Inward Spirit, Outward Service

In 2014, Christina Repoley 11T gave the commencement address at her alma mater, Guilford College. This honor might suggest that Repoley is retired after decades of experience in a field where she excelled. In reality, only the last part of that statement is true. At 34, Repoley is far from retired, with hardly a decade of experience under her belt. Yet there is no doubt that she excels in what is not simply her field, but her calling.

When she graduated from Guilford in 2002, she hoped to work with a Quaker service organization, but her search came up empty. Gone were the Quaker work camps of the early 20th century, where young adults took part in domestic and international service programs. "Older Quakers who have lived their lives committed to peace and justice point back to an experience of Quaker service as young adults," Repoley says. "There weren’t those opportunities for my generation." But instead of looking elsewhere, Repoley had a vision. 

Her vision was to build a network of intentional communities where young adults, Quaker and otherwise, could worship with local Quaker congregations and serve with local nonprofits for a year. Repoley refers to this pairing as the integration of the inward and the outward, two elements essential to Quakerism. She was inspired by late 19th century Quaker Rufus Jones, who coined the term prophetic service. "Prophetic service means being engaged in the world in a way that comes out of your spiritual grounding," Repoley says. "Engaging in service from a place of understanding that we're all broken and seeking wholeness."

After a decade of conversation and consultation with Quakers from around the country, Repoley launched Quaker Voluntary Service (QVS) in 2012 with seven young adult fellows living and serving in Atlanta. QVS houses in Philadelphia and Portland, Oregon, opened in 2013, and this August, another will open in Boston. By its fourth anniversary, QVS will have 28 fellows and close to fifty alumni, many of whom are still actively engaged with the communities and congregations where they served.

Much of Repoley's preparation for what would become QVS blossomed at Candler. She wrote her MDiv thesis on the history of Quaker service, and credits professors Luther Smith and Ellen Ott Marshall as integral to her work. Candler also nurtured Repoley's need for the integration of inward and outward in her own life. At 28, she was already beginning to feel burned out by activism. "If social justice work was going to be something I could do sustainably for the rest of my life, I needed a deeper theological and spiritual grounding," she says. "To speak a challenging word to society, you have to do it in an invitational, hopeful way, rather than coming from a place of anger and frustration. When we come from a grounding in relationship with God and with each other, we're able to live more prophetically and more boldly." 

Molding the Next Generation

It’s not just Old Testament prophets who hear the voice of God in dreams. Bob Beckwith’s 88T fruitful ministry at the University of Georgia Wesley Foundation owes its start and the success of its hallmark discipleship program to the prophetic power of dreams.

Nearly twenty years ago, Beckwith, an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church, felt a nudge toward college ministry. “I had a very clear and unusual dream one night, through which I believed God was calling me to equip this emerging generation. But I had no idea where or how I was going to do that.” Within a year, a UGA Wesley board member told him that the position of director was open and urged him to apply. In that moment, Beckwith knew God’s answer.

He took the post in 1999 and hasn’t left, facilitating the growth and vibrancy of a campus ministry committed to nurturing students. While many students detach from organized religion and intentional spiritual formation during their college years, UGA Wesley adds a hopeful footnote to that story: During UGA’s 2014-2015 academic year, about 1,100 students and staff regularly attended Wesley’s two weekly worship services. 

“This generation is one of great significance,” Beckwith says. “The future of the church is in their hands, and yet, they are the most spiritually uninformed generation our nation has ever produced. But when they do encounter God, they often grow and come alive in ways that my generation struggles to understand.”

Beckwith works alongside UGA Wesley’s four long-term lead directors, ten associate directors, and 67 full-time ministry interns. Chris Fisher 15T, who served as a full-time intern before he came to Candler, says Beckwith possesses the mix of sturdiness and flexibility, humility and joy required to work with young adults whose faith journeys are still evolving. “Bob bridges the stability of the Bible with the challenge and movement of the inspiration of the Spirit. His voice is one saying, ‘Test the Spirit against the Word, then jump all in.’” 

