As tears flowed, peals of laughter rang out, and the cadences of different tongues, as at Pentecost, filled the Marywood Retreat Center here, the common idiom of faith and the power of the Holy Spirit forged a new and united community from a diverse group of aspiring Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ministers.
Gathered in this peaceful, riverside setting from November 4-7 for the 33rd Annual Racial Ethnic Seminarians Conference – themed "God's Excellency in Earthen Vessels" – some 20 racial ethnic seminary students representing 10 theological institutions discovered through varied experiences of worship, educational offerings, networking with peers and mentors, and community building that the similarities, hopes, aspirations, joys and challenges that they share far outweigh any differences they might claim.
"Some things in our backgrounds are so similar, it was just good to know that we’re not alone," said Shavon Starling-Louis, an African-American, first-year student at Columbia Theological Seminary and an inquirer under care of the Presbytery of Tampa Bay.
"I had a good conversation on injustice with Edwin Estevez, a student at Princeton Seminary, knowing that we all find ourselves in this situation at times," Starling-Louis said. "Even though I'm not living it because that’s not my particular life, I'm open to hearing about how the Hispanic population is going through particular injustices."
Starling-Louis also described an experience in which a random group of seven or eight students decided to walk to the river very late on the conference's opening night. "We all walked out to the edge of the water and we just started singing hymns in Portuguese and Spanish and Korean and contemporary songs and gospel songs. It was just beautiful and it was completely impromptu, acknowledging who God was spontaneously. I know that will be a huge part of what I will take away from this conference."
The annual conference — which has been sponsored continuously for the past 33 years by the General Assembly Mission Council and in the past three years jointly with the Office of the General Assembly — offers up to two students annually from each of 10 Presbyterian theological institutions and two Presbyterian-related seminaries an opportunity to build a support base, to learn how to meet the national and regional requirements of the preparation for ministry process, to share learnings and experiences about seminary life and to maintain an informed sensitivity to racial ethnic issues and concerns in the church.
All conference expenses — including transportation, room and board — are covered in full for each seminarian through the Sidney and Lillian Harris Fund and an Extra Commitment Opportunity, which is open to ongoing gifts.
"Gifts to this support this conference are gifts that will be multiplied tenfold," said the Rev. Dr. Mara Liz Rivera, a member of the conference's volunteer leadership team and pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Winneconne, Wisc. "I am not an alumna of this conference but when I was a student at McCormick I always wanted to go. So when I was asked five years ago and again this year to be part of the conference leadership, I said absolutely.
This conference allows those voices to be heard in the church that need to be heard. It gives racial ethnic students an opportunity to know that they are an integral part of the community through which the church will be blessed."
In addition to Rivera, the 4-person leadership team – each of whom led informative sessions on discerning God’s call, realities of ministry, self care and professional development, among other topics – included the Rev. James Hickson Lee, the Rev. Irvin Porter, and the Rev. David W. Shinn, incorporating Hispanic/Latino, African-American, Native American and Asian backgrounds and perspectives. Offerings were also presented by the Rev. Helen Locklear, regional representative for the Synod of the Mid-Atlantic for the Board of Pensions, and the Rev. Dr. Tim Cargal, associate for Preparation for Ministry/Examinations in the PC(USA)'s Office of Vocation.
The annual conference is resourced and staffed by Jewel McRae, associate for Racial Ethnic Referrals & Matching in the PC(USA)'s Church Leadership Connection office, who also led several sessions, including a seminary “rap session” with Shinn.
For several years, the conference has also been held simultaneously with the African American Middle Governing Body Gathering, an informal organization whose members attended some of the seminarians’ worship services and meals, and brought greetings to the group on Friday evening.
"This is a very special time for you," Elder Warren McNeill, stated clerk for the Presbytery of Newark, told the group. "What you are experiencing this weekend is what true ministry in the church is all about."
The Rev. Arlene Gordon, the recently retired executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Tropical Florida, shared information with the seminarians about the PC(USA)'s upcoming Women of Color Consultation (WoCC), scheduled for October 20–23, 2011, in Charlotte, N.C. Gordon is co-moderator with Cindy Joe of the planning team for the 2011 Women of Color Consultation.
In explaining that the purpose of the consultation – the denomination’s second – is for leadership in the church to listen to the voices and concerns of women of color, Gordon invited the conferees to consider attending.
Alongside such a wealth of denominational, networking and learning opportunities, there was also Spirit-filled worship, organized and offered not only by members of the leadership team, but also unique services of worship planned and led by the students in their own ethnic traditions – African-American, Hispanic and Asian – represented at the conference. In addition to the powerful messages and music brought by the seminarians, Eliecer Barrantes – a native of Costa Rica and a first-year student at Fuller Theological Seminary – presented mime, while Starling-Louis offered an interpretive dance to the hymn, "Total Praise."
"It has been a space where feeding has gone along with the bread and the wine," Starling-Louis said. "When Mara [Rivera] celebrated Communion on the opening night of the conference and took the time to say my name, it meant a lot. It meant I was officially in community."
Since the conference ended on Sunday, November 7, the community has continued electronically through both Facebook and Google groups that were initiated by Chandra Kearns, a second-year student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and an inquirer under care of Mid-Kentucky Presbytery.
"It was our desire to create a way to stay connected," Kearns said. "This is a way for all to participate and receive the support, prayers and blessings from all the racial ethnic seminarians and leadership team."
That the community now lives on through social networking is but one confirmation of McRae’s hope that the participants would take the experience with them and keep it with them throughout seminary and during their ministry.
"To me this has been a wonderfully uplifting experience," McRae said, addressing the group on Saturday afternoon. "As I look at each of your faces, I say to myself, 'They came here as strangers but they are leaving as friends.' The church is so concerned about developing leaders, and as racial/ethnic, we are few and far between. But we are gathered here today as one in God's image."