When three divinity students arrive in western Kenya this summer, their internships with the Umoja Project will represent an expanding network of global partnerships for learning and service.
Since 2001, the number of Duke Divinity students serving international internships has increased sevenfold — from three in South Africa six years ago to a new high of 21 spread between Africa and Central and South America during the coming summer.
This commitment to international learning and service shows no sign of becoming a passing trend. More than ever, prospective applicants are ranking the opportunity for contextual learning in other cultures a top priority.
Students in this summer’s group, many of whom have been inspired by returning students’ stories of transformation, will intern in Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, Brazil, South Africa, Uganda, and, for the first time, Kenya.
The international field education program began in the summer of 2001 when three students traveled to South Africa, where Peter Storey, a former bishop and national leader of the Methodist Church of Southern African and now Williams professor emeritus of the practice of Christian ministry, had arranged for them to serve and learn.
Those students returned to Duke overwhelmed by the hospitality they encountered in an environment where so many were suffering, says Paige Martin D’08, assistant director of field education. “They came back saying, ‘We thought we had so much to give, but instead we gained so much.’ ”
Martin believes that exposure to poverty and suffering transforms students. “They have expectations of what church should look like,” she says. “But students see that even when worship takes place in old, abandoned warehouses, God is there. In the midst of great need, they find out that what matters most is faith and reliance on God.”
Field education, also called contextual learning, is a core requirement for the three-year master of divinity degree (M.Div.). It is a student’s chance to test his or her call to ministry, to explore ministerial roles and identity, and to work closely with an experienced mentor. The goal, says Martin, is to match students with settings where all involved benefit. The broader benefit is thriving ministries.
The students assigned to intern in Kenya will first travel to Indianapolis, Ind., for a two-week orientation with alumnus Kevin Armstrong D’85 at North United Methodist Church, which has hosted numerous Duke interns. Armstrong is a leader in the joint Indianapolis and Kenya Umoja Project, which supports AIDS orphans in the African nation.
“Usually, the seminary says ‘If only the church could be better,’ and the church says, ‘If only the seminary could be better,’” says Martin. “The relationship between Duke and North UMC exemplifies the hopes of both. Their work with Umoja enables our students to cross cultural barriers, being present in the midst of suffering and discovering God is already there.”
This summer, the church is sending its minister of mission and outreach, Brian Williams D’08, to Kenya with nine youth for two weeks. Their visit will coincide with the eight-week internships of the divinity students.
The Swahili word for “unity,” Umoja seeks sustainable solutions to hunger relief, safe housing, and education for children, many orphaned or otherwise neglected, in Chulaimbo, a rural area with Kenya’s highest rate of HIV/AIDS infection.
Umoja is a project of the Global Interfaith Partnership, founded in 2006 to consolidate the efforts of 10 churches and synagogues in Indianapolis that had been working independently for nearly 20 years to provide AIDS relief in western Kenya.
Those partners — United Methodist, Presbyterian, Mennonite, Catholic, and Jewish — first learned about the impact of HIV/AIDS in Kenya through medical students who trained there at an Indiana University-sponsored clinic founded by Dr. Joseph Mamlin, a member of North UMC. Alarmed by the growing crisis, he and his wife, Sara Ellen, retired to Kenya in 2000 and founded AMPATH (Academic Model Providing Access To Healthcare), a comprehensive AIDS control program that today treats 55,000 patients at 19 sites throughout the country.
Twenty-six faith groups in the Chulaimbo region have joined the Global Interfaith Partnership, including Legio Maria, an analogue to the Roman Catholic Church.
Bringing such diverse communities together has been a lesson in radical hospitality, says Ellen Daniels-Howell, director of the partnership. “We learn a lot about ourselves and each other by having members of Indiana congregations working alongside members of Kenyan congregations,” she says.
Forging these new friendships in Kenya is transforming everyone involved, says Kevin Armstrong.
“Many of our members who head to Kenya are startled by the juxtaposition of this immensely beautiful land and people living in the midst of such a horrible pandemic. It’s tempting to get in and get out, a little like tourists who know they don’t have to stay too long in any one place.
“But there is another pull,” says Armstrong. “In the presence of hospitable Kenyans, we remember the importance of being friends. We remind one another that Jesus called his disciples friends, and we begin to discover that relationship must be at the heart of service.”
These relationships do more than change how Christians on different continents see one another, Armstrong says. “This is reshaping how we relate to one another in our respective homes. We’re drawing closer to our immediate neighbors as well.”
The short-term goal of the Umoja Project is to raise awareness of how the larger church can cooperate in supporting orphans, vulnerable children, and their guardians. “In the long-term, I think we’re discovering how God is raising up a new generation of leaders,” Armstrong says.
For the divinity interns, the summer will be an opportunity to experience ministry in new and unorthodox ways.
“We don’t build orphanages and shelters and schools,” says Daniels-Howell. “We don’t own anything. We work in local homes and from our cars. We hug the ground.”
More information on the Global Interfaith Partnership's Umoja project. You may also follow the summer experiences of student interns both abroad and in the United States.