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When James W. C. Pennington began attending Yale Divinity School classes in 1834, he was forbidden from speaking. An escapee from slavery and the first African-American to study at Yale, Pennington had been denied formal enrollment at the school but was allowed to audit lectures. For two years, he sat silently in the back of classrooms, pursuing his theological education without recognition, and, although he never received a YDS degree, he eventually became a famous pastor and prominent abolitionist.

YDS wouldn’t formally enroll an African American student until 1872, and it wouldn’t institutionalize the memory of its first black student until September 30, 2016, when it renamed one of its largest student rooms in honor of Pennington. A week later, YDS announced the Pennington Scholarship, to be annually awarded to a Pennington Fellow. His portrait now hangs on the wall of the room bearing his name. Dean Gregory E. Sterling captured the poetry of the change when he announced the decision before 150 graduates at the 2016 commencement: “A student who was not allowed to speak will now have his name spoken every day at this school.”

Pennington couldn’t have fathomed the 150-member graduating class of 2016. Its graduates represented 14 countries, and more than a third of them came from U.S. minority groups, from black to Hispanic. Its members represented up to 27 religious traditions, and some practiced no religion at all. And yet they all received the traditionally Christian education with which he would have been familiar. They were the products of a divinity school that both had  changed and had not, one that had grown old but that also had become new and one that had reconfigured itself without sacrificing its mission.

Yale was founded in 1701 specifically to instruct students in Christian ministry. What would later become the Divinity School originated as a separate department of theology established by Nathanael Taylor in 1822. The school first established a Bachelor’s degree in the Divinity Program in 1871.

“The original [Yale] charter provided for instruction ‘in the Arts and Sciences’ and stipulated that students, formed ‘through the blessing of Almighty God, may be fitted for Publick employment both in Church and Civil State,’”  Dean Sterling writes on the Divinity School’s website. “We are still doing this. Our students serve as leaders in ministry, the academy, and society. We have produced more presidents and deans of colleges, universities, and seminaries, as well as heads of denominations, than any other divinity school or seminary in the U.S.”

The Divinity School offers two main professional programs. The first is the three-year Master of Divinity (M. Div.) program, which prepares students for Christian ministerial, pastoral and congregational leadership. Some graduates of the program serve as ordained pastors and congregational leaders, while others work for nonprofit organizations and educational services. The other major track of study offered by YDS is the Master of Religion and Arts (M.A.R.) program, which lasts for two years and employs a more academic approach to the study of religion. A third one-year track called the Master of Sacred Theology (S.T.M.) program provides a second Master’s degree for graduates of the M. Div. program, supplementing it by providing a specialized focus on some particular aspect of theological education.

A little more than half of YDS students are enrolled in the M. Div. program, a decline from four decades ago, when enrollment hovered closer to seventy-five percent. Harold Attridge, Sterling Professor of Divinity and former Dean of YDS, attributes the shift to the growth of the M.A.R. track, which recently acquired new programs in Religion and Ecology and in Latinax Studies, and to diminishing demand for pastoral leadership in the mainline Protestant denominations and in United Church of Christ.

Today, YDS commits itself to student and faculty diversity in all its forms, including race and religion. As one of the seven Yale professional schools responsible for managing its own budget, YDS has self-funded most of its past diversity efforts. However, a $50 million University-wide faculty diversity initiative announced in 2015 now allows YDS to apply for funding to finance minority faculty hires… “Forging a Diverse Learning Community” is one of the pivot points of the Divinity School’s 2017 Strategic Plan, just as it was in 2015, when YDS hired race scholar Willie Jennings as an associate professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies. Other recent hires include Benjamin Velatin and Erika Helgen as assistant professors of “Latino/a” Christianity, Eboni Marshall Turman as Assistant Professor of Theology and African American religion and Yii-Jan Lin as Assistant Professor of New Testament.

The commemoration of a student of color like Pennington, which came amidst the campus-wide conversation about race at Yale that eventually led to this year’s renaming of John C. Calhoun College, represents YDS’s ongoing efforts to not only diversify its faculty and students in the present but to acknowledge the hidden diversity of its own past.

