Letter from the Dean

By Gregory E. Sterling

I am not a superstitious person, but Friday, March 13th, 2020, haunts me. At two o’clock that afternoon, I met with all of the Divinity School staff to announce that we were going to move the entire Divinity School into a virtual format: classes and operations. We had been moving in that direction for a week and had preparations underway, but this made it official. I closed by reciting the 23rd Psalm, a text that means a great deal to me personally and to millions of others.

That evening around six, I walked the halls of the Divinity School wondering when the vibrant sounds of life would return; it is an event that is chiseled in stone within my memory banks. I was alone in the School, and the solitude of that moment would be repeated in the lives of millions across our globe for two years.

None of us could anticipate all that would unfold in the next two years. The pale rider would visit one million Americans and more than six million people around the world—an estimate that I am confident is far too low. No one was exempt: faculty, staff, and students of the Divinity School all lost family members. We lost them without being able to be present with them and offer a goodbye touch and prayer. Our economy roiled, initially plunging into a freefall and then coming back, but not without cost: many lost jobs—including members of our families. The economic gap between the privileged and the unprivileged grew into a chasm that defies moral sensibilities. Political tensions grew to a fevered pitch bringing about events that I never expected to witness in this country. I confess that I still find it incomprehensible that some politicians defend the Capitol insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021. When George Floyd was murdered by a police officer, it sent our country into justifiable convulsions that reminded me of the Sixties. During the same period, Mother Nature reminded us of our sins in polluting our world through a series of catastrophic meteorological events that are only a portent of what is to come. If all this were not enough, the world’s most powerful dictator decided to invade a European neighbor with naked brutality, sans any concern for human life or principles other than power. The longer and more protracted the war becomes, the greater the likelihood that the unthinkable will become thinkable for an amoral leader.

These circumstances have had a profound impact on all of us. The younger generation has felt this keenly. The mental health of teenagers is at all-time low. This is also true for their older siblings: at YDS, we have had more serious cases of mental health in the last two years than in any previous stretch of time. For this reason, it is particularly important to read the articles written by recent graduates and current students in this issue: Sophy Driscoll Gamber writes eloquently about how she faces potential disasters by refusing to give up dreaming of the future; I’noli Hall reminds us of the disparities between ethnic groups posed by the pandemic; and Amina Shumake offers a powerful statement about how she faces the pandemic through her faith in God. The authors are not naïve about the problems we face, but remain resolute in finding ways to address them. It is critical for all of us to listen to them, as Jere Wells reminds us in his essay.

Churches have not escaped the fallout of the pandemic and the accompanying events. A PEW poll from March 2022 relates that 43 percent of Americans say that their house of worship is now offering in-person services and another 47 percent report that their places of worship are open, but with modifications due to the pandemic. Attendance varies: 27 percent report that they have attended a worship service in-person over the preceding month, 30 percent indicate that they have watched a service online, and 43 percent note that they have done one or the other or both. At the same time, these numbers vary significantly across traditions within Christianity. Among those who report that they have attended an in-person service over the last month the numbers range from 75 percent of evangelicals, 69 percent of Catholics, 68 percent of mainline Protestants, and—surprisingly—only 48 percent of Black Protestants. 

The bottom line is that we do not yet know the lasting impact of the pandemic on churches other than to say that the future will be different from the past.  We all need to learn to respond to the needs of people in the endemic—if we are past the pandemic—and to the world of dual forms of worship. I do not think that this means that Christianity is on the brink of extinction or that churches will cease to exist. Some individual congregations and perhaps even whole church bodies will disappear or become transformed. Yet, the circumstances described above mean that people will be searching for a power that is greater than a pandemic, economic inequities, racism, environmental devastation, and nuclear weapons—as Cheryl Cornish reminds us. People also want community: they want to be with other people after so much isolation. We must learn how to present God and the story of the cross in ways that resonate with people who have been changed by these circumstances. The essays of Jessica Anschutz and Stephen Blackmer point to two specific options.

As I think about the Divinity School and its future, three principles govern my own thinking. Every challenge is an opportunity: it is an occasion to think afresh about our mission and our modus operandi. We cannot be afraid to fail: we must have the courage to try different things than we have in the past and not to give up when something does not work. Finally, I return to Psalm 23: the LORD is my shepherd and my host. The LORD will be with us—however bleak things may become—and ultimately be our host. We will find out whether we are people of faith.

Gregory E. Sterling is The Reverend Henry L. Slack Dean and Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament at Yale Divinity School.