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why seminary

As graduation approaches, the casual conversations about what I’ll be doing in the future seem to take on a sharper edge.  I know it’s not just me.  The innocent questions about next fall make plenty of my friends nervous as well.  The real world, our elders warn, is about to begin, and we’d better be ready.

So what am I doing next year?  Well, this winter I applied to a number of seminaries in the Chicago area and beyond – as far away as Southern California.  I began to think about seminary a couple of years ago, as I stumbled, mortally wounded, out of a morally untenable religious tradition that I participated in for most of my life.  As I began to question every scrap of my faith in search of more meaningful, wholesome ways to talk about God, I felt a deep desire to study these issues in intentional community with other people of faith.

When I was trying to figure out whether to pursue graduate studies in social work or theology, I visited a pastor friend of mine.  He asked me to tell him about why I was interested in studying social work vs. theology.  After a few minutes, he stopped me: “Ryan, when you talk about social work you are very matter of fact; but the way you’re talking about taking classes in theology, it’s so clear this is for you, you’re glowing.”

While I have enjoyed my social work classes in the undergraduate program in which I’m enrolled, it is the study of theology, and of the sacred relationship between religion, power, and social change, that makes me feel most alive.

My friend Claudio says that theology starts where it hurts.  If that’s true, then Christianity must begin with the suffering of the poor and the downtrodden.  (There’s really a lot of overlap here with social work’s commitment to serving marginalized populations.)  Good theology doesn’t obscure the fact that Jesus was killed by a first century lynch mob, or that God-fearing Christians in this country lynched thousands of people in years well within recent memory.  Good theology grieves and rages about Eric Garner’s death; it marches in the street and remembers how our own Lord had his breath choked out of him by brutalizing agents of the state.

This is the kind of Christianity I’m interested in telling others about – not a religion that points to the afterlife as an excuse to detach from the world’s suffering, but a tradition that in the hands of the oppressed can bring forth great life and repentance.

After a long season of searching, I believe I’ve found a place where I can study Christian theology, oppression, social movements, power, scripture, ethics, history, interfaith concerns, and tradition in healthy community with the support of a stellar team of faculty and staff.

I’m happy to relay that I’ve been accepted at my top choice for seminary, McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, about a block from the University of Chicago.  The school is also offering me a generous merit scholarship that should cover tuition and housing expenses.  I’m mailing my acceptance letter today, and this fall I should be moving to Chicago to pursue a Master’s in Divinity degree.


McCormick is a Presbyterian institution, and part of an ecumenical theological consortium of eleven graduate schools of theology in Chicagoland, where if you enroll at one school, you are able to easily take cross-listed courses at any of the others.  (Imagine if you could attend any Big Ten school and then take classes at the other nine without hassle.  Amazing, right?)  This is particularly cool because there are actually more seminaries, theology professors, and books on theology in Chicago’s metropolitan area than in any other city in the world, outside of Rome.

McCormick is indeed cross-cultural, urban, ecumenical, and thoroughly reformed.  It is hard to believe I’ll be attending seminary – let alone an institution as reformed as McCormick, given my general disdain for this tradition – but I have a strange, comforting (hopefully not just in my head) sense that this is a step in the right direction.  From what I have gathered from research and from visiting, this is a community of people committed to living out the gospel of Jesus Christ, evident in the fact that there is no racial majority among their student body; that they center anti-racist training; that third world liberation and womanist and feminist theologies are taught and affirmed; that the professors represent various traditions and backgrounds, but share a biblically faithful vision for forming a new generation of ministers of Christian hope.


McCormick’s quad

I continue to believe social institutions shape us in powerful ways we often do not recognize.  Employers, churches, family structures, schools, clubs or professional associations…when we join these organizations we are doing more than lending them our name and time – we are in a very real way submitting to being formed by these structures, which in our day often dehumanize and commodify us.  But I want to attend McCormick because I believe it to be the kind of institution that would shape me in positive ways, honoring my agency and challenging me to be better as I discern my calling and exercise my ministries of connection, writing, hospitality, and play.

So, to the inquisitors, what will I be doing in the future?

Well, I’m still not entirely sure.  Though I’m now able to proudly sate my friends’ and family’s curiosity, I still don’t know how to describe the trajectory of the rest of my life.  The future might look like me becoming ordained as a presbyter in a certain tradition.  It might look like me getting a job in government, at a publishing company, a nonprofit, or even working as a social worker with a background in Christian ministry and theology.

