Information Regarding WTS Title IX Investigation

Over the past several months, Western Theological Seminary has been the subject of an investigation following allegations of sexual harassment filed by two professors on behalf of nine students.  The independent investigator, an attorney with over 25 years of experience specializing in civil rights and Title IX law, delivered the findings of her investigation in mid-April.

In the complaint, the students reported:

Our experience at Western Theological Seminary contains a paradox. While in many ways WTS has been a supportive and welcoming place as we pursued our calls to ministry, at the same time we have found WTS to be one of the most inhospitable and challenging environments we have ever been in. We have been dismissed and derided, humiliated and harassed. There have been times when WTS has seemed like a sanctuary, but there are too many instances when female students have found themselves feeling afraid and unsafe on campus. The voices of contempt and condescension must be vocally challenged by the many whom we have found at WTS who support us, but too often do so silently which does not affect needed systemic change.

We feel it is important to share what our experience has been at WTS, because no problem can be addressed without first discovering its nature. And we do have a problem, as we think is shown hereafter. We maintain a deep love for this community and only wish to bring these stories to light in an effort to better this place which we hold close to our hearts.

Allegations were made against WTS employees, students, and third parties. (Third parties refers to patrons of the Community Kitchen as well as individuals at teaching churches.) The investigator concluded female students at WTS had been subjected to a “sexually hostile environment.” This is a legal term that refers to a totality of circumstances that is serious enough to deny or limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the educational program.  It examines all the alleged harassment and considers its severity, persistence, or pervasiveness.  A series of incidents, none of which alone is sufficiently severe to constitute a hostile environment, may be sufficient when considered together to amount to a hostile environment.  As described below, this was the situation with respect to the complaint investigated by outside counsel.

According to the investigator’s report, “The most significant harassment for purposes of the analysis of whether a sexually hostile environment existed (and continues to exist) for female WTS students was the conduct of the patrons of the Community Kitchen.  This behavior included repeated and ongoing leering and staring, catcalling, unwanted sexual advances, sexual comments and comments about their physical appearance.” Steps addressing the seminary’s response to this finding are included below.

Allegations against WTS employees included unwanted hugging, touching of shoulders and arms; inappropriate comments about physical appearance, and flirtatious behavior. While no individuals were found to have violated the seminary’s sexual harassment policy as a result of the investigation, individual employees were disciplined by the seminary for inappropriate behavior.

Regarding their experience with male students, the female students reported:

A portion of male students rejects the legitimacy of female students’ call to ordained ministry and church leadership. Female students regularly face resistance, negative comments, and dismissing attitudes from male students in their classes and outside of classes at WTS. They also report demeaning language and hand gestures made toward them.

Female students report a lack of support from faculty and administrators when facing these demeaning comments, gestures, and attitudes. Their concerns are often minimized. Consequently, they feel weary, depleted, and discouraged.

Students also reported incidents in their teaching churches, such as gender based comments and exclusionary behavior.

The investigator made the following recommendations, all of which are being implemented by the seminary:

Establish today a WTS Sexual Harassment Prevention Task Force. The purpose of the Task Force will be to provide input to the Title IX Coordinator and senior leadership regarding the effectiveness of the Title IX compliance program and recommend strategies for continuous improvement. Members of the Task Force will represent the WTS community, including Rayetta Perez, Title IX Coordinator, a member of the Board of Trustees, administrators, faculty members, staff members, and students.

Provide increased security by the entrance near the Community Kitchen to prevent harassment of WTS students, faculty, and staff by patrons of the Community Kitchen.

Update non-discrimination statements in all documents at the beginning of the 2017-2018 academic year.

Train administrators, faculty, staff, students, and trustees on sexual harassment and sexual discrimination as well as policies and procedures at the beginning of the 2017-18 academic year.

Revise grievance procedures with input from the Sexual Harassment Prevention Task Force to clarify where and how students, faculty, and staff should report various types of sex discrimination and understand the grievance process in the first semester of the 2017-18 academic year.

Develop and initiate a climate assessment to evaluate the effectiveness of WTS policies, procedures and practices relating to sex discrimination (including sexual and gender-based harassment). We plan to administer the first assessment in the coming months, and a follow up assessment at the end of the 2017-18 academic year. The results of the assessments will be used to inform future proactive steps to continuously improve our overall Title IX compliance program.

