By Rob Simbeck
The Rev. Becca Stevens is in story mode. Between bites of a veggie wrap and fried sweet potatoes, her tale jumps continents, turns thistles into bath and beauty products, and exults in miraculous transformations not just of plants but of people. Now and then she interrupts herself to marvel at the sights and sounds of late-summer rain hammering the restaurant roof and Nashville’s Belmont Boulevard.
Animated and compelling, she is both 21st-century American woman and Episcopal priest sharing the riches of a life and ministry fired by the call “to live by the truth that love is the most powerful force for change in the world.”
Her story pivots on a broken bottle of geranium oil inside a suitcase containing copies of Find Your Way Home, a book written by members of the Magdalene community, which she founded and which offers recovery, housing, medical care, therapy, education and vocational training at no cost to women who have been through addiction, prostitution and incarceration. As members of the community, led by Stevens, use stories and music to bring hope and healing to a group of incarcerated women, one of those women finds herself transported by the sheer beauty of the scent on the book’s pages.
“So this oil,” Stevens says, “made by a bunch of women who have survived the genocide in Rwanda, packaged in Nashville by women who have come off the streets, ends up helping to heal a woman down in a Texas prison.
“To be involved in that,” she adds, “is to be rich.”
The story, like her ministry, is personal and universal, uniting the gospel and economics in a world that has of late been rough on both. As chaplain at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Chapel on the Vanderbilt campus and founder of Thistle Farms, the business offshoot of Magdalene (it does indeed turn thistles into earth-friendly bath and beauty products), Rev. Stevens is a firm believer in the union of the spiritual and the practical.
“I want the women here to be employed, to have financial security, and to be able to change their tires,” she says. “A ministry that doesn’t concern itself with the economic well-being of its recipients is just so much wind.”
Stevens, a 1990 graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School and the author of five books, has brought more than $12 million in donations as well as nationwide press coverage to Magdalene and Thistle Farms; has earned the respect and support of Nashville’s business, political and arts communities; and has received any number of accolades and “Person of the Year” awards. She is, in the words of Viki Matson, assistant professor
of the practice of ministry and director of field education at the divinity school, “a rock star.”
“The reason we often cite Becca Stevens,” adds Divinity School Dean James Hudnut-Beumler, “is because she does real ministry as it was traditionally constituted—that of the priesthood—on Sundays, and works with students, but she also has a ministry in the world dealing with ‘the least of these.’ She is sort of our poster child for that combination of pulpit and real-world ministry.”
Stevens, MDiv’90, is an increasingly visible member of a stellar group of Vanderbilt Divinity alumni and attendees that includes the Rev. Edward “Monk” Malloy, PhD’75, president, emeritus, of the University of Notre Dame; former Vice President Al Gore, ’73; and civil rights activist Rev. James Lawson, ’71. None of that recognition figures into a luncheon conversation that includes her take on how the school helped shape her ministry.
“Vanderbilt Divinity School,” she says, “gives you permission to speak what it is you believe with some credibility. If you have a hunch that you should love without judgment, it can give you the systematic, theologically sound arguments to support that: ‘These are the saints who loved without judgments. You can walk in those footsteps.’ It can give you a background in Scriptures to make that seem like a possibility in your life. It also helps place you as part of a community of people who have some of the same passions and instincts you have about the world, and it helps you grow up a little bit. You get to practice preaching and leading worship and, however strong your instincts, you need to hone those crafts just as in any other profession.”
She is real-world ministry at its most compelling, as is divinity school graduate Rev. Zachary Mills, MDiv’08, whose position as associate minister at Chicago’s Hyde Park Union Church has led him into nearly full-time work trying to counter horrific violence that has swept the city during the past two years. Mills is leading an effort he and his leadership team call “a citywide anti-violence witness to the suffering and resilience in neighborhoods.” Its purposes include engendering “a deeper, more informed and sustained public response to the loss of life in our city.” During the next year they will recruit and train a diverse team of 50 to 100 clergy to minister to families and youth, hold regular ecumenical worship services “meant to galvanize the community around issues of peace, unity and nonviolence,” and use sacred music and the arts to promote “peace-making.”
