In the BeginningIMG_0523

When I got to the GTU in 2012, I was already wrapping up a lifelong relationship with a small and conservative evangelical church.

 

The breakup had been long in coming. As I began to transition out of Religious Studies at Cal and into graduate school, it became obvious to me that I could no longer continue as a fundamentalist, even nominally. My pastor agreed.

 

Thankfully, UC Berkeley is next to Holy Hill, home to the Graduate Theological Union—a consortium of several schools of religion, including a plethora of Christian seminaries.

 

I’d already had one or two close encounters with the GTU. I still remember Dad describing it to me in terms a child could understand: “It’s where people from different religions study God together.” At the age of seven, I thought this was a deeply perplexing arrangement.

 

In my early twenties I started taking night classes at Contra Costa College. I had the great fortune of taking a Comparative Religions course with Rev. Barbara Essex. “Have you thought about the GTU?” she asked. “I think it could suit you.”

 

I started to harbor the hope that maybe I could find my way there.

 

As I was wrapping up my undergraduate studies, I began hunting through the various GTU websites, skimming their descriptions and trying to get a sense of what would be best for me in the next phase of my life.

 

I’d already been giving it some thought. After 20+ years of Protestant, charismatic, evangelical fundamentalism, I was ready to cast a wider net.

 

I wanted options without commitment.

 

I wanted to branch out, organically, to see where I would flourish.

 

     The Pacific School of Religionpsr_crest

The Pacific School of Religion stood out to me. Unlike any other school on the menu, it bills itself as interdenominational.

 

Of course there were other fine qualities about PSR that I barely registered. For example, the school is home to the Center for LGBT and Gender Studies in Religion.

 

This might have given some recovering conservatives pause, but not me. I was just excited to advance my religious studies in a place that wasn’t going to make me sign on to some doctrinal screed in which I had no confidence.

 

In hindsight, there were some early signals I missed, clues that would’ve made my transition to adult Christianity smoother. But even Oblivious Me sensed it might not be super easy.

 

When I was first scouting out PSR I attended the annual “Come and See” event, which is an opportunity for the school to introduce its programs to the general public.

 

I took Norman as my wingman (generally I’m not great in live social situations) and warned him: “No gay jokes. People will already think we’re a couple.”

 

He scoffed, but it was literally the first question we were asked.

 

“We’re just friends,” I explained. “No benefits.”

 

A small panel of faculty and administrators from PSR and the GTU spoke at “Come and See.” One prominent speaker assured all of us that PSR was a unique place where the balance of power was consciously shifting—“We’re not all white, straight males anymore,” he said. I thought his expression seemed to falter for a heartbeat when he looked at me. Or maybe not. Maybe it was just my imagination. Either way, I filed his words away under “Things I Will Pretend to Overlook.”

 

I remember the moment I knew I was in the right place.

 

Someone in the audience asked the panel of speakers, “What does the school do to keep us as students spiritually healthy?”

 

Dr. Lisa Fullam of the Jesuit School of Theology answered.

 

“That’s a great question,” she said. “The GTU is not a spiritual retreat. The work of seminary- and graduate-level study can be demanding. Burnout is a risk. Every GTU school has different staff members, chaplains, and directors that are available—but the real onus is on you, the student. There are resources available, but students need to be proactive to make sure their emotional and spiritual needs are met outside the classroom.”

 

When I submitted my application to the GTU, I marked interdenominational PSR as my first choice. I was accepted.

 

     A Rocky Start

The Chapel at the top of Holy Hill

The chapel at the top of Holy Hill

That fall my brother-in-law helped me get started with my new phase of life.

 

We loaded up his SUV and moved my gear from our old church to my new seminary, to the chapel at the top of Holy Hill—just my bass and an old amp I “borrowed” from the music room (sorry Chris).

 

When we arrived, a banner hung outside the diner advertising the evening’s social event: “Gay and Straight Together.”

 

Instead of going in, we just nodded and smiled and waved and left.

 

As the semester geared up there were a variety of workshops and meetings. Some of them were useful, I’m sure, but I couldn’t get over one workshop in particular.

 

The first packet of papers distributed during student orientation included a quick-and-dirty guide to contemporary social issues. The handout suggested (stated flatly) that men couldn’t be the victims of sexism, and that white people could not be the victims of racism.

 

As I listened to that presentation some of my ugliest memories came slithering back, grade-school experiences I had banished to the darker recesses of my mind: backpacks stolen, books missing, glasses broken, a steady litany of insults from children who resented my very presence; the mob of kids that sometimes followed me home; when I had to escape Toni and his crew by knocking on a stranger’s front door and asking for help; when Luis the eighth-grader peed on my coat on the playground behind the utility barn and then gave it back to me; “Hey guero, here’s your jacket;” my classmates laughing.

 

Recess alone.