 

After receiving the investigative report, the seminary issued internal email communications from President Timothy Brown and Board of Trustees moderator Mr. Kris DePree to share information. The emails reaffirmed the seminary’s commitment to meeting legal obligations – but, more importantly, creating and sustaining an environment which honors the call of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Meetings were also held with the complainants, President’s Council, Administrative Cabinet, faculty, staff, and Board of Trustees. The entire seminary was invited to attend Community Conversations offered to in-residence and distance learning students to receive information, ask questions, and imagine steps forward.

In the Community Conversation with Distance Learning students on May 10, Academic Dean Dr. Alvin Padilla responded to the question: “If WTS is committed to affirming women in ministry, why is this still up for debate in the classroom?”  Dr. Padilla made a distinction between “debate” and “discussion,” saying that the full inclusion of women in every level of leadership in the church is a settled question not up for debate at WTS. Every member of the faculty affirms this. However, it should be discussed, because every student, male or female, will encounter church members with contrary views and must be equipped with solid hermeneutical understanding to enter into discussion about this.

Dean of Formation Kyle Small wrote a letter addressing Western’s teaching church mentors at the end of April which included these lines:

Churches are not exempt from sexism and patriarchy. As we undertake our internal work, we invite you, as Christian leaders, to examine your churches and organizations. In the coming months, WTS will be more than willing to share what we are learning about our community and provide anything we can to you and your leadership teams. Together, we can cultivate faithful Christian communities that seek Jesus Christ and participate in his call for redemption, reconciliation, and love.

The WTS faculty wrote a letter to the complainants that was shared with both the In-Residence and Distance Learning student populations.  The letter, which was signed by all members of the faculty, included this statement which reflects the collective sorrow of the seminary community: “We are sorry that your gifts and your calling to ministry and leadership in the church have not always been supported, affirmed, or defended in the classroom, hallways, or your teaching churches . . . We are committed to the Christian practices of confession and repentance, and pledge ourselves to learning from our mistakes and intentionally shaping the culture of WTS toward openness, hospitality, affirmation, and communion.”

For the Board of Trustees response, click here.

If you have ongoing questions, concerns, or would like to report incidents of harassment at WTS, please contact Title IX Coordinator Rayetta Perez by email or 616-392-8555 x 103.

Oh, how times have changed!

by Rev. Wallace Stoepker
Class of 1946

Oldest living alumnus

Each time The Commons comes out, I read it with great interest. What an extensive program the seminary has now with a variety of faculty and students! When I graduated from seminary in 1946, we had 30 students and six male faculty, and that was the entire school.

I recall when I was a student pastor for a summer on the western prairies of Alberta, Canada, during World War II, gasoline and cars were scarce, so I was provided with a horse to do my church work. Is there another pastor in the RCA who had to use a horse to do visitation? I first had to catch the horse in a 40 acre pasture and saddle it!

During my three years at seminary, tuition was free to students, as well as our single dorm rooms in Zwemer Hall. My expenses for my last year amounted to $200-300, and I graduated debt free.

However, my first salary in a small western New York church was only $1,700 for the year. Newly married, Dorothy and I discovered what poverty was like. We were so poor that I took the janitor’s job also at $200 per year. At the parsonage I shoveled coal to keep the furnace warm and there were about 30 grass snakes in the very damp basement, plus rats and lots of mice. There were even mice living in the piano, eating the glue.

Our 1.5 volt battery phone had to be cranked to use, and we had eleven families on the same line. All of our phones rang any time one of us got a phone call. No privacy!

We celebrated the 100th anniversary of the church when we were there. One hundred years old and still no inside bathroom. You had to wade through three feet of snow to use the outhouse.

I begged to have a sign with the name of the church on the outside of the building, and the response was, “What for? Everyone knows what church it is.”

Unlike today, at that time the church had no interest in missions, benevolences or social problems. When I suggested we support some, the response was, “We take care of ourselves. Let others take care of themselves.”

Back then, churches were not always so accepting of differences. A young man from the church wanted to marry a girl who came from a non-Christian, broken home. His parents were against it and refused to come to the wedding, as did the rest of the congregation. Dorothy and I made the service as meaningful as possible and had them over to the parsonage for wedding cake. Regardless of their treatment at the hands of the congregation, both of them came to church faithfully, and the wife took several leadership roles. They have been married 60 years now and still write us every Christmas.