A pillar of Beckwith’s tenure has been the development of the Lead/Grow discipleship program. Again, he was guided by a dream. “One night I dreamed that I was about to speak and needed a Bible, so I borrowed one from a student. The pages were full of holes, like Swiss cheese. I borrowed another student’s Bible and its pages were falling out. A third had pages that were smeared and blotted. I believe the Lord was telling me that in spite of their passion, our students were young and needed to be invested in.”

In Lead/Grow, “Grow” students are mentored, or discipled, by an older “Lead” student or Wesley intern. This year, 600 students participated, meeting weekly in pairs to connect. “We try to create an atmosphere where students talk transparently about life issues in a context of grace, biblical truth, and prayer. When that happens, freedom and growth usually follow,” Beckwith says.

“Seeing students become passionate to know and follow Jesus, experience His love, healing, and freedom, and step into the significant purposes God has for them—that’s what still motivates and excites me after all these years.”

Nothing Happens without the Word

When Maria Dixon Hall 98T 99T was a Candler student, Professor Teresa Fry Brown nicknamed her “Pearl.” Pearls are created by an irritation of dirt, Fry Brown told her, and that irritation ultimately forms something precious. “So,” Dixon Hall said wryly, addressing students at the start of a recent lecture at Candler, “My intent today is to irritate you somewhat.”

Dixon Hall lives up to her nickname, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. “Let's think about the word ‘irritate,’” she says, when asked to elaborate. “So often we think of it as pejorative, but really it means ‘to uncomfortably dislocate.’ Irritation requires intentional movement. Irritation requires strategy. The gospel calls us to irritate powers and principalities that are comfortable in the way things are, rather than in the way they could be.”

An ordained United Methodist deacon and associate professor of communication studies at Southern Methodist University, Dixon Hall has done her fair share of irritating—in the classroom, at speaking engagements, on the page, and on the Internet. Her blog, “The View from Dixon Hall,” hosted on Patheos.com, tackles communication issues within Christianity, The United Methodist Church, and theological education, along with issues of race, gender, and politics in America; entries have been picked up by such news outlets as the Huffington Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the Houston Chronicle, to name a few. She challenges the boundaries of language, culture, and faith, often turning issues upside-down in unexpected ways, as she did in her March 2015 blog post disputing the University of Oklahoma’s swift decision to expel students involved in a racially offensive video rather than recognizing the situation as a “teachable moment” for both the perpetrators and the community.

The church is not excluded from Dixon Hall’s examination. She references 1 Corinthians 14:9: Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air (NIV). “God is calling the church to find a way to communicate the gospel that resonates with people. And I believe God is calling me to be that irritating translator that holds our leaders accountable for learning how to speak in ways that are authentic.”

Current Master of Religious Life student Michael Graves came to Candler because of Dixon Hall, and calls his former SMU professor a spiritual guide. “Dr. Dixon Hall’s work in both communication studies and the church can be summarized by the word ‘grace,’” Graves says. “She writes about our world’s most pressing and complex issues. Instead of losing patience and pushing opposing voices away, she welcomes those who critique her, and constantly seeks to engage those who reject her in holy conversation.”

That desire for holy conversation constantly renews Dixon Hall’s calling. “Every semester when I teach Communication Theory, I open with the same phrase from John 1: In the beginning was the Word. I am transfixed and transformed by that verse. It is the foundation of my ministry and my scholarship. Communication shapes identity and possibility. Nothing happens without the Word.”

Widening the Circle

Brian Combs 06T reaches out to restore respect to members of society most people try to avoid—prostitutes, drug addicts, people with mental illness, and those living with AIDS.

Raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, Combs attended a suburban church that he says held Christ "aloft in the sky and so far away that not only can you not see him, but you can’t follow him." Candler brought Jesus down to Earth for Combs, and he has been building intentional community with people who live on the streets since he graduated.

