Claremont creates United Methodist leaders with ‘God-sized vision’
It’s not just the sunny southern California forecast that attracts students to United Methodist-affiliated Claremont School of Theology. Set in one of the most religiously-diverse communities in the world, future United Methodist leaders say it is the school’s focus on interreligious education that has called them to study there.
With cross-registration agreements with the University of the West, a Buddhist institution, the Academy for Jewish Religion, and Bayan Claremont, a Muslim graduate school, students of all traditions interact on a daily basis in the classroom, in chapel and during social activities.
Students say a campus that mirrors the diversity of society not only prepares them for effective leadership, it also strengthens their personal faith as United Methodists.
As the son of two United Methodist elders, Master of Divinity student Juan Garay has spent his life in church. “I grew up in the pews, and ministry was not very appealing to me,” he said. “It was too rigid and I had problems understanding God’s grace. However, when I got married, I received a calling from God that I couldn’t deny, but I felt like God was calling me to raise a different kind of church.”
For Garay, that means planting a multicultural, multiracial and multilingual church in the heart of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
“Claremont is preparing me to be a Christian leader in a city that’s segregated by boundaries and lines that have been drawn,” said Garay. “My education and experiences can help me find healthier ways to re-engage in conversations where lines have been drawn. After all, that’s exactly what Jesus did.”
Claremont School of Theology president Dr. Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan says that interreligious engagement is no longer a choice. “It is a reality for the world in which we live,” he said. “Communities of faith are now wrestling with theological and practical questions of what it means to live, work and raise families beside people who claim traditions and beliefs that differ from their own. It is critical that religious leaders, both ordained and lay people, are capable of helping families and communities navigate their way through those challenging questions.”
Ph.D. candidate Christopher Carter anticipates his education at Claremont will enable him to do just that. Carter feels called to use his degree teaching at a seminary. “I want to teach students to analyze and address ethical issues that are more reflective of their faith and the globalized world we live in,” he said. “They’re the issues that confronted me as a pastor and the issues that confront others. Sociologists refer to what’s happening as the browning of America. A shift is taking place in America and some of our clergy might not be ready for what’s happening. So, I want to take that knowledge to them so that our denomination can thrive in the future.”
One way in which Claremont prepares students for a successful future is by developing their peacemaking skills. Dr. Najeeba Syeed-Miller, assistant professor of interreligious education, is a trained mediator and peacemaker. In the peace education course she is teaching this semester, students learn skills in their own context. “Interfaith engagement strengthens their own identity so they have the skills to discuss what it means to be United Methodist,” she said. “They can explain and encourage others if they are engaged in an interreligious service project or social justice project in the community. If they have peacemaking skills, they can better leverage resources because they have a sense of being better negotiators.”
Not only that, students and even professors say that interreligious curriculum empowers them to better explain their own beliefs to others. Dr. Helene Slessarev-Jamir, Claremont’s Mildred M. Hutchinson professor of urban ministries said, “It enables me to think more broadly and find elements in other traditions that might help me reconcile my own.”
Juan Garay agrees, “The United Methodist mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I believe wholeheartedly that in order to transform the world, our view has to go beyond our own scope of what we believe the world is. If my view of the world is really small, the kind of transformation I’m going to be able to effect is also going to be really small. These aren’t times for small thinking. As religious leaders, we have to have God-sized vision.”
*Bannon is a public relations specialist at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn. Media contact is Natalie Bannon at 615-742-5413.