April 23, 2021
Week of Easter 3

Dear ULS Community:

Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Last week I complained mildly that it seemed like two weeks had gone by instead of one since my last letter; this week it seems like I wrote the last one yesterday! I’m not sure which I prefer—I don’t mind being busy—but it does feel a little more stressful when the days just race by—my sense of the finiteness of (my) time grows stronger as I grow older.

The main reason for this having been a quick week was that so much—and so many different things—happened within it. If I review that with you briefly, you’ll see how many things we do at ULS, and how packed each semester is. First let me “put a pin” in the calendar and show you where we are: it is only really three weeks from the end of the spring semester and the academic year. Suddenly the end is in sight and drawing close! So one of the things that we talked about this week was Commencement, and all the things that remain to be done before we celebrate on May 21.

This year’s Commencement events, again, will be virtual, and a mix of live and recorded elements. As usual, we will have an end-of-year worship service of Farewell and Godspeed for our graduating students, at which I will preach. Our Commencement service itself will be recorded, but will be more “traditional” than last year’s in many ways, and all our graduates will be honored by name. We’ll also have a short Commencement address by one of our distinguished honorary degree recipients. There will also be a third, entirely “live” but still virtual event at which our graduates can be together with the faculty and their friends and greet one another and wish each other well. We’re working on the details, and the community will receive announcements as we go along. I am very excited about this—last year I watched the Commencement videos as I thought about what it would mean to come to ULS as president, and thought about the joy that we would feel when we were finally able to celebrate together again. I’m sorry this Commencement will not be that opportunity, but we still have things to look forward to in the fall. And we have not forgotten the Class of 2020, who will be remembered also in this virtual Commencement, and for whom (when we can finally do this together again) we’ll plan some other opportunity to return in person to be recognized, most likely in spring of 2022.

The pandemic that has brought us to this point is beginning to seem more manageable, even though in the short term there have been spikes in the infection and death rates in Pennsylvania generally and in both of the counties where our physical campuses are located. Our emergency preparedness task force will be meeting soon to set out a plan for the summer and fall, but we can’t really predict all the variables. Just know that it is what I am calling “our fond hope” that we will be able to offer in-person instruction as well as online instruction in the fall semester. The details will have to wait, and we are concerned to accommodate people of varying vaccination status and levels of comfort with in-person gatherings. What falls between now and September it is still safest to assume will remain all-virtual. But we will have a plan in place by June 1, and possibly a bit sooner. This is not an official announcement but a personal assurance from me.

On Monday we’re having a “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” symposium set up by our DEI director and HR VP Ed Henry, and dedicated to the memory of the late Michael Reid, our director of Public Safety. It involves voices from on campus and off, and will be very interesting. Mr. Henry himself remains on family medical leave at least through April, but I am grateful for the advance work that was done on this project. A link to the event is here—keep in mind that this is just one component of our work, and is intended to plant ideas we will develop more fully in the days to come.

Together with the work of the on-campus Diversity Task Force and the work done by other segments of the ULS community, especially the faculty, we have gone a long way toward addressing the concerns raised at the beginning of the academic year about ULS’s anti-racism work. We still have much to do, but we are moving forward. I’m committed also to lifting up our work on the “inclusion” end of the spectrum, especially in regard to the LGBTQIA+ community, and that is a part of our work as well. I want to commend all those who have been engaged together in these efforts, and ask for them to keep on this ongoing task as we enter a new academic year. Anti-racism work and the promotion of inclusion are not the effort of a season, but a commitment to our ongoing life together.

Another aspect of that work is our effort to diversify the faculty and staff. I remain committed to recruiting staff who reflect the diversity of our wider community, and the search process for two new faculty members that comes to a decisive point in the next weeks will, I believe, also lead to an outcome that will help us in that regard. For the sake of confidentiality I will not say more, but the pool of candidates is promising and very gratifying to me. Presentations by the candidates to the campus community begin today. With God’s help, I may have names of two prospective new faculty colleagues to take to the Board of Trustees meeting next month. That excites me very much.

Somehow the arrival of spring, punctuated as it still is by days of surprising cold, seems to me to reveal a world opening up again to new life and a day beyond the pandemic. I can’t resist a feeling of optimism and of anticipation. Even as we still live within pandemic protocols, I sense that behind the weariness with Zoom and virtual events there lies a deep hope and longing for connection, and a real hope that as vaccination levels rise we will be able to be together again soon.

Even the two big virtual events we held this week for our wider ULS community—the ULS Spring Convocation and the Preaching Perspectives online class—were both filled with that spirit of anticipation and hope. I want to thank the three colleagues who led us through those events, Drs. Hall and Schiefelbein-Guerrero for the Convocation, and Dr. Carlson for the Preaching Perspectives, for the tone they set and the quality of the material they presented. For those of us who were able to be there, they will not soon be forgotten. For those who were not, both will be archived soon on the ULS YouTube channel.

Such good things the next few weeks will bring! I grow more hopeful by the day that our long pent-up need for a sense of togetherness will soon find some satisfaction—if only gradually and in phases. But I think it is important, even as we continue to face restrictions, to speak out our hopes at least as often as we mutter our frustrations. We can’t make the pandemic go away by being sick and tired of it—great as the temptation is, just to declare an end to it—for to put it behind us too quickly is very unwise. My resolution is to couple every frustration with a hope, and to try to keep my mind stayed on the hope to come. I invite you to join me in trying to do that.

One day—and I hope soon—we can look back on the year past and take some pride in how well we managed to get through together: how smoothly ULS continued to run; how many of our goals we continued to advance; and how we came out of all this in a better place, and with greater solidarity and unity than before. That is my hope, and I believe we can do it.

Please be well; get vaccinated as you are able; and continue to rejoice in the Easter joy of the Risen One—our health and our hope—Jesus Christ!

Yours faithfully,

Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary

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