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Seminary’s pandemic challenge: Protect students, equip them to protect others

by David Waters

Originally published in The Daily Memphian

When the pandemic closed the doors of Memphis Theological Seminary in early March, faculty and staff began to open new windows.

One was called Sunday Morning Seminary, free online discussions they host weekly.

“We are not the first people of faith to have lived in a time of pandemic,” Dr. Pete Gathje, the seminary’s academic dean, noted in a session in July.

“How does our faith in God, our discipleship informed by Christ, our lives inspired by the Holy Spirit, help us to live in and respond to this pandemic?”

The dean’s question was a reminder of the seminary’s dual challenge as the fall semester begins Monday, online only.

Protecting students, staff and their families from a highly infectious and potentially lethal virus, while equipping and empowering them to help others who are vulnerable.

“The seminary exists to serve congregations, and, in dark times, it becomes clear how essential that work is,” said Rev. Dr. Jody Hill, who became the seminary’s president in January.

“At the same time, many of our students commute from throughout the Mid-South and serve in pastoral ministry to those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19.”

MTS moved all classes online the second week of March, in the middle of the spring semester. Classes were kept online for summer.

On May 22, faculty were told that all classes would remain online through the fall semester.

“We miss the community and more personal interaction of in-person instruction,” Hill said, “but we could not justify the risks to our students or the people they serve.”

‘Listen and pray’

<strong>Blanche Bond-Hudson</strong>
In the early days of the pandemic, Blanche Bond-Hudson, a FedEx employee living in Arizona, was managing her own life-threatening illness.

Hudson was diagnosed with breast cancer on Oct. 8, 2018, three years after her late husband was diagnosed with colon cancer, and one year after she moved from Memphis to Phoenix.

“I’ll never forget that date,” Hudson said. “I was by myself when I got the news. I cried, but not for myself. I cried because I realized at that moment I hadn’t understood how my husband and others who’d had cancer truly felt.”

At the same time, Hudson was struggling to find a way to balance her occupation and her vocation.

She began attending Memphis Theological Seminary in 2014, but had to drop out when she moved across country. Last year, after enduring dozens of painful procedures to fight the cancer, she retired from FedEx.

“I was out here all alone, trying to figure out how in the world I was going to do this,” Hudson said. “But as I learned at seminary, we don’t have the answer for everything. That’s why we listen and pray.”

Hudson grew up in Crockett County in West Tennessee. She wanted to become a pastor, but the Baptist and Pentecostal churches she attended as a child didn’t allow a woman to do that.

So she became a high school teacher. She got a summer job one year at FedEx and loved working for the company. When she was offered a full-time job, she moved to Memphis and up the corporate ladder.

She enrolled at MTS in 2014. The pastor of her nondenominational church had encouraged her to speak from the pulpit.

“He said, ‘if you really want to preach, go to seminary,’ ” she said. “A call to ministry never goes away.”

Grief and gratitude

MTS was founded in 1810 by the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, but its students represent 25 denominations.

A majority of them are African American. A third of them are part-time, two-thirds are over the age of 35, and four in 10 are over age 50.

Many of MTS’s 190 or so students live and work outside Shelby County, and four in 10 live and work in other states or foreign countries.

Nearly all of them are serving in some form of ministry in their communities while they are taking classes.

Sunday Morning Seminary’s topics have included “Biblical Leadership in Times of Crisis,” led by Hill, and “Worship in a Time of Pandemic,” led by Rev. Dr. Christopher Davis.

Gathje discussed “Christian Spirituality in a Time of Pandemic.”

He reminded viewers of four spiritual practices they can use to guide them through the pandemic – “a 4G network, with a fifth G added, of God.”

Grief: “To mourn what we have lost and what others have lost.”

Gratitude: “To recognize the gifts that are still in our lives.”

Graciousness: “To be gentle with ourselves and each other.”

Going-Forth: “Informed by grief to be compassionate; informed by gratitude to be thankful; informed by graciousness to be gentle and loving; and in all of these to offer to others what we have received from God.”

‘To take care of people’

<strong>Kim Moore</strong>

In the early days of the pandemic, Kim Moore, a veteran nurse, was managing the cardiovascular ICU at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

Tornadoes smashed parts of the metro area, killing 25 people and injuring hundreds, the same week Vanderbilt saw its first COVID-19 patient.

