As I go back and look at the letters I wrote several years ago, I find that some of the most important reflecting and writing that I was doing was in the form of application essays to seminaries. Applying to seminary was, after all, one of the main reasons for me to return to the United States when I did. So here is my Personal Statement for Union Theological Seminary in New York, one of my top two choices of schools to attend
Thandiwe Gobledale, January 2009
Union Theological Seminary Personal Statement
Words from numerous languages echo off the waiting room’s graying walls. People come from all over India for treatment here at the Christian Medical College Hospital in Vellore, Tamil Nadu. I recognize a word or two of Tamil, an exchange between a mother and son behind me.
Then, in English, “Sister. Excuse me sister.” I turn and meet the smiling eyes of the woman behind me.
“Vannakam akka, greetings sister,” I reply.
The woman’s smile spreads from her eyes across her face, “You speak Tamil?”
Only a little,” I say, rapidly depleting my vocabulary. We exchange names. Hers is Vatsala, and her son, who looks about four years old, is Sanjay. I tell her that I come from the United States and live and work just outside Vellore. Vatsala says something to Sanjay in Tamil, and he patters across the concrete floor towards me. He stops beside me, and I hear the whisper of his breath.
“Akka. Sister.” Sanjay’s hand casts a shadow over my face as he reaches toward my forehead, touching the space between my eyebrows. I reach up and feel a fuzzy circle. I smile. He has given me a stick-on tikka that many of the women here in Tamil Nadu wear. “Ungulukke, akka. It’s for you, sister,” he tells me. Across barriers of language, culture, class, age, race and religion, Sanjay has reached out to me and blessed my brow with this symbol of his country and culture.
Immersed in my thoughts, it takes a moment to realize that the nurse at the front desk is calling my name. I stand and smile goodbye to Vatsala and Sanjay before making my way into the doctor’s office where I sit down.
“You weren’t wearing that before.” After a meaningful pause, I understand that the doctor refers to the tikka on my forehead.
Smiling, I explain, “A little boy gave it to me.”
“Oh? Christians don’t wear tikkas. Hindus wear them. They symbolize idolatry,” the doctor informs me.
“He was a very little boy,” I explain to the doctor, “maybe only four years old. I did not want to refuse his kindness.”
The timbre of the doctor’s voice is as hard and gray as the cement walls. “That was a perfect opportunity for you to share the gospel, the good news of salvation, to tell the little boy about Jesus.”
I miss a breath and try to focus for a moment on the doctor’s expression as he talks to me. My vision, like my thoughts, blurs. With no response for the doctor, I blink and set my jaw.
How is God revealed to us? Who is my neighbor and teacher? Is God revealed through the hospitality of a Hindu child? Can Sanjay be both my neighbor and my teacher? Apparently, for the doctor, God is hidden from Sanjay because of Sanjay’s ignorance of the gospel of Jesus’ love and sacrifice for humanity. As the doctor explicitly tells me, I miss my opportunity to act as an emissary of God by not telling Sanjay of Jesus’ love for him and of the error of his Hindu ways. I, on the other hand, feel the hand of God upon me through Sanjay’s act of generosity and welcome, crossing human-constructed boundaries, his recognition of our common humanity.
Is God revealed through the mist rolling in over the San Francisco hills, shrouding the ocean from view? Is God revealed through the muddled words of Mrs. O’Connor, an eighty-three year old woman who suffers from dementia with whom I work? Is God revealed in the lingering saxophone notes played by a musician in the Van Ness BART station? I believe God is revealed to me in each of these ways. Sanjay, the rolling mist, Mrs. O’Connor, and the street musician are all teachers if only I am open to listen and learn.
Is God revealed through ideas learned or events experienced, through thoughts shared or people met? Personally, I tend to be much more open to learning from and having God revealed through experiences and people. My struggle tends to be with God’s revelation through the Bible, the disciples, the saints and Jesus. Who was Jesus? This question, for someone who strongly identifies as Christian, presents a major theological dilemma. Was he a man who taught and modeled what it means to have a very intimate connection with the divine, who was grounded in the world and understood his responsibility to speak out for justice and humanity, love and forgiveness in his society? Was he divine, the son of God, in a way that is different from other humans or creatures or matter? What about the Buddha? The Prophet Mohammed? Mahatma Gandhi? Martin Luther King Junior? A little boy sharing a tikka?
As a Christian in the world today, I must grapple with questions of who Jesus was and is and how God was and is revealed through him. I must also address questions about the Bible, its authorship, and how it also may offer a revelation of God to people. Does one set of revelation, revelation through experience and the world or revelation through text, tradition and ritual, negate or override another? How do these realms of revelation complement each other? How are they interconnected? How may an over-emphasis on one blind us to the wisdom and truths of the other? I grapple with these questions and with how they relate to my life and relationship with the world.