If I had to chance any sort of hazy vision, at this point it would probably be safe to say my future will involve seminary and writing (and breathing) and family and friends and eating good hot squid, but that’s about as far as I can see ahead of me.  And that should be okay, taking things one move at a time.  As Dr. King (who once lectured at McCormick!) said: “faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

the cross and the lynching tree

“The Cross and the Lynching Tree are separated by nearly two thousand years. One is the universal symbol of the Christian faith; the other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America. Though both are symbols of death, one represents a message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies the negation of that message by white supremacy.

Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on the cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree, relatively few people, apart from the black poets, novelists, and other reality-seeing artists, have explored the symbolic connections. Yet, I believe this is the challenge we must face. What is at stake is the credibility and the promise of the Christian gospel and the hope that we may heal the wounds of racial violence that continue to divide our churches and our society.” – James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

James Hal Cone was born black in white-dominated southern Arkansas in 1938, and grew up there during the thick of the segregation era.  Like his parents, pastors, and friends, he lived directly under a state-sponsored reign of racial violence, going to church and coming of age in a time when Judge Lynch was actively terrorizing African Americans.  He would wait nervously for his father to come home every night, knowing that death was a real possibility.  At the age of 16 Cone experienced a call to ministry, and began serving as a pastor for several local congregations that following year.

While attending graduate school in Chicago, Cone realized that none of the lauded European thinkers he was reading in his coursework had anything to say to the disparate social conditions being experienced by blacks in America.  While he appreciated their contributions to the theological canon, their inapplicability to his current context dogged him.  “What,” he remembers wondering, “could Karl Barth possibly mean for black students who had come from the cotton fields of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, seeking to change the structure of their lives in a society that had defined black as non-being?”

From these questions he turned to the examples of the scriptures, the black church, and his three greatest ethical and theological influencers – the fiery preacher-turned-social-prophet James Baldwin, Baptist Reverend Martin King, and Malcolm X, the black Muslim leader who famously de-converted from Christianity, declaring it “a white man’s religion.”  From attempting to synthesize the best of their moral teachings, Cone has developed a thoroughly Christian religious framework called black liberation theology, which seeks to primarily identify God with the oppressed, in solidarity with black dignity and power against the dehumanization of racism and white supremacy.

James Cone

Cone has spent his life in the academy and the church singing the stories of the marginalized, and his comprehensive systematic theology pointedly makes the claim that the God of the Bible is a special guardian for all those who are oppressed throughout the world – what one Salvadorian liberation theologian and martyr called “the crucified peoples of history.”  Cone currently serves as Charles Augustus Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

In Cone’s latest work, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, he draws explicit parallels between Jesus’ brutal crucifixion and the deaths of thousands of black women, men, and children who were brutally murdered under a regime of carefully-calculated acts of terror and mob violence.  His argument is devastatingly simple: if you are an American Christian who wants to come to a better understanding of Jesus’ crucifixion, you must look at the lynching tree; if you would like to gain a better emotional, sociological, or theological understanding of what first century crucifixions were like in Roman Palestine, there is no better example to look towards than the well-documented firestorm of lynchings that inflamed this country for nearly a century.

As Cone observes:

“Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists—the lowest of the low in society. Both Jesus and blacks were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity and cruelty. They were stripped, in order to be deprived of dignity, then paraded, mocked and whipped, pierced, derided and spat upon, and tortured for hours in the presence of jeering crowds for popular entertainment. In both cases, the purpose was to strike terror in the subject community. It was to let people know that the same thing would happen to them if they did not stay in their place.”

Strikingly, the meaning of these two painful symbols is nearly identical; both the cross and the lynching tree remain intimately similar icons.  Why then, one is left to wonder, has the rather glaring connection between the cross and the lynching tree been so powerfully obscured by American society?  On issues of complicity in racism including lynching and segregation, the Western church’s communal consciousness seems to have experienced a sudden and collective amnesia.  Or maybe it is not so sudden – according to Cone’s research, throughout nearly a century of celebrated protracted lynchings, one cannot find a single sermon or theological treatise given by any white Christian leader, evangelist, layperson, or theologian who made the explicit and obvious connection between the cross and the lynching tree.

What have could possibly accounted for this?

As civil rights leader and journalist Ida B. Wells commented as she documented lynchings across the country, “American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hellfire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians.”  Some seventy years later, Martin King would prophesy something similar when he said “any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.”

