“[A]nd what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well. Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. “
2 Timothy 2:2-3
An image of strength is synonymous with America's armed forces. For Caleb Williams, who started at Austin Seminary this spring and serves in the army's 143rd Airborne Infantry (Ranger) unit, his strength comes from growing closer to God. Williams hopes to pass on that support to others in the military as a chaplain.
Williams' calling to the military began at an early age.
"As a kid I was fascinated by the military and always wanted to serve. It was a higher calling and one that put sacrifice above self," said Williams. "I entered the navy and served in Special Operations, which is where I actually came to know the Lord. It was when I was able to leave the U.S. and see the world that I started to question my own understanding of the world and my role in it. I now serve in the army's 143rd Airborne Infantry (Ranger) unit and am looking to become a chaplain. Between getting out of the navy and being here at seminary, I worked in law enforcement on the local and state levels. I became an instructor and started to teach weapons tactics and self-defense all over. I have done a wide range of things from protection of the President of the United States to teaching the Royal Canadian Mounted Police."
Williams' experiences in the armed forces offered him a greater understanding of how critical a spiritual support system is in the military.
"Sadly, we in the military are the best at four things in the world: national defense, alcoholism, divorce, and suicide," said Williams. "While the first is a great treasure held by the U.S., the others are a devastating impact of long deployments, low pay, and bad work/ life conditions. Just the nature of the job makes each day hard. These men and women will seldom complain, but there comes a point when they break. Unfortunately, I know first hand about some of the bad effects of the military, and I know how important it is for those serving in the military to have spiritual leaders helping them through or preventing them from falling into some of them."
Austin Seminary's embrace of multiple theological perspectives and focus on a welcoming community appealed to Williams, who hopes to apply those principles to his ministry. From there, Williams is committed to listening to the voice of God and traveling down the path God carves out for him.
"I came to Austin Seminary because the role of the chaplain is to comfort all those who are heavy laden, not just from one denomination or even faith," Williams said. "When I talked to the staff and researched the Seminary I could see that I would get to not only learn from a varied group of professors, but I would be able to study with people that lived, worshiped, and saw theology differently than I do. There is such a wide spectrum of believers here that I will be able to learn from them as much as my studies. This, I believe, will equip me to better relate to the broad brush that makes up our soldiers and sailors. My ultimate goal is to be still and listen to what God has for me after graduation. I pray that is to be a chaplain and get "down range" with our military and preach the gospel at the front lines of wherever they are sent."
Williams became a student at the Seminary thanks in large part to the support from Austin Seminary donors.
I knew that God was calling me into the ministry, but I thought that it was an impossible request,” said Williams. “I just did not see a way that I would be able to pay for it. I continued to hear His call, but when I would look into seminaries around the country it just was not feasible. I walked into Austin Seminary and laid out all the reasons why I could not come, and [admissions officer] Lisa Juica kept giving me ways that they could be overcome. Thanks to need-based support, I will be able to take my passion for Christ and share it with veterans and my brothers and sisters in the military.”
By sharing the wisdom and lessons learned from his time at Austin Seminary, Caleb Williams will become a living interpretation of the words from Timothy, helping lead others as both a soldier for our country and for Christ.
Senior MDiv/Dual Degree student Kristi Click carries a family lineage that extends across a century at Austin Seminary. (Her great-grandfather, Reverend Dr. John Milligan [Jack] Lewis, attended the institution 100 years ago). However, she found her calling as a seminarian while traveling well beyond the Austin Seminary campus.
“I have done a lot of traveling since entering seminary—including going to Trinidad and Tobago with Whit Bodman, Turkey with Lewie Donelson, and taking Bill Greenway’s class 'An Adventure in Wilderness and Spirituality,' which involved a lot of travel to undisclosed locations,” said Click. “But perhaps the most influential travel experience I had during seminary was when I took a break right smack dab in the middle of my studies and served as a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) in Guatemala from August 2011 to August 2012."
Before Click’s trips abroad, she experienced a number of hardships early in her time at the Seminary that forced her to spend moments examining the depths of her heart.
“While my first two years of seminary were great, they did not come without challenges,” said Click. ”I struggled personally because of several deaths in the family, changes in relationships, and family cancer diagnoses, amongst other things. I found myself very disheartened and my self-esteem plummeted. I was frustrated because I had felt called to this place … and now I was so emotionally unstable that I couldn’t focus on my studies—or anything else. I was struggling.”
Ultimately, Click would gain validation in her choice to lead a life of pastoral care while spending time as a PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer in Central America.
While in Guatemala, God validated my call to ministry. During my YAV year, I had two volunteer positions: a teacher at a school with children who were victims of child labor, and a pastoral assistant to an Episcopal priest—who also happened to be a physician,” said Click. “I also facilitated presbytery partnership trips when churches would bring their youth and/or other groups down on short-term visitations or mission trips. It would take a very long time to walk you through that year but some of the most influential experiences I had included helping eighteen-year-old students learn to read and write (in Spanish), and empowering them to go for their dreams. I visited these children in their homes and spoke with their parents about their potential. I became an ally for them when they needed to talk about an all-too-often abusive situation at home. I loved them and learned from them that God does not forsake us.
At the Episcopal church, I was a lunch program coordinator. St. Mark’s has a high population of friends and members who are elderly and find themselves down-and-out. Some reasons for this include family abandonment, mental and psychological struggles resulting from the country’s devastating 36-year civil war, poverty, and loneliness. My job was to help cook, serve, and clean up the food, provide group activities, and simply befriend and provide a social space for the program’s participants. On Sundays, I often assisted with worship—preaching in both English and Spanish, on occasion.
