I might be the first Buddhist program director at a Christian seminary.
After I wrote an article in 2016 about Black Lives Matter and Buddhism in “Lion’s Roar” — a magazine about mindfulness — two women leaders at United Theological Seminary (UTS) of the Twin Cities contacted me. I was surprised to hear from them. However, as I talked with UTS President Barbara Holmes, who is African-American, and Dean Sharon Tan, who is Malaysian- American, it began to make sense.
Holmes and Tan saw in me the opportunity for UTS to go deeper into inter-religious dialogue. Holmes and Tan were aware that preparing graduates for ministry in a religiously pluralistic society required being equipped to serve non-Christians as well. Today our students come from traditions that are Atheist, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Pagan, Naturalists, Quaker, and Wiccan.
UTS was founded in 1962 during the civil rights movement by the United Church of Christ (UCC) to be the progressive, justice-seeking seminary in the region. It was established with the purpose of not limiting its mission to one theological view. The inclusion of non-Christian professors and administrators in the UTS program is unique. In recent years, UTS has presented to other groups to explain our approach.
It is a strong UTS belief that true inter-religious competency comes when people of different religions study together.
What especially instills me with hope in these times, when female members of Congress are openly attacked by a sitting President, is the cultivation of women-led spiritual leadership. I have been intrigued by spiritual leader Marianne Williamson’s participation in the Presidential debates. First, she had the audacity to step in. Second, she speaks of the need for reconciliation and justice making — not for political gain, but for recovering wholeness for our broken pieces. Third, similar to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Williamson talks about eradicating the causes of our collective suffering. Williamson believes our duty for healing comes from a spiritual plane, and Warren espouses ethical and budgetary perspectives.
Women spiritual leaders remind us that understanding our suffering, and its healing, can be achieved by transcending our differences and remembering that we all belong to the same source. We are all related, and live in the same home — planet Earth in the cosmos — and as such, we live in interdependency for our collective survival.
It has been nearly four years since Holmes and Tan reached out to me. Since then I have had the honor of teaching with an amazing group of women. At UTS, I have experienced a special sister-camaraderie, especially as we hold women who have come to us from communities where they were made invisible and silenced. Together we are able to teach and nurture them into sight and sound. We strengthen each other and prepare students for pro-women, loving, and compassionate leadership. I am very grateful to have been part of a profession that is about women emboldening women.
Pamela Ayo Yetunde, J.D., Th.D., is an assistant professor of pastoral care and counseling at United Theological Seminary in St. Paul. She is conducting research on women, spirituality, and cancer.