There are few current trends more indicative of “dry-as-dust religion” than the way the meaning of the cross has been spirited away at the hands of white Christians, even as it is sanitized and actively and purposefully divested from our culture’s most potent mirror image of it.  It is hard to consider this trend anything other than the working out of our society’s idolatrous racialist framework, which continues to hold the church in cultural captivity.

the lynching tree

For as Cone carefully recounts in his latest work, the cross of Jesus meant something entirely different for whites than it did for blacks.  While white Christians on their way home from church looked at broken black bodies and saw nothing but hollow entertainment, black Christians could in the victims of lynching see their long-suffering, crucified God.  While white Christians looked at the cross and chose to willfully abstract this symbol into detached spiritual dimensions, black Christians saw solidarity, a source of impossible support.

Cone reminds us how, through their direct experiences with the lynching tree, black Christians could ultimately find hope in the cross, even in the face of an immanent system that could put the body to death, but could not kill the spirit.  This is the liberative power of the gospel, which we can no longer afford to obscure; these stories must be centered, catechized.

These killings are not all that far behind us.  The twisted memories of the lynching era still inhabit our shared atmosphere.  To paraphrase the words of the great writer James Baldwin, we are trapped in history and history is trapped in us.  In the United States at least, American Christians gather to worship not only at the foot of the cross, but also in the shadow of the lynching tree.  Therefore, followers of the crucified God cannot possibly find any meaning in the cross unless we are willing to see Jesus’ death in light of lynching, by looking squarely at the sour, strange fruit in our midst.

Selma’s martyrs

The 2nd century church father Tertullian, speaking of those slain by the sanguineous Roman Empire, once wrote: “we multiply whenever we are mown down by you; the blood of Christians is seed.”  Tertullian was commenting on a peculiar trend that perplexed outside observers and frustrated civic authorities: even as scores of early believers were publicly killed by Roman rulers, the Christian faith was replicating like wildfire.

This trend – innocent death fueling fledgling ideological movements – is not unique to the spread of Christian doctrine; proximity to the death of innocents is a radicalizing force, and the blood of martyrs continues to water nascent religious, political, and social movements across the globe.  The disappearing of Hispaniola’s four Mirabal sisters by then-dictator Rafael Trujillo served as the catalyst for the revolution that eventually ousted el jefe.  John Brown’s ill-fated insurrection and hanging nationally incited the furor of both slavers and abolitionists, universally escalating the tensions that would lead to the civil war.

While all people can appreciate the lives of their fallen, through the centuries martyrs have also held a special place in the hearts of those of us who worship a murdered God.  Christians can point to a plethora of figures throughout scripture and history whose lives were ended in brave resistance to tyranny and wickedness.  We claim thousands, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who was imprisoned and executed for openly defying Hitler’s Nazi Germany, St. Stephen, who was put to death by the Sanhedrin, Martin King, the Baptist preacher and civil rights advocate whose life was ended by an assassins’ bullet, and Jesus of Nazareth, the itinerant rabbi who was publicly tortured and killed by a first century lynch mob.


In March of 1965, fifty years ago this weekend, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King held a march from Selma to Montgomery to help secure voting rights for all Americans.  While black Americans technically had the right to vote, a swath of laws including poll taxes and literacy tests – as well as extra-legal organized terrorism – was designed to disenfranchise black citizens from voting, and these methods essentially nullified any existing protections under law.

This weekend, with a crowd of over seventy thousand, I traveled to Selma to learn the stories of this movement, and its saints and devils.  I kneeled on Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Dr. King stopped to pray and discern the Spirit’s calling on “Turnaround Tuesday.”  I tread the ground where vigilantes enacted vicious revenge upon the innocent, stood where, half a century prior, Alabama State Troopers brutalized peaceful marchers in an event that became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

The media present at Bloody Sunday amplified the plight of Southern blacks far beyond local enclaves of support.  Following these and further acts of violence, thousands of supporters flocked to Selma from across the country.  As TIME magazine remarked, “rarely in human history has public opinion reacted so spontaneously and with such fury.”

Sadly, not all who joined Dr. King’s march survived.  Today, I want to share the stories of four of Selma’s martyrs, whose deaths drew similar social outrage and attention to the atrocities being committed in Alabama.  Their killings raised the national consciousness of the burgeoning civil rights movement, and should be remembered today as nothing less than martyrs:

Jimmie Lee Jackson was a 27 year old Baptist church deacon and army veteran who was shot at point blank range by an Alabama State Trooper who was not charged for his crime until 2007.  Jackson died protecting his grandfather and his mother from attacks at the hands of police.  His death is said to have been the final straw that catalyzed the Selma march.

