A seminary is more than a place for intellectual pursuits; it’s also a community and a laboratory for personal growth. In divisive times such as these, the ability to form relationships across barriers and differences becomes even more important to the church and to the world. With that in mind, Perspective invited seven current Perkins students for a roundtable conversation with Dean Craig Hill and facilitator Mary Jacobs, and asked about their experiences as members of the Perkins community.

How have you changed or grown after joining the Perkins Community?

Zack Hughes (M.Div. ’20): Perkins has changed my life. I came into Perkins as an agnostic. I wasn’t really sure where I was going in terms of vocation. Now, I’m in a confirmation class at an Episcopal church near my home. Basically, Perkins has given me a completely new perspective on my spiritual and religious journey. I’ve learned that my conception of Christianity — the conception that I had rejected in favor of atheism — was basically a straw man version of Christianity. Perkins has opened my eyes to the rich history of Christianity, the complexities, the nuances. The people of the community — the professors, the staff and the students — have given me some incredible examples of the Christian life that I can aspire to.

Kathy Hines (M.Div. ’20): You know, Zack, I had no idea about your background, and I didn’t even care. You are the kind of person who’s open and caring. That’s all I knew. It’s just honest community here.

Zack Hughes: I never felt like I wasn’t accepted, even though I was a Unitarian Universalist who didn’t profess Christ. If anything, people just found me a curiosity. They approached me with love and care.

Sandy Heard (M. Div. ’19): I was a little naïve when I arrived at Perkins. I thought I would learn all the answers here. At one of my first classes, I started arguing with the professor. I said, “You just presented three different perspectives. What’s the right way?” He said, “They’re all the right way.” I thought, “That can’t be!”

Instead of learning “the answers” at Perkins, it’s more about fostering that creativity and imagination already within you — the knowledge you already have, the revelation you already have about God and truth. I was able to grow in my ability to articulate my thoughts of God, of Christ, of the Holy Spirit working in the church and in our lives.

Kathy Hines: I have never felt so much a part of something as I do here at Perkins. I’m excited about the people who are open to receive me and want to get to know who I am. My experience at Perkins is something that I will cherish for the rest of my life. I’ve been exposed to people from all over the world. From all facets of technology, science, education, religion. You name it, I’ve met them. I’ve talked to them and become life-long friends with them. There’s something about the campus that brings people together. It’s real community in every sense of the word.

Dean Craig Hill: Your experiences show me that Perkins is doing what it should be doing: equipping the whole person. There’s a fallacy that can easily arise in theological education — that the only important thing is to learn to think the right things about Jesus. But the most important thing, as Paul tells us in Philippians, is to have the mind of Christ. It’s not enough to think the right things. None of us is going to think all the right things. We’re all going to be wrong about something. We need each other. A Christian learning community that doesn’t embody that has failed significantly. But if this is a place where you’re loved, where you’re embraced, where people see you first as a child of God — that creates the opportunity for transformative conversation.

Flor Granillo (M. Div. ’19): Perkins has been healing for me. When I entered this community, I came in pieces. Broken in pieces. Three months before the first day of classes, I lost my child in an accident. At Perkins, the doors were open and I was embraced. That healing process has brought me back to life. I feel empowered, I feel ready, really ready, to serve and go out and do anything. Nothing stops me, nothing. I can speak to anyone. I can go and sit with anyone and I can speak about what God has done for me. That came from Perkins mostly, because I’ve been here for three years … those three years have been just transformative.

Wallace Wyatt, III (M.Div. ’21): At Perkins, I’ve grown to embrace diversity. As an undergraduate, I went to a very small HBCU in Daytona Beach, Florida, where African-Americans made up over 98% of the student population. We were very, very competitive — I call it a “crabs-in-the-bucket” mentality. Everyone was trying to get to the top, but not realizing you were pulling someone else down on the way. Perkins is different — more like a salad bowl. Everyone represents something different within the salad. We all work together, understanding we are still uniquely different. That’s my biggest takeaway.