 

I thought I had genuinely made peace with these memories, but I had only buried them in a shallow grave.

 

Like a fool I held on to my anger for several months. Eventually I realized I wouldn’t be able to process what I was feeling without talking to someone (“the onus is on you, the student”) so I scheduled a meeting with an on-campus minister, an admissions counselor and a practiced listener.

 

Joellynn helped me to understand that the student handout had been aiming to describe typical, widespread social realities. It wasn’t necessarily an ironclad, universal fact, or a clinical assessment of all white people as an ethnic group. She even encouraged me to approach my fellow students with my concern. Eventually I did, but a random public thread on Facebook was probably the wrong place.

 

As an off-campus student living a few cities away, the ordinary rhythms of student life were alien to me. Most of my cohort came to the dining hall to eat and talk and make friends—you know, like human beings do. But me? When I came to the dining hall, I hid behind my laptop and ranted in the comments section of trending news stories.

 

     Taking Root

Pacific School of Religion

PSR – Holbrook and the Badé Museum

Slowly, over the course of months, I started to get to know people on a first-name basis.

 

Then, remarkably and despite my best contrary efforts, I made a friend.

 

Like me, Philip was a commuter student. One day he came into the Commuter Student Lounge, where I often squirrelled away between classes.

 

Our conversation was slow to start, but Philip has the gift of social speech, and somehow—God bless you, Philip—he got me talking. I don’t remember what exactly we talked about. I do remember he made me feel known, and welcome.

 

During my two years at PSR, probably my one redeeming social grace was my stint playing bass for Tuesday morning chapel. Somehow I even developed a routine. Classes early in the morning; an omelet at the dining hall; rehearsal; service; home. I got so good at it that I hardly had to talk to anyone.

 

Every chapel service was unique. Sometimes GTU seminarians-in-training would lead the services—a good chance to stretch their leadership muscles in a constructive environment. Other times guests of great dignity would visit. I can still vividly remember the woman in charge of an African orphanage for kids born into a lifetime of AIDS.

 

Early one Tuesday I came in and they were setting up for TDoR.

 

I don’t remember being overly involved in the prep, but when they handed me the sheet music, it looked doable enough.

 

I think before service began, I figured out that TDoR stood for Transgender Day of Remembrance.

 

On the remote chance that you don’t know, TDoR is a day set aside to remember and honor human beings who defied their gender assignments and paid the steepest price: violent death.

 

The force of the service was unexpected.

 

On the spot I saw a side of human suffering that I was otherwise predisposed not to register—people victimized, executed, and forgotten by a terrifying global culture of fear, of confusion-fueled rage and after-the-fact indifference.

 

In a former life I’d heard that their suffering was the consequence of sin—if not God’s intentional wrath, then at least a predictable outcome of violating nature’s categories.

 

Sitting through that first TDoR service, I consciously registered for probably the first time that these victims were human beings—real people, with a value at least equal to my own. And who mourns for them?

 

They aren’t stereotypes or reprobates or punchlines. They are people with worth and needs and concerns and experience and humanity swept aside by an apathetic and self-occupied majority.

 

     Branching OutIMG_1417

Nearly a year later, I bumped into Philip on campus in passing, as often happened.

 

“Lee and I are putting together a special TDoR service,” he said. “Would you play bass?”

 

Of course I agreed.

 

Unfortunately, a better bass player had already volunteered.

 

“Could you play guitar instead?” Philip asked.

 

I agreed.

 

But someone else showed up to our first rehearsal with a guitar and—of course—she was better than me, and much more practiced in the set.

 

“Can you sing in the choir?”

 

With silent and immediate regret, I agreed.

 

This second TDoR service was the brainchild of several students. Honestly, working with a coalition of liberal interdenominational seminarians was not always easy for a bookish narcissist like me. That semester, on top of classes and papers, the rehearsals felt a little chaotic, a strain on my already flimsy emotional supports.

 

One night, right before a major rehearsal, I showed up and sat down across from Philip.

 

I made a quiet confession that day in the dining hall that changed my life.

 

“Philip,” said I, “I don’t know if I can do this.”

 

I took a deep breath and added, “I’m bipolar. I’m on edge. I’m freaking out with some of the scheduling and rescheduling. I’m already not great at time management, and I don’t know if I can keep doing this.”

 

Secretly, I had been hoping for an excuse to bail. Instead Philip smiled, gave me a hug, and said something that stayed with me.

 

“Don’t worry,” he said. “You’re one of us. No matter what you have to do, it will be fine.”

 

That TDoR left a mark on me. Our collaboration and rehearsals paid off. By some wicked twist of fate I ended up singing a solo rendition of Portishead’s Wandering Stars. We got through it alright, mainly because the arrangement was in a good key and I had strong musicians behind me.