Since the church’s priest was also a physician, I often accompanied him on medical mission trips to very rural areas of the country. My job was to primarily be a translator for the English speakers. There are twenty-three Mayan indigenous languages, and some patients didn’t even speak English. My brain has not been so tired since taking Hebrew!
As I mentioned, I am still discerning my exact call, but, partially because of my Guatemalan experience, I know that it involves working with people in a pastoral care and/or missional setting. I progressively feel called to the margins—to be with the suffering and downhearted.”
Click’s perserverance points to John 1:5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” It also serves as a reminder of how personal challenges can build resolve and ultimately shape us as we work to care for others. Through her journeys, both abroad and at home, she now stands ready to enter a larger community where she can use lessons from her experiences to help the brokenhearted. For even in times of darkness, we can always be pointed in the direction of the light.
For middler John Harrison, Austin Seminary President Ted Wardlaw (formerly pastor of John’s church, Central Presbyterian, Atlanta) and John’s mother, Camille, were two of many “big role models” for him growing up. For 13 years, John has watched his mother direct Villa International, a residential community that offers Christian hospitality to health care professionals who come from all faiths and all parts of the world to research at the CDC in Atlanta.
At Central (Atlanta), John completed the confirmation process and was elected to the session before going to college at Harvard. Before leaving Central to become president of Austin Seminary, Ted Wardlaw had asked John to consider seminary, an invitation that proved both powerful and enduring.
Like many young people, college years brought John a time of disillusionment with the church. Nonetheless, he sought out Harvard professor, Peter Gomes, to ask advice on how best to spend his Harvard years with ministry in mind. To his amazement Professor Gomes answered him, “Young man, if you are called, you cannot escape it. Therefore do anything else you can think of, and God will find you when you are ready.”
Five years later, God found John, a film major looking for work and inching along an L.A. freeway. “It just hit me that I needed to be a pastor.”
John changed direction and came to Austin Seminary to prepare. “The humility and the hospitality here impressed me. Since then, it’s only gotten brighter.” In the city of Austin, John saw pressing needs and a place for the political activism that had energized him all his life, as well as a scholarly and faithful community. As he examines the death penalty and other key social justice issues, he says, “The frontier for all the issues I care about is here. They’re not going to change in America until they can change in Texas.”
John seeks a ministry “close to the street. I want to be a bridge to bring the church out into the street.”
Such a calling is possible, in part, because of the financial aid Austin Seminary provides students. “Here, we don’t have to recruit people into the material demands of student debt. I’m delighted that I can serve Jesus and not the bank.”
This financial support leaves students more time to start their own ministries. “A former student, Kim Rogers (now associate pastor at Central Presbyterian in Austin,) started a Thursday morning breakfast for the homeless. Other students do their own forms of outreach, from pickup basketball games to hospital visits. The Seminary’s support lets students start their ministries right now.”
Austin Seminary welcomes new ideas, he said. “I’m doing my Supervised Practice of Ministry this year in Travis County Jail. I understand this is the first time an Austin Seminary student has done supervised coursework in a jail setting, but Austin Seminary set it up. They are very good at saying ‘yes’ to good ideas.”
Hurricane Katrina’s catastrophic harm to her hometown of New Orleans showed Kathy Lee the faces of ministry and her call to seminary.
Although she grew up in a Presbyterian church, Kathy never considered going to seminary. “I loved going to church, and I was inspired by those experiences.” Having attended public schools all of her life, she chose Pepperdine, a Christian university in California with “a big focus on faith and service.” There she became more involved with discernment, service, and community.
Katrina hit the Gulf Coast during Kathy’s last year of college, and her father—a restaurant owner—was forced to close his business. Between working with her dad to reopen the restaurant, teaching English in China, and re-connecting with extended family, Kathy found her first two years after college to be an existential crisis of sorts.
Enter: Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) and the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) Program. PDA’s five-year grant invited and engaged young adults to be part of Katrina recovery efforts in the Presbytery of South Louisiana. Kathy’s pastor asked her to apply for the position as the YAV Program’s site coordinator.
During the interview with the YAV Advisory Board, she realized they expected to give the job to a seminary graduate. “As we talked, I understood that all the elements—service, reflection, discernment, and community—had already been a huge part of my life, and I wanted that job.”
And she got it. For the next four years, she learned a lot more about the Presbyterian Church and its engagement in world missions. “It was an amazing opportunity to understand the role of the church and to be affirmed in my work—in my hometown. I was able process a lot of emotions and grief through this experience.”
At the same time, many of her colleagues and supervisors had seminary training. “I saw what seminary could equip them with. They were able to talk to people about God, even in those hard times.”
Other YAVs also experienced hardships at the time. “Many YAVs experienced the death and loss of loved ones, conflict in their communities and places of service, and struggles with their identity and role as Christians in our world today.”
“This seminary experience equips us to participate and walk with people through these challenges. There were limitations I experienced not having been to seminary, but still loved what I was able to do with the program and YAVs. At one point, a mentor of mine asked me if I planned to go to seminary, and I said then, 'I don't know.' He said to me, 'Don't you think there's something in being professionally trained? Would you see someone for medical attention if that person did not attend medical school?' It finally clicked that what I needed was to go to seminary."
Kathy embraced preparation unreservedly. “I plan to apply to the joint social work program with University of Texas for the MDiv/MSSW degree. I don’t know where in the realm of the PC(USA) I’ll serve, but I want to be engaged with a congregation and a community using what I’ve learned here. I see a lot of different possibilities of being able to participate in different ways the church is involved in people’s lives.
“Ten years ago, I would never have seen myself here,” she continues. “My prayer is that I will stay faithful in who I am and what I am doing.”
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