When Ally Stokes came to Perkins, she said, “I didn’t have the faintest idea what I was going to do.” She’s still not certain what’s next, but the Master of Theological Studies degree has been the right place for this season of exploration.
“That’s the joy of the M.T.S. — it’s the ‘choose your own adventure’ of degrees,” she said. “There are lots of opportunities to explore things that are intriguing to you.”
Stokes, who is originally from England, spent 20 years working in humanitarian aid, serving missions in refugee camps in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, then turned her attention to raising her two boys, now 16 and 18. After three visits to campus for Inside Perkins events — the first in 2016 to hear N.T. Wright, another to hear Anne Lamott — she began to consider graduate theological education. The 2020 election, her disenchantment with the evangelical Christianity, the fact that her boys were starting to drive and some serious nudging from Margot Perez-Greene all conspired to finally convince her to enroll in 2020.
“I was looking for the next part of my life,” she said. “I was in the process of re-evaluating everything, including how I approached Scripture and the misogyny I’d seen in the evangelical church, where I’d spent most of my life. My access to the evangelical world I thought I would always be in was almost entirely shut off. It was like the frog slowly boiled in water. You think the whole church is like that. You don’t know otherwise until you pop out and realize there’s this lovely cool refreshing water that other people are swimming in.”
Now in her second year, Stokes says Biblical studies at Perkins have been healing: “I loved having access to good exegesis and the freedom that afforded me. It gave me the ability to factually, exegetically rebut the arguments that are fired at women in the evangelical world by men with no education at all. The ability to open the Greek New Testament, and read it myself, and have access to scholarly research — that will continue to be particularly powerful for me.”
One question she’s intrigued by now, reflecting on her mission work: “Is it ethical to tie our aid to some kind of religious observance or practice?” She recalled instances in the field where missionaries offered Bibles, prayer tents and worship resources to refugees who actually needed clothes, food, water and assistance with their visa applications.
“The idea of having a gate through which people have to pass to access basic human needs, it’s disgusting,” she said. “Who do we think we are, when we show up in a war zone promoting our particular brand of faith to people fleeing for their lives? It’s idolatry.”
As an example, she cited a church-based English language class in Dallas for Afghan refugees, which includes a mandatory Bible reading in the middle of the class. Most of the attendees are Muslims.
“For me, this is anti-scriptural,” she said. “If we’re serving out of love of God, we shouldn’t need to force them to listen to scripture to make our donors happy.”
On the other hand, she said, people in crisis situations do need spiritual resources — something secular aid agencies often ignore.
“There are two kinds of aid workers: faith-based missionaries, and people who work for government agencies or secular non-profits,” she said. “The two groups rarely have the same aims in regard to spiritual matters.”
Watching the situation in Ukraine and Europe, she said, “People are praying. On top of their immediate physical needs, their souls are struggling. They’ve lost their sense of place, home and identity.”
Stokes would like to do research on how to bring the secular and faith-based sides of humanitarian aid together, to help ensure that spiritual needs are met, whatever the faith background of people in need. She’d like to look at questions such as, “How do we provide food, shelter and also space for soul growth? How do we help our secular colleagues to not neglect that area of life?”
When she’s not studying, she’s enjoying time with her husband, gardening (“I come from a long line of gardeners,” she said) or rock climbing with her boys, who compete in the sport. Stokes has also been active in Perkins extracurriculars. She’s a regular at the community lunch and serves as social life chair for the Perkins Student Association and a student representative on the Community Life Committee.
“We’ve been resurrecting community, which has always a central part of the Perkins experience,” she said.
What’s next for Stokes? She’s considering further research or academic study after graduation. There are more intriguing questions she’d like to pursue. In other words, she’s still exploring.
“When I talk to people in the church, there are a lot of us that are in that space,” she said. “The old realities, the old comfortable answers, they don’t work anymore. My reaction has been to ask God, ‘What does it look like for the next season? How can we more lovingly reflect Jesus in the world, without asking people to be something they’re not?’ ”