April 30, 2021
Week of Easter 4
Dear ULS Community:
Christ is risen! Alleluia!
From my personal perspective, this has been a momentous week; from the perspective of ULS, it has also been very important, and the focus of the last few days will continue to unfold in the weeks to come. From the perspective of the academic calendar, we now head into the home stretch of the spring semester and move inexorably toward Commencement. I have even started signing diplomas, which is a physical emblem of the hope to come.
The personal matter of moment for me this week is that both Rob and I got our second doses of the Moderna vaccine—I got mine last Tuesday, Rob gets his later today—and that is very happy news for both of us personally, and fills us with gratitude to God for the gifts of science that have made this step toward the containment of the pandemic possible. I felt moderate but still somewhat debilitating side-effects the two days that followed my shot (chills, low fever, fatigue, and body aches) and primarily in the second half of each day—I’d wake up each morning feeling fairly good and then shut down halfway through the day.
But I feel clearer each day, and I think I am ready to take over the caregiver role this weekend if Rob has similar experiences following his vaccination today. And we will both be so glad to have put this behind us—even though the pandemic is far from over, even for us, we will have done all we can to reduce our own risk and the risk we could bring to others, and will enter into a freer (though still cautious) phase of life in a world still full of illness and contagion.
But it’s been the coverage of the pandemic in India that has really tempered our joy in the vaccination. To see so many thousands crowding overflowing hospitals, and to hear of the shortage of oxygen that is killing so many is just horrifying. Even though other countries have had earlier crisis waves of infection, particularly in Latin America, this new crisis in India seems larger and even more out of control. Everything that happens in India seems to be on a larger scale than anywhere else, and of course it is in the best of times a vast and complex, diverse, advanced and yet stratified country, divided by languages, politics, and religion. I pray for India, and for our friends of Indian origin and descent and their families, and I wonder how we can help in this moment. I have investigated the price of oxygen condensers to think about sending one to somebody—anybody!—but the logistics of international delivery are themselves worsened by the pandemic, and the solutions natural to me in my American consumer bubble are not ones that carry over globally in a time of crisis. But I am gratified that the US government seems committed to helping as it can.
At ULS, we still move forward on a number of fronts: we continued to advance our agenda of engaging the ULS community in anti-racist education and training, particularly in the ways best suited to an educational community: availing ourselves of opportunities to listen and learn. On Monday of this week we held a focused symposium on the ways Christians live our their faith by working to reduce the impact of racism and prejudice in our communities and even in our hearts; this was just one of several (and ongoing) ways we will come at this issue and its corollary: how we promote an authentic diversity and promote inclusion. The faculty has established its own track for anti-racism and inclusion work; the fall will bring a new way for all of us (but especially students) to do their own anti-racism work. The Board of Trustees shares my commitment to this work and will continue its own efforts in that regard.
Our approach to the challenge of diversity and equity has been to try a lot of things, in a quiet but determined way, and to open as many kinds of conversation as we can—and then to learn from that what methods have the greatest positive effect among us. I don’t think there’s any one strategy or format that can reach everyone with the same impact—nor is there any two-dose vaccination against racism or homophobia—but instead we have to find means to engage these topics constructively, often, and in varied ways—and for as long as necessary. The gradual lifting of the pandemic will make the interactions and programs much more satisfying, I believe, but we have not waited for that.
Another manifestation of our commitment to diversity and inclusion has been manifest in the search process for two new faculty members: a position in public theology and one in systematic theology. In order that we uphold our commitment to increasing our faculty’s diversity (and as is appropriate for a small institution), we are using a single search committee to carry out both searches simultaneously, and this week and next we have been meeting finalists for the two positions by Zoom. I am enormously encouraged by the people the committee has brought for us to meet, and it is my strong hope that I may have two names to take to the Board of Trustees for approval in a few weeks. That would be truly good news. Everyone I have seen thus far (and I meet them all) has been not only well-qualified, but would add a needed diversity to our faculty. This is very encouraging to me.
We are doing well in regard to enrollment for next fall, though it’s too early to tell precisely: there is always a long period between offers of admission and actual enrollment, in which prospective students weigh their options. But we are working hard to keep our numbers steady, and I am confident we will. There is still pandemic uncertainty out there for many people, and though we know that if conditions allow, we will offer in-person (as well as virtual) instruction in the fall, not everyone is ready to commit to a program of study while the pandemic is still creating uncertainty. One thing that does seem clear is that the number of on-campus students will hold steady but is not likely to grow on either campus next year. We will be putting some strategic thinking in the coming year into what is necessary to sustain an on-campus student presence on our two campuses, and how to promote that without dividing us unnecessarily into two (or three) student bodies. The pandemic has really pushed the “pause” button on a great deal of our planning, but it has also given us some time to think.
I visited this week the prospective site of the fall inauguration festivities we plan to hold in mid-October, St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Lancaster. It will be familiar to some as the location of the first two ULS in-person Commencements. In that, too, we are hoping for the best, but planning for all pandemic eventualities. I am just sorry that we can’t have Commencement there this year as well. But next year, I know, will be different. And I am having my first face-to-face lunch meeting with some generous friends of the seminary today and in the weeks ahead—a first foray back into in-person cultivation of our donor base. This vaccination week is slowly opening the doors again, and I have a whole set of people and places to visit this fall, that are being scheduled in the next few weeks to take place through the summer and beyond.
Rob and I are in Gettysburg this week, and enjoying the beautiful spring. One has a stronger sense of connectedness to the land out here in this less-populous area, and it gratifies my Native sense of rootedness in nature to see even cultivated farmland burst forth with life. I hope that we can find new ways to use this campus, in particular, as a place for all of our students (but especially our urban and suburban ones) to find a deeper connection to the Spirit of God one can perceive in the glory of nature. As one of the church’s duties going forward will be promoting the importance of creation care as part of our faith commitment, this verdant campus can help us cultivate that commitment as an intrinsic aspect of our call to justice for all those—and those things—that God has made. This Sunday’s gospel lesson, in which Jesus compares himself to a grapevine, is a good example of the richness of natural imagery in our faith. Last week’s gospel about sheep and shepherds, also, is much more powerful if one understands its context. I get a strong sense of that here in Gettysburg, with agriculture all around me.
Likewise, the diversity and complexity of the urban environment in Philadelphia is a gift to our entire ULS community. It’s going to be challenging, after 18 months in our own homes at our own computers, to re-engage in in-person community life. The introverts among us may find this very hard; the extroverts may be frustrated already and we may move too slowly for them; but together we can figure this out as we get reacquainted with each other and with our two remarkable campuses.
Being together physically is of course especially close to my heart, because it will mean a time when I can finally feel more connected to all of you! I hope that by September we have a good plan for life together in a post-pandemic world. It’s not all going to be the same as it was, but to be honest, there are parts of that I have forgotten already. We can keep the good and try to replace that which wasn’t so good about the way things were at ULS.
Be well; be kind to one another; join me in getting vaccinated as you can; and live and rejoice in the Easter glory of Jesus Christ!
Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary