August 24, 2021
Dear Alumni and Friends of the Theological School,
In times of change and challenge, there is something assuring about the turning of the seasons. As another fall semester begins here in the Forest, there are many things to celebrate and anticipate. Seminary Hall is cautiously coming to life again. The search for the Theological School’s next Dean is actively underway. And many new students and faculty are joining Drew’s learning community.
Once again, we are welcoming a large incoming class. In July, the first of fifty incoming Doctor of Ministry students filled Seminary Hall with lively collegiality. Nearly seventy Master of Divinity and Master of Arts in Theology and Ministry students will begin their courses of study this fall, in physical and virtual classrooms. And six PhD students will engage a revised curriculum that integrates Drew’s signature emphases in Africana, women’s and gender, ecological, and decolonial studies. In the midst of the loss and crisis of the past year, all of these new students embody courage and vision as they pursue their vocations for the transformation of the church and academy in such a time as this.
Thanks to the dedicated work of the faculty, online learning during the pandemic expanded Drew’s open doors. The incoming class includes students from eleven African and seven Asian countries. Many of last year’s new international students have made their way to Madison, New Jersey. Some new students in the U.S. will complete their degrees remotely, remaining in their contexts for online study and local practical training. Yet this learning network is not born of crisis; it is also what the faculty and staff have been working toward for the past five years. Our new student-centered, integrative, and multimodal curriculum served us well to meet the time and space challenges of the pandemic.
As the Theological School continues to thrive and pursue its mission to advance justice, peace and love of God, neighbor and the earth, we are looking to the future. In conversation with the Drew community, the national search firm, Isaacson, Miller, has developed a profile to facilitate the search for the Theological School’s next leader. This process will unfold this fall guided by a search committee, chaired by Professor Mark A. Miller, and including representatives from Drew faculty, staff, students, Board of Trustees, and alumni.
I am honored to serve as interim until a permanent dean is named. I am also excited to share that the Rev. Dr. Sofía Betancourt has recently joined the Theological School as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs as I conclude my six years of service in that role. Dr. Betancourt has a PhD from Yale University in Religious Ethics and African American Studies, and is ordained in the Unitarian Universalist Association. Her scholarship and teaching in womanist, Latina feminist and mujerista, and environmental theoethics resonates deeply with Drew’s mission and shared values. A trained and experienced interim, Dr. Betancourt brings a wealth of wisdom to Drew for times of transition. She will serve as associate dean for two years, and we are grateful that she will be at Drew for this season in her career.
Thanks to our longstanding partnership with the Louisville Institute to support the formation of theological educators, we will again have two postdoctoral fellows appointed at Drew this year. We are delighted to welcome Dr. Minjung Noh, who earned her PhD at Temple University. Dr. Noh’s work on Korean American protestant women missionaries in Haiti exemplifies the vibrant transnational conversation now characteristic of Drew classrooms. She will join the faculty as assistant professor of transnational Christianity and gender studies. Dr. Hyemin Na, whose research focuses on the use of digital media in megachurches in the U.S. and Korea, continues as assistant professor of religion, media and culture. She is ordained in the United Methodist Church. Along with Professor Kate Ott, Dr. Na was recently awarded a $15,000 Science for Seminaries seed grant to lead critical discussions on race and technology at Drew in the coming year.
The transnational profile of the Theological School faculty continues to expand in the spring of 2022 as the Rev. Francisco Peláez-Diaz joins the faculty as an assistant teaching professor in Latinx ministries. Rev. Pelaez-Diaz is completing his PhD at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he is examining the Central American migrant experience in light of a theology of the cross. He has an impressive history in teaching and administration in Mexico, and in ministry and community organizing in the Midwest and in New Jersey. He is ordained in the Presbyterian church of Mexico and the PC/USA. This fall, Rev. Peláez-Diaz will be working with a group of incoming MDiv students as they begin the integrative mentored eportfolio process now characteristic of a Drew ministry degree.
