Students answer the call

Brunonians drawn to the rabbinate, ministry, missions

Up until the 1950s, Brown – which has historic ties to the Baptist church – produced “tons of Baptist clergy,” said University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson. Now, up to four dozen Brown graduates in each class pursue religious occupations encompassing many faiths.

“The number of people leaving Brown who serve religiously is huge,” Cooper Nelson said, comparing the University to other schools where she has worked.

Hearing the callShulamit Izen ’07 has known since elementary school that she wanted to become a rabbi.

“My family would sit by the rabbi and the cantor, and I would want to be them,” she said of attending synagogue.

After graduating, Izen will attend the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa. Her program includes a five-year study of Judaic history.

Izen has specific plans for her ministry. “I want to start an innovative Jewish day school that combines creative pedagogy with joyous Judaism,” she said.

Greta Pemberton ’06, who spoke about her desire to become a Unitarian minister at last year’s Commencement as a senior orator, is still deciding whether to follow the path she planned last spring.

“The ministry is still a distant dream for me,” Pemberton said. She currently works at the Open Source radio show in Boston and said before becoming a spiritual leader, she needs “to get more life experience under my belt.”

Danyel Currie ’08 said she has considered career possibilities ranging from chemist to author, as well as a Christian pastor. After taking RS 72: “Christianity in Late Antiquity” as a freshman, Currie decided to concentrate in religious studies and psychology.

“I’ve got to pursue my vocation,” she said. “I couldn’t see myself doing anything with chemistry.” But she admitted she would feel “so much more confident” graduating with a science degree.

Mother Teresa is Currie’s role model. “I kind of see myself going to the extreme, like she did. Her work really resonates with me,” she said.

But for now, her plans are unclear. “I’m as much in the dark as anyone to how this will play out,” she said.

For some students, matters of faith – not practicalities – made for late realizations about their interest in religious careers. Jon Mitchell ’09 said he initially resisted the Jewish faith and thus had hardly considered the rabbinate.

“I was never interested in practicing Judaism,” Mitchell said. At his bar mitzvah in Israel, he spoke about not believing in God. But before coming to Brown, Mitchell said he “considered the possibility of reinterpreting Judaism” and has since delved so deeply into his faith that he is now set on becoming a rabbi.

Both Miller Hui ’07 and Jennifer Quiroa ’09 see Christian missionary work in their futures, among other careers.

Hui said his father told him that pursuing missionary work alone would be ineffective. ” ‘You need some kind of craft, like Paul in the Bible – he was a tent-maker,’ ” Hui recalled his father telling him. Hui said he applied to Brown’s Program in Liberal Medical Education because, on a mission trip to Mexico, many people “would ask me to pray for some sort of physical ailment.”

“I felt like (my acceptance to PLME) was part of God’s plan. He put me here specifically,” he said.

Hui and several of his Christian friends at Brown and Rhode Island School of Design hope to someday create a Christian hospital and orphanage.

“Some people say that you can’t mix religion and medicine, but, in my perspective, the best place is where someone cares for you, not just your vitals,” Hui said.

Quiroa decided she wanted to be an anaplastologist – or prosthetics specialist – before she seriously considered doing missions work. Volunteering in New Orleans during freshman year “gave me a heart” for service.

“I can’t imagine other lives without the amazing blessing that I have, and I want to share it,” she said.

She said war-torn countries have a high demand for new limbs due to frequent amputations.

“I have always wanted to make prosthetics. Maybe God could use me,” Quiroa said.

Questioning their convictionLike their classmates, students pursuing religious occupations are often indecisive when making a career choice.

“Very few people at 22 want to make a commitment to anything,” said Father Henry Bodah, the University’s Catholic chaplain. “They don’t go into Goldman Sachs thinking they’ll be working there until they’re 40.”

Izen questioned whether she could devote herself to the rabbinate. “When you’re a rabbi, that’s a big responsibility,” she said. “People are handing you their bundles of sorrow and saying, ‘Help me.’ “

Pemberton said she thinks she is too young to enter religious service. “It would have been arrogant for me to preach at age 21 or 22,” she said.

Currie has practical concerns as she approaches the ministry – she is unsure how following in Mother Teresa’s footsteps “will work in terms of me paying the rent,” she said.

But she said her faith keeps her going. “Jesus, he just walked around and talked to people. He was cool with that, and I’m cool with that.”

Quiroa sometimes questions why she is at Brown. “You go to this Ivy League school, you pay thousands of dollars for this school, and then you go and be a missionary? You beg people for money to be a missionary?” she said.

Faith at a secular schoolAs a religious person at Brown, Currie said she finds herself in the minority.

“Unfortunately, many of our peers don’t value religion,” she said. “Many people see religious people as stupid or irrational.”

Mitchell agreed. “It’s not a religious environment here,” he said. “It’s a secular, liberal university, and most people are not interested in religious life.”

Hui said he has not encountered hostility toward his faith at Brown. “The people who point to Brown as being anti-Christian are people who have not talked to anyone at Brown about their faith,” he said.

Cooper Nelson said she disagrees with the notion that Brown is non-religious. Nearly three quarters of students claim a religious background, and nearly half are involved in religious activities on campus, she said.

Though Quiroa said she has met few students on a religious career track, she affirmed the value of preparing for religious service with a Brown degree. “Having a well-rounded education can just help so much when you’re sharing your faith,” she said.