April 16, 2021
Week of Easter 2
Dear ULS Community:
Christ is risen! Alleluia!
Only a week goes by between these letters, but sometimes when I sit down on Thursday evening to begin one, it seems like it has been more than a week since the last. This is one of those weeks, where a lot of water has gone under the bridge in a short period of time, both locally and in the world at large. I’m grateful for the opportunity that these Reflections give me to process all that happens. This week brought matters great and small, close at hand and far away.
I suppose the first significant thing to happen since my last letter was the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, news of which came tome just as I had set last week’s letter out. In the larger scheme of things it’s perhaps not the biggest news that someone whose life is so remote from mine (and who was so old) should finally and inevitably die, but it hit me harder than I expected. I’m not particularly Anglophilic, though like most English-speaking people, Great Britain does play an outsized role in my cultural awareness. I think my fascination with this, this week, had less to do with anything I might think about Philip as a person than generally about the passage of time, and the place that our own lives hold in the history that unfolds around us.
I’ve never lived in a world where Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth weren’t important public figures. They may have been (after President Kennedy) the first world figures I became aware of as a child. When I talked this over with my 84-year-old mother this week, she felt the same way, and even though she could remember Philip and Elizabeth’s wedding and the queen’s coronation, she too felt like they had just always been there, as times and fashions changed, basically staying the same. We don’t have many touch-points in American life that are so enduring, and maybe something in us—or at least in me—longs for that kind of stability. And maybe it’s just my getting older, and realizing that the span of my own life has become long enough to be a part of “history.” Anyway, it’s a bittersweet feeling, one which older readers will understand well.
The very same day—last Friday—was also the day on which we honored the achievement (and retirement) of our dear colleague Professor Katie Day, with a wonderful symposium on public theology. A group of really eminent scholars presented, and the event was both a worthy tribute and a fascinating learning opportunity in itself. We’ve archived it, in case you still want to watch.
Then, on Monday, the second of our accreditation “site visits” began, this one from a committee from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. You’ll remember that a few weeks ago we had a similar visit from the Association of Theological Schools. These are regular events, but they both represent the first full-blown accreditation reviews for ULS in its consolidated form. And though the bulk of the prep work is done far in advance, it is, frankly, a relief to have these site visits over. Though virtual this time, and compressed in format, they are still a moment of anxiety as we all try to present the seminary accurately and fairly, but also positively.
The outcome of the MSCHE review was very much like that of the previous ATS visit, though with some slight variations in their areas of interest. ULS receives high marks for all it has accomplished in the last three years, in spite of turmoil, transition, and now the pandemic. Both accreditors recognize the challenges, and applaud our progress. But as we ourselves pointed out to them, we are not fully out of the woods yet. Both agencies told us—in slightly different ways—that ULS will need to focus both on keeping careful track of its educational effectiveness through better data on student achievement, and will need to carefully manage its finances and resources to build out a secure long-term future. These two kinds of information—educational assessment and good financial tracking—have only recently begun to be complete and thorough at ULS, and it will take a couple more years before we will have accumulated enough data to make good strategic decisions about our programs. But we know what we have to do, we have been encouraged to carry on with the plans we have made, and we have the people and the skills we need to face the future with confidence. All in all, the outcomes of these reviews have been helpful and hopeful, and I am pleased with them.
I also want to say how much I appreciate and admire the hard work of those who did all the groundwork for the reviews: much of the work fell on Dr. Allison deForest, our director of Institutional Assessment, but many faculty and staff colleagues (and a few students) played important roles. ULS is blessed in the capacity and loyalty of its people, and that was very apparent this week.
I wish I could just leave it at that, but I feel like I have to say something about the lengthening shadow on our nation caused by the repeated deaths of our African American neighbors at the hands of police, most recently the death of Daunte Wright outside of Minneapolis. Coming during the already-tense time of the trial of the police officer accused of the death of George Floyd last year, this new incident opens the wounds further. I come from a family with more than a few law enforcement officers in it; I have worked with police departments and sheriff’s offices as a pastor and bishop, and I know enough to know every case is different—but I also believe that the paradigms of American policing are too much focused on force, violence, and weaponry, and not enough on mental illness, de-escalation, and the protection of life. I also regret that the media focuses more on incidents likely to promote momentary controversy, than on the grinding impacts of racism and poverty which have formed deadly patterns in our systems of justice and law enforcement and created situations in which people of color are automatically assumed to represent a danger.
There’s no easy way out of all this, and we have to look to our history to show us how we have dug these harmful grooves so deeply into society, and look to those around us to understand how dehumanizing these patterns have been to people of color, especially Americans of African descent. I don’t know how we can fix a racism we have spent centuries building up, but I do know that we need to see it for what it is, and repent both of its origins and its effects. And I think we need to listen to learn, to understand, and to repent, and to ultimately to create new patterns for life together in this country. I hope and pray our church and our seminary can help in that effort, and I commit myself to this work.
We have much to do, and much to look forward to, at ULS. We have the people and the resources to do it, and—I believe—also the will to move into our aspirations. Holding fast to the faith that is ours, a faith and a hope that is stronger than death—we grasp the Easter promise of life with all our strength.
Be well; get vaccinated; and rejoice in the glory of the Risen One, Jesus Christ! May God bless you and keep you safe.
Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary