Visions for seminary and beyond

One member of MTSO’s newest class has sung with Stevie Wonder and Sting. Another arrives with a Rutgers law degree. Still another has returned to the church after years away and now seeks ordination as a deacon. Our incoming students bring a wide array of experiences but are linked by a common desire to pursue vocations of real significance. Here are profiles of eight of them, featuring passages from their admissions essays.

Putting faith in action with the MASJ

Austen-Monet McClendon’s insatiable desire to learn more about African and African-American history led her to South Africa, where she student taught as an undergraduate. Additionally, she has spent time in Haiti and Ghana.

“In each country I’ve visited, the devastating effects of the European slave trade of Africans, colonization and neocolonialism are easily felt and observable. There is no part of Africa that the transatlantic slave trade did not affect. African people are dispossessed and suffering all over the world due to the legacy of racial oppression and its many manifestations.”

Looking for a church home after graduating from Goucher College, McClendon discovered Baltimore’s Pleasant Hope Baptist Church. She was drawn to Pleasant Hope’s Orita’s Cross Freedom School, a summer African-centered cultural-enrichment program designed to serve children in communities where quality enrichment programming is limited, too expensive or nonexistent. Working with Pleasant Hope’s pastor, Heber Brown III, McClendon has served as program coordinator for the Freedom School and with the church’s Black Church Food Security Network.

“Joining Pleasant Hope has connected me with dozens of local and national justice organizations and has given me the opportunity to put my faith in action,” she said. “I’m ready to apply the wisdom and knowledge I’ve gained from those experiences as I pursue a Master of Arts in Social Justice at MTSO. If I do nothing else in life, I know I must continue the work begun by my ancestors and take part in the project of liberating the minds of colonized African people to build a better future for coming generations.”

A vocational arc bends toward chaplaincy

Elizabeth Speidel’s Catholic grandparents instilled in her great reverence for the sacraments and a commitment to social justice: “My grandmother explained through deed and word that our role was to be present, to listen and to love.”

Commitment to a life of service led Speidel to Rutgers Law School. After graduating, Speidel built on her family foundation of social justice through legal work focused on foster care, community organizing, food justice, housing discrimination, elder advocacy and health-care rights. A mid-career focus on end-of-life care legislation led her to earn a bioethics certificate and to volunteer with her local hospice association.

While she eventually became disillusioned with the Catholic Church, Speidel found a new church home. In this United Methodist congregation, Speidel “came to understand and experience the significance of my grandparents’ reverence for Holy Communion. That intangible piece had been missing for me in my search for a spiritual home – the understanding and experience of Holy Communion as a spiritual transformation where we are called to be one with God, with love, with each other and in service to the world.”

Speidel believes she has found a way to connect her spiritual upbringing with her passion for bioethics. As this year’s recipient of the Harding Scholarship, she plans to pursue a Master of Divinity degree in preparation for health-care chaplaincy.

“Coming to MTSO and becoming a chaplain provides an opportunity to achieve what I believe is my life’s purpose – to sit with those who are struggling in love and compassion and create space for them to connect with love, with God.”

A passion for serving the marginalized

Much of Eric Stigall’s life has prepared him for MTSO’s MA in Social Justice: “This degree program directly aligns with my passion to serve those who are marginalized in the world around us.”

Working as impact manager for the United Way of Richland County, Stigall’s responsibilities include maintaining partnerships with 18 community nonprofits to fund more than 40 programs, including the American Red Cross disaster relief, Salvation Army food assistance, Harmony House Homeless Shelter and Catalyst Life Services, which offers mental health and addiction crisis services.

“The MA in Social Justice at MTSO,” he said, “will better not only equip me to minister to the partner agencies and the people they serve but will also allow me to have a deeper understanding of social-justice issues on a global level.”

Stigall has seen firsthand the need for compassion with individuals in the midst of crisis. He serves as chaplain for the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, where he is called upon to assist with people experiencing the unexpected death of loved ones. Additionally, he serves as an OhioHealth chaplain with Riverside Methodist Hospital and OhioHealth Mansfield.

He envisions his MTSO degree helping him continue these and other meaningful pursuits “not only in the community of Richland County and surrounding communities but also in the global community where people are marginalized and hurting.”

A sense of belonging in the church

Church walls don’t confine Rae Hamilton’s vision for her ministry. An Alford Scholarship recipient, she will pursue a Master of Divinity degree in pursuit of ordination as a United Methodist deacon.

“I would like to focus on youth and young adult ministry,” Hamilton said. “I feel I am meant to work both in and outside of the church. In the church, I see myself working with youth groups and families. Outside the church, my vision is for a community center that would offer various programs for youth and families, specifically at-risk youth and single parents.”

Finding this clarity has been a years-long journey for Hamilton. After nearly a decade of avoiding the church, which had been an important part of her childhood, she reconnected with a United Methodist congregation when she met her husband.

“I started to feel like I belonged somewhere,” she said. “I still had this issue, however, of not feeling like I was doing what I was meant to be doing with the majority of my time.”

