Sunday, September 19, 2010

HELP: My Essay for Admission to Divinity School

Dear reader,

As you may or may not know, I am applying to divinity school this fall. If you do not already know, this unfortunately does not mean I will be studying divination (re: Harry Potter's coursework in reading into the future), but is actually more akin to what some call "seminary."

I am applying to several schools that I have slim chances of being accepted to, and I need YOUR help! I am posting here one version of my personal statement, and I would be indebted to you forever, dear reader, if you would give me any critical, constructive feedback. Post it here, or email me at julieknopp@gmail.com. The more feedback the merrier!

Warning: If you have been reading this blog or if you have talked to me in the past four years, this essay might sound a bit like a broken record. Also, these essays sometimes involve a vomit-inducing amount of tooting one's own horn. My apologies! Here goes!

I consider “Pops” one of my greatest spiritual mentors. Pops has been homeless for over thirty years and earns astounding wages collecting gratuities from passersby on the street as he invites them to sign his clothing. Over the past decade, he has filled up almost five hundred coats, shirts, and hats with signatures. While it started out as a way to survive, Pops now calls this his ministry. Through this practice, he makes each passerby feel truly special. Without judgment, Pops listens to their stories in a way that makes them feel worthy of being heard. His ministry has taught me to never doubt the value of any human being or their story.

I met Pops when I was 17, while volunteering at Peace House, where I first began to explore the possibility of a vocation in community ministry. Often defined by its motto “a place to belong,” Peace House is a spiritual oasis for the homeless, drug-addicted and mentally-ill of downtown Minneapolis. It also draws a considerable number of members from wealthy, suburban communities attracted to its indiscriminate love and acceptance. Few other places offer the opportunity to gather in roundtable discussion for an hour every day with individuals of diverse religious, political and socioeconomic backgrounds. We discuss belief about God, sources of joy and where we find meaning.

From hundreds of such discussions, I discovered that there is immense transformative possibility in opening the mind up to dialogue with people of different convictions from our own—to the unacknowledged truths another’s story might have to offer. I find my spiritual growth is most inhibited by the assumption that I already know. At Peace House, I realized that diversified community dialogue offers an invaluable exposure to our assumptions about truth. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). In this way, rarely a day passes at Peace House when I am not confronted by the precarious nature of one of my theological assumptions or lifestyle choices and forced to reevaluate my logic. I seek balance as I confront the contrast between the theologies of the privileged and the theologies of the oppressed, present with eerie consistency at Peace House.

In my last year at Kalamazoo College, my thesis project came to reinforce this belief in the power of community dialogue. Through 24 semi-structured interviews, I sought to examine how “mega-church” evangelicalism might shift traditional patterns in the relationship between belief about God and social class. I was originally hesitant to take my advisor’s suggestion of focusing on the evangelical movement, which I had prejudged as a reactionary faith culture. Yet, after only a few interviews at the “mega-church,” I found that these evangelicals seem to be more passionate about social justice than any mainline Protestant or Catholic church I had ever come in contact with before. Over the course of three years, this church alone donated over $2 million towards AIDS reduction efforts. Engaging in dialogue with evangelicals brought me to see their humanity and their invaluable contributions to the world.

Based on my experiences working at Peace House and writing my thesis, I posit that encountering another reality beyond one’s own primary socio-political environment works towards a theology more accommodating of the vast range of human experience. For this reason, my central academic goal at Candler School of Theology begs further exploration of the social context of religious belief. Engaging Marx, Niebuhr, and James Cone, I hope to explore the notion of theology as subjective speech about God. How might we enrich our theological worldviews through dialogue or through exposure to new socio-cultural settings? I believe my previous study on this subject would bring a unique analytical edge to the classroom at Candler.

Through years of work at Peace House and through study abroad in Ju├írez, Mexico and rural Thailand, I would bring to Candler the ability of relating to people from diverse backgrounds and lifestyles. My experience coordinating interfaith discussion at Peace House, as well as my experience as a student chaplain at Kalamazoo College, has helped me develop a set of skills for facilitating faith-based dialogue. I would be eager to put these skills to work as a member of Candler’s Social Concerns Network. In such a forum, I could be of service in developing constructive dialogues between students of theology and the greater Atlanta community. Given my experiences of working with a diverse client base in both a university setting and an inner-city environment, I could help bridge the gaps that often exist between academia and public interest. I hope to continue building strong theological and personal communication skills for social ministry through courses with Dr. Jenkins and Dr. Burkholder.

Since the time when Pops' ministry of collecting signatures first inspired me, I have ruminated over how best to implement my talents to apply to our shared value of acknowledging the inherent worth of each individual's story. My conclusion has brought me back to how I met Pops, as I define my central vocational goal as generating innovation in religious dialogue. I am energized by the possibilities for constructive community exchange that I see in my future. While my ideas remain imperfect, my enthusiasm for them is limitless. With help from more experienced religious leaders at Candler, I am confident I could implement such a career in ministry in an influential way.