 

But I remember more clearly the quiet closing of the service, when we distributed the names of those transgendered souls who had been murdered in the course of the previous year, punishment for the grave crime of existing differently. We read each name out loud, and extinguished a flame to mark their passing.

 

Christianized violence against LGBT+ community is real.

 

It’s not okay to look the other way.

 

     Flourishing559148_4264014471032_468892502_n

I wish I could say that I had transcended my former self before my time at PSR was over. Many of the friendships I made during TDoR rehearsals continue to endure, and the after-party on Amye’s houseboat at the Oakland marina was—as the poet says—legendary cool.

 

But it took a few more years for the transformation to really register on my psyche—first the wind blows, and then you see the movement.

 

During my programs of study I delved into everything that interested me—apocalypticism, early Christian history, biblical studies, patristic theology, New Testament formation. I even studied some things that I find extremely unpleasant, like Greek.

 

I took classes with the Jesuits, the Methodists, the Episcopalians, the Franciscans, the Lutherans, the Dominicans, the Presbyterians, and the Unitarians.

 

At the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology I was exposed to a rich and beautiful liturgical life that reflected an unexpectedly sophisticated view of Christian spirituality. There also I met a remarkable priest who became my Obi Wan Kenobi—a well-travelled, no-nonsense New Yorker who was well acquainted with the scholarship of both the Old and New Testaments.

 

“I’m not a headhunter,” Father Paretsky told me one day in his office when I mentioned my interest in becoming Catholic. “But if you’re interested in the RCIA process I can certainly put you in contact with Dorothy Portner. She does a lot of spiritual advising with the student body.”

 

Soon thereafter I started attending Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults sessions at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene. Eventually—almost concurrently with receiving my language degree from PSR—I was chrismated and entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. That same year I began studying Christian Spirituality at the doctoral level, now as a student of the GTU.

 

A progressive Catholic was born.

 

     Bearing Fruit

Pacific School of Religion

The Dining Hall

Thankfully, I’m not done growing. The friends I managed to make at PSR continue to challenge me to reexamine the assumptions I brought with me to the table.

 

But that’s the thing. They made a place for me and my baggage at the table. They held a space for me, where I could learn to listen in order to understand, and not only to answer. I’ve come to appreciate how—as a fragile white male—I am in many ways part of a larger problem that I can’t always see clearly. Even still, despite my shortcomings, I’d like to think I’ve made breakthroughs in my understanding of race, ethnicity, and gender.

 

For example, when my friends would say things like, “White people aren’t the victims of racism,” I used to hear the statement, “White people can’t experience real emotional or social trauma from race-based discrimination.”

 

Now I understand that (at least in most cases) what my friends aim to say is, “White people in America don’t generally experience the same persistent, systemic levels of racial discrimination which characterizes the daily life of most minority individuals.”

 

But that’s a cumbersome mouthful of qualifications.

 

“Black Lives Matter” drives the same point home in a cleaner, more elegant, more powerful way.

 

If—God forbid!—I had stayed as I was before I came to PSR, I would probably still feel like the small and threatened white boy I was in grade school, unwanted and unwelcome among my elders and my peers.

 

But my interdenominational seminary brought me into confrontation with broader racial and social realities, and pushed me beyond my own limited and particular experiences.

 

In many ways I’m still the same. I’m still socially awkward. I still have a flair for getting into arguments with friends and strangers on Facebook. But I can also say that I am pleased with my progress. Not so long ago, I was a conservative, evangelical fundamentalist with a lot of doubt and lots of questions. Today I am living a dream I’ve had for years (Hey Dad—I made it to the GTU!) as a gleefully progressive Catholic.

 

 

Written by Justin Staller

Justin studies Christian Spirituality at the GTU, where he received his M.A. in Biblical Languages after earning his B.A. in Religious Studies at Cal. Justin is also member of the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality.

9 Comments

Jonathan Homrighausen

Thank you for sharing this, Justin. The GTU is truly an amazing, one-of-a-kind place and I am proud to say I have studied there! I don’t think I will be able to stay for my doctoral study but I feel I am gaining crucial skills for wherever I go next.

Reply
Justin Staller

Jonathan, thank you for reading! The GTU truly is an amazing place. I feel fortunate to have found my way here.

With your skill-sets, I’m confident you will find success wherever the road takes you.

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Shannon Jonson

Justin, I can relate to your story about being socially awkward with the idea of not fitting in. Your honesty will help others who are struggling with the very same issues. You have an open mind, which has furthered your personal growth. May we all continue to question what we think we know and have the courage to admit we were wrong and learn to do better. Thank you for sharing your experience with the rest of us.

Reply
Justin Staller

Thank you Shannon–my social awkwardness has followed me around for a long time, but I’ve learned that just acknowledging it can go a long way LOL. Thanks also for taking the time to read my post!

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