August 30 marked the first day of a new semester at Western. Students, faculty and staff gathered in the seminary atrium to process to the chapel together for the first time in over a year. Joy shone on all faces, everyone singing to “the God of Shalom” as guitarists and tamborinists joined in the march. Students shouldered backpacks and professors donned colorful regalia, marking the beginning of a new season of study and growth, formed by rhythms of worship and fellowship. Third-year student Jackson Nickolay described that worship and community are integral to the life of WTS, and so the return to “worshiping in the chapel felt like a lost puzzle piece had slipped back into place.”
President Felix Theonugraha welcomed in the school year with a Convocation Address from the book of Matthew, drawing specifically on Jesus’s echo of The Shema in chapter 22: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” President Theonugraha posed the question, “what does it mean to love God with all of your mind?” Students were encouraged to delight in the gift of learning about God this year, but not to miss knowing God in the midst. “Let us resolve to love God with all of our heart, soul and mind.”
At noon, 50 or so people gathered around a new sculpture titled “Glory,” which was installed outside of Western’s main entryway on 13th Street this August. “Glory” was created by Bruce Niemi of Kenosha, Wisconsin and is his 56th sculpture installment in the United States. At the event, Niemi described that his piece represents the trinity of Christian faith. Four interwoven sevens mark the relationship between God the Father, Son, Holy Spirit and a person of faith. Professors, students and staff will pass by “Glory” each morning on their way to work and classes. Perhaps this “passing-by” will become a liturgy of sorts in the lives of those attending WTS, a daily reminder of their truest identity in God.
At a Town Hall meeting with faculty and staff earlier in August, Jill English, the Director of Admissions, shared a reflection on the unique stories of this year’s incoming student body. Among the In-Residence and Distance-learning incoming class, WTS welcomes students such as “Young Life staff and church partners, a former intelligence analyst for the Air Force, two Hip-hop artist-pastors from Southern California, and a second career minister of music who is bi-vocationally employed as a security guard with Chicago Public Schools.” Since August 1866, as Jill reflects, God has continued to gather people from all nations and backgrounds to be a part of the WTS community. In fact, this year, WTS students are coming from all over the United States, as well as from the Netherlands, Canada, Uganda, Australia, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Taiwan, and Columbia.
The first day of classes wrapped up with a seminary-wide meal out on the lawn, an event organized by the seminary’s beloved Cherri Westhouse. The Holland sunshine made for a warm evening, while beneath a large tent, a bountiful buffet was spread for all attendees. A large bounce house was brought in for the children and an obstacle course was set up for the adults. Kurtis Cunningham, a current Friendship Fellow, announced the race with gusto while professors, students and staff went head-to-head through the course, urged on by the cheers, claps and shouts of their fellow WTS friends. Emily Hanrahan, a first-year student, described the atmosphere of the dinner as “something akin to a big, family reunion. Love, laughter, and hospitality were in abundance for everyone involved! It was such a warm welcome to the seminary.”
At the close of Monday’s Convocation chapel, faculty, students and staff spoke in unison a Litany of Praise by Rose DeKoster, adapted from Every Moment Holy by Doug McKelvey. The litany ended with words that will continue to be the heart cry of the WTS community for this year: “God bless the labors of this new season. We offer them to you as an act of worship. Amen.”