To that end, Lecia Allman ’16 M.Div., who now works as a chaplaincy fellow at Emory University, has done intensive research into the history of diversity at the Divinity School. Her project, titled “The Changing Faces of the Yale Divinity School,” recovers the names and lives of historical alumni from various backgrounds: Asian-Pacific, black and Latino background, and even women. A gallery exhibiting the project’s findings went live on the school’s website last year. Allman’s discoveries yielded interesting results: the first male Hispanic graduate, Justo Gonzales ’58 B.D. has written over 110 books, and the first female Prime Minister of South Korea, Sang Chang ’70 M.Div., graduated from YDS.

Attridge noted that YDS’s greater racial inclusivity has occurred alongside increasing religious diversity at Yale. Though the majority of the Yale Divinity School’s students are still Christian, over 60 percent of the class of the undergraduate class of 2020 reported being either “not very religious” or “not religious at all.”

Divinity schools around the country have responded differently to the challenges represented by changing religious demographics on their traditionally Christian campuses. The Harvard Divinity School has adopted a more pluralistic religious identity by making the transition from an explicitly Christian program of study to one of comparative religion. The Princeton Theological Seminary, on the other hand, has remained committed to its traditional identity as a Reformed Presbyterian school, while still emphasizing its ecumenical and intercultural character. The Yale Divinity School sits between its peers, retaining its explicitly Christian identity while committing to inclusivity by remaining ecumenical and nondenominational. One example of HDS’s more secular orientation can be seen in the frequency with which it holds its prayer services: once a week, in contrast to the daily service of YDS.

“It is true that YDS is a Christian divinity school,” said Tom Krattenmaker, the YDS Director of Communication. “Christianity is the focus of the teaching and learning, and a large percentage of the people who teach and study here identify as Christian. But some of our highest profile professors are not Christian, which is why we emphasize too that [we’re] Christian and inclusive.”

Krattenmaker himself is not a Christian. Instead, he identifies as nonreligious and a secular follower of Jesus. An award-winning USA Today columnist, Krattenmaker wrote a book titled “Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower,” where he elucidates the way in which Jesus can serve as an inspirational figure for nonbelievers. Despite being in the minority, Krattenmaker reports having a positive experience at the Divinity School, though he acknowledges that his perspective may be colored by his comfort around worship due to his previous engagement with Muslim and Christian communities.

YDS’s student body, like its faculty, embraces diversity in all its forms. Consider None/Others, an organization that serves students who identify as secular humanists, atheist, agnostic or nonreligious, most of whom undertake academic studies of religion in the M.A.R. program. Though it hasn’t been as active in the last school year, the organization has had a longstanding presence on the Divinity School’s campus, albeit under a variety of names. It has primarily sought to foster a fully inclusive community at YDS through nonreligious fellowship and interfaith dialogue. One of its previous iterations, “The Left Behind Society,” played an active role in enriching YDS student life by hosting events like a talent show and a monthly happy hour.

“The group has been a key player in helping to present events to foster greater community,” said Nicholas Lewis ’13 M. Div., Associate Dean of Student Affairs. “[They] helped promote collegiality amongst everyone in a way that was not particular to denomination or particular to a religious tradition. Really it was sort of a secular get-together.”

Attridge sees no tension between the Divinity School’s explicitly Christian identity and the inclusivity that allows for the existence of an organization like the None/Others on its campus. If anything, he thinks such diversity is critical for a holistic ministerial education: “I think it would be irresponsible to try to train leaders for Christian communities without enabling them to be in dialogue with a secular world and variety of religious traditions.”

Since YDS has no formal PhD program, most students only spend three to four years on campus. This creates what Peter Wyrsch ’17 M.A.R. calls “short institutional memory.” As such, change is built into the very structure of student life. Most student organizations, like None/Others, radically reconfigure themselves every few years because their members are not around long enough to establish formal principles and traditions. Still, Wyrsch feels that this sort of mutability is a good thing. As he put it, “folks have an opportunity to take these groups and make them what they are, whereas in a place which has maybe longer institutional memory there’d be pushback from one of the older members of the community not wanting to see change as much.”

