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SERV: From Random Acts of Kindness to Strategic Engagement for Social Justice

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15 Question for Seminaries and Seminarians to Ask and Answer

In 1965, violence broke out as civil rights activists marching toward Montgomery tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The day has become known as "Bloody Sunday," and we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s immediate response -- to call on clergy from around the country to walk with him and engage in prophetic witness and stand with him against injustice. Two days later, in what became known as "Turnaround Tuesday," hundreds of clergy marched across the bridge with more than two thousand others, and prayed. On that evening, Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist pastor and a graduate of Princeton Seminary was beaten and killed.

I have a vague memory of dropping off my father -- a Presbyterian minister -- at the airport and seeing my mother cry. Much later, I learned that he had heard Dr. King's call and was headed to Selma to march. It was the same call to serve that summoned religious leaders to speak for civil rights at the national mall 50 years ago last month.

Today, we still hear the call for renewal and commitment. One response is a gathering this weekend of seminary and divinity school students for the SERV Conference. (Seminaries Empowering Revolutionary Vision)

Students from across the country will gather at Princeton Theological Seminary to reclaim and rebuild a seminary student movement that is rooted in service, advocacy, faithfulness, prayer and community.

There are many students who do community service, but these seminarians are calling for more than just random acts of kindness. They are calling for a strategic engagement in social justice, the kind that Dr. King and others religious leaders, including Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle, Eugene Carson Blake, Rabbi Uri Miller and Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke about on the march on Washington 50 years ago.

There are often debates about what is "appropriate service." Questions get asked like: Is there a difference between charity and justice? Is service Band-Aid work or can it bring about systemic change? Is it appropriate to talk about politics and service and why is race important to community service?

As I have witnessed the actions of bold and visionary seminary students, I see them answering these questions with a depth that is inspired and sustained by their faith:

• Charity must be directed by a commitment to justice,

• Prophetic witness and action call for systemic change,

• Changing the world requires political action to shape public policy,

• Diversity is the cornerstone to effective, fulfilling and lasting engagement in the world.

In a service culture where there are often "dos" and "don'ts" and prohibited activities, seminary students have a rulebook that moves beyond guidelines and limited engagement that goes deep into the healing presence of grace, the radical hope of reconciliation and the transformative power of love. There is a need for student engagement that is inspired and instructed by prophetic witness and the Gospel message that calls us to be engaged in the world as we seek to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.

On the SERV website, seminary students call on all current, past and future seminarians to join in on the conversation and the movement forward. There will be as many as 200 students, seminary graduates and potential candidates that attend the SERV conference this weekend. This message is to the thousands who will not attend but who see ministry in its many different expressions as a call to build the beloved community. So I ask that we all ask the questions that we will be asking this weekend and to join the journey that gets charted as we move forward.

Questions for you to ask yourself:
* Although they are directed at current students, these questions can be asked in the past tense ("when you went to seminary ...") or in the future tense ("when you go ... ").

• What social justice issue(s) brought you to seminary?

• How have you continued to engage in the world while in seminary?

• How do you see your gifts, talents and sense of call contributing to the world once you leave school?

• How have you integrated you course work with your engagement with the world?

• When you leave seminary will you have a network of diverse and committed colleagues that will walk with you in your lifetime of ministry?

Questions we ask of each other:
• What are the social issues we are called to address?

• How can seminaries work together?

• What national and international organizations can seminarians partner with?

• How do we collectively write and send a message of love, grace and reconciliation?

• How do Christian groups work ecumenically and in interfaith ways with a deep sense of awareness, sensitivity and commitment?

Questions for our seminaries:
• Are there admissions strategies that seek out individuals who have made significant commitments to service?

• Does the school provide scholarships that recognize engagement in the world and provide financial support for students to pursue their engagement?

• Are service opportunities being financially supported through Field Education, summer internships and part-time jobs that offer ways for student to make deep and sustained commitments to causes and agencies both inside and outside the church?

• Do professors bring the issues of the world into the curriculum and connect intellectual rigor with real world practice?

• Do career placement offices support graduates to pursue ministry in its many forms (including traditional pastoral ministry) but also to work with nonprofits, international NGO's and the public and private sector?

If you find yourself in the area or can get yourself here, come and join in the planning as we ask and answer these questions and craft a blueprint for moving forward.

Answer the questions here and strengthen the cause by including your voice, hands and feet. There are still bridges to cross.