Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

First Day of School– Glimpses from Berkeley’s Pacific School of Religion from a middle-aged UU minister


Monday, first day of the week of new student orientation

Leave my hosts’ home at 7:20 AM and walk in the cool blowing fog from the Berkeley hills down to Holy Hill, where 9 seminaries sit just above the U of California campus Arrive D’Autremont dining hall at 8:00 AM. A 2nd year student organizer of the orientation welcomes me, tells me to help myself to buffet in other room, mentions eggs, French toast.  I go to the room, look at the steam tables, get oatmeal and yogurt, cantaloupe, pineapple, rice.  Skip the grits and the many slices of bacon and sausages.  Check under other steel lids—only hot water.  Must not have the eggs ready yet.  Eat wholesome food, chat with tall young white man from Wisconsin, Brown U. grad,  UCC preacher’s kid, African American mother of 19 year old son, moved here from Detroit with partner (a therapist), is pursuing Metropolitan Community Church ordination.

Chat with two other middle aged white women and a gregarious 2nd year man from the Episcopal seminary.  I see people with scrambled eggs.  I see someone come out of the kitchen with eggs.  Go in, learn that you write your order on a slip and they cook it:  pancakes or French toast, white or wheat; eggs any style, omelette with many choices, tofu scramble.  Get two eggs over medium, telling myself I can have pancakes tomorrow.

Chef Andy calls out the order or person’s name when it’s up, but I go back to table and come back much later.  Grab my plate, add some hash browns.  Stop, remember to call out “thank you,” and hear “you’re welcome.”  At the table, I ask:  “Is it like this all the time here?  You can just order what you want? No extra charge?”  Yes.  What took me so long to come here!

UU colleague Sarah M. S., also a D. Min. student, shows up late.  Lovely, gifted and gracious young mother.  I come up to her and call out:  “Hello, new girl at school!”  We hug. Younger kid is 6, starts kindergarten Wednesday, but has fever of 103 today.  So mom won’t be here much this week.  Her focus:  ministry and authority.   Mine:  religious education and UU leadership development in non-western and poor contexts.


Only 6 or 7 D. Min. students like me and I have met only 1, plus Sarah.  Most new students are M. Div.—starting out to pursue the career of ministry.  Some are M.A. (Ph. D. students go through the consortium, the Graduate Theological Union.) Different denominations here, a few of them UU.  Total entering class 56; goal was 60.

Opening worship is lovely:  nice songs, nice welcomes from staff, administration.  Scripture readings:  Genesis, when God tells Abraham to pick up and move.  Walt Whitman, from UU hymnal readings:  “Song of the Open Road.” Testimonies from two 2nd year students:  Black woman raised by atheist & agnostic parents, has visited Buddhist & earth-based spirituality & Christianity, yet to choose a denomination.  Latino man, raised Catholic, gay with two sons.  Spoke of the support that is available from students, faculty staff.  Prayers of the people called out.  I remember young woman:  “The homeless teenagers at the agency in LA that  I left behind to come here.”

We hear the words of Unitarian Christian Albert Schweitzer:  “At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”  Invitation to come up and light a candle and call out the name of someone for whom we are thankful and without whom we would not be here. (Again, this is aimed at those who are starting to pursue ministry in the M. Div. program more than us in the D. Min. program.)  I light a candle and thank my senior colleague, Doug, for his generosity, flexibility and some degree of anxiety in supporting me as I take time away from church to pursue this.  Admissions staffer/minister JoEllyn gives us the benediction:  Be not afraid.  (I’m not.  I didn’t pick up and move across the country or quit a lucrative career or uproot a family.)


Move over to Ecumenical Center, a church between Starr King School and PSR that houses many offices and a large sanctuary rented to a Unity church.  All GTU entering students are there to learn about registration, online and IT support, finances, etc.  Crowd includes nuns, Dominican brothers in long white habits, people from Asia, USA, Africa, Tonga, etc.  Boring but helpful stuff.


Going to lunch I meet a UU M. Div. student from the Oakland church.  Has child, 2, and husband who is tech engineer and music producer.  She is a  young lawyer who works for a state regulatory agency.  Part-time student.  Enrolled in Intro to New Testament and Spiritual Disciplines for Religious Leaders.  I tell her the reading load for New Testament isn’t bad and she might take a third course.  I love being Mr. Advice Giver.


At lunch table is African man entering the Jesuit school, white woman from Religious Science and white woman entering Episcopal school’s M. Div. program; she works in forensic psychology at Napa State Mental Hospital.  Another M. Div. student , young woman, will drive here 2 days a week from Modesto.


