Crossing borders topic at Pre-Lenten Gatherings

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February 13, 2018

“Adventures in Border Crossing” was the theme of the 2018 Pre-Lenten Gatherings for clergy hosted by Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar and the Board of Ordained Ministry.
Leading this year’s retreats was the Rev. Dr. Robin Olson, Director of Spiritual Life at Bentley University, a business school in Waltham, MA. Dr. Olson is an elder in the Upper NY Conference.
Bishop Devadhar welcomed clergy, saying “It is our hope and prayer that we come together as clergy brothers and sisters – not to do any business, but to be in prayer and re-fuel ourselves as we lead our people in our Lenten journey.”
The bishop said the gatherings have been blessed with wonderful leaders; he introduced Dr. Olson with these words:
“Robin is a spiritual giant, a pastoral mentor, an ecumenical scholar, and above all she’s a true disciple of Jesus Christ,” he said. “I wish, when I was a college student, I had mentors like Robin.”
Despite a mid-week snowstorm, all three events were held, Feb. 6-8, at Hampden Highlands UMC in Maine, Camp Aldersgate in Rhode Island, and Faith UMC in Vermont. Some 118 clergy attended the three events, which included worship and workshops.
In her sermon, Dr. Olson said it was an article by a business writer in Duke University’s Faith & Leadership
newsletter that gave her “the language for what I had been doing in following my call of Jesus.”
The writer said that effective leaders need to be “border crossers,” and defined crossing borders this way:
“Crossing borders means entering a new place geographically and intellectually to be embedded there to learn the nuances of culture. Leadership is willing to cross borders to those who are different – those who might even have been construed as enemies.”
“Every time we enter a new ministry setting, we have the opportunity to cross over into a world rich with discipleship adventure,” Dr. Olson said. “To walk alongside people from different cultures and perspectives and practices and world views. To walk with the gentle stride of Jesus.”
Jesus, she said, is “a profound border crosser” – as seen in Matthew 14: 22-27 and throughout the Gospels.
Jesus encounters people with many different realities and needs, Dr. Olson said, but he knows how to “pause and be present in a very perceptive way with each person.”
The day also included workshops – in the first workshop, Dr. Olson talked about her work at the university’s Spiritual Life Center, which she called an “amazing context of diversity.”
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t have a conversation with students that are Hindu, all stripes of Christianity, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Republican, Democrat, international, domestic,” she said.
As business students, Bentley’s are highly focused on their future employment, and, Dr. Olson said, she needs to speak their language to demonstrate the need for an interfaith center and to have an impact.
She cited research that showed 91 percent of students involved in interfaith cooperation on a college campus said it helped them maintain relationships among fundamental disagreement.
Further, she said, there’s a lack of expertise and training within the workforce about how to directly address religious and world-view diversity, despite the fact that employers find that so important.
The goal, however, Dr. Olson said, is to move from diversity – which is just a description of the situation – to pluralism. She quoted Diana Eck, Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard Divinity School.
“First, pluralism is not the sheer fact of diversity alone, but is active engagement with that diversity. One can be an observer of diversity. One can ‘celebrate diversity,’ as the cliché goes. One can be critical of it or threatened by it. But real pluralism requires participation and engagement. Diversity can and often has meant isolation — the creation of virtual ghettos of religions and sub-cultures with little traffic between them. The dynamic of pluralism, however, is one of meeting, exchange, and two-way traffic.”
“It’s no surprise to know that our world needs border crossers,” Dr. Olson said. 
At one gathering, Dr. Olson was asked about how to cross the border to reach those of no faith.
About 40 percent of students at Bentley do not identify as religious, Dr. Olson said. Business students don’t have many opportunities for creative expression, and art is a place where she felt Spiritual Life could connect with students. They started Art and Soul (based on a program at Boston University).
In one activity, students were invited to create art around the theme “Love your neighbor.” Each religious tradition shared images and sacred texts about the concept.
“We want every person to claim their own tradition,” Dr. Olson said. “We want people to know their own background, then to know ‘what from your tradition gives you the impetus to be reaching out to someone who’s different from you?’”

The students were then given a canvas on which to create their own artwork. They gathered afterward to share and reflect on their images.
Dr. Olson said it’s “largely those 40 percent” who attend these art events. International students, many of whom are seeking community, are also attracted to these activities.
With crayons, paper and pencils, the clergy got a chance to engage in their own art project. They were asked to draw the journey of their lives as a river and share their story with a partner. The drawings were then arranged so that the “rivers” connected and flowed into one another.
To close the day, the clergy were anointed, and Dr. Olson offered this:
Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the world.
Yours are the feet with which Christ is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which Christ is to bless all people now.