Dorothy recalls several weddings I performed over the years that were especially memorable. In one, the wedding party came late and the organist never did show up, so Dorothy had to leave our small children in the pew and fill in. Afterward, there was a police car waiting outside. Turns out the organist was in trouble with the law…which explains why she didn’t show up!

At another, the bride was already pregnant. Some of you may not know this song, but she wanted it sung in the sanctuary at their wedding: “You Made Me Love You. I Didn’t Want to Do it.” I talked her out of that.

I am now 95, and my wife is 94. We are both quite well and live in our own home. In fact, my eyesight is excellent and I feel so good that I bought a brand new car in 2015. A friend of my son said that was the biggest act of optimism he had heard of in a long time.


The Rev. Wallace and Dorothy Stoepker Ministerial Scholarship

The children of Wally and Dorothy established a student scholarship in honor of their parents’ 70th wedding anniversary in 2016. Here they are pictured at the scholarship luncheon with the first recipient of the scholarship, first-year student Aric Balk.

L to R: David & Carol Stoepker, Dorothy & Wally Stoepker, Timothy Stoepker, Jane Stoepker, Aric Balk.

Register Now for the 2017 Writer’s Workshop

On May 16-17, Western Theological Seminary and Hope College will co-host a Writer’s Workshop featuring award-winning author Barbara Brown Taylor.

Barbara Brown Taylor is a New York Times best-selling author, professor, and Episcopal priest. Her first memoir, Leaving Church, won a 2006 Author of the Year award from the Georgia Writers Association. Her last book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, was featured in TIME magazine. She has served on the faculty of Piedmont College since 1998 as the Butman Professor of Religion & Philosophy and has been a guest lecturer at Emory, Duke, Princeton, and Yale. Taylor and her husband Ed live on a farm in the foothills of the Appalachians, sharing space with wild turkeys, red foxes, white-tailed deer and far too many chickens. –from barbarabrowntaylor.com

Workshop Schedule

Breakout Seminars

Workshop Speakers

Also Included: One-on-one meetings, Open mic, Bookstore

Advanced Writer’s Retreat (separate registration required)

Lodging

Rachel Held Evans will join Barbara Brown Taylor along with many other authors.

Rachel Held EvansRachel Held Evans is a New York Times best-selling author whose books include Faith Unraveled (2010), A Year of Biblical Womanhood (2012), and Searching for Sunday (2015). Hailing from Dayton, Tennessee—home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925— she writes about faith, doubt and life in the Bible Belt.

Rachel has been featured in The Washington PostThe GuardianChristianity Today, Slate, The Huffington Post, The CNN Belief Blog, and on NPR, The BBC, The Today Show, and The View. She keeps a busy schedule speaking at churches, conferences, and colleges and universities around the country.

A lifelong Alabama Crimson Tide fan, Rachel is married to Dan. Her preferred writing fuel is animal crackers and red wine. –bio from rachelheldevans.com

Read Rachel’s blog HERE.

Other authors holding workshops at the event.

books

Learning_to_Walk_in_the_DarkAltar_in_the_wo BbtanotherwayfiLeaving_Church

May 8, 2017 – Commencement and Alumni Day

Monday, May 8 Schedule:

8:45am – Opening Worship and Senior Blessing for DL and DMin students, friends and family (Mulder Chapel)

11:45am – Registration & Reunion lunches for the Class of 1967 and the Class of 1977 (Semelink Hall)

1:30pm – Alumni Forum Lecture: We are sorry, but due to a family emergency, Dr. Miroslav Volf will not be coming to Holland and giving the afternoon lecture or the commencement address.

2:45pm – Class of 2017 group photo (steps of Mulder Chapel, outside)

3:00pm – “A Look at Western’s Future” – Hear an update about the seminary’s capital campaign and building project coming soon. (Mulder Chapel)

3:15pm – Commencement Rehearsal (Dimnent Chapel of Hope College)

5:00pm – Alumni/ae Dinner (The Commons). Contact Tamara for reservations at 616-392-8555, x109.

7:30pm – 141st Commencement (Dimnent Chapel of Hope College) with Commencement Speaker Dr. Fred L. Johnson III. Doors open at 6:45. No tickets necessary.

Commencement is followed by a receiving line on the lawn between Dimnent Chapel and the seminary, and there is a reception in the seminary atrium.

