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I still remember visiting Western Theological Seminary in 2010 on an exploratory trip for Newbigin House of Studies, an educational initiative that had emerged from City Church San Francisco. There was a palpable sense of excitement about a unique relationship between a respected seminary and an important city church. The prospects grew as President Tim Brown secured a significant grant to help fund the partnership. In the Fall of 2011 our partnership was launched in San Francisco in an inaugural event featuring NT Wright. Our first class of graduates from the WTS-Newbigin Distance Learning Master of Divinity program walked last May.

The partnership was designed to train church planters in city settings, and we’re happy to report that we have graduates (and students) planting or serving in Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, Boulder, San Francisco, and beyond (even Bangkok!). In the years we’ve been together, nearly 40 students benefited from a challenging missional curriculum, with yearly intensives in San Francisco.

The formal partnership, however, has come to an end. While the cost of ongoing funding for an endeavor like this exceeds our capacity, we’ve also learned many things from each other. Newbigin House, led by my good friend Dr. Scot Sherman, discerned that they can serve the church best through a “Newbigin Year” program, making their offerings more broadly accessible. And WTS changed much during its time in partnership. I moved from San Francisco and joined Western’s faculty at the same time as some excellent new colleagues with expertise in mission, justice, disability, and more. Western isn’t the same seminary it was in 2010, and our curriculum and ethos have been changed not only by the influence of these new professors but also by our partnership with the Newbigin House of Studies.

The net gains are huge, and the work goes on as students continue their learning within this unique curriculum. WTS will grant advanced standing with credit to applicants who have completed a new ministry discernment program at NHS called the Newbigin Year. Current WTS students may also take NHS courses for credit toward their WTS programs.

We give thanks for all this partnership has meant.

—Dr. Chuck DeGroat

Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling

Senior Fellow of the Newbigin House of Studies

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.