The University of Illinois at Chicago graduate has spent the last 10 years working as a graphic designer.

“I enjoy working in graphic design,” she said, “but it doesn’t help in the way I feel pulled to help. It doesn’t lead people to Christ or help those in need.”

Resisting ministry no more

After being raised United Methodist, Anika-Kafi Summers initially resisted a life in ministry. But a path through several vocations has led her to pursue a Master of Divinity degree.

“Being a preacher’s kid was not always easy,” she said. “Meeting a wide set of family and church family expectations, moving to new locations and transitioning during difficult academic years shaped my life.”

Determined to distance herself, Summers began a short stint in publishing after graduating from college. She then earned a Master of Education degree in higher education and student personnel.

“After a decade in the field and two significant moves and positions with increasing responsibility, I struggled with my purpose as the work had become unfulfilling,” she said.

Summers’ next step was a position creating a statewide kitchen network in Michigan to provide food security: “My goal has been to create an environment where underserved communities have opportunities and resources to create their own success.”

While that work was closer to her desire to serve others, it was her role leading a small Bible discussion group that shaped her call.

“I thought I was only offering hospitality to members of the church community. But soon, I took on actively leading classes. Additionally, I was leading prayers for the group and listening for God’s presence,” she said.

“It was only when I was astute enough to listen quietly; the waters of my life shifted from sandy ground to rock,” she said. “My deep and abiding faith in God allows me to see that I am to be a minister and build community within the church.”

Augmenting a career in nonprofits

Growing up in the small East Texas town of Longview, Kathryn Stephens reflected on the profound impact of “witnessing racism every day. I found myself uncomfortable and fighting for equity as young as 10 years of age,” she said.

A family friend instilled the foundation on which she would base her life and career.

“Bernice taught me that God is good, that we are all created equal, to stand up for those whose voices aren’t heard, to live with purpose and confidence and to act with passion,” Stephens said.

With those lessons echoing in her ear, Stephens has built a dynamic career in several far-reaching and nationally recognized nonprofits in Columbus. Currently, she is working as vice president for development for the Children’s Hunger Alliance, ensuring that the children of Ohio have access to food. Prior to this work, she was the director of philanthropy for Susan G. Komen Columbus. Additionally, she worked for a nonprofit consulting firm where she was able to immerse herself in the work of the 8th Amendment Project, which seeks to end the death penalty.

Having received an MTSO Recognition Award, Stephens is seeking a Master of Arts in Social Justice.

“I’ve known my entire life that I want to make a difference, to change the world,” she said. “I want to deep dive into learning all I can about social justice so I can be an advocate and leader for our community, our state, the world.”

An advocate for good worship planning

Tony Giannamore is steeped in United Methodist tradition, and his wide-ranging ministry interests have the makings of a well-rounded vocation in the church.

Participation in music in high school and at Westerville’s Church of the Messiah led him to pursue a vocal music education degree at Capital University. Feeling called to ordination as an elder in United Methodist Church, he eventually changed courses academically and graduated with BA degrees in both music and religion.

While completing his undergrad degrees, Giannamore served as an intern with the West Ohio Annual Conference and worked with MTSO President Emeritus Ned Dewire in planning and assisting in religious life activities at Lakeside Chautauqua.

His internship included work at Trinity United Methodist Church in Marble Cliff, where he developed an appreciation for worship planning and “the importance of different worship practices and how to make them authentic and passionate.” At the same time, he was drawn to pastoral care and the opportunity to visit senior communities.

Giannamore also has an interest in an area not every pastor relishes: administration. “I would like to be able to learn skills and practices such as money management,” he said.

As he pursues a Master of Divinity degree at MTSO, Giannamore is interested in “forming new theologies that are inclusive and could help those with mental and emotional disorders.” Among areas he has studied is autism spectrum disorder. “I want to be an advocate for addressing developmental disorders in the church and push for programs that will be inclusive for those on the spectrum.”

Feeling the tug of pastoral leadership

Twanna Gause’s circuitous path to MTSO includes a childhood in the Apostolic Pentecostal Church; singing gigs with Stevie Wonder, Sting and Mariah Carey; appearances with Florence and the Machine on Saturday Night Live; and a stint as the wardrobe and wig supervisor for the world-famous Apollo Theater in Harlem.

In the midst of all this, Gause earned a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work from Rutgers University. And still, she feels called to something more.

“My pastoral leadership and counseling inclinations continue to tug at me,” she said.

Having earned an MTSO Scholarship, Gause is seeking a Master of Divinity to continue to serve in the United Church of Christ. Together with her wife, who is senior pastor of Rivers of Living Water Ministries in New Jersey, Gause serves the predominately LGBTQI congregation as pastor of worship and spiritual development.

“My walk has not been an easy one and the questions even harder, but I am waiting in anticipation of what’s next,” she said. “My discernment process to theological education is not theoretical but personal and lived out. My interacting with the world and community has forced me to fully acknowledge my need for higher theological education.”