Panel on Resurrection Hope and Difficult Funerals

Thursday, April 20 at 7:00pm in Mulder Chapel

A sudden, surprising death. The death of a young person. A funeral for someone with only distant connections to faith and the church. How can pastors and congregations at large respond in light of Christian hope? What does it mean to grieve, but not as those who have “no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13)? In what ways can difficult funerals be a witness to the risen Christ, and resurrection hope in him? The panel and discussion event will explore pressing questions like these that arise when human frailty meets the heart of the Christian faith: hope in God based upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This panel is part of Dr. J. Todd Billings’s $25,000 grant from the Louisville Institute to research “Congregational Life and the Dying: Renewing Resurrection Hope in a Medical Age.”

 

 

Panelists:

 

 

Rev. Jonathan Elgersma, Senior Pastor, Faith Church, Zeeland, MI

 

 

Rev. Denise Kingdom-Grier, Lead Pastor, Maple Avenue Ministries, Holland, MI

 

 

Rev. David Blauw, Chaplain at Holland Hospital

 

 

Moderator: Dr. J. Todd Billings

 

Renewing Resurrection Hope in a Medical Age

Dr. J. Todd Billings has noticed a major theme as he talks with recent graduates and young pastors:  they are uncertain how to address death and dying within their congregations.

This is a topic close to Dr. Billings, as he lives with multiple myeloma, a rare and incurable form of blood cancer.

Last year, Dr. Billings, the Gordon H. Girod research professor of Reformed theology at WTS, received a $25,000 grant from the Louisville Institute to research “Congregational Life and the Dying: Renewing Resurrection Hope in a Medical Age.”

“Pastors encounter a lot of pastoral and theological conundrums,” he explains. “For example, people often want the memorial service to focus on the life of the person, almost making that person a hero. Sometimes they even request that the pastor not use the word ‘death’.”

Theologically, a funeral is meant as a witness to Christ’s resurrection, and it relates to the whole Christian life. “Are we living as mortal creatures before God? Or are we always pushing death to the sidelines, both in our culture and in our church and worship?” Dr. Billings asks.

The one year grant includes three learning colloquies with pastors participating in the project. Two have taken place and the third will be in Holland on April 20. Part of it involves a panel discussion which will be open to the public: “Resurrection Hope in Difficult Funerals.”

The pastors participating in the grant complete readings and meet with hospice workers, theologians and biblical scholars. They discuss and apply these findings to pastoral ministry, and each writes an article on his or her research.

Co-pastors Noah and Kristen Livingston ‘11 of Abbe Reformed Church in Clymer, NY are participating in the study, and Noah has published “Saving the Funeral from an Untimely Death” in the CTPastors section of Christianity Today online. Rev. Ann Conklin ’09 of Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, MI wrote “Dying Alone” in the February 2017 issue of Presbyterian Outlook.

Dr. Billings plans to write his next book on the topic, hoping that by learning together with pastors, his writing can speak into the congregational and theological challenges they face.

The October colloquy was on Ars Moriendi or the “Art of Dying,” and featured a panel of Dr. J. Todd Billings, Rev. Ann Conklin, Rev. Richard Brooks of Allegiance Health Hospice, and John Sikorski, a Roman Catholic doctoral student. They discussed the medieval Christian set of practices to prepare for death—which, in our day, has been replaced with medical decisions.

As death nears, family members become overly concerned with making sure everything is being tried. They realize too late that this was their final chapter to share with their loved one.

A study done by the highly regarded Dana-Farber Cancer Institute shows that people who identified themselves as “highly religious” were over three times more likely to seek aggressive end of life care. They found that people wanted to hold on as long as possible to give God every opportunity to grant a miracle and save them. Anything less felt like giving up on God before he had given up on them. However, the study found that those who sought extreme measures did not live any longer than those who didn’t.

“These are assumptions about the way God works,” Dr. Billings says. “Part of my motivation for this research is that the whole problem is one of Christian formation, not just the final weeks of life.”

Dr. Billings’s own cancer diagnosis has led him to question how people are being formed spiritually to think through their mortality. The daily pain and fatigue associated with his ongoing chemotherapy treatments are a constant reminder of that mortality.

“We tend to live as if we have no end, and that can short-circuit our accountability to God and others,” he says. “Psalm 90 says, Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. A part of gaining a heart of wisdom is realizing how small we are and that we are mortal.”

