40 Years of PSR

Roberta and Richard Corson are two of the Distinguished Alumni/ae for 2009. Edited versions of their responses to the award are followed by first-year student Katie Thompson's impressions of PSR.

Working out issues, discovering a vocation

By Richard Corson, MDiv 1970

When I arrived at PSR in the fall of 1967, following four years in Latin America, I came with what I perceived to be theological questions, especially about the nature and mission of the church in a context of global injustice, violence, and social turmoil, along with a foot locker full of cynicism, anger, and suspicion about institutions of all persuasions.

During my tenure here as a student, while I wrestled with those questions and struggled with a slow-burning rage fueled by the reverse culture shock I experienced upon my return “home,” Berkeley was occupied by the National Guard and frequently layered with tear gas. The Oakland induction center was picketed and bombed, draft cards were burned, Safeway was boycotted, the Bay Bridge was blockaded, the Black Panthers were targeted, People’s Park was closed to the “people,” and I had the temerity to sit in the office of this institution’s venerable president, Stuart LeRoy Anderson, and instruct him from the pages of Mao’s infamous Little Red Book.

Add to that mix such historic events as the killing of students at Kent State, the 1968 riots in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention, and the numbing assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and you may understand why I began developing an exit strategy that I thought would take me back to South America, or to Spain, or to the fields of Delano and the Coachella Valley—anywhere but to parish ministry. For, in my mind, the disconnect between seminary, church, and the chaos of those urgent times seemed insurmountable.

However, to their credit, instructors like John Van Rohr, Floyd Shacklock, Wayne Rood, Bob Leslie, Bruce Jones, Parker Palmer, Durwood Foster, and even the legendary Herb Otwell tolerated if not exactly encouraged me as I fulminated in tutorials and pontificated in papers in an effort to work out my issues and discover my voice and my vocation.

As I did that, as I engaged the questions that mattered to me, an unlikely combination of people like Howard Thurman, Gustavo Gutierrez, Kosuke Koyama, downwardly mobile Henri Nouwen, and Spanish philosopher and poet Don Miguel de Unamuno (and his alter-ego Don Quixote de la Mancha) showed up in writings and sometimes in person to address me intellectually and emotionally, helping to offset the ponderous and to my mind stultifying efforts of traditional theologians to systematize faith into some kind of rational framework.
These new voices helped me explore and to some degree come to terms with the tension that exists between the truth thought and the truth felt. They gave me not so much light as fire. They kindled a passion in my body and soul as much as in my mind. At a time when ideas and information about God seemed dry as dust, these teachers from diverse parts of the world somehow gave me God. Not more about God but more of God.

Then, by yet another act of grace, the larger community, most notably Tom Grissom and the African American congregation of Taylor Memorial UMC in West Oakland, embraced me and channeled my edginess in a way that enabled me to experience in an entirely new way the authentic power of the parish with its virtues of preaching and prayer, sacrament and music, courage, faith, forgiveness, tough love, and the grace of self-acceptance. They also spoke truth to me about the sack cloth of guilt I wore as a white man. “Boy, what’s wrong with you?” hissed Sister Lockette from her sick bed one extraordinary afternoon. “Don’t you know you can’t love and accept us if you don’t love and accept yourself?”

It was for me a come-to-Jesus moment, her words echoing a fierce truth put forth by Rumi centuries before: “If you are here unfaithfully with us, you’re causing terrible damage.” This is something pastors and personnel committees would do well to remember as they converse about their shared ministry.

Yet, as incredibly nurturing and redemptive as all of that was, at the end of the day it would not have been enough without the alchemy of Bobbie’s unqualified acceptance and unconditional love that by some miracle of grace enabled me to enter not only the covenant of marriage but the covenant of parish ministry as well. Were it not for her I am absolutely convinced I would not be here in the afterglow of nearly 40 years of ministry.

But I am here. And although I have quarreled with this institution over the years, I have also supported it because to some large measure I owe it my life. And so I am honored to be recognized, along with my brothers and my wife, as a “distinguished alum” who, like that unassuming pilot who landed his airplane in the Hudson River earlier this year, has done nothing more than what I trained for—namely, to be faithful to One who rather than intellectualizing and spiritualizing his message entrusted it to the embodied sacraments of bread, wine, water, feet, towel, touch, silence, sorrow, forgiveness, grace, prayer, hope, life, death, and resurrection.

“Do this in remembrance of me,” he said.

And in my own quiet, clumsy, sometimes misguided way I have tried to do precisely that: I have tried to embody his vision for ministry, not my own. For it’s never been about me. Rather it’s been about working to create an inclusive, people-empowering, gift-sharing, justice-building community that is privileged to share not only the tears and the anguish, but also the joy and the laughter, of God.