“People in the hospital were feeling overwhelmed and powerless already, and then here comes the coronavirus,” Moore said.

At the same time, she was working as an intern with the hospital’s pastoral care staff, part of her degree requirements as a student at Memphis Theological Seminary.

Moore was ministering to patients and their families, doctors and her fellow nurses. Nearly everyone she encountered had wounds that weren’t just physical.

“I had to shift into a different mindset,” Moore said. “With a nurse’s mindset, when the medical options end, hope ends. But that’s not true when you think theologically.”

Moore grew up in Dickson County, just west of Nashville, not far from the spot where the Cumberland Presbyterian Church was founded.

She thought she would become a medical missionary, but her interest in medicine took her to college and into nursing.

She worked at an ICU in Ohio for more than 20 years, then moved back home to be near her aging parents. She found a “dream job” at Vanderbilt’s cardiovascular ICU, but she still felt another call. She also enrolled at MTS in 2014.

“My calling is to take care of people,” Moore said. “I love nursing, but business has become such an important part of health care, and that part is not the most satisfying.”

Like many seminaries across the country, MTS has been struggling to maintain its enrollment and its funding.

When the pandemic pushed classes online in March, President Hill worried that the school’s financial position would become even more precarious.

Just five years ago, the graduate school at the corner of Union and East Parkway enrolled more than 350 students. Leaders announced plans to add buildings and a larger endowment.

But over the past several years, the school has eliminated nearly two dozen positions, most of them part-time. Expansion plans were shelved. Enrollment is hovering around 200.

“When I took this job, I knew the challenges we were facing were primarily financial,” said Hill, a Cumberland Presbyterian minister who was serving as an administrator at Blue Mountain College near Tupelo.

“Theological education is shrinking everywhere, as is the larger church. But this school’s commitment to unity and diversity is needed more than ever.”

Full-time students pay about $10,000 in annual tuition at MTS, but the total cost of their education is about double that.

The seminary relies on denominations and individual donors to cover much of the gap.

Officials had planned to pull an extra $200,000 from MTS’s $11.5 million endowment to begin this new school year, but that wasn’t necessary.

A summer fundraising campaign raised nearly $170,000, including an $80,000 matching pledge from a Cumberland Presbyterian couple.

The school received a Payroll Protection Plan loan of $425,300 from the federal government. That could become revenue next year, pending forgiveness.

The school finished the fiscal year in July in the black, for the second year in a row.

The school’s reliance on a $1 million line of credit has declined from $950,000 in 2018 to $100,000 this year.

“We are still concerned about finances, and the pandemic really intensified that,” Hill said, “but no student should have to delay following their call to ministry for financial reasons.”

‘No one else to lean on’

Since she was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, Bond-Hudson has undergone 135 medical procedures.

Along the way, she’s suffered hair loss and mouth ulcers, a loss of mobility in her right arm, and a partial loss of vision after a mass was removed from one eye.

Cancer hasn’t been the only C-word tormenting her in Arizona, which became a COVID-19 hotspot early in the summer.

The isolation of the pandemic has intensified the isolation she has felt being a widow 1,400 miles from home.

“I am so close with God right now,” she said. “During the day when I’ve had to go out and stand in lines in the heat, late at night when I didn’t think I could get up to use the bathroom, God has been there with me. I’m so grateful to God. I’ve had no one else to lean on.”

Bond-Hudson is working to balance her grief with gratitude.

She’s grateful she’s still alive and able to support herself. Grateful she lives three miles from the Ironwood Cancer & Research Center. Grateful she has found ways to continue her vocation.

She is serving as a virtual chaplain for her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta. She makes prayer calls and sends letters, cards and texts of support and encouragement to dozens of sisters who are dealing with their own grief.

She’s still an associate minister for Christ Missionary Baptist Church in South Memphis, although she does most of her work online and on Zoom.

“Blanche is a survivor. She is an overcomer,” said Rev. Dr. Gina M. Stewart, the church’s senior pastor. “And she’s been a great blessing to us. She’s still acts as an encourager to new members and participates in our ministries, as much as she is able. She’s very determined and resilient.”

Now that MTS has moved all of its classes online, Bond-Hudson is continuing her work on a master’s degree in Christian education. She took one class over the summer. She registered for two more in the fall.