For the pastors studying this topic, it’s not a question of whether they will have an experience around death and dying—they will. This grant is providing a community to process alongside them in the context of their faith and of scripture.

“If dying to our own sinful impulses is a part of our daily life, then we can see how the whole Christian life is about both dying and tasting life in Christ,” Dr. Billings says. “The whole Christian life involves both lament and hope. The greatest need is for pastors and the Christian community to integrate our mortality into the Gospel message that we proclaim.”

 

Project Participants:

J. Todd Billings, Holland, MI

Ann Conklin, Grand Rapids, MI

Katlyn DeVries, Holland, MI

Travis Else, Sioux Center, IA

Tyler Johnson, Arizona

Phil Letizia, Wilton Manors, FL

Noah & Kristen Livingston, Clymer, NY

 

Generous Grant will Further Work in Disability and Ministry

In November of 2016, Western Theological Seminary was awarded a $425,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. Established by Henry R. Luce, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Time Inc., the Luce Foundation offers grants in eight program areas including one whose focus is theology. WTS was among six institutions selected from a large field of competitors to receive an inaugural grant from the Luce Fund for Theological Education.

The seminary’s approved project—Enabling Theological Education: Preparing the Next Generation of Christian Leaders—Presence, Intention, and Dimension for Ministry to, with, and by People with Disabilities—will expand Western Theological Seminary’s pioneering work in disability and ministry.

The seminary’s efforts in disability and ministry began a decade ago with the addition of the Ralph & Cheryl Schregardus Friendship House, the on-campus residence where seminary students live with young adults from the community who have cognitive impairments. It has yielded such positive effects that interest grew to extend the impact of the Friendship House into the seminary curriculum.

In the fall of 2016, WTS launched a Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry (GCDM) program—the first of its kind in theological education. The GCDM provides students the knowledge and skills to lead congregations and ministries in ways that are attuned to and inclusive of the gifts and perspectives of people with disabilities.

Last May, the seminary also partnered with Hope College in serving as a co-host of the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability. The grant from the Henry Luce Foundation provides opportunity for the momentum around disability and ministry to grow.

Initial activity will focus on readying the seminary for future aspects of the project. An accessibility audit will determine what additions or changes are needed to our physical and educational environment so that we are hospitable to persons with disabilities. The audit will not only examine our physical classrooms but also review our learning management system and distance learning platforms. Once the support structures are in place, we can launch the key activities of the project.

In the fall of 2018, Western Theological Seminary will inaugurate an annual symposium and lectureship focused on disability and ministry. The two-day event will feature a keynote speaker and workshops for attendees.

Additionally, the seminary intends to spend a portion of the grant to hire visiting professors, preferably people with disabilities, to strengthen both faculty competency in disability studies and the GCDM program. WTS will also develop an adjunct professor base of instructors who have expertise in disability and ministry.

Western Theological Seminary’s Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry aids students in the art and practice of ministering to those with disabilities.Dr. Ben Conner, associate professor of Christian discipleship and director of the GCDM program, will assume leadership for the implementation of the grant. He is eager to move the seminary forward in its commitment to disability and ministry.

Conner, an experienced scholar and leader in theology and disability, believes this is a necessary and often-neglected ministry focus in both the seminary and the greater church. As he noted in the grant’s proposal, “People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the United States. It is an open group which most people enter against their will; a group that includes people from every class, ethnicity, and economic circumstance.”

WTS looks forward to the opportunities the Luce Foundation Grant will provide to expand this important ministry focus at the seminary.

 

News of Another Grant

Melissa Conner, director of the Ralph & Cheryl Schregardus Friendship House at WTS, also directs Renew Therapeutic Riding Center in Holland. The center provides equine assisted activities and therapies to children and adults with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities. Four of the six friends living at Friendship House take lessons there.

Last December, Renew Therapeutic Riding Center was awarded $20,000 from the local Women Who Care group. The money will fund public school special education students to participate in activities at Renew.

WTS students enrolled in Dr. Ben Conner’s “Ministry and Margins” course take a field trip to Renew to observe lessons.

Also, several WTS students volunteer at Renew and one of them aspires to earn instructor certification.

Melissa’s work at Renew wonderfully complements the efforts of WTS in disability and ministry.

Ilyas Finds Refuge at WTS

Recently, a local TV station came to WTS to interview our maintenance assistant, Ilyas Zadran, who is a refugee from Afghanistan. Ilyas began working at the seminary last year, shortly after arriving in the U.S. with his young family.

