From Rio to Monrovia

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Jennie Lee Rodriguez was near desperation as she entered the Field Education Office to meet with her advisor Lori Neff. Rodriguez had a gnawing feeling that she needed to know more. As a second-career student, she had served in ministry for many years in both New Jersey and Brooklyn, New York. Rodriguez was looking for something other than the traditional church placement—something that would challenge and stretch her view of what is possible in ministry. “I needed something to push me to where God was calling me,” she says.

With the help of the Field Education Office and Director of Multicultural Relations Victor Aloyo, Rodriguez applied for a yearlong intensive field education internship in São Paulo, Brazil. The next fall, in September 2008, she found herself leaving her home, her family and friends, and everything she had known to travel to a place where she knew no one and the language sounded strange to her untrained ears. “It was the first time I had taken such a risk,” says Rodriguez, who felt that she had to surrender full control to God in her journey. God was faithful; Rodriguez found that the community in which she served embraced her with warmth and generosity. “When I was there, it didn’t feel so foreign,” says Rodriguez, who soon discovered many ways to connect with people.

In São Paulo, Rodriguez interned with the Association for the Children of Bethlehem, an organization created to provide education and services for children either directly or indirectly affected by HIV. Rodriguez worked with street children at the Refugio orphanage, while also teaching English to children at the organization’s school. In addition, she often preached and led staff devotionals at Morumbi Church, originally founded to reach these children. While the language barrier was difficult at first, Rodriguez says, “God [slowly] taught me to understand Portuguese.”
Rodriguez says that she felt the strength of God’s presence in São Paulo. “When areas are stricken with hardship, I find that the people see God more,” says Rodriguez. She vividly recalls talking with a woman at a bus station one day. Despite having just met, the two ended up praying together in the middle of the bus after a long conversation. “It’s not something I’ve experienced in my hometown of New York,” Rodriguez says. “The people I met in Brazil are looking for something, they are seeking to know God.”

Rodriguez also recalls visiting Rio de Janeiro during her year in Brazil to see the world-famous statue of Christ the Redeemer that stands on a mountain peak with arms outstretched over the city. “To see the arms of Christ there”—in the midst of a high-crime area, surrounded by shanty houses with tin roofs—was to Rodriguez an image of “a country seeking God in the midst of confusion, suffering, and hardship.” She says that her time in Brazil renewed her faith and called her back to the root of the gospel and the truth that “life [itself] is a Living Word.”

Mission Partnership in Cape Town
During his time in South Africa, Patrick Dunn also experienced the presence of God in the midst of suffering and loss. Dunn, who served as a field education intern at Bellville Presbyterian Church (BPC) in Cape Town in the summer of 2010, says that in his first week there, he found himself helping an undertaker carry a woman’s body out of her house while his supervisor prayed with her family. “In many ways, it drew me closer to the congregation much faster than I expected,” reflects Dunn, who accompanied his supervisor on many such house visits. “As God would have it, my supervisor was the most adept minister I’ve ever met with regard to handling death…. I’ve never been to a church that’s so deeply invested in ministering to dying people and their families. In a sad way, it was actually an enormous blessing to me to have such a thorough introduction to grief, healing, and proclaiming the gospel in the midst of tragedy,” says Dunn.

As an intern at PBC, Dunn interacted daily with people who came to the church seeking help. Located on the perimeter of an urban area, Bellville suffers from widespread homelessness, prostitution, human trafficking, and a thriving drug trade. Dunn had the opportunity to work with a mission organization called Metro Evangelical Services (MES), which works in partnership with PBC. On any given day, he might find himself counseling a person who had lost a job, or speaking with a woman who was desperate to get out of her trade as a prostitute, or accompanying the MES staff to take census of the ever-changing homeless population. He says that such a diverse range of experiences prepared him in many ways for future ministry.