He too draws on his divinity school experience.
“Vanderbilt Divinity was very serious and concerned about training ministers who are passionate about social justice and who can think rigorously—theologically, academically—and merge that critical reflection with the actual practice of ministry,” he says.
That mix of practical and theological is one the school proudly proclaims as a goal. Given its reputation and the caliber of its faculty and curriculum, it is not surprising that the theological education is rigorous, and Amy-Jill Levine, Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies, adds a compelling rationale.
“One does not require a theological education to engage in works of justice,” she says, “but many are interested and indeed motivated by what they perceive to be a theological call. My concern is that people who claim theological warrant for their actions know what they’re talking about.”
A Rarity Among Divinity Schools
Vanderbilt Divinity School, one of just five university-based interdenominational institutions in the United States, was founded as the university’s biblical department and is one of Vanderbilt’s oldest programs. Through its master of divinity and master of theological studies degree programs, it has produced a large number of ministers, religious leaders and educators. It has among its stated objectives to help men and women “re-envision” as well as “prepare for the practice of Christian ministry in our time” and “to prepare leaders who will be agents of social justice.” The program “educates ministers and religious scholars side by side, which encourages intellectual challenge that strengthens the training of both.”
Although founded as a Methodist institution, the divinity school has long since broadened its outlook, and its students and faculty represent a large number of denominations and backgrounds.
“All divinity schools and seminaries have special gifts,” says Levine. “For me, Vanderbilt’s particular strengths include its ecumenical and interfaith faculty and student body. The very configuration of who we are keeps us from being insular or parochial. We are dedicated to addressing specific social issues of gender and sexuality, racism and ethnocentrism, economics and ecology. We well prepare our students in pastoral care, ethics, theology, and biblical and historical studies to see not only what the traditions have taught, but also how those teachings impact our lives today.”
That broad perspective is further enriched by interdisciplinary efforts. The divinity school offers dual-degree programs in concert with the schools of medicine, nursing, law and business. One noteworthy example is a joint effort by the divinity school and the Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management to bring “micro lending,” or small loans, to poor borrowers for income-generating activities in impoverished regions.
A popular academic manifestation of the school’s interdisciplinary approach has been Douglas Meeks’ course God, Economy and Poverty, which the Cal Turner Chancellor’s Professor in Wesleyan Studies and Theology will teach again this spring. The last time it was offered, 70 students enrolled, including 17 from the law school, six from the business school, and several from Peabody and from international studies.
In the class, says Meeks, “I try to bring Scripture and tradition to bear on our present society, especially as the tradition has dealt with the poor and with aspects of the economy that tend to make people poor and prevent their getting out of poverty.”
It’s a course whose underlying assumptions dovetail nicely with those of Zachary Mills, who would like to see the school take it a step further.
“I wish Vanderbilt Divinity School had a course about community organizing,” he says. “It’s a skill I’m learning on the fly.”
Answering the Call, Paying the Price
Economic factors of a different sort affect the lives of divinity students during and after their years at Vanderbilt, as virtually all the school’s students qualify for financial assistance.
“We have the highest rate of financial aid and the lowest tuition of any school at Vanderbilt,” says Dean Hudnut-Beumler, “and we have been carefully helped by the rest of the university to try to reduce our real costs as far as possible because the ministry is one of those few fields where an advanced professional education doesn’t result in a higher salary. It may result in a lot of meaning in life, but we want to provide the means by which students can exercise that call toward meaning, and that basically means all our fundraising is geared toward enhancing student aid. We’re still living in this somewhat shabby building because we’ve put our priorities into students, faculty and books.”
Those economic realities often seem tangential to the calling that draws the school’s students, says Viki Matson.
“The desires and curiosities that compel students to seek theological education are many and varied,” she says. “Some come here with no inklings or plans to become religious leaders but have an intellectual or existential curiosity about timeless questions. Some come to the divinity school with a deep sense of personal piety, wanting to grow in their faith.
