‘A Widening Place’ is the theme for the inaugural address of the first non-white president in the seminary’s 121-year history
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Family members and friends, scholars, church leaders and well-wishers from around the country joined on Friday to celebrate the joyous inauguration of the Rev. Dr. José R. Irizarry as the 10th president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
The one hour, 45-minute ceremony, which caps off Irizarry’s election last year as the first non-white president in the seminary’s 121-year history, occurred at University Presbyterian Church in Austin. Presidents serving other PC(USA)-related seminaries were on hand for the celebration, as were the Co-Moderators of the 225th General Assembly (2022), the Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace and the Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis.
Bagpipes marked the beginning of the ceremony honoring the native of Puerto Rico, and mariachi musicians drew it to a close.
“Our place in the community where our beautiful campus rests is an oasis in the middle of a hectic and vibrant university town,” said Irizarry, who was selected for the seminary’s top position on June 27, 2022, and began his tenure on Aug. 27. “Our affiliation is with a denomination that we are proud to belong to for its enduring commitment to educated, imaginative, energetic and compassionate leaders.”
Irizarry said he employs his “immigrant imagination” which “constantly ponders what it means to find a place of belonging in our world, especially in a world that at times seems indifferent, self-preoccupied and inhospitable.” With a laugh, he said he’s sometimes mistakenly introduced as the president of “Austin Cemetery.”
“What I have learned from great teachers,” Irizarry said, “is that you should never let a good metaphor go to waste.”
“What is dying here that needs the services of interment?” he asked. “Are we officiating the last rites of God’s Creation as the future of our ecosystem slips away from our hands? Are we here in this place to say our farewell to hope with good thoughts and prayers, or to infuse life grounded in an ever-present promise of resurrection?”
There may be other possibilities for the metaphor, Irizarry suggested. “We can claim to be the place where outmoded ideas and ways of thinking that have for decades if not centuries hindered our self-realization as beloved children of God come to die. Or alternatively, we can create a special burial plot for those certainties that come with some forms of faith that refuse to acknowledge that which God intends to do with us.”
A Christian, he said, quoting the poet Maya Angelou, is “something we are always becoming.”
Setting the record straight, “we have intentionally decided to call this a seminary, a place of cultivation,” Irizarry said. More than “walls and pathways and rooms,” seminaries are “a field of care and knowledge that extends beyond campus and touches communities, congregations and families.” Austin Seminary “exists both within and outside our campus. It is a widening place, because that’s how education for cultivation works. It is going to the ground. What emerges from it — nurture and care — cannot be determined.”
“Aware of this place and its widening nature, I look forward to engaging this community of theological teaching and learning as we exercise our leadership for seeding,” he said. “We may want to plant seeds today for other generations to enjoy. In a constantly changing world, what is urgent today turns to obsolescence tomorrow.”
At Austin Seminary, “We want to plant seeds that will allow us to sustain people in the continuum of theological learning that starts before seminary and continues after people leave our classrooms,” he said, adding it may be wise “to institute programs to provide ongoing support for those who graduate as they face the realities of ministry during their first years of service.”
A seminary “so close to the borderlands should be able to explore how to educate in the in-between, where more than one vision of the world collides as we seek to live together,” Irizarry said before turning back to the theme of a seminary as a place of cultivation. He quoted the headstone from the Nicaraguan priest and poet, Ernesto Cardenal: “Then go ahead and bury us, for we are seeds.”
“That which will be widened … will be nurtured by God in the fullness of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit,” Irizarry said, so that “we can proclaim in one indisputable voice that truth of our Reformed confession, ‘soli Deo gloria,’ ‘to God alone be the glory.’”
The Rev. Dr. Chris Currie, who chaired the presidential search committee and is the senior pastor at St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church in New Orleans, said that the list of presidential qualifications included “one who cares about the distinctive and dare I say winsome ways this seminary delivers theological education, someone who has wonder and humility in all they do.” The list also required someone dedicated to building the Beloved Community, Currie said. Irzarry “doesn’t need for me to charge him to carry out these values. He carries them out already,” Currie said.
In a charge to the seminary community, the Rev. Paul Roberts, president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, said “normally, you would hear a charge to support the new president. This is not that. I assume that goes without saying. Of course, you are going to support him, and he in turn will support you, and this will be a marvelous adventure in mutuality.”
Instead, Roberts charged the seminary community “to mediate more. A mediating institution is an organization that undergirds the basic building block of society, the family,” Roberts said. “Churches and their affiliates, like seminaries, have done this work well for centuries … You have the chops to do and indeed you are doing the very thing I am describing.”
He urged the seminary to “bridge more gaps and do more with what you’ve been given … Be more connectional, more collaborative, more noncompetitive, recognizing we are more effective when we are united in mission. Expand your identity by offering the highest quality theological education you possibly can while engaging with those who have left the pew or may not know what a pew is, but who nonetheless hunger for a safe place to explore and live out their faith.”
“As ambassadors for the PC(USA), we bring love on this momentous and exciting day,” Starling-Louis told the large gathered crowd.
“I join my sister Shavon in the excitement,” Santana-Grace said. “I am overjoyed to represent the larger church and the Presbytery of Philadelphia, where you are beloved,” the presbytery executive told Irizarry. “I have witnessed firsthand your love of teaching and learning and your commitment to the church.”
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