| Surprised by Grace
Teaching Congregations and Interns Share Gifts
Even as a child, Alisa Lasater, now a third-year divinity school student, was interested in the plight of the homeless, the poor, the disenfranchised.
At a young age she became involved in informal outreach to low income communities “by the grace of God,” she says. After college, she worked as a youth minister in her hometown of Albuquerque, N.M., at Central United Methodist Church. Later, she worked full time with the poor through Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church near Washington, D.C.
So Lasater was taken aback last spring when she learned that her pastoral internship through the summer Teaching Congregations program would take place in Stanwich Congregational Church of Greenwich, Conn., one of the nation’s wealthiest communities. She had never considered ministry with parishioners who live in multi-million-dollar mansions. Accustomed to the poor’s openness to the gospel, she did not expect to find the same spirit in a community of such great means.
How would she make the transition, she wondered, from preaching to people who live on the streets to preaching to people with heated bathroom floors and vaulted ceilings in their huge houses?
“One of my first thoughts was the passage from Matthew: ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,’” Lasater says.
What followed was a transforming experience, one that challenged her view of the world and showed Lasater that she had much to learn about all kinds of people, their needs, and the ubiquitous presence of the Holy Spirit.
According to Nancy Rich, who coordinates the Lilly Endowment-funded Teaching Congregations program, sending students into settings outside their comfort zone is intentional. The idea is to take 14 of the school’s finest students each summer and place them in churches with excellent pastors and lay people to guide them. Often the experience moves students in unexpected directions that prove more valuable than the students could have imagined.
“It’s a chance to challenge students’ notions of what church is all about and help them find their calling,” Rich says.
In well-heeled Greenwich, Lasater encountered people struggling with loneliness, questions about their self worth, and difficult family situations. And contrary to her expectations, she found a devoted congregation of openhearted and deeply caring people who shared their pain.
“I learned about God and God’s kingdom and a lot about my call to the practice of ministry,” says Lasater, 27. “You go where God sends you, but you make sure you’re always formed by God, not the place. And God taught me through the problems and pain and hope of the people in Greenwich.”
For 24-year-old Donna Coletrane, a second-year divinity student, her internship at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, Fla., gave her the opportunity to work toward racial reconciliation within the church—a long-time interest. The issue seemed natural, considering Coletrane is black and Hyde Park is a predominantly white congregation.
Coletrane spoke frequently with members about divisions separating black and white communities. She talked about hip-hop culture, especially music, and explained that it can be positive as well as negative. She almost always found people willing to listen and trying to come together. Scripture served as a bridge of understanding when shared experiences did not.
“I left Hyde Park with a hope of racial reconciliation among white and black churches, although that still has a long way to go,” she says. “They gave me hope because they were a community that embraced me. I could make a comment without judgment, and we could have a good discussion and pray about it.”
Before the summer, Coltrane, who grew up in the Missionary Baptist tradition, believed she would not become a pastor in her church. But during her internship, she began to consider doing exactly that.
“It did make me more open to the possibility of pastoring, which is not something I necessarily was open to doing,” she says. “They helped me develop some undiscovered gifts. God very well may call me into the pastoral role.”
For Lasater, the internship—which involved preaching, leading Bible study, youth ministry, and various outreach efforts—solidified her calling to become a pastor.
“I finally came to understand my identity as a pastor,” says Lasater, who credits Pastor Neely Towe for both challenging and encouraging her. “This wealthy church showed me what I am. They reflected back my strengths and encouraged me [to confront] my weaknesses. I grew with them, and they grew with me.”
The congregation’s desire to bring Lasater back periodically over the next decade came as a surprising tribute from a congregation that had much to teach her. “We want to continue to nurture that growth,” she says. “It humbled me how gracious God is. The Spirit knows no boundaries.”
Read essays from other divinity students who participated in the Teaching Congregations program last summer.
Copyright © 2004 Duke Divinity School.
All Rights Reserved