The Rev. Dr. James Thomas, Associate Professor of Church and Ministry at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, is helping students address public issues and engage with their surrounding community through his course, Urban Ministry.
The course's objective is to address Christian mission and ministry in an urban context and identify public issues which call religious leaders to the task of public theology. Urban Ministry is considered a J-term course, meaning it is completed during the month of January. The highly intensive curriculum requires students to engage in cross-cultural experiences in Columbia, South Carolina, with the option to complete coursework in various urban settings across the globe. "Public theology calls us to look beyond our own communities and traditions to the world around us," Thomas said. "The hallmark of public theology is the insistence that the point of theological interpretation is not simply to contemplate or comprehend the city as it is, but to engage religious institutions so that they become co-creators of the city that God intends it to be."
When the Urban Ministry course was first offered in January of 2015, students were required to spend 10 days evaluating public issues in Detroit, Michigan, as they related to the practice of ministry. "Detroit is a very difficult place to be the church, and I thought it would be good for our students to look at a city that has been abandoned by millions of people, but nonetheless a city that is resilient in many respects," Thomas said. While in Detroit, students visited social service agencies, pastors from local churches, police officers, prisons, and Detroit criminal court. Through their conversations with these various groups of people, they learned how the practice of public ministry can occur within Detroit's social and economic environment.
This past January, 12 students completed their coursework in Columbia while several traveled to Israel and Honduras. According to Thomas, there are significant and similar issues in a small southern city such as Columbia, and it made sense to evaluate the Seminary's surroundings, especially since many graduates of LTSS will be placed in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America's Region 9, which includes Columbia.
Students completing their cross-cultural experiences in Columbia visited places such as Sistercare, which provides comprehensive services for victims of domestic violence and their children, predominently LGBTQ establishments where they had conversations with customers and learned about their individual experiences in the church, and Transitions, which helps provide homeless people with sustainable living options. Through these experiences, Thomas explained students gain an increased awareness of the ongoing realities of racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism in American society. "The course introduces some of the socio-cultural dynamics that shape life, inform theology, and challenge ministry," he said. "What I heard most from the students was that the experience was transformational."