According to Dr. Chester Polk, director of the international field education program at PTS, this is precisely the purpose of the program—to prepare students for ministry in a diverse world, and to expose them to the work that the church is doing in other regions of the globe. In training future pastors, chaplains, teachers, and directors of NGOs, Polk believes that it is “responsible” to provide students with opportunities to serve internationally, since the stretching experiences that students have abroad prepare them in unique ways to serve in ministry. In an age when the center of the church is shifting to the southern hemisphere, it is increasingly valuable for students to gain an understanding of how the church functions and thrives there.

Polk explains that the intent of the international field education program is for students to “live in community and invest their lives in the lives of the people there.” What results from these relationships is a “cross-pollination” of ideas, knowledge, and experience. “It is not so much that students are teaching, but that they are learning and gaining insight into another culture and tradition,” says Polk. Students find their viewpoints challenged as they interact with people from very different backgrounds.

Beginnings of Field Placements Overseas
The international field education program at PTS began in 1983 when Dr. David Irwin (D.Min., 1983) accepted a student intern at Groomsport Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland. Irwin called this internship program “The Princeton Connection.” Under the direction of the Field Education Office in the 1990s, the international program slowly expanded, as field education students were added to academic programs led by Professor Mark Taylor in Guatemala and Professor Charles Ryerson in India. As the office built relationships with pastors abroad, new international sites were developed. Polk now serves as a liaison between the PTS community and churches around the globe, building relationships with international field education supervisors and occasionally visiting placement sites abroad.

Since the program began, more than 200 students have served in countries around the globe, including Brazil, Cambodia, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Nicaragua, India, Japan, Mexico, Kenya, South Africa, Romania, Uganda, and South Korea. These students represent PTS to the global community and serve as Christ’s presence in the world. Some serve in church placements, while others work in specialized ministries and nonprofit organizations. Students apply through the Field Education Office, and those who are selected to serve abroad are fully funded by the Seminary. In 2010–2011, nine students served at seven different international sites, including one newly developed site in Rwanda.

Students who have served in international field education placements find that their experiences abroad greatly influence their perspectives on theology and ministry. Jared Stephens, who was the intern at Groomsport Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland in 2009–2010, explains, “Perspective is the most important thing…. [After being abroad], the questions that you ask are different.”

Stephens says that because of his time in Northern Ireland, he has come to understand the church in a new way. In a country where tensions between Catholics and Protestants have historically contributed to violent divisions, the church now has “a real sense of the need for unity and reconciliation,” he says. According to Stephens, the church is a vital part of the culture in Northern Ireland. “The church functions differently in community there…. The minister sees himself as a member of the community at large, with social responsibilities, even political roles,” he explains. Experiencing how the church functions in another part of the globe expanded and challenged Stephens’s views of the church’s role in the world. It also confirmed that his life is inextricably tied to the lives of his Christian brothers and sisters around the world. “I came to see the world church as the body of Christ—rather than individual nations with individual churches,” says Stephens.

Similarly, Marsha Scipio, who served in Monrovia, Liberia, in the summer of 2010, found that her experience abroad expanded her understanding of the church and its mission. Providence Baptist Church (PBC), where Scipio served, has a rich history and has often been called the cornerstone of the nation. In the older section of the church building, the Liberia Constitution was signed, after former U.S. slaves, and then missionaries, landed in West Africa to set up an independent government. Scipio explains that today the church “stands as a symbol of hope for a city and a people recovering from a fourteen-year civil war that ended in 2003.” During the Civil Crisis, PBC was a refuge for those trying to escape the violence, evidenced by the bullets still embedded in the church’s outer walls. The church continues to serve the surrounding community by providing hot meals to feed the hungry and offering counseling sessions for homeless and drug-addicted young men and women, some of whom were former child soldiers.

Witnessing PBC’s integration with the surrounding community “allowed me to expand my own understanding of what the mission of the church should be,” says Scipio. Before serving in Liberia, she did not picture herself working in a church setting, but with a parachurch or nonprofit organization. “Prior to [my time in Liberia] there seemed to be a disconnect between my understanding of the role of the church and what the churches in which I had been involved were actually doing,” she says. Upon returning from Liberia, Scipio decided to transfer from the M.A. program to the M.Div. program. She can now envision herself serving in a church that is as integrated with its community as PBC is.