After lunch I go to the GTU library and find an empty study carrel to lay down my head for a nap.  Then back to chapel for a session on community building, words from the school’s president, and an ice breaker exercise.  We’re broken into small groups and have 90 minutes together to get to know one another.  A woman with grown kids and a former career who never pursued ministry because she was Catholic.  Then went to Methodist church and was asked to give a lay sermon, and the light bulb went on.  Two young women, one a Christian only since 2006.  Young man born in Philippines, grew up in California.  Our facilitator is former university professor of cultural anthropology and sexuality, now 2nd year M. Div. student.  Gay man, raised atheist in Holland.  Attended LGBT City of Refuge church in SF, let by charismatic Black woman pastor.  Became a Christian and now pursuing ministry.  Solid, eloquent, gentle, and smart.  Amazing depth of talent and soul in the students I am meeting at this place.  Restores my hope in mainline Protestantism.


We take a tour of campus.  He points out Starr King School for the Ministry, notes it is UU, nods to me.  I restrain myself telling them all about the Rev. Thomas Starr King but do mention that there is an Islamic studies program at the school.  (I got my M. Div. in Chicago, at the other UU seminary.)


At dinner I meet a young Black man, an activist from Oakland who is the head of security at a large hospital, and an even younger one who moved here from Houston to pursue ministry.  I get my dessert and go sit by a young white guy eating alone.  He’s a Ph. D. student in Hebrew Scriptures, got his M. A. in Virginia, is Presbyterian.  I get to brag about the Hebrew Bible prof I had at the University of Chicago when I was in seminary.  Otherwise I feel quite ignorant.  Counting courses, comprehensive exams and dissertation, his program will be 7 years long.  Good thing he’s young!


Ice cream social after dinner and then a meet-the-faculty session.  I greet the president, who remembers me from a lunch for prospective students back in January.  I meet his wife, who is a sign language interpreter for the police and court systems.


Fourteen of their 16 professors are here, a very diverse group in terms of age, ethnicity, national background, denominational experience, and research interests.  Preaching, pastoral care, Christian ethics, spirituality and leadership, arts, Hebrew Bible and archeology, New Testament, church history, religious education (this prof is a Korean immigrant and she’s my advisor), American spiritual studies, sexuality studies, and on and on.  Very easy-going and hospitable group.


Spirituality professor says: Spiritual practice can prevent “compassion burnout” and provide a deep anchor point.  But he unexamined spiritual practice is vulnerable to manipulation.  History professor invites us to “hang out with the ancestors”—it can put some ground under your feet.  RE professor teaches pop culture and theology, notes that many younger adults have never been to a church building and they have developed their spirituality through pop culture.  We need to understand and engage with that.  Pastoral theology professor specializes in gender and sexuality as well as psychology and cults.  About the resistance and battles over sexuality in the Mainline churches, he says that much of this strife may reflect that theological education hasn’t done a good job preparing religious leaders for dealing with sexuality in the church.

Hebrew Bible and archaeology professor says that part of archaeology is to give voice to the voiceless of ancient times, because 95% of the population were not represented in scriptures, the production of which was controlled by the elites of society.  (And yet, I realize, those radial social prophets still got included!)

Professor in the Swedenborgian House of Studies (and endowed program) has a lit and American studies background.  Swedenborg’s name “appears all over progressive 19th century politics, religion, culture.”  Has  a book project on “the emergence of a viable American environmentalism” and he mentioned our guys Thoreau and Emerson.  He’s also teaching a seminar on the recent and continuing “God debate” in popular culture.  Most respondents to the “new atheists” have been literary writers.

Another prof in the Swedenborgian House of Studies says that “the center and depth of the different traditions is when they ‘walk the walk’ [of social justice and service] together.”  He also teaches the spirituality of Protestant mysticism, which the Reformation (started late 1500s) tried to squeeze out of religion.   He’s also interested in “sport in culture,” an says that 1/3 of media attention is devoted to sports and sports is the 7th largest industry.  “Sports is used as a spiritual practice by many. But it’s also used sociologically to oppress people,” in particular people of color, women, and those of minority sexual orientations.”

The arts professor is Bulgarian.  Says her first name means small drops of morning dew.  “Many Americans find it beautiful.  I don’t.”  Loves Byzantine art.   Is planning a multicultural course:  “to see as others see.”


Finally, the dean says:  Our primary goal is that we want you to … learn how to learn.



I wanted to take a class with almost all of them.

But I’ve got a job back home! I walked 40 minutes back to my friends’ home after a full 12 hour day.  Bed time!




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