jiwan-headshot2.jpgThis year, Candler School of Theology and the theology faculty of the University of Göttingen are celebrating 40 years of partnership in an academic exchange, where each school has hosted an exchange student from the other institution. I have had the great privilege to hear the stories of those who took part in this lineage and carried it through the decades. 

The exchange on Candler’s end was initiated by Ted Runyon, a professor of systematics who had taken time to study in Goettingen as a doctoral student. He fell in love with the city and hoped to create a longer connection to it, and in partnership with Prof. Klaus Schwarzwäller, the two did. Elisabeth Ostermeier Speer, the first German exchange student to study in Atlanta, remembers fondly receiving a call regarding this initiative, and answering excitedly in hopes of grabbing hold of a new adventure. 

Indeed, spending ten months in the United States was quite a feat for many Germans who participated in the program, especially as it provided an opportunity to train their English skills. Kahl Werner (1986-87) chuckled as he remembered his early days in America, claiming that if there had been a language test in his time, he would never get there. “I remember Cindy [Runyon, Ted’s wife] asking me if it was my first time in the U.S., and indeed it was, but I had just answered, ‘yes.’” But the training proved useful. Werner went on to finish his doctoral thesis in New Testament in English. Elisabeth Lang (2017-2018) also credits her English academic writing with growing exponentially since the program, though several exchange students still groan when recalling their paper writing days. Dr. Hans-Hermann Tiemann (1979-1980) reminisces, “The amount of tests and papers were so heavy, that during this time I did not know if it would be day or night.” 

Yet, I was happy to hear that many participants found Emory to be a lively academic experience. Every alumnus I interviewed unanimously claimed Emory’s diversity to be its greatest academic asset. Many of my interviewees commented on the joy of learning alongside individuals from different denominations and confessions, and forming friendships across these lines. Dominick Wolff (1998-1999) recalled living in graduate school housing in Turner Village alongside Liliett Cherice Griffith (an American) and Erik Lundstrom (a Swede). “Erik and I, being European, would always want to walk to campus, and we’d always take Liliett with us. It was quite a strange experience for her. She’d often say, ‘This is why we have cars you know.’” He laughed as he recalled the banter, saying that he was thankful that the two were still in touch.

Furthermore, many students found it remarkable to be able to live in a city that stood at the heart of the American civil rights movement, and to encounter Black Theology in such a robust culture. “This exchange made me a globally minded person,” says Werner. “I came back and searched after other opinions and African churches in Germany.” Werner now runs an international gospel service at the Missions Academy in Hamburg, where he teaches.

Several students also commented on Candler’s Contextual Education curriculum being the most formative part of their experience, as it gave practical ways they could put theory into practice and allowed them to engage in issues of theology in a tangible way. Benjamin Prill (2012-2013) recalls working in Lee Arrendale State Prison, where he found engaging in conversation with the prison’s inhabitants to be a crucial experience in his own vocational journey. “I would go to these people and I had ‘chaplain’ on my name tag. At that time I was so young, I didn’t really know what it meant.” Prill is currently a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) resident preparing for chaplaincy in Ohio.

Outside of these academic settings, I was privileged to hear personal accounts of exchange students and memories they held dear. Annette Braden-Rozier (1980-81) and Benjamin Prill both met their partners during the exchange, and moved their lives to the United States. Basti Farr (2014-2015) recalled a humorous event, where his roommate had invited Academic Dean Jonathan Strom to dinner (and he had surprisingly accepted), and only owned paper plates. He laughed heartily as he described the mad scramble to Target so that the dean had something to eat on.

Kira Eiben (2015-2016) was grateful for Candler’s student organization Sacred Worth, where she could recharge and regroup, particularly because being a member of the LGBT community was not always easy for her on campus. Others had interesting cultural insights. Kerstin Jacobsen (1993-1994) remembered being surprised by the overall energy waste that took place around her. She remembered dressing for excessively warm weather only to be bombarded with intense air conditioning indoors, or the practice of heating up the car before driving. Such practices would simply not do in Germany. And many recounted fond memories of professors who taught at Candler through the decades, including Dr. Ted Runyon, Dr. Thomas Thangaraj, Dr. James Fowler, and Dr. Ted Smith, just to name a few.

