Discerning the Voice of God

Thomas Dearduff ’18 MATS reflects on his field education experience in Cape Town, South Africa
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Thomas Dearduff ’18 MATS reflects on his field education experience at Mowbray Presbyterian Church in Cape Town, South Africa.

By Thomas Dearduff — Here at Princeton, most students are required to spend at least a summer or semester empirically “doing ministry” as field education. As an MATS (Religion and Society) candidate, my interests were piqued by our institution’s international program, which provides us opportunities to minister on five continents. So, I walked into the field education office and expressed an interest in placements “anywhere but here.” To be honest, I didn’t have any particular draw towards South Africa; I had narrowed it down to a church in Cape Town and a church in Seoul, South Korea. All that really mattered was that my placement would force me into contexts and communities that were (literally) foreign to my own, because I wanted the methodology of my ministry to implicate an ethnographic lens. Given Mowbray Presbyterian Church’s post-apartheid interracial congregational makeup, I decided to walk the walk of ministry in the Mother City of Mzansi.

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I’ve always been involved in the life of the church—leading worship, organizing youth retreats, joining bible studies, etc. However, I had never preached before my field education placement, never been regarded as a minister, never made a pastoral visit, never fully embodied the joyous burden of clerical life. So, confident though I may have appeared, every bit of my soul feared the imminence of failure, the depravity in my heart, the infidelity of my faith, and the consequently expedited spiritual deaths of Mowbray and myself. Forgotten somewhere deep in the dusty pages of books browsed during last semester’s reading week was my piece of the hope that we Christians are supposed to find in Jesus.

But as it turns out, even when we don’t think we have what it takes to accomplish our call, the Spirit provides life, fills that which we have emptied, and makes us whole. I was afforded opportunities to utilize my gifts in ways unforetold. I kept busy with the behind-the-scenes work of ministry in an office that never got any sunlight and was probably the wintriest place in Africa. Weekly, I drafted bulletins, proofed church emails, planned a small group meeting, joined the parsons at the homes of parishioners for tea, and played guitar or piano in the worship team. I also led a devotion at a local high school, attended far too many church meetings, codirected Holiday Club (the UPCSA version of Vacation Bible School), designed the August edition of the church’s magazine, studied the socioeconomic and racial dynamics of the congregation and surrounding community, and filled in whatever gaps on the clock I had left climbing mountains and exploring Cape Town.

Even when we don’t think we have what it takes to accomplish our call, the Spirit provides life, fills that which we have emptied, and makes us whole.

On the last Sunday of the placement, I preached a hodgepodge sermon in which I discussed the ecumenical command found in Matthew 28 (“The Great Commission”) and the directive of 1 Peter 2 (“the priesthood of all believers”), which I used to challenge the congregation to overcome cultural barriers and simultaneously make disciples. Concurrently, I used the same verses to excuse myself from the traditional fulltime pastorate. One of the most striking takeaways I gained by doing fulltime ministry halfway around the world was that God did not call me to work in a church or from a pulpit; I realized that, while Jesus rebuked Satan from a high mountaintop overlooking all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor, I would all too quickly bend my knee for power and glory. The pulpit would become the stage from which I would preach a gospel that glorifies Tom Dearduff, not one that glorifies Christ.

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Neither this divine-albeit-dangerous revelation nor my time in Cape Town was a failure, even though my placement turned out to be nothing like what I expected. It was difficult, but it was the kind of difficulty that I needed for sanctification. It cauterized insecurities and let flow within me an awareness of the grace that I undeservedly and abundantly receive.

Mowbray Presbyterian Church allowed me to discern the whispering voice of God in ways that Princeton could not. In letting me be human and reminding me of my status as one made in the imago dei, they ministered to me more than I ministered to them. It is not until we regard the image of God in our neighbor that we are able to witness Christ within ourselves, “for just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:12–13).

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