only that, they are likely coming with the hope that you know personally what it means to live an integrated life.

You don’t have to present yourself as perfectly “together”

But you must convey that you value the place of religion and spirituality in a healthy life, and that in the work you do the psychological and the pastoral each contribute to your practice of pastoral care.

If the pastoral and psychological both contribute to your practice, your pastoral identity will be apparent in the following ways:

  1. You claim it as a part of your professional identity
  2. You are comfortable with a range of pastoral and religious metaphors that run through peoples’ lives
  3. You rely on a practice of psychological and theological reflection to help you understand your work
  4. Your professional colleagues will include those who also embrace a pastoral identity and work to help the broader public understand pastoral psychotherapy and psychology as important resources for individuals and communities in need of care.

None of these things will happen overnight, but you can begin the process of integrating your tradition into your practice now. Being comfortable with your religious tradition’s definition of “pastoral”, or its equivalent, allows you to begin integrating the the different languages of the religious and the psychological, which we’ll discuss in the next part of this series.

So what does “pastoral” mean to you and your tradition? What does it mean to provide care? Jump in on the comments and let me know.

Phillis Isabella Sheppard, Associate Professof of Pastoral Psychology and Theology, is a womanist practical theologian, psychoanalyst and sometime poet. Dr. Sheppard’s research engages the intersection where the social and the intrapsychic meet. Her recently published Self, Culture and Others in Womanist Practical Theology addresses serious lacunae in pastoral theology, psychology of religion, and psychoanalytic theory.

What Can Disney Teach You About Social Justice?

November 7th, 2011 in Uncategorized 2 comments

Anderson - Protest Image

Imagine the world anew. Singing birds. Flourishing forests. Little fuzzy animals to help with your quotidian tasks. A happy song to sing when you venture too far into the deep, dark forest. Faithful friends who march alongside you as you fight dragons and evil queens on the great quest for love.

Bad guys are easily defined and always defeated with surety and minimal destruction. Lovers are always reunited, friendships are restored, and broken communities are made whole. Good always wins.

Disney magic, the pure power of imagination at play, brings about happy endings for each protagonist. But Disney doesn’t live in any of the worlds it imagines.

You might even say that it perpetuates patriarchy, hetero-normative understandings of love, and just about any and every harmful ideology operating within North America.

But still …Is Disney onto something?

When I was little, I wanted to be an imagineer. Imagineers work for Disney to create theme parks, events, and entertainment venues. They are engineers, lighting technicians, scenic artists, architects, writers, sound designers, and the like. The imagineer combines her/his unique professional skill set with a big dose of imagination aiming to bring joy to the world. Their vision seeks to enhance the lives of others through the synthesis of engineering and imagination.

Sometimes, the imagineer is guided by a preconceived design scheme or an area of need within the corporation. However, much of an imagineer’s time is spent in “blue sky speculation”— they imagine what might be possible with no limitations. They have free license to dream without boundaries. They then bring their professional skills, in community, to make real their seemingly impossible visions.

So what does this all have to do with social justice?

Work for justice requires the promiscuous use of imagination; It provides you with energy to continue dreaming when previous visions have failed you.

Imagining the world to come does not mean that you are blinded to the blistered, battered Earth. You know the facts. You feel sea levels rise as island nations are swept into the oceanic abyss. You have listened hard to too many wrenching stories. You hold the hands of childless mothers. Your shoes squeak through shattered-glass-covered streets. The Earth groans and you listen to her cries.

You know intimately the pain of a world broken by systemic sin. And yet, you dedicate yourself to search for beauty where she might be found. To celebrate the glimmers of hope in every small victory. To walk in solidarity as you imagine what the world might be.

We are called to imagine the kin-dom, that ever-hoped-for land where God’s people dwell together in peace and justice. The vastness of the world’s brokenness is soul-searing. Human agency stands little chance against such forces of hopelessness.

Whether you are working as a community organizer, a legislative advocate, or a direct service worker—imaginative capacity is critical. This work demands that you hold in delicate balance a deep, embodied knowledge of injustice present in the world while allowing yourself to dream the world as it can be, to envision that great kin-dom to which you have dedicated your life. 

