A Life Together, by the Grace of God
I was recently asked by a new colleague to reflect on my 30-plus years at YDS: What has changed? What hasn’t changed? What should change? What should never change?
I came to YDS in the Fall of 1980, a year out from college, only just 22, with no idea what to expect. I found a welcoming community, supportive faculty, committed staff, and nearly 400 students, our pasts and our paths as varied as we were.
My years as a YDS student remain among the most formative and transformative of my life. I made lifelong friends, struggled to understand the depths of scripture, gained a new understanding of myself as a child of God, was confronted by difference in many forms, grew in my faith and call to service … and was surrounded by the most difficult conversations of my young life.
They happened in the classroom and after chapel. They took place over meals in the refectory and late nights in the dorms. During Sunday pizza and beer at Naples or Archie’s. Are there theological and biblical “truths”? How do we use language responsibly? What, exactly, does it mean to be faithful? How do we speak about the people of God? Who ARE the people of God? Who gets included at Christ’s table? At the church’s? At YDS’s?
Nearly 40 years later, as I look at today’s YDS, I see much that is different. The dorms are gone, and with them the three community meals per day. The physical surroundings have been renovated. And renovated again. We are much more diverse – in student body, faculty, and curriculum – in part because of these very kinds of conversations.
Much of importance has not changed. As a member of the Admissions committee, I hear each year that one of the things that draws prospective students to YDS after just one visit is that sense of a supportive and committed community of faculty, staff, and nearly 400 students. And it’s a place where difficult conversations continue to happen. And that’s good.
For me, a defining characteristic of YDS – at least in these last 39 years – has been its ability to hold both commonality and difference. Authentically. And in a healthy tension. This, I believe, is what creates and sustains this community. Yes, much at YDS has changed. But whether because of the voices of passionate faculty, students, and staff, or the geography and physicality of the Quad, or a common sense of core values – and most certainly by the grace of God – what endures is this ability to hold difference. And to cultivate conversation, provoke struggle, and impel change.
Not fast enough, some might argue. The conversations now are not all that different from those we had back then: questions about truth, faithfulness, language, inclusion. And about gender, sexuality, race, theology. Exchanges are still provoked by what happens in the classroom, in chapel, gathering spaces, and, undoubtedly, still over pizza and beer.
Was YDS a perfect community 40 years ago? No, I don’t think so. Is it now? Still no. Was it – is it – a dynamic, gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, ground-shaking, beautiful, and life-changing place? Yes, I think so. A community does not need to be devoid of tension to be welcoming; it does not need to be idyllic to be transformative. The tension that comes from the encounter with difference can be a sign of health and a marker of the ability to change and grow. As a YDS friend recently preached: A community’s strength comes from not being perfected.
In his classic Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer cautions against idealized notions of what Christian life together should look like: “God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.”1
If we are fortunate, YDS will continue to be a catalyst and incubator for difficult conversations. Some students and alumni might disagree. I, myself, am not a lover of conflict. Nationally, we have seen in recent years how conflict and disillusionment can rend families, church bodies, even our very democracy. But from what I’ve seen, the years of difficult conversations at YDS have made it stronger, more dynamic, and more relevant. We will always have work to do. But by the grace of God we can continue to love each other through it all.
Lisabeth Huck ’88 M.Div. is Registrar at YDS. She has worked at the School more than 30 years, serving as manager of the YDS Student Book Supply for nearly 20 years before becoming registrar in 2008. She is also on the candidacy committee of the New England Synod of the ELCA, a longtime volunteer at the Connecticut Hospice, and an FAA-certified hot air balloon pilot.
1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (Harper & Row, paperback edition 1976), pp. 26-27.