In attending Union Theological Seminary, I hope to pursue these and other theological questions. I believe that as God is revealed to us, so we must respond to God and act accordingly in the world. The answer to the questions, “Who is my neighbor?” and “Who is my teacher?” will influence and inform how we interact with people and the world around us as well as with ourselves. I believe that discernment is the process through which we open ourselves to God’s revelation as well as the process by which we respond to this revelation. I look to seminary as the next step in my own process of discernment. I have experienced God as revealed through a myriad of people, places, events and texts, and I feel called to engage in a process of discerning how I may best respond to the world around me and contribute positively to it.
I believe that the revelation of God occurs as a part of an invitation or call from God to authentic and abundant life. Call occurs both individually and collectively. As an individual, applying to seminary and pursuing theological studies comes in response to a personal sense of God’s call to me. As I look forward to the numerous possibilities of ways in which I may respond to God’s revelation in my life, be it through ordained ministry, hospital chaplaincy, work as a community organizer or educator, I look for a discerning community of which to be a part. In the same way that God calls individuals to act with responsibility and care, God calls communities. Union Theological Seminary strikes me as an institution that attempts to act with responsibility and care, for example in acknowledging and working to address some of the inequities and injustices of the wider community in New York City. God calls us collectively to open our eyes, to see and respond lovingly to God revealed to us in the world. Union’s focus on urban ministries, its engagement with the poverty, racism and injustice in New York City, as well as in our country and world, speak volumes of Union’s willingness to discern and respond to this collective call.
Growing up the child of missionaries living in South Africa, Zimbabwe and the United States, I have been exposed to the idea that God is in and revealed through the people and world around me. My experience as a child in rural South Africa, my exposure to people who had far less materially than I did, yet who, possessing great faith, hope and love, were empowered to survive apartheid and even to organize against it, demonstrated the positive power of religion generally and Christianity specifically. Listening to my parents narrate their own stories, I realized how profoundly their lives, and therefore mine, were shaped by their faith and sense of call. I witnessed how their faith challenged them to live authentically and abundantly. As an adolescent, I recognized grace and divinity in my surroundings, but I moved away from language that grounded this revelation in Christianity. I chose to detach myself from structured religion even as I grappled with questions of purpose, responsibility and right action. I sometimes wondered why I held onto a religion that has historically been elitist, divisive, violent and destructive.
As I continue to explore my faith, I have come to value the community that religions offer their adherents. I continue to find meaning in the familiar stories of breaking bread and sharing wine; of a man who leaves home, squanders his money, and returns to the unexpected welcome of his forgiving father; of Hagar who ventures into the wilderness with her son, and there speaks with God. As an intern in south India with Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I lived and worked with destitute women and children who shared not only their abundant faith and love with me, but also their material belongings. I left this experience having learned that giving has nothing to do with how much one has.
I do not know how my ministry will ultimately manifest itself, but I feel certain that God calls me to ministry, to service. I have already reaped the benefits of great privilege –privilege of skin color, nationality, class, and access to education. This privilege poses another theological dilemma central to my life: Can a person of privilege, such as me, enter the realm of God? Majoring in Religious Studies as an undergraduate exposed me to contemporary thinkers grappling with these questions. James Cones’ book A Black Liberation Theology transformed my view of the Bible and its power to speak to and for the oppressed and marginalized. I gravitate toward such theologies of liberation, empowerment and interdependence instead of theologies of appeasement, oppression and individualism.
In light of my privilege, it is important for me to think about my role in the oppression of others, how I contribute to systems of oppression and how I might step out of these patterns to work with and for a God that is with and for the oppressed and disempowered. I believe that God calls me to share the benefits of my privilege with others, to act as a steward of this privilege. Union Theological Seminary offers an intellectual community that I anticipate will challenge me to continue asking questions, that will hold me accountable for aligning my actions with my words and ideas, that will support me as I grapple with my own privilege, and that will assist me in the process of discerning how God calls me to best use this privilege in our world today. .
Although I majored in Religious Studies for my undergraduate degree, I am not sure what I want to specialize in at seminary. I am particularly interested in preparing in practical ways for ministry. Union’s focus on ministerial and pastoral studies, its requirement that students undertake guided CPE field placements and its general engagement with the wider community and world appeal to me. I believe that Union would be a good fit for me as I look to hone skills for working with people in various settings, looking preparing people for urban ministry.
Theologically, I wish to focus on theologies that challenge and empower people to work for social and environmental responsibility and justice. As I mentioned before, James Cone’s work in liberation theology has greatly influenced my own theology, and I anticipate studying under him, engaging with him and other professors in grappling with questions of God’s revelation, the dilemma of human power and privilege, and the Christian response to oppression and injustice. I look to Union Theological Seminary to provide me with the tools and questions to see God revealed in the world and to make God’s presence more visible to others. I look forward to exploring the theological dilemmas that confront people of faith alongside students and faculty who put their faith into action, responding to God’s unique call to them in the context of our 21st century world.