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Leadership Center for Social Justice is built on faith, hope, and love.

The Leadership Center for Social Justice at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities (St. Paul, Minnesota) is an externally focused resourcing and networking center at the heart of a nine-month continuing education program designed to educate pastors in skills for leading social justice programs in/through their churches. Find out more about the Center here.

Karen Stiller interviewed Ry O. Siggelkow, the director of the Leadership Center for Social Justice. 

Can you describe the project in a few sentences?

The Leadership Center for Social Justice seeks to equip, inspire, and empower leaders to engage in social justice effectively and thoughtfully, in the spirit of hope, faith, and love.

Our Center is primarily dedicated to educating faith leaders, congregational leaders, and pastors, including lay ministers and Catholic female students. At the heart of our Center is a nine-month, tuition-free program structured as a cohort for congregational pastors to deepen their ministry in social justice. We graduated our first cohort with 16 pastors in Spring 2023 and have another 16 in our second cohort.

Additionally, we host a podcast to examine issues through conversations with scholars. The podcast is an interdisciplinary engagement on topics such as race and racism, immigration, economics, politics, liberation theology, LGBTQ+ issues, feminist theology, and more.

What are a few things you have learned so far?

I’ve learned that relationships are critical for establishing a sustainable center with firm roots and a firm grounding, providing students with a genuine, authentic education. As teaching fellows, we spend a lot of time sharing our stories and getting to know one another. To develop a curriculum that is both faithful and effective, we must be grounded in relationship with one another.

Two of our fellows are Anishinaabe women. To deepen our understanding of their culture, we travelled to White Earth Reservation to the location of a pipeline project and the community’s protest against its development. Experiencing the spirit of that space, and eating and laughing together, helped build relationships. That’s been a big piece.

We’ve built on that to do additional initiatives. Last summer, we organized a community gathering, Spirit of Water, at the Mississippi River. Several hundred people attended, which emerged from a relationship with teaching fellows.

Brazilian activist Paolo Freire has a saying: “We make the road by walking.” I’ve been thinking a lot about that as we build the Center. We don’t always know what we’re creating, but we learn by doing, remaining open to adjustment and change, and paying attention to what’s emergent in the walking and making of that road. The more we are aware of what’s happening around us, and where the Spirit is at work in the journey, the better.

With a Pathways grant, these are ideas we can imagine. Yet, when you start to implement them, things happen, things change. The world is changing around us, and we need to be responsive to those changes and learn as we go.

What has surprised you so far?

I have been genuinely surprised by how hungry and thirsty pastors are for a space to reflect and share what’s going on in their ministries and communities. They are thirsty for a space and time to intentionally think about social justice, and how it affects their ministries.

I’ve been surprised at how effective the ministry has been, which I attribute to the hunger and thirst expressed by the pastors. The level of excitement and engagement to the work and the projects they did were inspiring. People’s hearts were burning. It was beautiful to hear how the program rejuvenated their ministry.

I had them do a “science fair” to showcase their final projects. I was overwhelmed by the effort they put into their plans, and the beauty of these works being implemented. I was surprised at how much it hit a nerve.

What have been a few notable successes?

We’ve had success in terms of participation at events like our graduation. Last year, we introduced a “Praxis Series,” as part of our mission to grow the Center for Social Justice in faith, hope, and love.

We hosted a community conversation around love that was successful, drawing people from local universities. For the theme of hope, we featured a local artist, Ricardo Levins Morales.

Our praxis event on faith centered on the life and work of James Cone, who is considered the father of Black liberation theology.

Now we’re starting a series called Accompaniment, based on the writings of Archbishop Romero, who was martyred for speaking out against injustice, and the Quaker activists, Staughton and Alice Lynd. This series is based on a faith-based, community organizing, rather than a top-down approach, emphasizing a collaborative approach for people who struggle and those who accompanying them. It involves listening to their stories, developing relationships with them, and working together to address the injustices they face.

What are you hopeful for?

I’m hopeful that we can continue to make this road by walking it. My hope is in what we’ve already seen, the fruits of the programming of the Center - the pastors who have graduated and are implementing their programs; the new cohort; and the contributions to come from their work.

I’m hopeful about the network of faith leaders, who we are cultivating, facilitating, and nurturing through this program. I’m optimistic about the possibilities that can emerge from continuing to support those pastors in their work and communities, and how they can engage more deeply into their work. Our role is to walk alongside and support community justice work. I think a lot of that is helping people ask questions to themselves and about what they see around them.

Sensing, discerning, committing, building - those are the four units of the cohort training. What are we sensing? What are we discerning? How do we discern where the Spirit is, given where our context is, and the many gifts that we have? I’m hopeful about the future of these ministries and the future of social justice work within Christian communities. I’ve seen the hunger and the thirst. I’ve seen where that might bear fruit.

What learning would you share with other schools?

Have a creative imagination for the future. Seek to discern the presence of the Spirit in your work. Embrace the emergent and acknowledge the significance of what is being said and done. Go out and connect with others and build upon that relationship. I think people could learn the significance of investing in relationships from what we’re doing and be open to the charismatic work of the Spirit.

I do think the charismatic is important, which is to say something about new possibilities that may seem to be impossible but that are emergent. We’ve cast a wide net and not all of them will yield results. We must consider how do we build on relationships.

Every voice is essential. Teaching fellows isn’t just teaching; it’s collaborating with me from the beginning. We engaged in art as a team-building community, then everyone shared their life story, and how they got involved in social justice work. Finally, we affirmed each other. I’ve tried to connect as a group as much as possible. There are so many teachers over nine months, who must have some sense of connection with each other, forming a sense of collective action.

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