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What Really Goes On Inside Harvard Divinity School?

By Nichole Bernier | November 19, 2014 | Lifestyle

Harvard Divinity School is considered a mystical gem, not just in Boston but for the world. What really goes on inside its hallowed halls?

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A religious service at Harvard Divinity School. About 20 percent of students at HDS seek to become ministers.

On a Tuesday in late September, the Sperry Room at Harvard Divinity School was not packed for any of the usual reasons—a visiting scholar, a panel on, say, global faith, or a service in on e of the school’s many religious traditions. Somber secular music greeted those taking their seats: Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” with its images of “black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.” In the front of the room played a looping video of Southern lynchings.

The forum, “Michael Brown’s Body: HDS Forum on Ferguson & Race,” was organized by a group of students. They had driven to Missouri after the shooting there of teenager Michael Brown by a police officer, partnering with local churches in solidarity with the peaceful protest. Dean David Hempton offered opening thoughts on civil rights and strife, recalling his own memories of living through the Troubles in Northern Ireland. There were certainly parallels, he said, in both nations’ dealings with divided populations and with authority.

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Many religious traditions in addition to Christianity are honored at HDS.

“You know better than I do that we need real change in the structures of systems of power in the United States, in the ways law and order are upheld,” Hempton said after reciting a Seamus Heaney poem about violent clashes with police. “We need that with justice and respect.” Not something you’d typically expect at a divinity school gathering. But it is typical of Harvard Divinity School, where spirituality is embodied not in any one faith or career path, but in living in a state of respect and well-being, which includes protesting injustice.

This fall marks a near-milestone for Harvard Divinity School, the beginning of its 199th academic year. The school is known not just as the oldest nonsectarian divinity program in the country, but also as the most diverse, with graduates who take their assorted brands of spirituality to the pulpits of politics, health, business, and beyond. To some intellectually curious Bostonians, the divinity school has a buzz for its stellar public programs—joining forces with Harvard’s esteemed Kennedy School, Law School, and Medical School and featuring the likes of Toni Morrison, Russell Banks, and Jimmy Carter. And Harvard Divinity will soon be known for something altogether new and timely: an ongoing academic examination of religious conflict and peace in today’s turbulent hot spots.

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The annual Seasons of Light service, which is open to the public, pays tribute to the interplay of darkness and light in the world’s religions.

The office of Dean Hempton is tucked on the second floor of Andover Hall, just steps away from the chapel, which at any given time may be humming with the quiet energy of an ecumenical service or a noontime meditation. Wearing a herringbone blazer and a serious demeanor in his wood-paneled office, Hempton looks every bit the Ivy League dean. But when he speaks about the school’s new initiative on global religious conflict, sprinkling spiritual references in his soft Belfast brogue, his style is more earnest world citizen than remote ivory-tower philosopher.

“Religion and conflict are a serious issue in our world order,” he says. “Look at The New York Times for a month.” He lists several nations that will be represented in the school’s programming: Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Palestine, Sri Lanka. “The point is not just to focus on regions and particular problems, but to ask, ‘Can we find within religious traditions deep resources for peacemaking?’ Because we think they are there.”

Hempton is quick to stress that Harvard Divinity School is not about policy-making. He doesn’t presume that walking in President Obama’s shoes would be easy. But he does believe the school is uniquely positioned to hold his flashlight. “Our expertise comes from a deep knowledge of the world religious traditions,” he says, “and hopefully, we can convene experts and start to think in the kinds of ways that make a difference. But we’re under no illusions. We’re not going to solve the world’s problems tomorrow. We don’t want to be current-affairs faddish with our latest smart-aleck views about answers to world peace. Because it’s hugely complicated. But I think someone has to do this longer-term thinking about religious traditions and how they can peacefully coexist. Because the policy-making is needed so fast, and it’s such a jigsaw trying to make sense of how things happen around the world.”

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Andover Hall.

It is this intersection of the secular and the sacred that might best characterize Harvard Divinity School. People here invoke spirituality, but rarely specify a path or deity. Represented among the faculty are a diversity of practices—Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism—but, students say, the professors exert no pressure to hold beliefs the way they do. The school’s students and alumni boast an impressive list of spiritually influenced achievements, but often in fields not usually thought of as spiritual.