Along with Julia Johnson ’18 M. Div., Wyrsch  coordinates FERNS (Faith, Ecology, Religion, Nature, and Spirituality), an organization that, much like YDS itself, has fundamentally reconstituted itself while still retaining its traditional focus: the relationship between religion and ecology.  While in the past few years FERNS has been predominantly focused on environmental activism, with a special emphasis on the annual Nourish New Haven Conference, Johnson and Wyrsch have taken the group in a different direction.

“When Julia and I were handed the reins last year, we decided to make the project a little more academic, instead of activism-focused,” said Wyrsch, who studies how religious belief affects natural resource management and land use. “We’ve taken it in a different direction to reflect more student interests and motivations. Most people want their student organizations to be able to engage broader communities than just the Divinity School.”

FERNS is just one of many YDS student organizations. The school’s ecumenical character is reflected in the diversity of Christian denominational groups on campus, which range from the Baptist Student Fellowship to the Methodist Society. Then there are the affinity groups, which provide supportive environments for students of particular ethnic and cultural backgrounds, such as La Communidad, the Yale Divinity Latino/a Association. These groups, along with others like the Seminarians for Reproductive Justice, focus on social justice issues and broader engagement with the Yale and New Haven community.  

Lewis, Associate Dean of Student Affairs, thinks this drive comes in part from the educational design of the Divinity School itself.

“Part of the curriculum of the M. Div. program has people doing supervised ministry in practical contexts, and that would be inclusive of church, but also social service agencies [and] nonprofit organizations,” he pointed out. “There are many students that are looking for opportunities to work in areas that allow them to develop their social justice drives and pursue their social justice inclinations.”

DivOut, headed by Jenny Peek ’17 M.Div. and Jordan Graf ‘17 M.A.R., includes many such students. It is a fellowship of students and faculty dedicated to the service of the LGBTQIA community. The group, formerly known as the YDS LGBTQIA Coalition, provides members of the community with supportive material and sponsors lectures, worship services, and educational and social events. In previous years, the Coalition played a major role in mobilizing the YDS community to support the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ persons in Christian denominations.

YDS and the YDS LGBTQIA Coalition were valuable communities that nurtured students as they sought to work within their individual denominations to bring queer justice issues to the surface and open the doors of churches to the LGBTQ community,”  Peek said.

DivOut has been no less active than the Coalition once was. For years it has hosted Trans Awareness Weeks and film screenings. Last October, along with the Yale Divinity Student Government (YDSG), it hosted psychotherapist Nick Fager, a first responder to the Orlando shooting at Pulse Nightclub, to discuss the tragedy and held a lunchtime conversation with Dr. Kathryn Bond, author of The Queer Child.  With these initiatives, Peek has attempted to keep DivOut as inclusive as possible, and that includes acknowledging and accommodating the different experiences its members have had with their sexual and gender identities.

“I think that the LGBTQ community at YDS, similar to the LGBTQ community more broadly, is at a time when many are feeling more ‘comfortable’ in the new privileges we have been afforded with gay marriage, and for many, LGBTQ ordination,” said Peek. “While this comfort is something to be cherished and embraced, there are [still] many within our community who come from denominations, communities, and countries that are not open and welcoming to LGBTQ folks. At times the Divinity School can forget this, since so many embrace and love the LGBTQ community here. In light of this, DivOut continues to [cater to] students who are not “out” or who need spaces where they don’t have to define themselves.”

To Peek, the biggest challenge that LGBTQIA students face at YDS is a lack of awareness about issues pertaining to the lives of trans and gender non-conforming students. This lack of awareness has sometimes resulted in fellow student, staff and faculty members using incorrect pronouns and in a dearth of dialogue about trans and gender-nonconforming issues in community events. Still, Peek says that many students, faculty and staff have made a concerted effort to educate more people on how they can be allies to the trans and gender non-conforming community at YDS and beyond.