That’s a great metaphor! Is there something about Perkins that discourages that “crabs-in-a-bucket” mentality?

Wallace Wyatt: It’s like everyone here is on a race to get to know the next person. If I’m in the refectory and there’s a student I’ve never met before, I never get the sense that person is looking at me and wondering, “Why is he here?” Instead, they’re looking at me saying, “Hey, I wonder who he is. Let me go and get to know him.”
Sandy Heard: I think people come here seeking the best out of others and expecting them to come with love. In any discussion, we’re not against each other. The assumption is that we are all for seeking truth. This is an environment where that’s encouraged.

Ashley Smith (M. Div. ’21): I have an expression: I came to Perkins with this box that I put God in.

I came from a Bible-based church that was very literal and very evangelical. Perkins really opened my eyes as to other ways to interpret things and other people and other walks of life. It really affected me in the beginning, because it was just very shocking. I felt confused. Nothing was lining up with what I’d been taught before. I wondered: “Am I in the right place? Is this for me?” I was really struggling. Especially in my Old Testament class, because it was just being interpreted in so many different ways than I was used to.

Perkins opened my eyes to realize that we can’t contain God. The experience definitely just made me love more, accept more, be so much more open than I was before and not feel afraid to ask questions, because I’m not going to be judged. People here were really welcoming, and they were just so gracious about my struggle and didn’t take offense to anything I asked. They knew my heart and they knew where I was coming from, so just being able to speak freely was amazing, because how are you going to learn if you don’t ask the hard questions?

Sketer Riungu (M.T.S. ’19): I’ve changed a lot in terms of my thinking. In Kenya, I am an ordained minister and was serving in a church, which was a very difficult church. Also, I’m a mother. I had to leave my three children back home with my husband, who was just starting a business.

I worried, with my accent, how was I going to manage? But people don’t care the way you talk, they are ready to listen. At Perkins, I was introduced to pastoral care. These classes have transformed my life. Before, I didn’t know anything about self-care. All the time I was working, working, working, because it was all about my weakness. I had to please every member in the church, and most of the time I forgot about myself, so I can say that my ministry and my life have been transformed.

I’ve also grown in terms of learning how to accommodate other people who have very different beliefs — just sitting down and listening to them and loving them. It has been an amazing experience.

How do you accommodate without compromising your own beliefs?

Sketer Riungu: I can allow people to give their views. That does not need to change me. Yes, I will listen to you, I will love you, but deep inside me I know who I am and what I believe.

Sandy Heard: I came a little fearful of my age. I’m 41 – and I’m coming into a seminary with a bunch of people right out of undergraduate college. The first semester was hard. At the end of the very first day of Systematic Theology, I broke down in tears and said, “I’m in the wrong place. I can’t do this.” I didn’t know half of the words that were being said that first day. I panicked.

I was sitting next to someone who is 18 years younger than me. He turned to me and said, “You got this, girl.” He wrote down his name and phone number on my syllabus and told me, “We’re going to do this together.” I didn’t expect to have such a strong bond with people who are part of a totally different generation than me. I’ve really connected with this other generation, and I’ve learned so much from them.

Many of your observations relate to finding a sense of belonging at Perkins. That is so important to us as humans but can also lead to tribalism — an “us-versus-them” mentality. Is there something about Perkins that avoids that?

Kathy Hines: SMU has an uplifting statement, “World Changers Shaped Here.” I accept the quest personally, because if I dare to be here and stay here, I’m not going to just keep it for myself. I dare to go out and change the world and be a part of that mission to change the world, making a difference.

So there’s connection, but it’s not an insular kind of connection. It’s outward-looking.

Dean Hill: Right. When the culture of an institution promotes an “us-versus-them” mentality, that is exactly not the kind of place that will form people who have the mind of Christ, who can demonstrate and live out the life of Christ in the world.

Charles Wesley had a wonderful way of putting it: “Unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety.” Neither is enough by itself. If we don’t live out what we’re teaching, we’re failing. Yes, we can and must always strive to do better, but it’s wonderful to hear that that’s happening here at Perkins.