June 28, 2019
Near the apex of Prospect Street in early June, spread back from the road in a horseshoe shape, the brick complex of Yale Divinity School appears serene and orderly, with archways aligned on its porticos and potted flowers flanking a white picket gate.
Inside, things are less tranquil. Summer Study is in session, and 130 adult students from all over the city, the state and places farther flung are wrestling with issues large and small—questioning, challenging and sometimes redefining their view of the world.
Beginning in 2003 with 12 seminars mostly attended by YDS alumni, Summer Study at Yale Divinity School, its 2019 sessions now finished, has grown into a two-week program that, judging by the enthusiasm of its participants, feels something like grownup summer camp for the spiritually minded. Some come for a single class, others for a full experience of four one-week classes plus daily meditation and prayer, shared lunches, field trips and afternoon workshops. About a third of attendees now are YDS alumni; the rest are from local and regional congregations, retirement study groups and those who simply heard about the opportunity through word of mouth. They come, says Jan Hagens, Summer Study’s director, “to fill that vacuum of meaning that otherwise can’t be filled in a society that’s mostly run on economic terms and not on spiritual terms. So, there’s an opportunity for people to fill up their spiritual gas tank.”
This “filling” was on view in this year’s Summer Study classrooms. In one, Omer Bajwa, Director of Muslim Life in the chaplain’s office at Yale, was offering a five-day crash course in Islam packed full of information that elicited frequent questions from a group of 10 students. In another, students dove deep into the Biblical book of Job, explicating passages line by line and calling up alternate translations with Greg Mobley, visiting professor at YDS. In a third, Jerry Streets, former Yale chaplain and current pastor of Dixwell Avenue United Church of Christ, led a small group through an opening meditation, then into an intimate discussion of the work of theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman.
“I was thrilled by the invitation [to teach],” says Bajwa, who was joining the Summer Study faculty for the first time. His aim, he says, was to offer “not just a dry Islam 101 class but really [a class] about Muslim culture and engagement… [giving] texture to these things on both the history and theology but also people’s lives today.” To that end, his presentation was full of colorful slides from Pakistan, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, the United States and other nations where millions of Muslims live and worship. In a sort of interfaith show and tell, he brought in prayer rugs, medjool dates and several Qurans as well as stacks of books on Islam to recommend to his students.
Student Krista Ulrich traveled to Yale from her home outside Buffalo, New York. One of a few Summer Study students earning credit for her courses, Ulrich is working toward a second career in ministry. She found her course on “The Bible in Art and Artifact” particularly inspiring. During a field trip to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, students were invited to sit down in front of a document that had been laid out for them. “I looked down, and there was a document, not covered, right in front of me, that Pope Gregory I had written as a homily in the year 800, and I welled up with tears,” she says, laughing at her own emotional reaction. “The wealth of experience here is so amazing… The whole opportunity is just something I’m extremely grateful for.”
“I have been so moved this week by this class,” another student remarked at the opening of Streets’s class on Thurman, titled “Theology in a Time of Fear, Deception and Hate.” Picking up a slogan from the United Church of Christ—“God is still speaking”—the student asserted that, as well, “Thurman is still speaking.” Later, Streets reiterated that idea: “We are reflecting upon his work as a point of departure and not a destination.”
There were moments of levity as well. In his booming voice, Mobley, teaching “The Book of Job: The Crossroads of Faith,” cracked a few irreverent jokes and punctuated his preacherly teaching style with snippets of song. Turning to a handout written in both Hebrew and English, he teased his lay students: “Just read the English, please,” prompting laughter even as they examined what is arguably one of the darkest books of the Bible.
Director Hagens says he thinks no other school offers a program quite like this one. Many students return year after year, sometimes bringing friends and colleagues along. The cost of $450 per class (two and a half hours for five days) is a bargain, he asserts, considering the level of the faculty and the discourse as well as access to YDS facilities and special programming.
Greater New Haven resident Karen Baar was at Summer Study for the first time, taking Bajwa’s class on Islam, and now looks forward to seeing what will be offered next year. “I think it’s very sad that in this country most of us in one faith don’t know anything about [another],” says Baar, who is Jewish and says she needs to learn more about her own faith as well. “We just don’t know, and obviously there are so many horrible misconceptions. So I’ve really learned a lot.”
Islam at Yale