Posts

Senior M.Div. student Ruth Estell may be what’s called an “old soul,” but don’t be fooled by her mild manner.

Born to RCA missionary parents and raised in Taiwan, Ruth came to the States to earn her undergrad and graduate degrees from Wheaton College, and then returned to China to teach English.

Ruth with children from the group home in Taiwan

After ten years, she heard about an opportunity to work and live in a home for children and adults with disabilities in Taiwan. She jumped at the chance to do more ministry and Bible teaching.

In Taiwan, Ruth volunteered to teach an English Bible study in a men’s maximum security prison—with no guards in the room.

“At first I wasn’t so sure,” she admits, “but I ended up loving it. The men were very respectful and appreciated that I was willing to come there.”

She saw God at work, even witnessing some men get baptized and grow in their faith.

Ruth planned to take over for the director of the group home in Taiwan, but after a year and a half, the woman grew inexplicably hostile toward her.

Ruth started to believe the negative things her teammate was saying about her, and for the first time in her life, she doubted if God really loved her. She found herself in a downward spiral emotionally, spiritually, and physically. After praying about what to do, she knew she had to leave the mission field.

She returned to the U.S. to live with her mother, who had retired to Zeeland, MI. Their family had spent many summers on furlough in the RCA mission houses in Holland, so Ruth knew a lot of people in the West Michigan area.

“When I came back, I thought I was done serving God forever,” Ruth admits.“I would have been content to do whatever just to pay the bills.”

However, many people who knew her story were praying for her, and many reached out with love and support. Some shared their own stories of being hurt by brothers and sisters in the church.

A lot of healing took place, and Ruth realized that she still had a deep desire to serve God in her work. As she began to feel a call to chaplaincy, she knew she would need a Master of Divinity, and that led her to Western Theological Seminary.

Two and a half years later, Ruth is on track to graduate this May. She hopes to work as a chaplain in a retirement home or hospital.

“I am a third culture kid,” she says, “and Chinese culture respects the elderly, so perhaps that infiltrated my heart. I love the elderly.”

Two of Ruth’s internships have been at retirement homes, but she also completed a year of church ministry and one summer term of Clinical Pastoral Education at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, where she worked with children and adolescents and at a women’s addiction recovery residential house.

“My abilities and confidence have grown,” she shares. “Children and adolescents are very honest. I have dealt with a lot of anger but also some very honest questions. You don’t always have the answers, but you can be there and listen to them.”

This year, Ruth is interning at Holland Hospital, where God is growing a love for the stranger in her. Many times she can only have one or two conversations with patients before they leave the hospital.

Harp class, led by Dr. Carol Bechtel

Ruth is part of a group of musicians that WTS professor Dr. Carol Bechtel is teaching to play the harp. At the hospital, Ruth plays the harp therapeutically—a ministry that can touch some patients and families in a special way.

“One lady I visited was very formal when I went in as the chaplain. I could tell she highly respected the clergy,” recalls Ruth. “She thanked me for coming and asked me to pray but didn’t have much to say. Later I came in just to play the harp, and soon she started sharing about her diagnosis, how she was feeling, her family… More pastoral care was done when I wasn’t there as the ‘official’ chaplain.”

Other times, patients are unresponsive or restless, and the harp music puts a calm over the room and the family. Sometimes the music frees people to have a good cry.

“I can’t answer ‘Why would God let this happen?’ or ‘Why don’t I feel God’s presence?” but I can acknowledge feelings and encourage people to reach out to God,” Ruth says. “Sometimes I run out of words, and then the music lets them rest in that.”

If people come from a Christian background, hymns remind them of times God spoke into their lives. Recently a dying patient began singing along to the hymns Ruth was playing on her harp, creating a beautiful moment that touched the family deeply. Later they asked her to play at his funeral.

Being able to play the harp for people is a “tool in my tool box,” Ruth says. “It’s just another way to care for people.”

Ruth is also grateful for Dr. Suzanne McDonald’s classes on “Aging and Dementia” and eschatology. These classes have helped her to establish a theological foundation and to understand how to care for people at the end of life.

“What I like about Western is that it’s not all about heady, intellectual knowledge,” she shares. “The professors realize they’re preparing us for serving actual people. It has kept me humble.”

Thinking ahead to graduation, Ruth says, “I think chaplaincy will be a good fit for the passions and gifts God has given me. Retirement home, hospital, hospice…I’m open to wherever God might lead.”

Rev. Dr. Samuel Solivan, WTS graduate, 1976

Rev. Dr. Samuel Solivan calls himself Pentecostal and Arminian—not exactly a run-of- the-mill Western graduate! From the moment he was born, this year’s distinguished alum has lived a life full of surprises and God’s miraculous intervention.

When Sam’s mother was only seven months pregnant, she was at the church cleaning around the altar when suddenly she began to go into labor. The pastor and some members of the church helped her to the floor and she gave birth right there. The pastor held the boy in his arms and named him Samuel.

Sam’s parents had moved to East Harlem, NY from Puerto Rico. His father was a quiet military man, and his mother was a devout Christ-follower who took her six sons to church nearly every day. Sam learned a deep love for the church from her.

As a child, Sam was diagnosed with hearing loss and what was then called “mental retardation.” His mother was encouraged to send him to a special school for the deaf, but it was too far away, so he remained in remedial classes at public school.

Doctors attempted four different surgeries to improve his hearing, but the last surgery caused part of his face to become disfigured. He dealt with a lot of bullying, leading his teachers to suggest home school, but his mother insisted he stay in school. “We believe in a healing God,” she said.

He later transferred to a vocational school, and there his guidance counselor told him not to expect much out of life. “Just do your best.”

