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Classroom, Chapel and Cafeteria: A Holistic Theological Experience

Classroom, Chapel and Cafeteria: A Holistic Theological Experience
Rahsaan Hall, MDiv Student

Rahsaan Hall, MDiv Student

(Article provided by advertiser for a special Career Advertorial Section in the Banner this week)

Walk into the cafeteria at noon on a Wednesday at Andover Newton Theological School, in Newton Centre, and the energy is clearly palpable.  At one table in the corner are members of the Baptist Fellowship as they plan worship for the following week.  At another are members of  Journeys on the Hill,  an interfaith group made up of students from Andover Newton and the Rabbinical School at neighboring Hebrew College.  At still another table are students with a variety of books that all have “New Testament” in their titles. Their heads are lowered and the animated back-and-forth conversation between them suggests a mid-term exam is approaching.

While the students, faculty and staff sitting at some of the tables in this lunch room are there to discuss or study specific topics for worship or class, other tables are occupied by students looking to bond over a quick bite in between their morning class and afternoon chapel. All the while, professors are arriving and weaving throughout the space, offering follow-up on questions from class and checking in on their advisees.

The buzz is electric.  People are engaged with each other.  Certainly there is an economic crunch these days –­— even Harvard University feels it -— and congregations in New England have slowly been shrinking in attendance and endowments, but this barely seems to register with the students in this room who are studying to enter into one form of ministry or another.

Some suggest it is the bubble of “The Hill,” where Andover Newton is perched  overlooking Newton on one side and Boston on the other.  “Faith Hill” is home to both Andover Newton, the oldest graduate school of theology in the United States, and Hebrew College, which houses both a Rabbinical School and a cantorial program.  The dialogue between the schools has become cutting edge, as exemplified in a Lilly Endowment grant offered to the Center for Interreligious and Communal Leadership Education (CIRCLE).

Others suggest the energy is a product of the excellence of the administrators and trustees who have steered the ship of Andover Newton through the dark waters of a tempestuous economy.  And still others believe that the faculty, many of whom are also ordained ministers, keep students seeking out Andover Newton as an academically rigorous and faith-grounded institution.

Whether the reason is one or a combination of these factors remains unanswered.  At a recent convocation address, Nick Carter, president of the school, highlighted the importance of an Andover Newton education, stating that the school prepares “Ambassadors of Hope” for a world where they have never before been so needed.

Students tend to agree. Rahsaan Hall, a Master of Divinity student at the school is one of them. “I continue to be impressed with the quality of faculty and the unique opportunities to engage others in dialogue around challenging theological issues with real world implications…,” he says. “One of the consistent experiences I have had in higher education is the constant feeling of being ‘other.’  Although I am certainly one of a few different-hued faces at [Andover Newton], I have not been made to feel as if my culture, background or experience is without value.”

Hall, a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and winner of Andover Newton’s full—tuition Multicultural Ally Scholarship, represents one of the 35 denominations on the Andover Newton campus. The sheer number of denominations exemplifies one of the ways this community has begun to explore a larger definition of diversity in the 21st century seminary.

“One of the great advantages of living in New England, particularly Massachusetts, is the number of theological schools in the area,” Hall says. “As I assessed the various programs, what they offered and how I could fit in, Andover Newton stood out.  Not only is it an institution embracing diversity of thought and seeking diversity in its student population, it is a community… a beloved community.”

In an academic environment where people do not think like you, look like you or believe exactly what you believe, students are challenged to be clearer about their own faith identities while they learn to interact with peers representing a multiplicity of backgrounds. As a result, students gain a richer and more holistic experience of seminary education.  Carter calls this opportunity a “laboratory of faith,” where all campus constituencies — students, faculty and staff —are encouraged to enter into mutually beneficial relationships with each other, recognizing that every person on the campus has a unique story to offer.  While the institution, by definition, trains future pastors and faith leaders, it also has an administration that recognizes its own personal day-to-day ministry as a contribution to the overall training of its students.  This understanding can be found across campus from the business office to the department of buildings and grounds.  

Founded in 1807, Andover Newton has been afforded time to provide a patterned experience for each of its students.  Though this institution literally created the mold that every seminary and similar institution has used to educate and train future ministers, it is now surpassing its own creation by building new programs that address the unique demands of churches and congregations in the 21st century.

 “This institution has helped me to define who I am as a pastor and to crystallize answers to the question, ‘What is expected of me as a messenger of God?’,” explains Doris Hooks, a Master of  Divinity student. “While attending Andover Newton, I am propelled into the midst of a very nurturing environment that allows me to develop the skills necessary to be an effective member of this called profession.”

Hooks, who is in charge of both the Black Student Fellowship and The Preacher’s Club: Preaching in the Black Tradition, further considers her experience of community. “Being an African American student at Andover Newton, I am exposed to a community that represents life to the fullest!” she says. “The faculty and staff are dedicated to supporting and promoting the African American student population not only in academic accolades but also by being grounded in God. …  My life is richer because I am here, my ministry is richer because I am here and, most of all, my life in Christ is richer because He has made it possible for me to be here!”

Something in these words hints that this community is more to these students than an academic institution.  Hall would agree.  “As Dr. Martin Luther King once said, ‘We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.’  In an ever-changing world and an ever-growing global community, I believe that the men and women of Andover Newton Theological School are poised and prepared to interact with the human faces of that garment and to build the beloved community.”

In a recent address to the campus, Carter exclaimed that “We are the oldest institution of our kind in the country and we will be the newest.”  Given the reflections of Hall and Hooks, and the energy found in the cafeteria and across the entire campus, it seems that this school is well on its way to being just that.

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