Kevin Vollrath, MDiv ’17, never expected to pursue PhD studies. “I came to Princeton Theological Seminary planning to do pastoral work,” he says. “But I realized that I felt more called to teaching.” Another surprise came for Vollrath when his original plans to focus on the history of sexuality shifted to a focus on disability studies, a passion that he initially discovered as an undergraduate student after living in a L’Arche community for several months.
In partnership with Dr. Erin Raffety, Princeton Seminary’s lecturer in youth, church, and culture, Vollrath has conducted field research on how churches in the United States can better care for and empower people with disabilities. “We tried to go and join the ministry, not just watch from the sidelines,” he explains. “Now we’re analyzing data and starting to write; the goal is to write a book on pastoral care with people with disabilities.”
But Vollrath’s dissertation research, which he will begin this fall, will have an international focus. “It will be on how the occupation of Palestine effects people with disabilities,” he explains. His ethnography of disability in Palestine will consider how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affects and produces people with disabilities and how organizations of people with disabilities resist and thrive under occupation. “People with disabilities are people,” Vollrath continues. “They have the same diversity of gifts and callings as people without disabilities. They have gifts and they’re often exercising leadership in creative ways.”
As a precursor to his formal research, Vollrath spent five weeks in Bethlehem studying Arabic and connecting with local organizations that work with people with disabilities, including a L’Arche community and Noor (“light” in Arabic), an organization responding to a dramatic increase in the number of children with disabilities in a refugee camp just north of Bethlehem called Aida Camp. “At times, it was really exciting to meet people and hear interesting stories,” he reflects. “And other times it was really discouraging because I felt like my Arabic wasn’t improving fast enough and I wondered what the value of research was compared to just volunteering with these organizations.”
Vollrath will continue to wrestle with these questions when he returns to Bethlehem for a full year of research that he hopes to begin this fall if COVID-19 travel guidelines allow. “As much as I like my research and as important as I think it is, I see it as a means to an end of making the world better,” he says. “By listening to people and being in community, I hope to be enacting some positive change. I think just doing the research, listening and then coming back and sharing the stories I hear, is significant in itself.”