"At Candler I was introduced to a Jesus in the gutters, this Savior who chose to take on flesh and blood, bone and breath as a derelict among us. That was completely revolutionary for me," he says.

Combs applied his Candler experiences to a chaplaincy at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital, the nation’s fifth largest public hospital and one of its busiest Level I trauma centers. His work there with people from various marginalized populations led him to Asheville, North Carolina, where he was inspired to start the Haywood Street Congregation, a United Methodist mission church launched in 2009 as a place of welcome and ministry for people who are homeless or otherwise living on the margins.

Combs focuses on reframing roles when ministering to the homeless person or the individual struggling with addiction or mental illness. First, he helps dispel the perception that if they’re homeless, they must be in a state of deficit in their relationship with God.

"If Jesus was going to incarnate as the schizophrenic, the homeless person, the crack addict, the prostitute, then we have to begin by saying, 'I’m actually the one—even though I have housing, education, privilege—who has a spiritual poverty, who needs to encounter that Jesus, and I can’t do that if I treat him as a spiritual project,'" he says. 

This message resonates with the people—homeless or not—who come to Haywood. Combs talks enthusiastically about the dramatic conversion he’s seen in the church, people whose assumptions about poverty and themselves have been completely obliterated. 

"What they say to me is, ‘for most of my life I assumed following the gospel and believing in Jesus meant writing my check to the social service agency so they could do the discipleship that I didn’t want to do. My liberation is bound up in the people I’ve dismissed for most of my Christian life. I’m here, I’m broken, and I need to be to be filled back up in a new way,'" he says.

Combs encourages this sort of transformation. "If there’s one thing I hope people are transformed into doing, instead of dismissing the guy on the corner with the sign, they will instead extend a hand, ask a name, offer a hug…because they have realized that their humanity is bound up in that person,” he says. “To be able to watch someone as they realize that maybe God does love them that much—they begin to take seriously that they’re a child of God. That’s kingdom work as far as I’m concerned." 

From Brokenness, A New Creation

During her final semester at Candler, Jan Richardson 92T began putting to use what she calls “those skills I learned in kindergarten”: cutting, tearing, and pasting paper on top of paper to create works of art. “Collage became a powerful practice for me,” she says. “A form of prayer and a metaphor for the continual work of piecing together that God, the consummate recycler, does in our lives.” 

It is that sacred piecing together that Richardson, an ordained United Methodist minister, has felt called to explore in the years since seminary. As director of The Wellspring Studio, LLC, she leads retreats, speaks at conferences, and has published books of her writing and visual art. Two of her works adorn this magazine, one in the table of contents and the other on the title page of this article.

Associate Dean of Methodist Studies Anne Burkholder 77T 92G is a longtime friend and colleague of Richardson's. To her, Richardson's visual art and writing call people to a life of encounter with the Holy. "One cannot help but encounter the reality of God’s presence through them,” she says. “They beckon us to dive deeply into the waves of liturgical and prayer practices, emotion, and spiritual encounter that remind us how genuinely we are loved by God.”  

Richardson’s art has served as that reminder of God’s love for others and for herself. In December 2013, her husband, singer/songwriter Garrison Doles, passed away unexpectedly following complications from surgery. After only three years of marriage—during which the couple frequently collaborated in retreats, conferences, and worship—his death was, she says, an “absolute shattering.”

In her grief, she has turned constantly to the artist’s act of piecing together. “Because of the practice of collage, I know in my hands, my bones, my soul, what it means to put the pieces together, and to allow God to do this in my life. I know what it means to sit with what is torn, what is in fragments and scraps, and invite the Spirit to brood over the chaos and pain and to connect one shard to the next, and the next. I am learning—slowly, slowly—how it is possible to create anew.”

Her practice of faith and art, and the two intertwined, has provided space for anguish, questions, hope, and a renewed sense of call. “The work of the artist, and my own sense of call, is about refusing to turn away from what is broken," she says. "My job is to say, ‘Look, here is grace that flows into the broken places and inspires us to find the connections, to see new visions, to dream new dreams.’”

