© T. J. Kahn, 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
January 30, 2011

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Many people have been asking what it's like attending seminary school. And as much as I love talking, I thought it more expeditious to tell everyone I could at the same time.

When I first applied for seminary in the winter of 2006, it wasn't because I had experienced any kind of divine revelation or holy calling. My colleagues in school like to call it "The Call," or a sensation that what you were born to do was serve the Divine with a lifetime of service behind the pulpit. I would have loved to get something that direct, mind you. Most of my 'divine messages' are usually much more like "Uh...there's something over here...and something over there... Deal with it."

So when I attended the Open House of the Graduate Theological Union back in 2006, it wasn't because of any deep spiritual calling or a bizarre need to have my sermons checked for historical accuracy. (And I know someone out there's doing that). It was because my UU minister back in Boca Raton, Florida, Rev. Riordan, told me something about the GTU that she knew would harmonize with me: she said it was a place I could really feel at home.

A lot can be read into that, of course. Your home isn't my home and all that. But she did know me well and had met my ultra-atheist husband so she must have had some inkling of what was to come. So I took her advice and coordinated my visit back west with the Open House and made a point of attending the different workshops and presentations.

She was right. Not two hours into the weekend, I was surrounded by Neo-Pagans dressed in homespun and listening to Radical Presbyterians tell me how much they wanted to bring more Queer people into their churches as leadership. We discussed the African diaspora religions and recent oil spills, and darned if we didn't swing from Sir Isaac Newton to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in the same sentence. We even sang "Consider Yourself at Home" from the musical Oliver! My Peeps!


I learned that the Graduate Theological Union is only one a collection of nine seminaries that occupy an intersection near Euclid and Hearst Streets in Berkeley called 'Holy Hill'. It's just north of the UC Berkeley campus and shares some of its facilities including bookstores and copy centers. The Starr King school was named after the famed Unitarian minister who kept California from joining the Union as a slave state back in the 1860s and is only one of two seminary schools for the Unitarian Universalist tradition. The second one is called Meadville Lombard and is located in Chicago.

Originally founded in 1904, Starr King School for the Ministry moved to Berkeley and later joined forces with other seminaries to share libraries, resources, and even classes amongst one another. A student who joins any one of those schools can take classes in all of them, including UC Berkeley. So it was in 1964 that Starr King became an official member of the Graduate Theological Union.

Now certain seminaries have clear guidelines on what you must take in order to be a qualified theologian at their school. A student attending the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary would have their entire first year cut out for them, with only a few electives being added as they entered their second and third year. This would include classes on Biblical study, liturgy, pastoral care and the like.

But as you may imagine, this is something of a problem for Unitarian Universalists entering Starr King who don't claim a particular religious cannon or practice. Upon graduation, we may not even move into parish ministry (that is, working with a congregation), and may take up social causes or hospital hospice work depending on our calling.

So what do we study? How to make coffee and little name tags? How do we find ourselves qualified enough to talk to a congregation with as many traditions, or a complete lack of them, as a United Nations conference? That's a good question, I'm glad you asked!

We do it by demonstrating competency in eight different areas called Thresholds. These thresholds are in topics such as Sacred Texts or Prophetic Work, and our school starts with an assumption unique of all the other seminary schools in our Union.

They assume you already know something. You may arrive at their doors with a wealth of public education knowledge or years writing books on Buddhist iconography. You may have done public speaking for your entire adult life, or spent years in the Peace Corps building homes in Zambia. Starr King takes all of these experiences into account and tries to fill in what's missing from your education rather than re-hashing what you've already got. Of course they'll want you to take a class here or there in things you already know because odds are you've never studied them through a religious lens, but when I sat down with my academic advisor the first thing he asked me is: "What do YOU bring to this school?"

Pretty funky, isn't it? I had come to Starr King with over two decades of experience in public education. I had spent years volunteering and working with the Deaf Community and there was a lot I already knew about world religions and Eastern philosophy. What I needed was what was missing.

I had almost no formal studies in Abrahamic texts like the Bible, I couldn't tell you the difference between a historical Unitarian and a modern one, and there were whole fields of pastoral care I knew nothing about. It was clear where my work lay ahead of me.

Self-Direction and ECO

Since each student's goals are different, Starr King tries to work individually with each degree student and find classes that will meet that particular person's requirements. The only class that is required of every single student attending is called Educating to Counter Oppressions or ECO. In this class, we're brought face-to-face with our own language or actions of habit that might unintentionally oppress another person or identity. It may have been very small, but the very words we use to describe ourselves and our environment may simultaneously have been cutting another person out from the same opportunities as we have.

