Discernment Pains


Five years ago this month, just after my baptismal confirmation at Hillsong Church London, my bible study leader and friend Lisette took me out for a celebratory dinner. My hair still wet from the full immersion dunking, I told her that being Christian was so easy. She looked at me and said “umm No.” I explained that though choices might be difficult to carry out, the actual choice would always be easy. “There is a clear right and wrong answer to every situation.”

I wish I could go back in time and smack the living sh*t out of myself. What an idiot.

Over the past few months, I have been deliberating which seminary to attend. I applied to Austin, Columbia (Atlanta), and San Francisco. I was encouraged and tempted to apply to McCormick (Chicago) and Pittsburgh but in the end didn’t feel called to these schools.

Through sheer luck, or is it grace, I got into all three seminaries. On top of that, I was blessed with the highest merit scholarship each offered. A true honor, but a gift that didn’t make the decision any easier as the process of elimination wasn’t as clear.

Unfortunately, even with the award, the cost of living in the San Francisco Bay Area is too high. I would have to find an additional $10-12K in scholarships, loans, and work just to pay for housing, and compared to the award from the other two schools it didn’t seem like a good financial decision to accept the offer from San Francisco. So then it was down to Austin and Columbia.

What felt like the longest month in my life, I interviewed several students (past and present), faculty, and staff, at both institutions. I kept flip-flopping over which offer I was going to accept. My friends here in SF were either amused or annoyed, but thank God for them allowing me to process out loud, sometimes in frustration, mostly in joy.

I surprised even myself when I made the final decision. My “clear” go-to had always been Austin, with the most Hispanic students and being located smack in the middle of the city (I don’t exist well outside of city centers). A lovely place that reminds me of my alma mater Webster University (St. Louis) in the middle of a miniature San Francisco. A place that feels warm and familiar, but perhaps too familiar. But it was Columbia that I kept dreaming about. It was Columbia I kept interviewing people about looking for reasons to hate it. It was Columbia, where the harder I tried to cross it off my list, it just kept rising to the top.

An excerpt from a post in the Columbia blog:
A survey of Presbyterian history reveals the following problem: Too often Presbyterians treated diversity as the ultimate aim of their ministry and regarded the “other” persons needed to fulfill this goal as “objects” of mission. In 1889, Presbyterians produced a report for the General Assembly that included a strategy to convert recent immigrants by taking advantage of their vulnerability as strangers adjusting to a new country. Some Presbyterians have also conflated diversity with inclusion in the ways they celebrate the presence of the persons – racially, ethnically, and generationally – that make their congregation diverse without seeking how to truly embody a faithful congregation in which every member has an equal voice in discerning the future direction of the church. Nobody wants to be treated as an “object” of mission or lifted up as an “example” of ministry success.

Although not congregations, Presbyterian seminaries have fallen into the same patterns as our congregations: seeking to be faithful and in the process, creating a system where the “other” becomes the “object” of the mission. In the past ten years, Columbia has seen a shift in the student body. The data tells us we’re diverse and it would be easy to lift up statistics stating that currently only half of our students affiliate with the PC(USA) or that 40% of our student body identifies with a racial-ethnic minority group to substantiate these claims of diversity. But, if we’re to learn from history, we must recognize that diversity cannot be conflated with inclusion.
It is no secret that I wrestle with the notions of white church, and have made it clear to those closest to me that I will not stand for diversity for the sake of diversity any longer. Inclusion is the only way forward, and though I believe Columbia (and the PC(USA)) have a long way to go, I value the recognition of this need in our education and ministry.

And so, I made the hard call to Austin. I must take this moment to thank everyone there who responded to my numerous questions. Thank you for putting up with me.

And so officially, I will be attending Columbia Theological Seminary this summer. I will be starting with Greek School (PC(USA) students have to learn both ancient Hebrew and Greek) before taking a full load of classes this fall.

Leaving San Francisco is not going to be easy. I have to give up my beloved Ashes (the bunny) as Columbia has a no pets policy, leave my post as an elder at Mission Bay Community Church and say “see ya later” to all the wonderful friends I have made here over the years.

Be warned, I will cry.

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