Reflections from President R. Guy Erwin

Reflections from President Erwin
February 4, 2022

Week of Epiphany 4

Dear ULS Community:

The last two weeks have been extremely busy ones for me, though more in the sense that there is much to work on than in the sense that I have been doing new and interesting things. Because the pandemic has made us tentative in our plans, there are many things in the works this spring that we are not as far along in planning as we would be in a normal year—the uncertainty of the virus’s spread has made us cautious and slow to commit.

But there is a lot to look forward to, and I can see an end in sight: I expect we will lift the discouraging of in-person classes and meetings soon (likely by the end of February), and we are moving forward with planning events beyond that. We’ll make formal announcement by mid-February, but (with a couple of exceptions) I see us easing back into careful in-person gathering by March. That’s just the way things are going. But no one will be required to be back in person unless it is necessary, and I expect at this point many classes will simply continue online because they’re used to it. We’re experimenting with a small visit by some ELCA Region 7 & 8 bishops to the Gettysburg campus in mid-February, where we will do extra COVID rapid testing to help assure everybody’s safety. We are all ready to loosen the restrictions and restore at least some bit of normalcy.

Further out, we are planning for hybrid Spring Convocation in Gettysburg and in-person Commencement in Lancaster. That’s exciting, and there will be more announcements to come. I can’t wait to experience my first in-person ULS Commencement! I hope we’ll see a few folks from our wider community there as well, and at Spring Convocation. The omicron variant was scary, but I’m glad it’s on the wane now.

Much more significant in the longer term is our ongoing focus on antiracism and our efforts to educate ourselves at ULS toward a deeper understanding of the injustices racism perpetuates in our society and in our midst. The ULS faculty will move forward in this semester to read and discuss two more relevant books (it read two others together last year) and we may try to widen that specific conversation to the broader ULS community—especially if the author of one of the books can join us for discussion. We’re also going to be engaging as a community with the ELCA’s recently-adopted Strategy Toward an Authentic Diversity, (PDF) and I expect we will start with an online (or hybrid) symposium this spring. Though this is only one denomination’s approach, we will try to bring in perspectives also from other churches—since all of us in the United States are wrestling with the same thing.

Black History Month is an opportunity for all of us to deepen our own knowledge on the question of race in America. Rob and I have been working on a stack of books—actually, we first began reading them in an intentional way while the protests in Ferguson were happening, and we’re basically never stopped reading. The books go back and forth between our respective nightstands until we’ve both read them and talked about them. The latest ones I’ve finished are How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith and On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed, and I am working on The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones right now. If God Still Breathes, Why Can’t I? by Angela Parker is on deck and ready in the stack. Each has something valuable to say to us about the African American experience and our shared history.

We’ve also been enjoying Black History, Freedom, and Love on MasterClass on television—it brings together wonderfully diverse (and important) African American thought leaders to teach and discuss, and it’s wonderful. I especially enjoy seeing Cornel West on it—our paths have crossed many times and I’ve always liked talking with him. I just wish it were more widely available—there’s a Black History Month special on Amazon Prime that we’re using to watch it right now. Black History, like Native History, is simply American History, and learning about it is for me and should be for all of us a year-round project, I think.

One of the important (but not often touted) benefits—even purposes—of education, I believe, is to sow the right kinds of doubt. Even theological education does not exist simply to inculcate assurances about certainties, but to cause us to question assumptions, suspect biases, critique objectivity, and be honest about the limits of human knowing. What is even harder is to bring these critical tools as much to bear on our own knowledge as on the ideas of others. Humility, modesty, and open mindedness should help us be careful in judgment and slow to condemn.

This is the spirit in which I believe we should approach the study and analysis of our own collective history, and in reassessing the myths and assumptions about American history that have long centered the experience of privileged groups and ignored those not in the mainstream. I’m convinced that without some common understanding how our current American situation came about, and an honest facing of the realities of dispossession, depopulation, and chattel slavery based on race as factors in American wealth and power, we will never be able to address the depths of injustice and trauma that exist among our people now.

What does this have to do with theology and preparing leaders for the church? A great deal. First, our theological suppositions are not—just because we trust the Spirit for genuine faith—free from our biases and limitations. At least in Lutheran anthropology (which I believe is borne out in human experience), while we live we never lose the imperfection and limitation of our human reality. Knowing that obligates us to continual learning and renewal. While we live, our understanding is never finished but is always evolving and changing. The education our Seminary provides should equip our graduates for lifelong growth in both faith and understanding.

Second, all of us who serve the church in its contemporary American reality are part of the wide national struggle to truly understand all our fellow humans—across all the lines of race and class, gender, and sexual identity—as fully equal to us in God’s sight and fully possessing God’s love. We must learn—and help others to learn—to resist manipulation by those who profit from our fear and gain power from dividing us into warring camps. To be equipped for this struggle, our students need both to possess the critical tools and the confidence to use them, so that they can help build communities of faith committed to loving their neighbors as themselves.

Even as the cold and gloom of our post-Groundhog-Day winter lingers on, I see glimmers of hope in the world around me: in our ULS community’s commitment to engage lovingly in difficult conversations, in the dedication of faculty and students to their studies, and to the loyalty and dedication of our staff. You, and our wider circle of friends, are part of this too, and I hope you know that your support and prayers on our behalf are welcome and deeply felt.

Yours faithfully,

R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.

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