Some students have a dramatic “call story” – a powerful turning point that explains the decision to study at Perkins. But Ed Gabrielsen’s journey to Perkins began when, as he puts it, “My life exploded.”
Five years before he enrolled, his home burned to the ground. The family’s dog was lost in the fire. His marriage ended. Since he had shared a business with his wife, that also meant the end of his career.
“I was totally lost and felt that things couldn’t get any worse,” he said. “But somehow, I felt supported by a universal love that we would call God.”
Growing up, Gabrielsen’s family belonged to the Salvation Army and later a Southern Baptist church. At age 19, he became disillusioned, left the church, became a Buddhist and practiced Buddhism for 30 years. When his family moved to Maine in 2000, he joined a Congregational church, the contemporary heir to the spiritual traditions of the Pilgrims and the Puritans.
Gabrielsen’s return to church involved no lightning bolt moments.
“I just missed church,” he said. “I missed the music, the sense of being together. The church accepted me without any questions about my beliefs. Later I learned that that’s the Congregational way. It works for me.”
About three years after the divorce, Gabrielsen was hired as music director by a church in western Maine.
“I felt so comfortable in the church,” he said. “I thought, maybe this is a direction I could go. I could do this.”
In considering Perkins’s degree program, Gabrielsen was encouraged by the presence of Ruben Habito, a Zen teacher, on the Perkins faculty. Perkins has no requirement to sign a statement of faith, which he appreciated. Also, he watched talks on the Perkins website by Roy Heller (on Genesis 22) and former Dean William Lawrence (on open-mindedness) that convinced him that Perkins was the right next stop on his already-varied spiritual path. He applied to Perkins in July 2016, and thanks to the seminary’s open enrollment policy, was able to start that fall. He packed up his belonging in a U-Haul, left Maine and headed to Dallas.
At Perkins, Gabrielsen explored his interests in contemplative spirituality, interfaith dialogue and pastoral counseling. He joined the Seminary Singers. His long list of favorite classes includes courses in Old and New Testament, church history, ethics and cultural context, to name only a few.
“Really, I enjoyed almost everything,” he said.
Today, Gabrielsen is pursuing ordination in the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches (NACCC) and interning at Rockland Congregational Church in the harbor town of Rockland, Maine. He expects to graduate when he completes his internship in May.
“Technically, the NACCC is not a denomination, it’s an association of independent churches,” he said. “It’s that independent New England spirit. We like to think about the autonomy of the local church and the freedom of thought, and this goes back to the earliest history of the tradition.”
Buddhism still informs Gabrielsen’s spiritual practice; he regularly spends time in sitting meditation. Last year, he participated in a 7-day session (intensive meditation) at Maria Kannon Zen Center, where Habito, his faculty advisor and mentor, is Founding Teacher.
Gabrielsen cites this verse from the Dhammapada as a guiding principle: “For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love; this is an old rule.”
Looking back, he views his somewhat meandering spiritual path and journey to Perkins as a pointer to the future.
“I would never have imagined that I would be here doing what I’m doing,” he said. “But I think I can help people figure out where they are in their spiritual life. I can help them with theological questions, questions about how they grew up and what they believe now.”