A dwindling number of young people are connecting with church, and many are turning to other avenues for spiritual expression. To some, those trends may sound discouraging. For Victoria Ayala (M. Div. ’21), they pose fascinating questions.

“The question is, what can we do to mend that gap?” she said. “What is the church going to look like 10 years from now? What can we do to make ministry more than a church or a building? What can we do to be the hands and feet of Jesus? How can we support those marginalized communities that don’t feel at home in church?”

Those questions drive her passion as she enters her third year at Perkins and contemplates career options in non-traditional ministry. They’ve also led her to internships in non-traditional ministries: currently, at Union Coffee Shop, which ministers to the LGBTQ community in the Oak Lawn area, and earlier, as an undergraduate at Abilene Christian University, at a Boys & Girls Club and at the International Rescue Committee, which helps relocate refugees and assists them in getting settled in the U.S.

“These experiences have been avenues for me to explore: ‘What does the church like outside of the church?’” she said.

Called at 16

Coming to Perkins was the natural outgrowth of a call that Ayala first felt on a church youth group trip at age 16. Ayala grew up in the Catholic church, but her family left the church after her parents divorced when she was 9.

“At that point, I didn’t have any spiritual connection,” she said. “I always joked to myself that I wanted to become a vet because animals were easier to deal with than people. But I hated science.”

Then, she got plugged into a youth group at a nearby United Methodist Church that soon became her second home.

“On our way to a mission trip to Oklahoma, we stopped at SMU and toured Perkins,” she recalled. “I decided right then that, when I graduated, I would apply to Perkins.  When I was accepted, it was a really big dream come true.”

That’s a little ironic, she adds, because “When I was younger, I didn’t like reading or writing. That’s literally all I do now!” Reading and writing became more enjoyable, she said, because she’s learning about the Bible and studying theology. Perkins has exceeded all of her expectations.

“I’m having amazing professors and love it here even more than I thought I would,” she said.

After graduation, she plans to pursue ordination in The United Methodist Church.

“I’d like to work in a church and then expand and see what church planting looks like and experiment with new forms of ministry,” she said.

Ayala’s extracurricular activities at Perkins have included Feminists Advocating Change and Empowerment (FACE) and L@s Seminaristas, a group of Hispanic female students.

“I am Mexican American and being able to partner with the Latinx community is very important to me,” she said.

Yoga and meditation have helped her get through the challenges of the last several months, as the COVID-19 pandemic led Perkins to move classes online and shut down student gatherings. She picked up the meditation practice last semester in Dr. Ruben Habito’s World Religions class, which included weekly meditation sessions.

One more thing you need to know about Ayala: she loves coffee! The internship at Union Coffee Shop has had the added benefit of allowing her to pursue that passion, too.

“I’m a coffee enthusiast,” she said. “I love iced coffee, espressos, lattes, pour-overs, all that fancy schmancy stuff.”