Meet Ilyas through this series on local refugees!  http://www.wzzm13.com/news/finding-refuge-muhammad-zadran/423922877

Dealing Faithfully with Dementia

Introducing the work of Dr. Suzanne McDonald,

Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology

Dr. Suzanne McDonald has been studying and reflecting on the topic of dementia for 20 years. She has developed a two-part class for churches called “Dealing Faithfully with Dementia,” and this semester she began teaching a course for Western’s new Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry program entitled, “Ministry, Aging, and Dementia.”

Dr. McDonald first became interested in this topic in the late ‘90s when she was working for the Red Cross in Australia. Her boss, a retired army colonel, was not a Christian but began asking tough questions about God when his wife’s mind quickly deteriorated from dementia.

“What kind of a God do you believe in that could do this to my wife?” he would ask, or “Why is this happening?” and “Who is she and where has she gone?”

It was very hard to watch and got Suzanne thinking about what it would mean to walk well with someone going through this.

Her colonel friend, Walt, eventually did become a believer in Christ, in no small part because of how Suzanne and others surrounded him and his wife, Pearl, with love during that time. It was such a powerful experience for Suzanne that she went on to complete Clinical Pastoral Education in a dementia ward in England.

Her series, “Dealing Faithfully with Dementia,” is for congregations and pastors who want to be faithful to God and the Gospel, and also faithful to the very difficult realities of the disease, as they walk beside those with dementia and their caregivers.

It is important to give people space to lament and not move too quickly to oh, it’s all ok because of Jesus.

“Dementia can be devastating,” she says, “but we have in the scriptures and in our theology ways of talking about it that acknowledge the pain and also the presence and work of God in the midst of it all.”

Her series for churches looks at Holy Saturday (the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday) as a theological space that mirrors dementia. The disciples did not know on that day that the story would end in Christ’s resurrection.

Those walking the dementia road can say that in Christ all will be well in the end, she explains, but for now there is no cure and in the later stages, there are only occasional glimpses of who the person is.

Dr. McDonald calls these “resurrection moments” when there’s a flash of remembrance.

She recalls a woman who had been married to her husband for 50 years but didn’t recognize him at all. Then one day, he came to see her all dressed up in a suit and wearing a very strong aftershave.

As soon as she smelled it, she sat bolt upright and said, “Harry! Where are you taking me tonight?”

Harry was ecstatic because she hadn’t recognized him in so long. He thought, “I’ve got it. I’ve got the trigger!” The next day he came dressed the same way…but she didn’t recognize him. He couldn’t stay long because he was crying so hard.

“It was a reminder that you can’t manufacture these things,” Dr. McDonald says. “If these resurrection moments come, they are a gift.”

In part two of the series, participants think about issues of personhood, image of God, and how they can walk with people in a pastoral sense. Suzanne emphasizes the importance of not just a person’s mind but their body as well.

She remembers Walt saying toward the end with Pearl, “When I look in her face, I still see the beautiful woman that I married.”

Dr. McDonald suggests two resources she has found helpful: 1) John Swinton’s Dementia: Living in the Memories of God, and 2) Benjamin Mast’s Second Forgetting: Remembering the Power of the Gospel During Alzheimer’s Disease. She also plans to do some writing on the topic herself.

“Know who in the congregation either has dementia or is caring for someone with dementia,” she suggests. “Especially be there to support the family at the various stages and learn better strategies to do that.”

What tends to happen is that when someone gets dementia and it starts to progress, they stop coming to church because they can’t remember names. It’s too awkward and embarrassing. At the same time, people in the congregation get uncomfortable as the disease progresses because they don’t know what to say or how to deal with it.

Dr. McDonald’s passion is to help people learn better ways to faithfully show the love of Christ to those with dementia and to their caregivers. She speaks multiple times per year at churches and is happy to accept invitations. These events are usually open to the public.

Contact Dr. McDonald about speaking at your church. 

Stories from the Oman Intercultural Immersion

Matt Shults

M.Div. Middler

We were halfway around the world sitting at a conference table listening to stories and concerns that sounded so familiar, it was as if we were sitting at grandma’s kitchen table having similar conversations. I found this to be the case many times on our intercultural immersion trip to Oman. Over and over again we had moments when we realized that we have far more in common with the people of Oman and with Muslim/Arab Culture than differences.