Sam and Irene’s wedding, 1969

During this time, Sam met his future wife, Irene. Her parents sponsored youth activities and prayer vigils at their home. When Sam was 13, he entered their home and saw Irene playing the piano.

The next year, during one of these vigils, Sam sensed the Lord calling him to “preach and teach My word.” He thought it was just emotionalism and wondered how God could use him with his learning disabilities. He asked God to confirm this call through his Word and through others. He also thought he would need to speak Spanish, so he asked to learn it. Then he opened his Bible and it landed on Jeremiah 1: “I have called you and known you since you were in your mother’s womb.”

Iglesia Evangelica del Bronx—Sam was literally born here, Irene grew up in this church, they got married here, and Sam was installed as pastor of this church.

That same night, Irene’s father asked Sam to join him at an evangelistic meeting the next day. When the evangelist (whom Sam had never met) went forward to speak, he asked, “Is there a Sam Solivan in the room?” Sam nervously stepped forward, and the man said, “The Lord said he will heal your mind and body and teach you Spanish.”

A few years later when Sam graduated from high school, he was drafted into the Air Force. Once he passed training, the military realized he had pre-existing conditions that would prevent him from getting insurance during active duty. They offered him an option: either go to Vietnam without insurance, or receive an honorable discharge as a veteran of the United States.

“I may be [mentally disabled], but I’m no fool!” Dr. Solivan recalls thinking.

He returned home and went to church to thank God for not having to go to war. In normal Pentecostal tradition, Sam began to speak in tongues as he prayed at the front of the church. In the back of the church, someone offered the interpretation: “I permitted this [sickness] in your life to save your life, and now I’m going to heal you. The four years you would have given to the Air Force, you will give to Me to serve Me.”

From that day forward, his hearing began to improve. Over the years, his facial deformation has healed to the point that it is now barely noticeable.

Sam heard about Central Bible College in Springfield, MO from Irene’s pastor and decided to apply. Even though he was at a second grade reading level, his compassionate professors helped him as the Lord healed his mind and body.

He completed his Bachelor of Arts in 1970 and returned to the Pentecostal church where he was raised, this time as the head pastor. He also began work as a community organizer in East Harlem. Traditionally, Pentecostal pastors are not required to attend seminary, so Sam would have been happy not to go—but the Lord had other plans.

Sam with WTS President I. John Hesselink, 1975

In 1973, Sam received a call from Dr. I. John Hesselink of Western Theological Seminary. Dr. Hesselink was working with the Reformed Church in America to recruit Latino leadership in the denomination and wanted Sam to come for an interview to be a student. The sheer unconventionality of the situation told Sam that this was a sign from God. A month later, he and his wife and three young children moved to Holland, MI for the Greek summer course.

“As an Arminian, a Latino, and a Pentecostal, it was somewhat strange, but also amazing and wonderful,” he shares. “There’s been no other community that was so powerful in transforming and equipping me. Western Theological Seminary is the institution that has most marked my life.”

During his time in Holland, Sam was named the city’s Commissioner of Education and Housing for the Human Relations Commission, and he also started the West Michigan Latino Ministers Association. He graduated with the class of 1976, alongside current WTS president Timothy Brown.

“I have kept looking over Western’s shoulders over the years, seeing their efforts to recruit Latino, African Americans, and other minorities,” says Sam. “I’ve been encouraged by that.”

Officially “Dr. Solivan” — getting his PhD at Union Theological Seminary, 1993

One interaction with Professor John Piet stuck with Sam. “I’m going to speak to you as a Pentecostal,” Dr. Piet said one day to Sam’s surprise. “The Holy Spirit is leading me to tell you this: The Lord is going to open the doors for you to get a Ph.D.”

Dr. Piet was right. The following year, Sam was accepted to Union Theological Seminary in New York City for a one-year research degree, the Master of Sacred Theology. Later, after serving four years as an RCA missionary in Venezuela, he would return to Union for his Ph.D.

Even though Sam came from a Pentecostal background, the WTS faculty certified him to be ordained in the RCA by the Classis of New York. When he and his family returned from Venezuela, he served as lead pastor of Bethel Reformed Church in New Jersey and later Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn.

Eventually, Dr. Solivan transferred to the Assemblies of God, the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination. He moved to Boston and taught Christian theology at Andover Newton Theological School. Harvard Medical School invited him to be the theologian on a team studying medicine and spirituality. Eventually the study became a required course, and he was asked to be an adjunct faculty member.

In 1999, the Lord called Dr. Solivan to Puerto Rico. He was invited to serve as vice president of religious affairs at InterAmerican University, the largest bi-lingual evangelical protestant university in the world. He still serves there as a tenured professor of theology, and he helped to found their Ph.D. program. He has also served for nine years at the Theological Seminary of Puerto Rico.

Dr. Solivan helped to found the Eurasian Theological Seminary in Moscow, the European Leadership Academy in Malaga, Spain, and spent eleven years as part of the international faculty for the Haggai Institute with locations in Maui and Singapore.

The Haggai Institute trains professionals and executives from all over the world in evangelism and leadership. Students have included supreme court justices, lawyers, engineers, and even princesses.

“These are the kinds of things that keep me busy,” Dr. Solivan laughs.

He and Irene run the ecumenical Center for Theological Reflection in Puerto Rico, which meets monthly to pray and discuss theology with others. Also, for the last 14 years Dr. Solivan has led a radio program on theological reflection called “Thinking out Loud” with fellow theologians.

The Solivans have four grown children who live in the U.S.: three daughters and one son.

Before going off to Bible college, Dr. Solivan recalls his father (who barely ever spoke about spiritual matters) telling him, “Do it with excellence, because the Lord requires excellence.”

After a challenging childhood but a deep faithfulness to God and community, Dr. Solivan’s life has certainly been marked by excellence and a grateful spirit.

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.