Take Lauren Taylor, a master’s degree candidate in divinity, who came to the school armed with a master’s in public health. Last year she cowrote The American Healthcare Paradox with her former Yale professor Elizabeth Bradley (to be published this year by the Brown University Medical School) and is now turning her attention to healthcare in Africa—specifically, how a country’s culture, morals, and religions impact the way its people will or won’t participate in critical health initiatives.

“Public health is a very professional and pragmatic discipline, but something was being lost in translation,” she says. “We have mountains of information on diseases like tuberculosis and Ebola, but things don’t seem to get solved very quickly. There has to be something else going on, because the public health toolkit isn’t getting it done.” Taylor had her doubts when mentors recommended divinity school (“I did not grow up in an overtly religious household”), but they assured her that the curriculum at Harvard was flexible. “I could keep one foot in the public health world and not entirely crawl into a divinity hole.”

About 20 percent of Harvard Divinity graduates pursue active careers in the ministry, like former Boston anchorwoman Liz Walker, who walked away from three decades in television news to travel to Sudan with friend and fellow alum the Reverend Gloria White-Hammond, then took to the pulpit. Some pursue jobs in academia, like Janet Cooper Nelson, the first female Ivy League chaplain (at Brown). Others opt to work in public policy, such as Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, the first permanent US ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council. Or politics, like Shaun Casey, appointed to be Secretary of State John Kerry’s guy in the State Department who specializes in religious leaders and organizations around the world. And a tremendous number of graduates go into public service, the umbrella term for a dizzying array of health, educational, environmental, and social change organizations—such as Peter J. Isely, a psychotherapist who was awarded the divinity school’s Peter J. Gomes Memorial Honor for his organization’s work in helping victims of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

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The annual Seasons of Light service.

But many also go into mainstream fields—law, medicine, business—with the conviction that their degree will provide their work with a moral and ethical foundation. That was the case with Tom Chappell, who attended Harvard Divinity School nearly 20 years after he and his wife started their company Tom’s of Maine.

“My wife and I had run the company intuitively with our values,” Chappell says, “but during the ’80s we became a little overly focused on the numbers and kind of lost our way, focusing on growth for growth’s sake.” Attending the divinity school while still running Tom’s of Maine resulted in “a complete and total enhancement” of his personal and professional life. “By seeing private enterprise as morally connected, I could see the nature of our actions toward people in the business, the customers, the environment, and so on.”

For some in business, it’s a dramatic epiphany that compels them to make a life change. For oil executive Jim Hackett, former CEO of the Houston-based petroleum powerhouse Anadarko, it was the Enron scandal. After that company’s bankruptcy, he studied the paperwork that was released and was shocked by the business practices of its executives—including a former Harvard Business School classmate who went to prison. “They started to feel so special that the rules didn’t apply to them,” Hackett says. It took nearly a decade to piece together his course of action: early retirement and Harvard Divinity School. “Could I do research to prove an institution in crisis can only be resurrected by strong spiritual values? I still don’t know if that’s a good hypothesis, but that’s why I’m here.”

Interestingly, one of Hackett’s fellow students is climate-change activist Tim DeChristopher, whose undermining of a Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease auction in Utah grabbed headlines in 2009. In an act characterized by some as civil disobedience, DeChristopher drove the bidding on 22,500 acres up to $1.8 million—an amount he knew he couldn’t pay—leading to two years’ imprisonment, and while in prison, he applied to the divinity school.

“Long before I got locked up, I saw the challenge of the climate movement was shifting from being primarily focused on emissions to also incorporate this new challenge of: How do we maintain our humanity while we navigate this period of intense and chaotic change?” he says. “I saw divinity school as a place that had a certain set of tools, and traditions of people being willing to grapple with that kind of question.

“The activist community is defined by action—by doing things in the world, by movement,” DeChristopher adds. “And there are pros and cons to that. There’s often a lack of reflection and planning and theorizing in activist segments. And academia is sort of the opposite extreme. I’ve had a frustration during my time here of constantly asking, How do we put that into action? There are times when I do try to push people into real-world engagement. And other times when I appreciate the opportunity for deeper reflection.”

There are few places where action and reflection intertwine in times of crisis. Harvard Divinity School, says Walker, is one such place. Spirituality and public tragedy, in fact, baptized her into the ministry: She was heading to begin her first day of classes the morning of September 11, 2001. “By the time I got to Harvard, both buildings [of the World Trade Center] were down,” she recalls. “It was a good place to be because there was an immediate response. A community life administrator pulled together services, immediate emergency response on a spiritual level. I was going across the river, and I was going into religion.”

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