I was blessed to travel to Oman with thirteen other students from Western, along with our professor, Dr. John Brogan. For a majority of our trip we stayed at the Al Amana Centre in Muscat, Oman. The center is in an older area of Muscat known as Mutrah. It was a great neighborhood to call home. It was just a short walk from the corniche, the road that winds along the harbor, which gave us a great view of the Gulf of Oman. We were also just a short stroll from the souq, which is a traditional market filled with many shops.

The Reformed Church in America has had a missionary presence in Oman since the late 1800s. The RCA built hospitals and schools in the Middle East before oil was discovered, and the RCA is still beloved in Oman. The country of Oman presents a unique missionary scenario in that proselytizing is illegal for all religions, including Islam. The Al Amana Centre, led by Acting Director Justin Meyers ‘03 and newly appointed Director Aaro Rytkönen, continues the work of the RCA by trying to bring together religions and cultures to further the common good and create open and peaceful dialogue.

We spent much of our time traveling to different locations throughout Oman, which is a stunningly beautiful country. We hiked in the mountains, visited an ancient village, swam at the Wadi Shab, and even stayed overnight in a Bedouin camp in the desert. We were able to see the national museum, tour an historic fort in Nizwa, and visit two mosques. One of the mosques was built in the 1500s, and the other was the stunning Grand Mosque in Muscat. Oman is an easy place to fall in love with.

Despite all the great places we were able to experience and the unique bits of culture we took part in, it was the Omani people who will remain forever in my memory. It was the hospitality of Shah, who owns a shop in the souq filled with the

In the center, Shah (Nawaz Rafiq) poses with Matt Shults, John Brogan, Jacob Van Steenwyk, and retired RCA missionary Gary North.

most beautiful cashmere scarves you have ever laid eyes on and woven carpets that are stunning works of art. Shah greeted us warmly every time we stepped into his shop, ran to get us chai (sweetened tea), and made sure we were all comfortable. We spent several of our evenings just relaxing in Shah’s shop and processing the day. If any of us wanted to buy from another shop in the souq, he would accompany us to make sure we were getting the best deal possible. Shah could not have been more generous with his own prices. We bought many scarves and other gifts from him, and I would be surprised if he made any profit from us. Shah’s generosity and hospitality with be forever etched in my memory.

Saba was one of the last people we had a chance to meet. She runs an organization that helps young children with mental and physical disabilities in Muscat. She is a native Omani who grew up in Muscat and went to college and graduate school in the United States. She had great perspectives about her faith—and her passion for helping those with disabilities was contagious—but it was her wisdom about the concerns the Omani people have for their quickly changing culture that hit me. It was at this moment that I felt as if I was at my grandmother’s table. I was made more aware that so much of what we desire and fear as humans is the same, no matter if we are from the U.S. or Oman.

An Omani woman dressed in traditional clothes at the Bait al Safa Museum.

The number of people who made an impact on me is far too great to describe here, but I quickly realized on our trip that we have far more in common individually and societally than one could ever imagine. Yes, many of us have different theologies and political views, but when it comes down to it, we celebrate many of the same joys in life and we share many of the same concerns. We want our friends and family to be safe. We want a roof over our heads and clothes on our back. We want our societies to thrive. I learned that we must celebrate the 99% of life that we agree on instead of the 1% where we disagree.

Our current moment in history is full of contention and disagreement. This is especially true when it come to dialogue about Christian/Muslim relations and cultural differences between the U.S. and the Arab world. Our trip to Oman humanized this dialogue for me and made me realize our first instinct in these discussions and conflicts should be to recognize that the “others” we are talking about are human just like us. These humans are children of God just like you and I are. This is a lesson I will never forget. We truly are all the same.

I feel the call of Jesus more strongly than ever to fight against injustice and to join God in the work of reconciliation. Our trip was brief and I am not going to pretend I am an expert in the Muslim faith or in Arab culture, but I will be quick to share the stories of the people we met and the great lessons I learned from them.       —MS

 

Western’s M.Div. students travel to other cultural contexts to experience the diverse character of the church’s witness and mission. These trips present students with problems and opportunities posed by cultural differences, secularism, social fragmentation, religious pluralism, and ecumenism. This year’s trips included Oman, the U.S.-Mexico border, and Israel.