Jonathan Daniels was an Episcopalian seminarian who stepped in front of a Special Deputy’s shotgun blast to save the life of Ruby Sales, a 17 year old girl with whom he was jailed.  King called his act “one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry.”  In 1991, the Episcopal church formally canonized Daniels as a martyr, and he is remembered each year along with all those who died in the civil rights movement.  Ruby Sales has since gone on to attend Episcopal Divinity School and start a nonprofit as a human rights advocate in Washington D.C.

Jim Reeb was a Unitarian minister, educated at the Presbyterian-run Princeton Theological Seminary, who heeded Dr. King’s call for clergy of all faiths to march in Selma.  He was bludgeoned to death by Klansmen outside of a diner for his support of Dr. King’s march.  The death of this white minister from Boston caused an outpouring of support for the movement.

Viola Liuzzo was a mother of 5 from Detroit, in Selma for the weekend to support the march for voting rights. She was shot in the head by Klansmen when she stopped for gas while shuttling black marchers from the post-trip Montgomery rally to the Birmingham airport.  Her car was rattled with nineteen bullets.  After her death, the FBI, concerned that because one of their informants organized Liuzzo’s killing they would be implicated, released a series of false reports documenting her supposed drug use, salacious sex life, and organized crime.  These were proven completely false n 1978, and the bureau has never apologized.

brown chapel

Brown Chapel, the AME church that played a major role in the Selma movement.

We remember the faith and sacrifices of Jimmie Lee Jackson and Jonathan Daniels in light of Christ’s promise that “there is no greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friend.”  We remember the example of white allies like Viola Liuzzo, Jim Reeb, Jonathan Daniels, people who heard the call for justice and knew that all of God’s children deserve protection, regardless of skin color.

We remember that all of their killers were unanimously acquitted from juries of their all-white peers.  We remember that their blood not only nurtured the growing the civil rights movement, but that it is also “crying out from the ground.”

These are Selma’s martyrs, whose killings galvanized a nation.  By ambush, by bludgeon, by pellet, they were murdered to show everyone, look, this is what happens when you stand up against the supremacy of white people.  Fifty years ago in rural Alabama, four new martyrs were added to the historical canon.

Their deaths are not outliers, but followed generations of government-sponsored terrorism that was designed to make sure blacks “knew their place.”  Reeb, Jackson, Liuzzo, Daniels, and all those who were killed in the civil rights movement are the spiritual descendants of the women and men who were lifted up by hordes bearing fire and rope.  They join the untold masses of those who perished under the Atlantic and under the heavy yoke of slavery.

In the end, purveyors of terror and violence are defeated by the tides of selective history, which indeed seem to be arcing towards justice.  I cannot tell you the name and life story of a single Centurion, lynch mob organizer, or scheming Klansmen.  No, the stories we teach our children revolve around the lives of the innocent, our holy martyrs.   We remember a Chicago boy who whistled near a white woman, was reaped and murdered, his body tossed in the Tallahatchie; four little black girls from Birmingham who perished in the house of God; four Americans of conscience, murdered by Southern segregationists; a first century Palestinian Jew, stripped and strung up on a wooden tree.

faith between the lines

This post is an adapted essay I recently wrote as part of my very first seminary application.  It fleshes out some of my faith background and understanding of a personal call to ministry.

In the Catholic tradition in which I was reared, children and adults selected patron saints to serve as protectors and role models, piecemeal guardian angels of sorts. Martyrs and apostles, writers and ecclesiastical provocateurs, these hallowed figures provided people of various professions with great comfort in times of confusion or distress.

As a person of faith, I claim spiritual sages from a number of social spheres – individuals whose ongoing impact can be felt directly or indirectly in my life, across the pull of time or locale.  Among my most profound influencers remain individuals like Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, Clive Lewis, Martin King, John Sykes, Tsuyoko Nakamura, Anne Lamott, Jorge Bergoglio, Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Not all of these people share an earthly plane or a Christian faith with me.  Yet I have called upon many voices, including some of theirs, to ask for intercession and prayers before God as I apply to seminary.