“It is a call that belongs to each of us: to sit amid the shattering, to not turn away, to bear witness to the wild workings of grace, and to see how God wants to act through us to create anew.”

Editor’s note: Richardson provided artwork for this article.

Narrowing the Distance

When you spot Carlton Mackey 05T around the Emory campus, there is no doubt that his camera will be slung over one shoulder. With a photographer’s eye and a theologian’s heart, Mackey, the director of Emory’s Ethics and the Arts Program, has found his calling: creating art to break down barriers. His multi-media projects—including Beautiful in Every Shade, Fifty Shades of Black, Black Men Smile, and Typical American Families—use photography and video to remove cultural labels and reveal authentic humanity, creating, as Mackey puts it, “possibilities for people to be understood.”

“Christianity is, blackness is, the American family is… Most of the time we have a way of filling in the blank,” he says. “Though they sound like contrasting words, the work I seek to do is both about narrowing and broadening: narrowing distance and broadening thought.”

Mackey’s Candler experience helped shape his thinking. “Candler challenged me to think more broadly than I ever had before.” It was here that Mackey met a gay clergyperson for the first time. “I formed a genuine friendship with this young man who helped me to see that there wasn’t an ocean between us. That the things we hungered for, the people we were seeking to become, the God that we loved and wanted to serve, were the same. He was able to help me broaden my thinking by narrowing the distance. By living fully into who we are, we can do that for others.” 

He cites as an example his most recent project, Typical American Families, a photo exhibit that shows the diversity of American family life. “When we think about the phrase ‘typical American families,’ we often think of heteronormative, Judeo-Christian, childbearing, matched race people who love each other,” he says.  But the variety of family types in these portraits, featured alongside a written commentary by each family, narrows the distance between viewer and subject. “If we broaden our understanding of what a family is, we can grow to understand that there’s room for possibility outside our limited ways of thinking,” Mackey says. “It leads to differences in our actions. It impacts our engagement. It works to break down the ways in which we marginalize individuals.”

“Once we see the presence of God in those spectrums of identity, we then grow to appreciate that there are people seeking to live into the fullness of their being in ways that we may never even have considered.”

Mackey’s four-year-old son, Isaiah, also inspires his work. “I want to create an environment for him where possibility is greater than limitation. Then he can create his own reality, come into his own understanding. I want him to experience that.”

For his son, for himself, for the world that Mackey reaches through the lens of his camera, it is all about narrowing distance and broadening thought. “Those are traits I think are common among people who live a resurrected life. That’s the life I want.” 

Asking the Right Questions

On the website for First United Methodist Church (FUMC) in Montgomery, Alabama, one sentence stands out: “As important as it is to remember and celebrate how God has led FUMC for 185 years, it is equally important to ask for God’s vision for the future.”

FUMC is a congregation dedicated to service. As Senior Pastor R. Lawson Bryan 75T 85T puts it, mission work is ingrained in its DNA. The church’s 4,000 members are active locally, everywhere from Family Promise, helping homeless families find permanent housing, to the Samaritan Counseling Center, one of the area’s largest mental health providers. But since Bryan’s arrival in 2007, the church has found a calling in two particular ministries that emerged as they considered God’s vision for the future.

“For several years, we sought to discern an answer to the question: What needs to happen in our community that is not likely to happen unless churches do it?” Bryan says. “As I wrestled with this, I kept getting one response over and over again.”

That response was to create a program to serve dementia patients, their families, and caretakers. FUMC’s Adult Respite Ministry began in 2012. Forty participants with dementia meet four days a week for art, music, exercise, and worship, nurtured by 95 volunteers from seven churches and two synagogues. A support group for families meets twice a month. “Our members who work in the program feel spiritually alive as they discover Christ’s presence in this ministry,” Bryan says. “We often feel like the early disciples, driven forward by the Spirit, constantly amazed by what God is doing to resurrect these individuals and families.”

