My first year of seminary was a bit rocky in terms of comfort with my own identity. I had recently decided against following a path towards Unitarian Universalist ministry and had decided to be baptized and go to seminary as a member in discernment within the United Church of Christ. My confidence was shaky, which left my skin pretty thin. And thin skin, I have found, often leads a person to gain some extra edges, prickles and bristles. I needed to prove to my family and friends that I hadn't "fallen off the deep end" as some born-again Christian, which many of them feared. At the same time, I felt I needed to prove to my new seminary colleagues that I really was a Christian - not just some UU in disguise. In truth, I really hadn't left the starting block in terms of finding my own path as a Christian.
It was this torn and broken person who entered my Contextual Education discussion group and got the learning experience of a lifetime. While I imagine the goal of "ConEd," as Candler School of Theology calls it, is to give students a unique learning experience out in a field ministry - we were working with refugee children - I learned more from my advisers than I did from my field assignment.
The very first day of class I was shocked to discover that one of my teachers in both the classroom and field aspects of the course was a Church of Christ pastor - without the 'United' in front. Now, I probably had an especially biased opinion of Church of Christ folks because my most recent Unitarian pastor was raised Church of Christ and frequently had stories to tell from the pulpit of all the egregious theologies and beliefs that he was indoctrinated with in these fundamentalist churches with no instruments. I am ashamed to say that I was literally stunned by the horror of having to be taught by this man for an entire year and anticipated all the arguments I thought I would have to engage in - for the common good, of course.
Next I met my field supervisor and learned that she was a religiously-disaffected lesbian woman who had just adopted a baby with her long-time partner, a Feminist Studies professor at Georgia State. Further conversation with her revealed that though she was the daughter of an Episcopal priest, most of her religious friends belonged to the "First Existentialist" UU church in town. My eyes widened a bit when I heard this; First Existentialist is known to be Atlanta's fringe UU church - mostly famous for its founder, who openly practices polyamory. My brain went into conflicting stereotype overload and I was horrified at the thought of how this Church of Christ fundamentalist would work with this woman whose progressive creds' made even me look like June Cleaver. Our other classroom teacher was a quiet Presbyterian peace-maker who specialized in conflict resolution. I was certain that her skills would be put to good use this year.
So what happened? Well, nothing to my surprise. Nothing except everyone working together to help refugee kids. Nothing except this Church of Christ pastor being completely comfortable with our site supervisor and forming a good relationship with her. Nothing except our site supervisor being completely comfortable working with the Church of Christ pastor. Nothing except the Church of Christ pastor assigning us a book written by a Unitarian Universalist Buddhist, and thinking that was cool. Nothing except me learning that his church is a pioneer in its thoughtful theological decision to ordain women into ministry. Nothing except me learning to let go of religious and personal stereotypes in order to see how God makes all of us whole, no matter what our particular identities.
And it was when those religious stereotypes - the "progressive" vs. the "conservative" - began cracking, that I was allowed the opportunity to breath more easily and begin to see myself as a Christian, walking my own path, as best I can, in the footsteps of Christ.