“I sometimes suffer from ‘chemo brain,’ ” she said. “It impacts short-term memory as well as comprehension. So I find myself reading and rereading the content for retention and comprehension. But I have mastered the reread, and I feel so rejuvenated.”

She’s still battling cancer. She’ll be tested again next month.

“I have learned that nobody knows what journeys your life will take,” she said. “Five years ago, I never would have thought I’d be a widow, I’d have cancer and I’d be living in Arizona in a pandemic.

“Through it all, my faith is stronger than ever. I know and can rest assured that God is still in control. There’s nothing I can’t do if I lean and depend totally on God.”

‘Academic Jubilee’

When the pandemic closed college campuses in March, MTS was better prepared than most.

The school began offering hybrid classes in 2016. Students could complete classes by spending half their time online and the other half on campus.

Still, school officials knew some students would find the sudden transition to online-only difficult.

The school received $36,000 in CARES Act funding and used it to provide small grants to help students who needed laptops, WiFi or other help moving to online learning.

The school also has requested grants from the state to buy 25 Chromebook laptops with Wi-Fi connections for students, and two scanners for its library.

This semester, the school is awarding $500 scholarships to all master’s degree students who register for at least six credit hours.

For the fall semester, MTS has enrolled 123 students in its master’s degree programs, and 63 in its doctoral programs.

All but 12 students are returning from the spring semester.

No faculty or staff members have been laid off or furloughed during the pandemic.

The school has added two weeks of paid annual Family Leave for eligible employees, and two weeks of non-paid leave.

And next week, every employee will get a bonus in the amount of an extra two weeks’ pay.

Last spring, when the campus was closed, officials offered to every student a chance to withdraw from the rest of the term, without penalty.

They called it “Academic Jubilee,” a reference to the biblical “Jubilee Year” in which all debts were forgiven.

“It recognizes that students can encounter a semester of crisis that needs to be responded to with compassion and the possibility of restoration,” Gathje explained.

Only one student applied.

Fifty-six students were scheduled to graduate in May. All of them did.

‘The power of hope’

Rev. Kim Moore graduated in May. She’s a pastor now.

Earlier this month, she became the spiritual leader of Mt. Sharon Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Robertson County.

She’s still a nurse, at least until next month, when she plans to leave her position Vanderbilt’s ICU.

“The call to a healing vocation has come to Kim twice,” said Rev. Lisa Anderson, pastor of Colonial Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Memphis, and the denomination’s former moderator. “She is a very willing participant in the sacred places in which she provides ministry.”

For Moore, few places are more sacred than an intensive care unit.

“We have the power in our unit to keep people alive,” Moore said. “If your heart is not beating, we have machines that will do that for you. In some cases, you feel like you could choose the day someone will die. It’s like playing God.”

When the pandemic surged in the spring, Moore and her ICU colleagues began seeing patients whose heart problems were even worse.

COVID-19 can damage the heart. Its symptoms also can mimic heart attacks.

“As the weeks went on, we were seeing even sicker patients come in to the ICU with heart attacks,” Moore said. “People were sitting at home having chest pains but afraid to come to the hospital because of COVID.”

In the past six months, about 25,000 more Americans have died of heart disease than expected, either because of heart damage caused by the virus or deferred care caused by fear.

The American Heart Association has started a campaign called “Don’t Die of Doubt,” urging people to seek medical care immediately after a heart attack or stroke.

Moore, as a nurse and a chaplain, has seen the physical and emotional toll the pandemic is taking on her fellow nurses.

She’s even more concerned about the moral toll.

“We all assume that stress and workload are what contribute to burnout and compassion fatigue, and they do,” Moore said. “But moral injury can play an even bigger role.”

Moral injury is defined as the suffering people experience when they are in life and death situations, things go wrong, and harm results.

“The harm may be something we did, something we witnessed, or something that was done to us,” Moore said. “It results in moral emotions such as shame, guilt, self-condemnation, outrage, sorrow.”

Moore learned about the pain of moral injury, and the healing power of grief and gratitude, in her pastoral care class at MTS.

Every third Thursday, she and some of her Vanderbilt colleagues get together to talk about the moral and ethical dilemmas they are facing, and the resulting injuries they are experiencing.

“In the Bible, lament, crying out in distress, is balanced by doxology, remembering what is good and of God,” she said. “We lament our powerlessness over pain and death. We also remember to celebrate and be grateful for the patients who went home. It’s the power of hope.”

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