So how does imagination empower leaders for justice?                                                               

Imagination is acting within you when you see the world as it is and dream it to be otherwise. This is not the far-off, pie-in-the-sky dreaming of denial. Rather, you imagine what might be possible and you work for it. You catch a glimpse of the long vision and eke it out in daily action.

You engage focus groups to dream of a more just public transportation system. 

You think creatively about raising public consciousness.  

You dream together how tenant taskforces might impact housing policy.

 You create opportunities for dialogue between unlikely partners in justice work.

You change the way your own organization operates so that you mirror the ways of relating you wish to see in the wider world.

 You embrace diversity and attempt to expand your creative capacity.

You lend your gifts as a visual artist, musician, songwriter, puppeteer or dancer to peace and justice.  

Imagination guides us, individually and communally, as we speak truth to power in new ways. Creative energy moves through you, infusing your communities with renewed passion. The power of imagination is ignited.                                              

Play reenergizes us for the long vision of social change.

Fight for social justice inevitably involves defeat. Many of us have been there. The program you’ve dedicated yourself to is cut from the agency’s budget. The hoped-for legislation is vetoed by the Appropriations Committee. The youth you are working with succumb to community violence. The dreams of centuries of prophets are crushed daily by political pundits whose only allegiance is to corporate pocketbooks. The week after the protest, the streets are left empty again as the world spins on. Cycles of injustice continue to be perpetuated by amorphous forces beyond our grasp.

It seems as if the glimmer of hope within you has died. And yet, if you continue to dwell eyes-downward in this landscape of crushed visions and denied dreams, your vision wanes. You become callous to the beauty amidst the broken.

Imagination calls for play. Disney’s imagineers do nothing if not create conditions for play and celebration. Perhaps there’s some wisdom in this. Children thrive at play. Are adults really any different? Do we all not need to play? Is silliness and celebration of the beauty of life only for our children? Do we not have the need to engage in silliness and to celebrate life?

In my own life, at the end of several devastating days teaching the sixth grade, I felt the need to dress up, impersonate a British accent, and play make-believe with my students in our classroom. At the School of Theology, I may be known to have bubbles, a deck of cards, and Nun Bowling in my office. When all else fails I go here. Yes, there are implications of privilege in play. But no material is needed to hop or skip to work instead of walking. Simply the desire to feel one’s spirit just a bit lighter.

Celebrations allow you to see the strengths of your work, to capture the joy of minute victories. And if no victory can be found, simply celebrate that you’re still in the fight. Celebrations create sustainability within organizations and movements. If you focus all your energy on the pathology of the present, you’ll become dismayed to the point of disabled agency. Delight in your strengths, as an individual, as well as part of a community or organization.

So, what does Disney teach you about social justice?

Well, maybe nothing directly. But the vision of the imagineer, the coupling of dynamic dreaming with dedicated action to create a better world: that’s something to believe in.

What do you believe in? How can imagination empower you and your work? Jump in and let me know in the comments below.

Ashley Anderson grew up in the mountains of Colorado with daily bedtime stories straight from her mother’s imagination and is now an MDiv/MSW candidate at Boston University School of Theology. She likes organizations like this one: and this one

Is Black Religious Experience More Complicated than You Thought?

November 1st, 2011 in Uncategorized 0 comments


The first Monday of every month we’ll knock on the door of an STH faculty member and sit down for an informal chat about the books they think you need to know about. Topics will range from from literature to non-fiction, theology to philosophy.

You don’t have to be on campus to attend these office hours, so jump in on the comments section to ask the professor questions or to share your own insight.

Our inaugural episode of Office Hours features Dr. Anjulet Tucker, Assistant Professor of the Sociology of Religion, as she talks about Chicago Step, a musical dance subculture that offers insight about big questions regarding African-American religious experience.

In this episode Dr. Tucker explores:

  • Why a new understanding of African-American religion doesn’t mean the death of African-American religion
  • How a secular community may also function as a religious community
  • Whether different kinds of religious communites must be mutually exclusive
  • How the influence of the church extends even into secular spaces
  • What the “death” of the black church means for the study of African-American religious experience
  • How secular spaces may help bridge religious divides

Click the link below to listen now.

(The audio will open in another window, so be sure to temporarily enable pop-ups.)

Listen Now