Statement of Purpose
6 January, 2009
The dais pulses with people sharing the communion meal as the crowd surges forward to receive blessings from the Bishop of Vellore, beside me. Having received the Bishop’s blessing, a mustached man cradling his drowsy child turns to me. Without hesitation, I extend a hand, murmur a prayer. As I withdraw my hand, doubt stiffens my body. I am not ordained. What right or authority do I have to place my hands and pray for this man and his son? I have no time to ponder, for an older woman reaches out to me and places my hand upon her head. She, too, wants a prayer. Then another woman approaches me, and another, and another, asking that I pray for them. The prayers come naturally, and my body relaxes as I place my hands on people – women, children, men.
The discernment of my call to pursue theological studies and ministry has gained great clarity since this experience in south India in 2007 (I have submitted a more detailed retelling of this event as my supplemental writing piece). My clearest moments of discernment come when I let go of objectives, when I step back and turn things over to God, when I slow down and listen; when I pause to study a jasmine blossom; when I move to help eighty year old Mrs. James rise from her chair, her arthritic knees creaking in protest; when I instinctively reach my hand towards another in prayer. In these moments, God is revealed to me, and I glimpse with clarity the work God calls me to do.
Growing up the child of missionaries in rural South Africa, I was exposed to people with far less materially than I had, yet who possessed great faith, hope and love which empowered them to survive apartheid and organize against it. Their faith and witness demonstrated to me 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. As an adolescent in Zimbabwe and the United States, I recognized grace and divinity in my surroundings, but I moved away from language that grounded this revelation in Christianity. I detached myself from structured religion even as I grappled with questions of purpose, responsibility and right action.
Despite this move away from organized religion, I pursued a Bachelors degree in Religious Studies, a department in which professors fanned my passions for writing, for inquiry and for people. My senior thesis, “Whom Shall I Send? An Exploration of Call,” enabled me to explore the theologies of friends and family through interviews about their conceptions of God, grace, and call. After graduation, I interned with Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in south India. There, I lived and worked in community with destitute women and children who shared with me not only their abundant faith and love, but also their material possessions. 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 familiar religious stories. I continue to feel God’s presence revealed in and through people and the world.
I do not know how my ministry will ultimately manifest itself, but I feel certain that God calls me to ministry, to service. God’s call challenges me to act responsibly and lovingly in the world with regards to the privilege I have had since birth – privilege of race, nationality, class and access to education. This privilege poses a theological question central to my life: Can a person of privilege, such as myself, enter the realm of God? I question how I may share this privilege with others; how to share my vision of a divine-filled world of hope, joy, grace and love within a world wrought with fear, sorrow, anger and hate. I grapple with how I may engage with others in their struggle not only to survive but to thrive. Majoring in Religious Studies as an undergraduate exposed me to contemporary thinkers grappling with similar 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. In the context 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.
Harvard Divinity School offers an intellectual community that, I anticipate, will challenge me to continue asking questions. The faculty at HDS offers study and scholarship that covers the breadth of my personal interests, for example, Francis Clooney’s scholarship on Christianity and Hinduism in India, Cheryl Guiles’ work in pastoral care and counseling drawing from Buddhist teaching and practice, and Matthew Myer Boulton’s investigation of the role of Christianity in responding to the global crises of AIDS and poverty, among others. Studying under the aforementioned and other faculty members at HDS will provide the scholarship and theoretical lens through which I will be able to reflect upon my own experiences and those of others.
Whether I return to India or to southern Africa, whether I work with at-risk youth in Boston or elderly people in Johannesburg, whether I preach from a pulpit or facilitate a discussion in a high school classroom, I feel confident in the preparation that Harvard Divinity School offers. The emphases on the study of religion in a global context with a lens for historically marginalized and silenced voices as well as the integration of “theory and practice, the academic and the applied” are essential components to a Master of Divinity program that will prepare me to serve God in our world. I anticipate the community at Harvard Divinity School to be one that will hold me accountable for aligning my actions with my words and ideas, for integrating my theory and practice, while also supporting me as I grapple with my own privilege and assisting me in the process of discerning how God calls me to best use this privilege in our world today.