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Photo: Julie spends some time with former residents and Friendship House Director Carlos Thompson (right)

Rev. Julie Myers was the first WTS student to graduate with a Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry (GCDM) alongside her Master of Divinity in 2017.

Three years earlier, she had been reluctant to begin seminary, turning in her application one day before the due date. At that time, she had just begun working at Benjamin’s Hope (a living community for adults with disabilities), but her church recognized her gifts of ministry and encouraged her to attend seminary.

At WTS she took as many Disability and Ministry courses as she could simply because they interested her. She was later surprised to realize she had enough credits to earn the GCDM. After graduation she was ordained and worked at Mars Hill Church in Grandville, MI as their special needs coordinator before eventually returning to work part-time at Benjamin’s Hope and at Western’s Friendship House while she completes a Master of Theology (Th.M.) degree.

The Ralph and Cheryl Schregardus Friendship House is the seminary housing where students live in apartment pods with young adults with cognitive disabilities (Friends) and learn from each other. As resident advisor, Julie does administrative work, schedules house events, attends meetings, and makes herself available for the Friends.

She moved into the Friendship House this past March, along with her two teenage children—the first family to live in the house since its formation in 2007.

“I love living in the Friendship House with my kids!” she says. “I am in the final stages of a divorce, and although it has been difficult, God has blessed us abundantly over and over again.”

Living among those with different challenges and gifts has been eye-opening and enriching for her children.

“They are learning to practice hospitality—and in a healthy way,” she says, keeping an open-door policy to the residents while learning how to set boundaries for self-care.

In 2016 Julie was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease called Sarcoidosis. “Essentially, it can attack any organ in your body and cause it to work against itself,” she explains. Previously in remission, the disease flared up at the end of the summer, right as classes were set to begin.

“The timing could not have been worse,” she says. “I don’t remember much about the first days in the hospital except for what the ER doctor said: ‘Ma’am, your calcium levels are higher than I have ever seen in my career… your blood is beginning to crystalize, and your kidneys and liver are beginning to shut down. We are trying the best we can to stabilize you.’ I heard what he was saying, and I knew it was serious, but I couldn’t focus on much. All I felt was an incredible sense of peace from God. He was there beside me, holding me, keeping me alive. I wasn’t afraid.”

Eventually she recovered enough to return home, but she has to take high doses of steroids and other medicine to keep the disease in check. The side effects are significant, but this is the only treatment for Sarcoidosis, as there is no cure.

Julie was worried about keeping up with schoolwork, but WTS staff and faculty have been very supportive. Her own work around disability and ministry reminds her to be kind to herself, listen to what her body needs, and set realistic expectations. She realizes she is now living into what she has studied so long.

For her Th.M. project, Julie is examining how people with cognitive disabilities experience and process grief and trauma. She is hopeful that her Th.M. coursework will give her the research and writing experience she’ll need to join Dr. Ben Conner’s Doctor of Ministry Disability and Ministry cohort next June.

Julie would like to continue living and working in the Friendship House until she completes both the Th.M. and D.Min. degrees. She wants to write about disability and ministry and hopes to teach in an undergraduate or seminary setting some day.

In regard to her own chronic illness, “I feel confident that God’s got this,” she says. “He is the Great Physician and healer. I will be forever grateful for the place I am in now, even though it may seem like my life is in turmoil (which it is!). This has brought my children closer to the Lord, and we are thankful for all of our blessings.”

Senior student Shaelee Boender reflects on her summer internship:

“Miss Shaelee,” she said, holding out a tan piece of construction paper, “I drew this for you!”

I put my arm around her little shoulder, looked over the ice cream cone masterpiece, and replied, “How did you know ice cream is my favorite food ever?! Like ever, ever!” Her brown eyes lit up with joy as she shrugged her shoulders, saying, “I don’t know… I just drew it!”

The kingdom of heaven is like…

Recently I have been mulling over passages in Matthew 13. Jesus gives his followers a vision of the kingdom of heaven by using parables. He moves from mustard seeds to leavened bread to a merchant in search of fine pearls, even to a net that catches an array of fish.

Through these many visions, I always go back to this: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds…”

The smallest of all seeds. It takes 185,000 mustard seeds to make one pound. If every person in Des Moines, IA was a mustard seed—it would only weigh one pound!

I learned in my internship that the kingdom of heaven is already present and moving. The stirring in our hearts helps us to step in—to actively participate in the coming of God’s kingdom. What “surprisingly surprised” me is that this movement is not fast, loud, or big. Rather, it is fairly slow.

Getting to know kids, getting a glimpse of their lives outside the three hours each weekday we would spend with them, learning their stories, meeting parents, and beginning to understand the needs of the neighborhood… takes a long time.