It is hard to believe that when the Theological School faculty, staff, and students gathered themselves and their laptops for the Covid-19 evacuation that it would be eighteen months before many of us returned to working, learning, and worshipping in the Forest. As we do so–with careful attention to the protocols around the Delta variant–we are also connecting with the faith communities we serve. Thanks to a $50,000 grant from the Lilly Foundation, teams of staff and faculty are meeting this month with pastoral and lay leaders of twenty-five churches in the region for a listening project. We want to understand how congregations were impacted by the pandemic, hear their experiences and adaptations, and learn about the new or emerging needs for their ministries and communities. Professor Kenneth Ngwa also continues his vital leadership of the Religion and Global Health Forum, building a network of churches to promote positive health outcomes in marginalized communities.
As the fall unfolds for you, please take time to consider your health and to care for yourself. Pause to pray for the Theological School. Join us for a virtual chapel service on Tuesdays or Thursdays at noon. Make a gift to support a scholarship for a student. Take a moment to send an update about your work, your family, your ministry.
This fall, like every fall, we return. We are not the same as when we left, but we are grateful for this faithful learning community and hopeful for all that lies ahead.
Interim Dean for the Theological School
Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity
March 23, 2021
Dear Theological School Community,
Last week in Atlanta, six Asian-American women were among eight people murdered by a white man. This explosion of violence is the most recent incident in more than a year of increasing anti-Asian racist violence in the United States.
At the Theological School, we are grieving deep in our bones. This moment again reflects the structural realities of white supremacy, this at the intersections of anti-Asian and gender-based violence. Again the tools of our faith traditions are being weaponized for these purposes. And, again, those facing this moment are part of us. Asian, Asian-American, and Pacific Islander students, faculty, staff, and alumni make Drew what it is. Korean and Korean-Americans are part of the very fabric of Drew’s history, present, and future. We cannot stand by as friends, classmates, and colleagues carry the heavy burden of loss, erasure, and fear of violence.
The community of Drew Theological School is standing against anti-Asian hate. On social media, in classrooms, and in churches, you have been reaching out, taking action, and speaking up. In our circles of friends and neighbors and in town squares, we are raging, weeping, and resisting. President Schwarz’s message to the Drew community calls us to “reaffirm a commitment to dismantling racism and to strengthening a sense of belonging.” This week Theo social media has been and will continue to amplify Asian voices and share resources for community education and action from like-minded institutions.
We invite you to come together at 8 p.m. on Thursday, March 25th to hear the experiences of Drew Asian, Asian-American, and Pacific Islander students in this climate and to mourn and remember the victims of the shooting in Atlanta. The event is co-sponsored by the Chinese Culture Club, the Theological Student Association, the Korean Caucus, the International Students Services Office, and the University Chaplain’s Office. Register here to receive the Zoom link.
As you each look to the social witness and work that is needed in your context, hold our community in care and love. Make a special effort to connect with a friend. As Drew Theo alumnus, Hector Burgos, said recently on Facebook, “Be the reason someone feels welcomed, seen, heard, valued, loved, and supported.” And as Mark Miller says in his powerful anthem of resistance: “refuse to let hatred in.”
Dean Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre
Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity
11 January 2021,
To the Drew Theological School community,
Last week we watched as thousands of predominantly white insurrectionists invaded the United States Congress to stop elected leaders from formalizing the peaceful transition of power. I have been glued to the news and social media for days. I imagine many of you have been too. I was stunned to witness the lies of election theft repeated on the congress floor even after a day of rage and terror fueled by those same lies. There is a great deal at stake in the true and false stories we tell and how they shape our actions.
White supremacy and white nationalism are the root of this story. Like others, I saw on grotesque display what many have always known to be true: the stark difference between the response to a white mob and the response to people of color everywhere who have organized acts of non-violent resistance on behalf of the movement for black lives, undocumented immigrants, and so many others. I know that many in our Drew community are reflecting on this reality from our pulpits, at our dinner tables, and in our various spheres of influence.