Though Atlanta is not perfect, it seemed that many found a good temporary home there. When I asked my interviewees what advice they would give those interested in the program, there was an overwhelming answer: “Just do it, it is once in a lifetime opportunity!” A few chimed in to say that one ought to be prepared for the workload, different culture and periods of homesickness. But I got the overall impression that the exchange program provided inspiration and long-lasting change in these alumni. Indeed, Georg Stahlmann (2016-17) gave Candler a deep compliment when he said, “At Candler, they do not only study theology, they live it. The topics of your class become topics of your life, and I often caught myself wondering about a challenging question even when the class was already over…” 

Americans in Göttingen

I had the great privilege to interview American students who participated in the exchange program also. As many Germans were astounded by their experience in America, it seemed that the Americans were as well, but their experiences could not have been more different.

Tina Pippin (1980-81) was the second person to participate in the program. “I remember Ted [Runyon] was so nervous to send me. They had a couple that went the year before me, and they had only stayed a couple of months. He wanted to make sure I wouldn’t come back early,” she chuckled. Pippin did remain the entire stay and remembers making friends with members of the South Korean community and other international students. Pippin, who is now a professor of religion and human rights at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, learned a lot about peace movements in these friendships. “When I was there, the wall was still up. It was not unusual to ride the train and have somebody from Eastern Germany sit next to me and tell me about her life ‘on the other side.’”

Indeed, Kendall Soulen (1982-1983), currently a systematics professor at Candler, remembers these exchanges well. He made friends with many people in East Germany as he visited, but remembers how difficult it was knowing that he could enter and exit this district, but his friends from East Germany could not. “It opened my eyes to a lot of American injustice, and the role the United States played in these political situations. I have to admit, I did not think about these issues deeply at the time, but I have grown to reflect on them, and interpret them in different ways over the years.” Gerald Liu (2002-2003), who is now assistant professor of worship and preaching at Princeton Theological Seminary, recounts learning a lot about how his American identity was viewed politically abroad. “It was probably the hardest part of the exchange. I think I got it a little easier because I was Asian-American, but it was not always easy.”

Though the political situation was at times tight, life in Göttingen provided many other insights and moments of intellectual growth. Many alumni commented on the difference of pace at the University. Where at Emory they were used to a demanding schedule, Germany offered a more relaxed system. The classes were certainly challenging, but the pace of life did not carry a rushed feel. Khalfani Lawson (2016-2017) said his time in Germany gave him the opportunity to research topics that he was interested in and space to write, which he had not had before. He was followed by many other intellectually stimulated alumni who found Germany to be a perfect place to deepen their own curiosities.

Of course, the great obstacle for most exchange students was the language barrier. The Göttingen-Candler exchange to Germany includes one month of language school, but most individuals who have no prior knowledge of German are tasked with at least one year of language learning. I, for one, did not take into account how big this task would be, and jumped with both feet into the language pool. It seemed that many alumni shared this feeling. Kurt Poland (2010-2011) remembers buying the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen, in eagerness to learn the language. I smiled as I learned this, as I too had just finished this book, discovering my childhood heroes all over again, in a fremdsprache (foreign language).

Before Poland went to Germany, then-Candler professor Lewis Ayres told him, “Never underestimate the value of knowing another language well, even if it’s German.” Poland, who is now pastor of First German Methodist Church in Glendale California, claims that Ayres could not have been more right. Bru Wallace (2000-2001) has a similar opinion. He recounts a moment in class where he had to read the opening verses for the parable of the wicked tenants (Mark 12:1-12) in German. He struggled greatly, finally resorting to English at the prompting of the professor. Indeed, language learning is no easy task. However, in the same exchange year, Wallace gave a presentation on “Hegel as a Shakespeare Interpreter” receiving a “1,” the highest German grade. Wallace, who is now Associate Professor of Religion at Christian Brothers University, claims that his skills in German greatly helped him, both in his intellectual and professional life. But it seems that even with its professional benefits, learning German had an intrinsic value for these participants. In our interview Gerald Liu smiled wide and said, “Once you achieve fluency in a language, there is just nothing like it.”

The Göttingen exchange program seemed to deeply shape its participants. The time allowed for language learning, theological formation, and intellectual growth. Sue Witty (2003-2004) recounts, “To say that the Göttingen exchange program had a tremendous impact on me would be a vast understatement. Truly I tell you that I continue to believe that living in Germany, fully immersed in a theological course of study, contributed significantly to my current ability to think analytically, reflectively, and intellectually in ways I just was not capable of doing before the experience.”

Such a testimony speaks greatly to what this exchange can offer its participants. I think any students who are interested in this program should take the chance and brace themselves for a year of growth, learning and intellectual exploration as they make their journey to and from Deutschland. It really is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and it is most definitely worth it—just ask the 40 years’ worth of participants…