Paradox, tension, and energy

By Roberta B. Corson, MDiv 1969

The two thinkers who have most influenced my own thought and work over the years are Paul Tillich and Carl Jung. Tillich’s understanding of paradox has been central to my inner development. And Jung’s understanding of “holding the tension of the opposites” has allowed me to accompany myself and others into the difficult places of life with calmness.

As I think back over my years as a student at PSR, from 1966 to 1969, I can see them through the filters of paradox and the tension of opposites.
I came to PSR holding the tension between grief and eagerness. On an early September morning my dear friend Sharon picked me up and loaded my suitcases into her VW bug, while I kissed my father goodbye for the last time. Sharon was taking me to SeaTac airport to fly to SFO and begin seminary.

I was so ready to start school. I had put my registration at PSR on hold for a year to be with my brother, who died during this time, and my father, who was dying. And yet when I arrived in Berkeley, as I had dreamed of all year, I discovered that I knew no one, had no car to get around, and had several days before classes and the dining room opened. I had never felt so alone. While I was ready and excited to be here, my grief was palpable as I longed to be home.
And then there was the tension between loneliness and community. There were only a few single women living on campus and many single men. Somehow our meals together in d’Autremont Hall brought out the very worst in some of those young men, who probably became the most excellent clergy and teachers, husbands and fathers. But then none of us was yet familiar with the words “feminism” or “harassment.” I hate to admit that some of my most humiliating moments were around the dining tables in that very place.

Yet I also remember another aspect of this loneliest of times. I left for a few weeks during my first quarter due to the death of my father, and I was surprised and moved to receive notes and calls from students and faculty, even a marriage proposal (I said “Thanks, but no thanks”). People really did care. I grew to know and love many wonderful people at PSR.

In my second year, I especially grew to know and love a new student: handsome, bearded, bright, speed-reading, from the high Andes and therefore somewhat mysterious—Richard Corson. He sat next to me in class and told me on our first date that we would be married. And we were, with my same friend Sharon at my side. (Incidentally, I was never harassed again.)

So, I remember PSR as a place of deep loneliness as well as a wonderful community.

Then there was the tension between external political turmoil and internal spiritual grounding: it was the late ’60s in Berkeley, after all.

All of us here at that time were affected by the tension all around. Part of my unique angle on this time of turmoil included the odd personal relationship I developed with Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers through my field work [see page 3]; a face full of tear gas on the way to homiletics class; and a graduation that was disrupted by militant protests.

Yet in the cauldron of unrest and violence lived the spiritual yearnings of my soul: my questions of suffering and vocation, my longing for answered prayer and deeper understanding of faith, and my need for a sense of the presence of God beyond all that is, right here in the midst of the chaos. Everything I studied about faith seemed to move through the sieve of suffering.

Finally, there was a tension within the PSR community that we were all holding: It was a time of the “shaking of the foundations” of the seminary. For instance, the GTU was still forming, and we all wondered what this would mean to PSR. There was talk of making some introductory Bible and theology classes electives. Dr. Rood’s course on Worship and the Arts (we called it “Super Worship”) was a pretty loose experience of dance, slides, film, multi-media, and non-traditional worship experiments. We all thought that this was the wave of the future. The late Doug Adams was a fellow student with us in that class, and we did a lot of dancing together.
There was a group of students who formed a “jug band” (banjo, wash-board, whatever else) which, in those days of change was able to petition for and get four credits—the same as OT, Theology, and other formerly basic courses. This was all fine, except that their “class time” (or was it homework?) was on the roof of Brock Hall on Saturday nights as we tried to sleep. The rest of us had student parishes to get to on Sunday, so it was a bit problematic. But we still enjoyed it, and it was a free concert. Then there was Al, who turned in a collage on a toilet seat for Dr. Foster’s term paper.

Students and faculty struggled and shared together through all this as friend and foe. Yet, underneath, there were unforgettable moments of humanity, faith, and vision. Through this struggle grew an energy that was part of the transformation of an institution and an era. The PSR I left was unlike the PSR I began.

Thanks to Tillich, Jung, and those years at PSR, learning to live in the midst of paradox and to hold the tension between the opposites has been a gift that has informed me as I have been called to more than 40 years of ministry with people from different cultures and parts of the world, with different questions, needs, and hopes. This gift has also threaded its way through the many dimensions of parenting, and I continue to draw upon it in my practice of psychotherapy, and into the fullness of living these days of my own aging.

Indeed I remember the turmoil, the deconstruction, the hostility, and the chaos, but also the beauty, the friendships, the energetic context for theologizing, the shared grief, the idealism, and the cutting edges. For me, in the late ‘60s PSR held the tension between Dark Night of the Soul and Hope of the World.