Sometimes this work of creating authentic relationships felt insignificant as we played tag, painted rocks, or led the kids in exercises… but that was just what God was calling us to do. God was asking us to lean in, love, encourage, and ask questions in a way that brings life and joy.

The mustard seed is a powerful seed. When the seed is planted, it grows underground for a period of time. When it finally sprouts, its growth becomes almost impossible to stop.

This is what Jesus was saying. The coming of the kingdom is in the small and seemingly insignificant—but it is powerful, strong, and unstoppable. In some moments we see the sprouting forth from the earth, giving us glimpses of the kingdom of God advancing. But in the meantime, this slow process is a pull on my heart to remain faithful in the work God is inviting us to lean into.

The kingdom of heaven is liketwenty kids playing toilet tag.

The kingdom of heaven is like… children singing to Beach Boys songs while shaking plastic egg maracas.

The kingdom of heaven is like exercising to Moana—and giggling.

The kingdom of heaven is liketalking while making robots out of soup cans.

The kingdom of heaven is like holding a child’s hand.

The seemingly small. Outwardly insignificant. This is where power lies. The seeds have already been planted… only God knows how much they are spreading.

The kingdom of heaven is like an ice cream cone, a masterpiece made of crayon and marker, that finds its forever home on a tan piece of construction paper. This small act of generosity and thoughtfulness shows that God is working in this little girl’s life. And to be honest… I almost missed it. How often do we miss the work of God in those around us? Or perhaps even in our own hearts? All because it sometimes feels small or insignificant.

The kingdom of heaven is like…

 

 

 

A version of this article originally appeared here.

Senior M.Div. student Kristen Uroda was studying illustration at Massachusetts College of Art & Design in Boston when God called her to ministry.

“My plan was to be a famous artist, live in the city, and do mission trips,” she says, but during one such mission trip to Cincinnati, OH, she found herself falling in love with the inner workings of the church. When the leaders made an altar call for those called to ministry, she heard God say, “That’s you. Go.”

Back in Boston, she told her pastor that Europe was on her heart, even though the mission opportunities through her Korean-American congregation were predominantly in Asian house-churches. Providentially, her pastor had just met some pastors from Romania who needed interns. For one year, she helped that team plant a church from the ground up. When she returned home, her pastor encouraged her to start looking at seminaries, and she found Western (WTS).

“I really liked the program and how WTS wants to form students as full-rounded pastors and not just fill us with information and send us on our way,” she explains. She enrolled and moved to Michigan.

First year Master of Divinity students take a ministry formation course called The Abbey. One aspect includes lengthy discussion of the Enneagram personality profile.

“Going through the process of the Enneagram was very hard, and we all came out rather shell-shocked,” says Kristen, “but it helped me develop my pastoral heart. This is what I was praying for, and this is what I got. You don’t see other seminaries do that really deep inner work. It is so critical to formation.”

For her “Teaching Church” internship site, Kristen landed with Engedi, a youthful, cutting-edge church planted from a large Wesleyan church in Holland.

Kristen spent her first year learning all she could about the nuts and bolts of the church—things like finances, leadership, and day-to-day operations. Her internship led to a paid position as the executive pastor’s assistant.
When a communications position opened up, Kristen showed the church her art portfolio and they immediately offered her a new role—design coordinator.

“I definitely did not see myself in the place where I am now,” she admits. “When God called me to ministry, I thought I would have to give up art. I didn’t see how those two were ever going to fit together.”

“Art has always given me a lot of life,” Kristen says. “When I don’t do it for a long time, I feel like I’m not living up to what I was made to do.”

Kristen isn’t sure yet how God will combine her passion for church planting with her passion for art, but she is more convinced than ever that he has a plan for both.

Recently Kristen helped lead a youth trip to Guatemala where she designed a mural for an impoverished community. Also, last year National Public Radio (NPR) hired her as an illustrator. 

“My inspiration and vision is how I can make this world a more beautiful place. The world can be dark, scary, and uncertain, but art touches the heart in ways that words alone can’t. Guatemala was an opportunity to test that out,” she says. “Maybe the church God is calling me to plant will look different than the usual kind of church.”

Whatever church she plants, Kristen wants it to be multi-cultural and multi-lingual.

“I can do it!” by Kristen Uroda

“What would it look like if pastors around the world and within neighborhoods could work together? Where it’s just the shared identity under Christ’s name? I think the church is our best bet for crossing cultural barriers and healing divisions.”

Kristen’s interests could land her anywhere—her passions range from the Native American community to the people of France. She is open to wherever the Lord leads.

She is grateful to her pastors at Engedi for making space for her gifts and helping her incorporate them into both leadership and worship. As for her time at Western Theological Seminary, “I went in not really knowing what it was going to be like, and it has been a good experience!”

Above all, she now knows that wherever God leads, she will be using both her pastoral and artistic gifts to meet the needs of people.