Power of Place

From the Gettysburg PO by
President Michael L. Cooper-White

In a press conference introducing her to the local community, our new Seminary Ridge Museum director Barbara Franco said of Schmucker Hall and the broader campus, "This place has power and that's exciting to me."  Ms. Franco is not the first, of course, to comment on the potency of our unique site on one of the world’s most significant battlefields.  But she captured the sense held by many of us that preserving and making more broadly available the riches of the Ridge is part and parcel of our calling as stewards in and of this place. 

While most readily embrace the joint venture between the Seminary and the Adams County Historical Society to renovate “Old Dorm” and create an interpretive center, which we see as an incredible teaching venue for our students as well as the general public, a few have wondered why a school of theology would create a museum.  Among other purposes, reinforcing the Seminary’s long-standing commitment to imbue in students a deep respect for context, ranks high.  Through both classroom instruction and field education experience, we hope that every Gettysburg graduate will come to appreciate the importance of understanding the place (of course, including its people) in which they may be called to serve.  While some dimensions of public ministry are universal, to be sure, many of its manifestations are not the same in urban Los Angeles as in rural Minnesota.  As one who grew up in the latter, and then served my first call in the former, I can personally attest to the reality: place matters!

A document developed about three decades ago by leaders in diverse contexts was entitled “The Parish as Place.”  This mission-guiding manifesto included a set of key principles for engaging in ministry marked by three core aspects: gospel proclamation, Christian service to human needs, and advocacy for God’s justice in society.  The principles were built upon a solid theological foundation embedded in convictions that the good Creator God loves every place, and there are no God-forsaken communities unworthy of our attention.  Those of us who had a hand in developing the parish-as-place mission stance were intrigued by the literal meaning of the word “parish.” With Greek antecedents meaning “for or beside households,” the English word is rich in its implications for neighborly shared service in a locale. Such usage is still preserved in the state of Louisiana, where “parish” is a subunit of the state, called “county” in most other jurisdictions.  The concept is still preserved as well by Roman Catholics and Anglicans, wherein one is a member of the “parish church” by virtue of living in a particular geographic area.

Understandings of place are challenged in the 21st century, when so many spend more and more of their time living in “virtual space.”  While there still are examples of neighborhood congregations, where the majority of members may arrive for worship on foot from their residences, most churches these days draw from a fairly wide geographical area.  And while our primary gospel messaging may still occur from a pulpit in a room called “sanctuary,” more and more of us also seek to beam out the Word via the internet, by email, Facebook postings and Twitter messages.  Here in early March, for example, it is my privilege to offer some comments on the Lent II texts in the Huffington Post’s online religion news forum.  The ON Scripture series launched by Odyssey Networks of New York City in partnership with Luther and Gettysburg Seminaries, is estimated to have a weekly readership in excess of one million.  While rooted in place atop Seminary Ridge, we ought not miss the opportunity to increasingly beam our witness out into cyberspace.

And yet . . .  And yet . . .  Despite the radical transformations in our understandings of the nature and limits of physical space, we remain creatures shaped by and called to serve in the geographical places where we spend the majority of our time.  Parish pastors and lay rostered leaders are still called by a community of God’s faithful to serve in that place.  Public ministers do well to get out from behind computer keyboards and car dashboards in order that we might walk around in the neighborhoods we inhabit.  The wisdom of really understanding and identifying with the place in which one serves is recognized in other public service arenas.  So it is, for example, that all police and fire fighters serving the city of Chicago are required to live within the city limits.

Increasingly space-mindful though we may be, we human beings remain creatures to greater or lesser measure rooted in and connected with particular places.  In a wistful and somewhat backhanded manner, I think our Lord spoke to this reality.   In what seems to me a deeply heartfelt expression of sadness at his own road-warrior status, Jesus said to a group of would-be followers, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58) 

Here in mid-Lent, I’d welcome hearing your own reflections and reports on how you and those with whom you serve engage in ministry rooted in, shaped by and unique to your place.


Posted: 3/1/2012 6:00:00 AM by John Spangler | with 0 comments

From the Gettysburg Seminary President's Office

by Michael L. Cooper-White

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