Becoming Progressive Christian Witnesses

By Katie Shaw Thompson, first-year MDiv student

My husband Parker and I went to the same high school in rural Pennsylvania, where people are much more likely to believe in creationism than in global warming, and where it would not be uncommon to see five SUVs with “W” bumper stickers parked next to an Amish buggy outside a local supermarket.

Both of the churches we grew up in were pastored by folks who were politically and theologically much more progressive than the majority of the congregation. And although both sets of pastors have moved on to retirement or other congregations, I believe it is the seeds those pastors planted that led us to grow uncomfortable with and to question what we were told we ought to believe. So, as we developed our own political opinions and identities, both of us fell away from the organized religion with which we were in conflict—and then we found Stone Church of the Brethren in Huntingdon, PA.

While the Brethren—a small, Anabaptist, German-rooted, historic peace church—have just as wide a mix of viewpoints and theologies as many other denominations, there was something much different about this church from any we had visited. The pastors acknowledged that stories in the Bible were shared with other faiths and cultures. The congregants wanted to pray for victims of social injustices, not just natural disasters. And they had formed a group called a “sustainability circle” to support ecological justice. To us, this church was our burning bush. Throughout our year with them our passion for politics and faith grew together and grew stronger until we felt called to take the next step.
We talked about the Brethren Volunteer Service and seminary with our pastors, and then one night in May (months after the application deadline) I called Pacific School of Religion’s admissions office and spoke with Joellynn Monahan. PSR had been highly recommended by a respected friend and had greatly impressed us with the theology we found on its Web site. I explained to Joellynn that I was asking about applying for the following year; but after we talked for awhile, she asked, with the grace of a pastor, if we were so impassioned to come to seminary, why wait? And so, last August we packed our belongings, our 50-pound dog, and ourselves into our 15-year-old Honda Civic and drove the majority of Interstate 80 to reach what my father had called “the land of fruits and nuts”—and he wasn’t talking about the food—Berkeley, California.

When we arrived in Berkeley, I expected there to be a protest or a rally on every corner. I knew this was not Berkeley of the ‘60s, but I was fully ready to burn things down and march on Rome—in fact, I could not wait to get arrested if that was what was needed! By now, I have attended some rallies and protests, but what I was first confronted with were not large dramatic actions but tough personal questions, with which I needed to struggle in order to grow. While that growth has not always been easy—it has often been painful—Parker and I have both come to the conclusion that PSR is exactly where we were meant to have this experience.

Although we have often found more questions than answers, and we have been frustrated by the imperfections of this institution, we have found here a safe and nurturing, yet challenging and engaging, environment that we both needed to be able to grow into ourselves and become strong, healthy, spiritual leaders. I am not sure there is any other school or any other town in the world quite like this school and this town. And although I would not hesitate to join my classmates in referring to this place as “Bezerkeley,” I believe in many ways this is the land of milk and honey.
At PSR I have not found a place that is free from racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, imperialism, and ecological injustices, but a place where people are talking about these problems, engaging these issues, and seeking to dismantle the structures that support domination and oppression. At PSR I have been plunged into an environment of diversity I had never experienced before. It has challenged me to confront many issues I have never had to think about, including my own white privilege and heterosexism. Instead of being taught to call out these faults in others, I have been challenged to start by searching my own heart.
As first-year MDiv students, Parker and I were also challenged to begin our own inner spiritual journeys—for example, in Boyung Lee and Joe Driskill’s “Spiritual Disciplines” course. As Protestants from a region that seems entrenched in Puritan influence, at first we were very uncomfortable with the idea of a personal spirituality that Joe and Boyung were talking about. But we stayed in the class, and we struggled with this idea of spirituality and a spiritual practice until we had learned more about ourselves, our theologies, and our own connections to the divine than we had ever expected. It was when I carried a sign about inclusive Christian love into a post-election Prop 8 protest and discussed my faith with protest-goers to and from San Francisco on BART, and when I sat in the middle of the quad and led Lectio Divina, as Cal football fans passed us on the way back to their cars, that I knew I was becoming truly comfortable with myself and with my spirituality.
When we went home for Christmas it was clear we had changed. For me, it was almost as if I took Berkeley and PSR with me. Because I now knew that there was a place where people who thought more like me were in the majority, and I was more comfortable with myself—I could walk, talk, and live more confidently than before, even when surrounded by those who oppose what I believe. I could begin to grasp the next big lesson that PSR is teaching me: that we will never change the hearts of hard-line conservative Christians, like the ones populating the majority of central Pennsylvania, by screaming at people who do not recycle, by arguing over Leviticus, or by holding peace rallies. All these things have their place, and I will not stop doing them. But I am now beginning to understand that we will only win over those who oppose our beliefs by loving them, by finding ways to work with them, and by doing our best to live our lives as impassioned but caring, progressive Christian witnesses.