Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Published: October 24, 2012

At the School of Divinity, there is certainly no shortage of unique learning opportunities and life enriching experiences to be had during each of the three years of the program. Students have the opportunity to study the intersection of religion, history, culture and society from Nicaragua, to India, the mountains of Appalachia and beyond. I myself took the Fierce Landscapes course Appalachia with Dr. Bill Leonard last year; all my friends will be on their way to various locations across the globe during this winter and the rest of their time here. But one need not look toward classes outside of the fall and spring semesters for an experience that can be monumentally rewarding.

Last week, with the country edging closer and closer to election day, I was fortunate enough to travel to Washington, D.C. with the fall course on Christianity and Public Policy. We spent two days at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty meeting a vast array of politicians, activists, educators and ministers as we learned about their work in relation to religion and American politics. Our schedule was jam packed with speakers coming essentially non-stop from 9-5 each day; it would be difficult to do each of them service here. However, memories of one speaker in particular struck me as I read an article in the NYTimes magazine this Sunday on the rise of Paul Ryan.

Sister Simone Campbell of NETWORK and the School of Divinity’s Christianity and Public Policy class – October 18, 2012

Sister Simone Campbell walked into the room with a vibrant smile, carrying her books and pamphlets in a messenger bag from her recent appearance on the Colbert Report. After some introductory remarks, she quickly and fully engaged our class in warm discussion about her work with Nuns on the Bus. Sister Simone has risen above the fray and entered the awareness of the entire country by virtue of her work for social justice. Her life is committed to the Catholic commitment to the preferential option for the poor, equally critical of Republicans and Democrats alike who pass legislation that disadvantages and discriminates. Nuns on the Bus has worked extensively against the Ryan Budget from Rep. Raul Ryan (R-WI), instead proposing legislation that supports low income families, fights poverty and operates on principles of fairness. Sister Simone was an engaging and charismatic leader, kindly and authentically responding to the various questions we asked during our time with her. It truthfully was a unique experience to hear a Catholic nun, at the Baptist Joint Committee, recounting her personal reprimanding of Congressmen in their offices for poor decision making and her experiences traveling around the country in her fight for justice.

It would be remiss to not remark on the two faculty teaching the class who made all of our experience possible through their own work in and relationships with Washington. Melissa Rogers is currently a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute and Director of WFUSD’s Center for Religion and Public Affairs. Through her past work as Executive Director of the Pew Forum on Religion and with the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, she is perhaps one of the best possible professors to have helping guide our journey into the realm of religion and public policy. The same should be said of Dr. James M. Dunn, current professor of Christianity and Public Policy. Dr. Dunn worked for years in Washington for the BJC in the fight for soul freedom; a fight which is not always clean and pleasant. After his long career we now get to enjoy the benefits of all Dr. Dunn’s experience (and his energetic personality) through his commitment to teaching.

Independent of their resumes, our professors really made the experience an unforgettable one. They were greeted as old friends and colleagues by each of our speakers and their work in Washington is dearly respected by those involved in our subject of study. It seems as though it must be unique to our School of Divinity to have such titans in the fight for religious freedom engage us so warmly, humorously, personally and kindly. At once it was easy to feel like I had no business speaking to individuals such as Joshua DuBois (Executive Director of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships for the White House), and unfathomable that I should want to be anywhere else. For two days we stood on the shoulders of giants; may others be so lucky as to do the same.

Perry Dixon
Second Year MDiv