“Others come motivated by a sense of injustice in the world and out of their faith want to be social activists. It’s a caricature to say these two, in particular, are mutually exclusive because it speaks to me of the rhythms of the inner life and outer life—and we all ought to have a good mix of both. The inner life keeps me grounded in my tradition, my ritual or mode of worship. The outer is how I live in the world, and to me sometimes that means taking some hard stands, even being political, but inner and outer are inseparable.”
The school’s eclectic makeup helps in addressing that twofold reality.
“Because we are nondenominational,” she says, “there is not just one way to tend to the formation of the inner life. If we were affiliated with a certain tradition, we would have prescribed rituals and spiritual practices as part of our life together. But because we are a wildly ecumenical school, how do you teach that? How do you establish that? Those things are often left to the student. We don’t hand-hold their way through the inner life or the outer life.”
Matson cites the school’s role as “helping to clarify vocation and discern gifts.” As for her own role, she says, “I put the scaffolding in place that allows students to gain firsthand experience in a variety of ministry settings, and then help them make sense, or meaning, out of those experiences.”
All of this, of course, takes place in a real world of divisive politics and a seemingly omnipresent and escapist culture. Knowledge about that culture and perspective on it are both desirable aspects of ministry, explains Rev. Malloy, the University of Notre Dame’s president, emeritus.
“If I were to describe myself and the Holy Cross priests here at Notre Dame,” he says, “I think it would describe the kind of education Vanderbilt provides its students. They are pretty au courant in terms of movies and popular culture, they know what’s going on in politics, they’ve traveled, they’re online, they tend to be articulate, and then they’re also people of faith who try to take those experiences and talents and make them effective in ministry.
“I think that’s what Vanderbilt is trying to produce—people who are mainstream in the sense that they can enjoy and know what’s popular in culture, but also can be critical of the shallowness of some aspects of culture and help people learn to negotiate it as people of faith.”
The real lives beneath the veneer of that culture form the reality that ministers like Mills and Stevens deal with daily.
“Our students,” says Dean Hudnut-Beumler, “are graduating into work within institutional settings, be they congregations or agencies or schools, that are trying to compensate for the chaos that’s found in contemporary society. Here is where, ideally, they live out a transformation story in finding out where their callings and someone else’s needs fit together.”
Vanderbilt Divinity School seeks to address those needs and the societal context in which they are placed as it trains the next generation of ministers and educators.
“Vanderbilt helps students know who they are and what their history is,” says Levine. “It also shows them what theological resources are available to them, and thus they are in a good position to address the challenges society presents them.”
It is evident in the ministries of graduates like Stevens and Mills that the school’s circle of influence is expressed one life, one moment at a time, and expands steadily outward. Matson sees it clearly at the community level in Nashville.
“I love that Nashville’s religious leadership is peppered with Vanderbilt Divinity graduates,” she says, “because you see them take a stand, you see them speak out, you see them organize, you see them speak the truth, and that is enormously gratifying.”
As sales of Thistle Farms products grow and as outreach to Chicago’s troubled neighborhoods expands, the divinity school will continue to draw on tradition that relies on texts wrestling with questions of evil and social justice that are thousands of years old.
“In a sense,” says Levine, “the university is like the Bible. The Bible is not a book of answers. The Bible is a book that helps us ask the right questions, and the university is a place where we can do the same thing.”
Mills sees those crosscurrents throughout his ministry.
“Fundamentally,” he says, “the minister should practice the art of expanding imaginations. So many realities I’m seeing in Chicago restrict our imaginative abilities: violence, injustice, abuse, betrayals, and the chronic failure of human beings to do unto each other as they would have done unto them. These kinds of traumas can often limit people’s ability to see beyond their present situations to more hopeful possibilities. Someone who lives in a community where all they’ve ever seen is violence—like friends and family members shot in front of them—can often become incarcerated within the narrow confines of that single experience.
“The role of the ministry, and my work as a pastor, is to help people, through the good news of the gospel, and through creative brokering of relationships, to imagine realities beyond those that are immediately present, to facilitate the expanding of constricted imagination. This should be a chief mission of ministry.”
And it remains a key part of the mission of the divinity school.