Service Abroad Changes Lives
Students who participate in the international field education program often return as new people. Polk says that he notices a “definitive difference in who [students] are” when they return from their international experiences. Not only do these experiences expand students’ perspectives; they also often change their lives and ministries. Deeply moved by his field education experience, Patrick Dunn returned to Cape Town this past summer to volunteer at Bellville Presbyterian Church and Metro Evangelical Services, and also to begin pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian denomination in southern Africa. Dunn plans to return to Cape Town after graduating from PTS, with a view toward being ordained for parish ministry and settling there permanently.

Jared Stephens not only learned a great deal at his international field education site, but he also fell in love. He is now engaged to a girl from Northern Ireland, whom he met on a train ride during his year there. Stephens hopes to be ordained in the PCUSA and to return to Northern Ireland with his fiancée after having served as a pastor in the states for a while. At the very least, in whatever church he will serve, he hopes to build relationships between that church and churches abroad.

While some students feel led to serve abroad again, others apply what they’ve learned internationally to the ministries they are doing locally. Rodriguez joined the PTS staff this past summer as assistant director of field education. In this position, she hopes to open up new field education possibilities to her students. She also continues to serve part time at her first field education church, Nuevas Fronteras, in Plainfield, New Jersey, a congregation that shares a building with United Presbyterian Church. While the two congregations keep their own cultures and styles of worship, they serve together through the Plainfield Parish Ministry. Rodriguez hopes to create a missional ministry at Nuevas Fronteras, to further involve the congregation in local and international service.

Rodriguez says her experience in Brazil “pushed me to go outside of the box…and to think about the question What did Jesus really do?” She recently participated in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land sponsored by the Macedonia Ministry Project, and thought about that question a lot while walking around Galilee and Jerusalem with sixteen other pastors from the Princeton-Trenton area. “Jesus didn’t just sit in the temple—he walked around a lot,” Rodriguez concludes. “He must have had strong legs,” she adds jokingly, referring to the many hills in the Holy Land.

Rodriguez’s realization that Jesus walked a lot during his lifetime brings to mind the prophet Micah’s familiar exhortation to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). The command requires movement—to wherever God might lead. For some, this means following the age-old command that God gave to Abraham: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)

Students who have trusted God’s call to travel to a new land have found that God blesses their journeys. Students’ experiences abroad greatly influence the way they approach ministry and transform their view of what the mission of the church should and could be. Moreover, these students’ international experiences not only influence their own lives; they also change the conversations that happen on campus and affect all those who hear their stories. Polk says that “living vicariously through [these students’] experiences is informative, inspiring, and affords me an ongoing way to reflect on my own ministry.”

The international field education program enriches and expands the PTS community, as students are connected to a web of global relationships. Rodriguez, a New Yorker with a Puerto Rican heritage, says she now has family in São Paulo. Stephens, who grew up in the countryside of Canada, has been known to wear a kilt on campus and to tell stories with an Irish accent. Scipio, a Brooklynite, recently met with her supervisor from Liberia while he was in the states, while Dunn, a Midwesterner from Indiana, brings to campus his experience at an integrated church in Cape Town. Students returning from field education placements abroad do their part to make PTS a truly international community. Their stories provide Princeton Seminary with an ongoing way to reflect on its own ministry in an ever-expanding world.

Allie Naskret is an M.Div. student who works as an editorial assistant and writer in the Office of Communications/Publications.

Posted by Nina Rogers at 01/24/2012 03:15:43 PM | 

Wonderful article!
Posted by: nina ( Email ) at 1/24/2012 2:57 PM

The article testifies to Field Education's role in integrating the curriculum with ministry. It is the center on the margins. Article is well done, accurate, and inspiring!
Posted by: Harry A. Freebairn ( Email ) at 1/26/2012 3:33 PM

International travel for student is such a great opportunity to get out of the comfort zone and experience a different way of life. Living in a different environment open our eyes to different horizon and make us realize what life is for and how we are supposed to live.
Posted by: Preaching Definition ( Email ) at 11/5/2012 11:56 PM

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