Like a proper veneration of the saints, the flow of liturgy, patterned as spiritual breathing, has a way of infusing souls with an appreciation for the women and men who came before us.  Worshipping in liturgical contexts has taught me to appreciate tradition, to look backwards and walk in the ways of spiritual ancestors whose examples have been faithfully passed down through generations; I believe that a healthy Christianity is community-driven, longstanding, collectively inspired.

Yet my faith is also something I consider something wholly my own.  This is because I have had to fight for my beliefs, against my own doubts as well as those who would strip me of my convictions.  Others once dominated the private contours of my faith, but now I know that this sacred act is mine, and ours, and cannot be robbed by outside judgment or disappointment.


I spent my early childhood attending a theologically progressive Japanese American church in Chicago.  My father, whom I deeply admire, decided to leave our congregation after a guest preacher mentioned that he was gay and partnered.  We migrated us to my mother’s Catholic church, where I was dutifully confirmed.  This period of my life was consistently interrupted by my parents’ embattled and vicious divorce, which altered custody so that my siblings and I were standing/kneeling among hymns and chants, crossing ourselves and smelling incense one Sunday, then singing popular praise songs, hands in the air, surrounded by thousands the next.

My mother soon came out of the closet.  I balked and rejected this, rallying in pain and frustration to a fundamentalist worldview that I now recognize as stifling.  Two years ago, I departed from this camp and, after telling others about my change of heart, underwent a season of severe spiritual abuse at the hands of my local faith community.  Since being shattered by this culture of altar calls, ex-gay ministries, female submission, and campus crusades, I’ve gradually gravitated towards more moderate articulations of faith, where I’ve healed and regained some of my trust in religious institutions.

Years ago, in the evangelical era of Adventures in Odyssey and Awana, I startled from my sleep, woke my father through hot tears.  He asked what was wrong. “I think God wants me to be a missionary,” I managed, “but I don’t want to live in a hut in the jungle.”  My father laughed, swelled with pride.  He pulled me close, glowing in the dark.

My early understandings of ministry held that one either had to inhabit the secular world or embrace celibacy and become a priest; go into finance, policing, or film or become a megachurch pastor, a missionary to an unreached tribal group.  My own understanding of vocation has changed since then. I was encouraged by the 2014 ordination of Chris Hedges, who 31 years ago was told by an ordination committee that his call to war correspondence and journalism was “invalid.”

I also delighted in learning that Mr. Rogers, another of my informal patron saints, deeply considered his work in children’s education nothing less than a full call to Christian ministry.  I know some churches ordain scholars, who bless God’s people through careful academics infused with sacrament and spirituality.  Truly, those who claim the Christian mantle have not only the right to name our sages but also to discern what unique ways God is calling us to further the kingdom.  Earth is not demarcated into spiritual and secular realms, but God’s calling pervades every inch of each of our lives – regardless of ordination status.

Pain prepares us for ministry,” an anonymous commenter (whom I suspect to be my father) said on a recent blog post I wrote on Selma, Ferguson, and my visit to a former internment camp. As a fifth generation Japanese American, I know that my own community has been particularly impacted by racialized oppression in this country.  I am interested in helping my neighbors from privileged and marginalized backgrounds explore how modern “powers and principalities” so often degrade our shared humanity, distorting the image of God in us all.  I am passionate about advancing these conversations in the church.  Like Chris Hedges and Mr. Rogers, I too feel a sense of calling towards accomplishing these good things by using my gifts of writing and connecting with others through play.

While my Roman Catholic and evangelical roots continue to influence my theology, I no longer identify with most popular expressions of these traditions.  Yet one of the reasons I am interested in studying theology is because my ecumenical commitments ensure that I will be able to remain in profound and playful dialogue with the traditions that at once housed, delivered, and afflicted me.  Through a deeper education, I hope to more fully inhabit the blank spaces in between the lines of my resume, as I learn to bring my outer actions and activisms into better alignment with my understanding of God’s values.

I know that our Lord and the saints have left us Christ-followers a series of holy examples.  I am eternally drawn towards the kind of otherworldly hospitality, beauty, and interconnectedness exemplified in the Eucharist, demonstrated in all those who risk and sacrifice for their neighbor during times of great persecution.  I stand amazed at the awesome justice and solidarity that God demonstrated through the incarnation and the at-one-ment, replicated in small part every time a member of a powerful group empties themselves of privilege.  I believe any theological reflection worth its salt must begin on the margins, among the dispossessed and the overlooked – the “crucified peoples of history.”  This is where the body of Christ is meant to dwell, and this is where I want to spend myself.

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