For example, by only using the words 'He' or 'She' to describe gender, I was excluding people who did not feel comfortable in either role. How many times had I described someone as 'black' without even asking how they wanted to be identified? Where had I gotten into the habit of speaking up before anyone in the class just because I knew the answer? What about all the other people who knew it too, but didn't feel comfortable speaking up in mixed-gender groups? Oh, it was painful.

Do you know what it's like to find out that this whole time, this whole time, you've been making somebody feel uncomfortable without even realizing it? That the cool Ambercombie & Fitch shirt you've been wearing for weeks is actually deeply offensive to people of Chinese descent? That the sneakers you've worn down to nubs because you love them so much were built using prison slave labor? Oops.

It's a nasty, horrible, disgusting little word we call 'privilege', and we all have it. Every one of us. Every last single, blessed one of us has privilege. Oops.

We were given an assignment from a troupe called Theater of the Oppressed. In it, we were separated into small groups and our group had to come up with a way to express an oppression acted out through a frozen scene. Next, we would change that scene in order to show how we might make it better.

Sounds simple enough. In my group I was the only male so we decided to show how males have oppressed females with a scene something like a human pyramid. Women would place themselves in a variety of positions while other women stepped or climbed on them all the while struggling to hold me up while I reached for true wealth and power at the top. And WOW, did it make me feel BAD!

Here I was, a happily gay male separated from most interactions with females for most of the last two decades. I could cook, clean, sew, shop and never need to look at another female again if I didn't want to. Yet I had never realized how I consistently had been promoted over female co-workers, or how equally-deserving women doing the same job as I were earning as much as 40-50% less.

Me? An oppressor?

We built a human pyramid, with me at the top. When I was up there, looking down at the shoulders and heads of the woman just below me, I felt like I was crushing my own mother. Had she had taken a job as a nurse's aide because she wanted to help people, or just because some male had kept her from being a doctor? Had she worked twice as hard for half the pay just to support someone else getting a promotion she deserved?

It broke my heart. If I learned nothing else from my degree, it was the certainty that no one, and I mean no one is a hero in every story. We're somebody's villain, no matter what we do. It's up to us to seek that out and make up for it. And it's going to HURT doing it.

There were other classes on UU History and Pastoral care, systems theory and preaching to seekers, but I spent my first two years focused on something I knew I was woefully under-prepared for: sacred texts.

Would people expect me to memorize Psalm 23, or give last rites in Latin? What would I need for doing Chaplaincy work in a hospital? In a prison? In a school? There were many tough questions that needed to be answered and I decided to ground myself in the two traditions I had grow up with. At least there I would have something I could speak intelligently on instead of just standing around looking nervous.

Into the Sacred

Now like many good Latinos I had grown up with Bibles around the house. Not the kind you write family histories in and put up on an honored spot on the shelf. No, more like little white doilies your grandmother made just scattered all over wherever there was an empty spot. Sure, I'd seen them my whole life, but you know what was really interesting? I'd never read it.

No, I don't mean never looked at it. Of course I've looked at it. There isn't a gay American alive who hasn't had First Corinthians shoved in his face, or parts of Leviticus. But it wasn't what I'd call a positive relationship. More like a live toaster plugged in next to your bathtub. Touch it just enough to get it the heck away from you.

So as you may imagine, I went into my New Testament and Old Testament classes with something like that scene from Blazing Saddles when the Black sheriff first arrives to start his job at Rockridge. Frozen richter smile, don't blink. Don't blink.

What I saw and who I met was a completely different story. These were Dominicans and these were Franciscans, these were Lutherans and these were Episcopalians, and they were... cool. They didn't like the way the Church was making homosexuality into a moral crusade. They really wanted to have female bishops and female popes, and they were horrified to hear how the Bible was being used as a weapon against anyone who wasn't ultra-conservative Right Wing.

To them, the Bible was sort of like that Charles Dicken's story A Christmas Carol - cherished, familiar, and something they look forward to reading year after year in the hopes that they'll find something different. Has anyone here seen the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol in black and white, with the Ghost of Christmas Present being played by Ann Rutherford? There's all kinds of things that aren't in the book and it's fun watching for the differences every time I see it. Now compare that with the 1988 version of Scrooged with David Johansen as a chain-smoking taxi driver of Christmas Past and Bill Murray as the miser. Totally different stories, right? Yes, and no. Familiar, and unfamiliar.