Bryan has also facilitated FUMC’s transformation into a “teaching church” for students at Huntingdon, a United Methodist college just up the street. “We think of our relationship to Huntingdon like a teaching hospital connected to a medical school,” he says. “We felt a call to actively help college students discern God’s call to ordained ministry.” So they developed an internship program for college students with paid positions in ministry areas including children, youth, music, and missions. Interns meet twice a month with an FUMC pastor to reflect on their growth as they integrate their classroom studies with ministry experience in the church. Similar to Candler’s groundbreaking Contextual Education curriculum, FUMC’s approach appears to be working: in the fall of 2015, six former interns will enter seminary—four at Candler.

At an earlier point in his vocation, Bryan recalls asking God, What is it that holds ministry together? Why do we do what we do? “I happened to be reading Ephesians 1:9-10 in the New English Version: God has made known to us his hidden purpose, to be put into effect when the time was ripe; namely, that the universe, all in heaven and on earth, might be brought into a unity in Christ.”

“That was what I really needed to know. God has a purpose: to address the brokenness of the universe and bring it into unity through Jesus Christ. I want to make that available to all. That’s what drives me.” 

From the Human Race to the Human Family

In 1967, college student Ed Bacon 79T shook hands with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Atlanta airport baggage claim. This chance encounter “shifted the tectonic plates of my life,” he says. King’s assassination less than a year later “profoundly impacted” Bacon, spurring him to delve more deeply into the civil rights leader’s teachings on prophetic Christianity and nonviolence. As the Vietnam War began, Bacon was at law school at Vanderbilt, but he continued to study King, as well as Thomas Merton, calling them “my 20th century prophetic north stars.” The writings and theology of both men inspired Bacon to make the most radical decision of his life: become a conscientious objector, leave law school, and pursue ordained ministry.

Bacon has served as rector of the 4,000-member All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, since 1995. During his twenty-year tenure, the effects of his brief interaction with Dr. King have reverberated within his congregation and the wider community. 

Candler professor Ellen Ott Marshall attended All Saints when she lived in Pasadena. “With every feature of his life and ministry, Ed reaches out to persons wounded by wrathful and exclusivist religious language and brings them back into God's loving embrace,” she says. “What is, perhaps, most remarkable about his ministry is that he proclaims this radically inclusive love not only for those on the margins, but also to those who marginalize them.”

In 2009, Oprah Winfrey invited Bacon to appear in the spirituality segment of her “Best Life” series. During the segment, Bacon addressed a caller who identified as gay, telling him, “Being gay is a gift from God.” 

The comment was so controversial that Winfrey asked Bacon back to explain himself, which he gladly did. “It is so important for every human being to understand that he or she is a gift from God, and particularly people who are marginalized and victimized in our culture,” he said. “Gay and lesbian people are clearly outcasts in many areas of our life, and it is so important for them to understand that when God made them, God said, ‘You are good.’” 

Bacon puts those words into action. He is a founder of the groups Beyond Inclusion and Claiming the Blessing, an organization of gay and straight Episcopalians working for LGBT equality at local and national levels, including within the church.

Another expression of Bacon’s call to “articulate the Christian faith in non-bigoted ways” is his dedication to interfaith work. Bacon has led All Saints to start New Vision Partners, a non-profit resource center that forms ministry partnerships with interfaith colleagues; Transformational Journeys, trips that transform participants through challenging encounters with other local and global communities; and the Abrahamic Interfaith Peacemaking Initiative.

Bacon relies on a daily hour-long practice of prayer and contemplation to keep him “inspired, empowered, and energized.” During that time, he says that God’s Spirit takes him deep below the choppy waters of his surface life and equips him to love. 

That love is both the call and the response for Bacon. “My heart breaks when I see systems destroying the lives of those who are marginalized,” Bacon says. “I feel called to give my life to turning the human race into the human family.”

CREDITS: Illustration: "The Willing Catch" © Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com. Used by permission; Brian Combs, Asheville Citizen-Times; R. Lawson Bryan, Alabama-West Florida Conference.