There is another truth about this story. A powerful brand of Christianity animates this movement and these political activities. The Bible, Jesus, the cross, salvation, the Messiah–these images and words were everywhere to be seen and heard on Wednesday. We cannot be surprised by this, nor should we comfort ourselves that “this is not who our country is” or that “this is not what Christianity is.” Religious leaders who are committed to anti-racism and the work of social justice must be honest about the continuities that this moment has with a long history of white supremacy and racial inequality, and we must tell the truth about the ways in which Christian faith has been articulated and weaponized in order to maintain this deadly order. It is a painful story, but for many of us, especially the privileged white leaders among us, it is a story we must tell.
Whether you are writing sermons or preparing lesson plans, whether you are community organizing or responding with pastoral care in your context, it is not imperative that you have all the words or even the perfect words. What you do need is to be clear about the story that you are telling. A story that calls each and every one of us to explicitly confront white supremacy and white nationalism in our contexts. A story that is honest about white Christianity and it’s complicity in the events of this week and this nation, and beyond. A story that seeks the kin-dom of God with peace and justice, and that roots its hope and challenge in the radical love of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Dean Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre
Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity
Dear Theological School students, faculty, staff, and alumni,
I write you as the special session of General Conference of the United Methodist Church concludes its work in St. Louis. To say that this has been a difficult, excruciating week is an understatement. I began the time in St. Louis filled with pride and gratitude for the tremendous witness Drew students, alumni, and faculty made for the cause of justice and inclusion. Yet, my heart quickly became heavy as those of us present, and those watching by livestream, witnessed what felt like the church unraveling before our very eyes—a church many of us love and serve. Drew University and Drew Theological School are historically related institutions of the church, and the Theological School is one of its thirteen official seminaries.
On Tuesday a majority of delegates to the special General Conference voted to accept the “Traditional Plan” as the way forward for the United Methodist Church. This plan was but one of several options before delegates, who had come together to consider matters of human sexuality and the presence and role of LGBTQ+ persons in our church. The Traditional Plan was the most restrictive and punitive to LGBTQ+ persons and allies. This means that in the future expression of the denomination there will be much stricter enforcement of church laws on LGBTQ+ ordination and same-gender marriage, with clearly delineated penalties for those who violate these newly accepted policies.
I want to comment briefly on this new reality for those members of our community who count themselves a part of the United Methodist Church. To our LGBTQ+ students, faculty, staff, and alumni, I grieve with you. I’m outraged, embarrassed, and wounded by the actions of our church, and I assure you that Drew will continue to stand with you and fight with and for you. No words can alleviate the pain you must feel, but I pray that the knowledge that Drew remains deeply committed to being a welcoming community for all assures you that your school will never waver on its commitment to you. I remind you of the University’s equal opportunity and non-discrimination policy, which states that
…(A)ll of its programs will be free from differences in treatment of persons because of race, creed, sex, color, creed, religion, age, national origin, sexual orientation, veteran status, gender identity, gender expression, disability, or any category that deprives the person of consideration as an individual. Drew aims to treat all individuals with respect and strives to create an inclusive campus community for all employees, students, and guests.
We will have many decisions to make about how this vote will impact our institutional life at Drew, and how we might respond, organize, and resist these actions which so deeply affect and harm our entire community. Those conversations will take place with students, as a faculty, and at the board of trustees, as well in partnership with sister institutions of theological education across the UMC.
Also as part of this process, individuals will need to make their own decisions about their future connection with and to the church. The future will require deep discernment and wisdom as these collective and individual adjustments are made. It will also take some time to fully understand how the Traditional Plan will be implemented, as significant parts of it were declared unconstitutional by the church’s Judicial Council. For students and alumni, your deans, faculty, and staff are available to you as you consider the impact of this decision on your calling and vocational process. I will work hard to keep the entire community informed, especially as to how we are moving forward as a school. I can assure you, however, that we will not waver in our commitment to being a safe space that celebrates, welcomes and supports our LGBTQ+ siblings and allies, and protects them from further harm.
The Theological School has scheduled two forums to debrief and further explore the implications of these decisions: Wednesday, March 13 at noon and Thursday, March 14 at 6.00 p.m. in Seminary Hall.
The apostle Paul, reflecting on his own life journey and struggles, said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” May the same be said of us.
Javier A. Viera
Dean of the Theological School
Professor of Pastoral Theology