That is what the Bible is to Christians at those schools. They looked for it, they dreamed of people taking the old, familiar story making into something they had never thought of. It's a fascinating concept called 'wrestling with the text'. It means yes, parts of it really suck, but what you can get out of it might have some use to you. Does anyone here have a family member from an older generation who still uses very Non-PC embarrassing language, and tells really awful, disgusting jokes, but they're still your uncle, or cousin, or grandparent? THAT'S the Bible, as I see it.

Now I'll never be a Catholic again. It's been too much for too long and I have too many issues with Christian right-wing politics, but I did make my peace with it. And now I love studying it with the same interest I used to reserve for A Christmas Carol.

Now, I did mention there were traditions plural that I grew up with. Zen Buddhism was the other one. In my childhood, my father had adored reading Zen koans like other fathers talked about sports. It was all about puzzles with him. How could this one passage be interpreted thirty different ways. Interesting man, my father. So now that I had a good excuse to study it in earnest, I began to read about the history of Buddhism, including Pure Land Traditions, Chinese Ch'an and Japanese Zen, and even Mahayana Sutras like the Diamond Sutra and the Lotus Sutra.

It was like spiritual bread and milk to me. For the first time in my life I started having a regular spiritual practice. I began meditating and adopting the lay precepts of Buddhist practitioners like Right Speech and Right Action. I can't claim that I've taken refuge in the Buddha or will ever consider a future as a Buddhist Chaplain, but I definitely spend more time turning to Zen when my heart is heavy than to any other spiritual practice. I became grounded.

Claiming Authority

Now I could go on and on about each and every class I had but that would take all afternoon. Take it from me when I say that each and every person I met at the GTU was fascinating in some way. Each and every class was unlike anything I had ever taken before that. They were all formational in a way an Olympic runner might meet dozens of trainers before developing the perfect technique. (Not that mine's perfect, but I did meet a lot of 'trainers'.)

But there was nothing along the way that said "Hey! You! You're ready to be a minister now!" That just didn't happen.

In fact I was well into my second year before they started asking me where I was going to be doing my CPE, my Clinical Pastoral Education. That's where students spend anywhere from a few months to a full year working as an active Chaplain in a health care or service setting. You meet with people at bedsides or help them deal with difficult situations like loss or illness. It's a very important step to seeing yourself as a full-fledged minister and not just another college student.

But when do you feel 'ready' for it? Never!

Claiming that feeling of 'knowing what you're doing' is called stepping into your Ministerial Authority. Somehow, sometime, you have to accept the fact that you DO know a lot about world religions and are, in fact, the Chaplain. To some people, a Chaplain will be a symbol of authority, a person who somehow speaks with the voice of the Divine. To others you'll be a charlatan, someone who's just waiting to betray their sense of trust and take advantage of their money or their souls.

And you know what the hard part is? You'll never know which of those it is until you enter the room. Terrifying, isn't it? Here I am, a person formally trained to listen and to speak to the oppressed and the voiceless and I have no idea how anyone's going to take me until I step up into the role of being a minister.

I have to decide when to claim my authority when, and if, I feel ready. Nobody can give it to me. Nobody can judge me ready simply by the quality of my educational transcript. It is something we must each claim moment by moment, action by action, until we are filling that space that calls for someone to be a religious leader.

Yet if I didn't feel ready when it was my time to begin chaplaincy, what makes it any more difficult for you, the congregation, to feel ready to step into your Authority? When do you take ownership of the pains and struggles of the world around you and step in with every thought and every belief and every experience you have until you find a way to help? What makes you think that I up here, and you down there, can make any real difference in the world?

I've got news for you: it doesn't.

If there are people out there in the audience right now who already possess a listener's mind and a deep religious or philosophical connection, why aren't you up here right now? Maybe you don't like speaking in front of audiences, but when you go out there and you volunteer at the local soup kitchen, or donate your time for lost animals or foster children; when you are willing to lay down your life or your freedom so that ALL may marry and ALL my know peace... guess what?

You're already ministers. Only you don't know it yet. I do. I see it in every last one of you. Every courage, every dream, every moment. We are all ministers.

When people ask me what's different about Unitarian Universalism, I now know what to tell them: In other traditions we listen to what other people say about our spirit or about our purpose, or may discover it among each other or among ourselves. In Unitarian Universalism, we are all leaders. We are all thinkers and poets, sages and saints just waiting for the right moment to step up and shine. We may be harder to organize than a corral full of cats, but there's no doubting this fact: the average Unitarian Universalist is by FAR not an average human being.

We shine.
We glow.
We lead.
I will step down now.
Who's next?

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