Master’s degree students from United Theological Seminary traveled internationally at the start of 2015 as part of the Seminary’s Contextual Theology and Immersion Program. From Jan. 5 through Jan. 15, David Watson, Academic Dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs, led a group of 14 through Cuba, staying primarily in Havana with an overnight trip to the Isle of Youth as well. Christopher and Lisa Heckaman of Trinity United Methodist Church in Columbus, OH, adjunct instructor Brian Maguire, associate professor Lisa Hess, and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield are leading a group of 15 through Israel and Palestine from Jan. 26 through Feb. 4.
Many of these students are fulfilling requirements toward a Master of Divinity degree, although United encourages all master’s-level students to participate in the Contextual Theology and Immersion Program. Before embarking on a trip to a foreign country, students must take the three-credit course “Methods for Interreligious and Intercultural Encounter.” The course equips students for working in different cultures alongside people from diverse religious traditions.
“At least one aspect of the class is actually to prepare you to have an open mind and to respect other religions, other cultures,” said Marcus Mills, a student who participated in the trip to Cuba.
Lisa Hess, Associate Professor of Practical Theology and co-leader of the Israel and Palestine trip, emphasizes that the course and subsequent international experiences encourage students to gain a deeper understanding of their own faith by immersing themselves in the cultures and geographies of other religious traditions.
“We want students to arrive at who they are as a rooted Christian disciple but also to be able to say, ‘You know, this is a lot more complicated than we thought,’” Hess said.
Mills said the trip was a transformative experience for him. As his group travelled through Havana and the Isle of Youth, they worshipped with Cuban Methodists. When Mills had the opportunity to preach, a young woman translated his message for the Spanish-speaking audience. Translating was a new experience for her, she told Mills, but one to which she has felt called by God.
“It was really humbling to be part—for the Lord to allow me to be part—of something that he’s doing in someone else’s life in ministry,” Mills said. “That was amazing.”
He is not alone in returning to United with a new sense of humility.
“When people come back from this trip,” Hess said, “God is a whole lot bigger than they knew before.”
Read more about the trip to Cuba on David Watson’s blog