Thanks to intensive advocacy efforts by DivOut alumni and current students, and with the support of Dean Sterling, YDS and the Office of LGBTQ Resources brought All Gender Restroom signs to eight of the school’s nine single-stall restrooms last September. In addition, Maggi Dawn, the Dean of Marquand Chapel, regularly includes DivOut members in leading the daily worship services,  and she has invited activists, such as Angel Collie, a YDS alum and activist, to preach.

Alongside Megan McDermott ‘18 M.Div., Peek also heads the YDS Women’s Center, which provides a safe space for women of all sexual orientations and gender nonconforming students and serves as an umbrella organization for groups like the Yale Women Seminarians. The center has organized performances, tampon drives and lunchtime conversations with female leaders, among other events.  Last year the group hosted a Sexual Assault Awareness Week, where it held a drive for YDS community members to pledge to speak out against sexual violence, screened and discussed a documentary film about rape on college campuses called “The Hunting Ground,” created a prayer installation that remained in Marquand Chapel for the week and hosted a prayer service at the week’s end.  

The Yale Black Seminarians is another group that brings together students with vastly different backgrounds. Led by Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes ’18 M. Div., it is a group committed to a theological education grounded in the black experience. In the past they have hosted activities that include a Martin Luther King Day Worship Service, the Angel Tree Project at Christmas and a Parks-King lecture in the spring semester. Recently, along with DivOut, the Black Seminarians hosted a fireside chat with Bishop Yvette Flunder titled “Navigating Resistance with Joy: Dancing Through the Fire.”

“Black students are diverse,” Wilkes said. “We do not all have the same professional goals nor do we all come from the same denominations. Yet and still, there are certain professional experiences that black Seminarians at our peer universities are having that our students need to have. [We work] to ensure that while our students are getting a top notch theological education, they are also being informed about how to be a well-equipped black theologian, scholar and minister.”

Former President of the Yale Black Seminarians Jason Land ’17 M. Div. currently leads the YDS Student Government, which acts as a liaison between the administration and the student body.

I ran on a platform that focuses heavily upon community service and engagement opportunities, along with student health and wellness initiatives,” Land said. “We are here to provide space and to lend a voice – these are crucial to a positive YDS experience, as I am sure they are applicable to all of Yale University.  I truly believe that YDSG helps to maintain a positive and constructive tenor on campus.”

YDSG vice-president Jordan Rebholz ’18 M.Div. pointed to the many ways that the student government engages the rest of Yale and New Haven, pointing to the All-School Conference they hosted last month on the New Haven Green. “Our All-School Conference is a week-long event, which this year included a Community Dinner, [and] a Fire-Circle Fellowship event around the new YDS fire pit, ‘Knitting for a Cause,’ where YDS students came together to knit winter items to be donated…and [handing] out lunches on the New Haven Green,” Rebholz said.

While Land said he wishes the Divinity School interacted more with Yale undergraduates, he hopes that the activism of Divinity students across Yale’s campus still allows it to exert some positive influence on the broader community. And indeed, YDS students are active in spheres typically associated with undergraduate life. Four of the five graduate fellows at the Afro-American Cultural House are YDS students. Nicole Tensin ’16 M.Div, who was also involved with the Af-Am House, played a leading role in the fall 2015 protests. Wilkes even works with Dwight Hall.

YDS’s ever-broadening community engagement with people of all different stripes and backgrounds is just one hallmark of its increasing inclusivity. Krattenmaker has seen some Yale students outside of YDS express surprise at the progressive nature of the school’s recent activity. But the way Krattenmaker sees it, people familiar with Christianity would know that such tolerance has existed in the Christian movement for years.

“Many progressive Christians will tell you that there’s nothing more Christian than to be inclusive and to resist forms of exclusion and bigotry, whether it’s race or Islamophobia,” Krattenmaker said. “So I think it’s a great example of YDS living up to that religious commitment [and] that religious philosophy.”

Pennington might have agreed.