Walking Alongside Our Neighbors

Princeton Seminary’s Urban Ministry Initiatives Cabinet aims to foster lasting community engagement in Trenton
SEO Trenton Bridge

The Rev. Dr. Victor Aloyo Jr. is delighted to see Princeton Theological Seminary moving forward on a vision for sustainable community engagement in Trenton that’s been years in the making.

Developed by the Seminary’s Urban Ministry Initiatives Cabinet and approved by the Board of Trustees in spring 2020, Blueprint; Embracing Neighbors – Engaging with Hope! is a 70-page document that outlines a detailed plan for Princeton Seminary to be a physically present partner in Trenton for the next five years and beyond.

“Our goal was to provide Princeton Seminary with a systemic outline to guide our efforts in becoming a more faithful neighbor as we engage in the profound experiences of resilient surrounding communities,” Aloyo writes in the executive summary of the report. The Blueprint recommends a place-based community engagement model as a framework supported by four thematic pillars: research, learning, service, and advocacy. “These pillars lift the Seminary’s core values as we coordinate knowledge and academic resources from across the Seminary together with nonprofit community partners to create sustainable programming that meets the needs and interests of all its participants,” he adds.

Outcomes already in progress on the ground include a meal distribution program and food pantry that has served nearly 2,000 families and an urban ministry Design Incubator with young people. On campus, changes are being implemented in the curriculum, and collaborations are under way with the Office of Continuing Education and the Institute for Youth Ministry.

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“Community members and residents didn't want an ‘outside’ organization to tell Trenton what Trenton ought to be doing,” says Aloyo, MDiv ’89, associate dean for institutional diversity and community engagement. “The city has been plagued with a plethora of organizations that come in, get funding for a couple of years, and then leave. They wanted us to show our investment by being physically present, where we can galvanize and work directly with partners who are living there…to value the realities of what they experience and how that can be a resource for our involvement.”

This is the beauty of the plan, Aloyo says. “We are saying ‘We want to learn from you.’ An element of being faithful neighbors is to take into consideration their giftedness, to honor their abilities, and to have them participate in the decision-making process,” he adds.

Aloyo is quick to credit others at the Seminary who have helped bring the plan to fruition.

“Jennie L. Salas, associate director of field education, and Sushama Austin-Connor, program administrator for the Office of Continuing Education, have been major players in this project,” Aloyo says. Along with other members of the cabinet, they had many one-on-one conversations to establish confidence and trust, and conducted focus groups to gather input.

“We wanted to demonstrate that we understand the plight as people who were born in and ministered in urban settings ourselves; that we understand the realities and the complexities,” Aloyo says. “We didn't want to go in there and say we've identified ‘XYZ’ as your number one issue. We wanted to hear from them, what are their number one, two, and three issues.”

“More institutions of higher learning are recognizing that they can no longer be insular,” says Aloyo. “That it's not about solely imparting knowledge. It's about being in solidarity, through word and action, with the existing socioeconomic political realities. The Blueprint recognizes ways we could be of service.”

He adds that others at the Seminary have been major supporters of the venture as well, completing grant applications for funding and incorporating curriculum revisions to ensure student involvement.

“I'm grateful to myriad individuals who are helping to make this happen,” Aloyo says. “People like Dean Jacq Lapsley; faculty members Sonia Waters, Eric Barreto, Keri Day, and Kenda Creasy Dean; administrators and staff Abigail Rusert, Carmelle Beaugelin, Megan DeWald, Dayle Gillespie Rounds, and Cathy Cook Davis,” he says.

“We've been working very closely with them in the formation of small pilots that hopefully will flourish to more intense programming,” he adds. “And they have been working along with community residents and clergy and churches in the formation and development of this plan.”

There have also been increased efforts to identify philanthropic institutions and/or individuals to assist in ensuring funding for the long range, sustainable efforts.

“This is not Princeton Seminary's first effort in trying to acknowledge the realities beyond its walls,” Aloyo says. “We have learned from experience. Individuals like Abigail Evans and [the late] Geddes ‘Guy’ Hansen and Chester Polk in various pockets of the Seminary's history have had some wonderful initiatives. That's what we're building upon,” he adds.

“More institutions of higher learning are recognizing that they can no longer be insular,” says Aloyo. “That it's not about solely imparting knowledge. It's about being in solidarity, through word and action, with the existing socioeconomic political realities. It [the Blueprint] recognizes ways we could be of service.”

Aloyo adds, “Our intent is to walk alongside our neighbors. Trenton, amid these challenges, has amazing cultural events and cultural venues that elicit people and human building capacity. What they need is loyal and faithful partners.”

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Nancy Hagner, Class of 2013

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