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History-making president of Columbia Theological Seminary shares a fresh vision for a seminary that’s nearly two centuries old

The Rev. Dr. Victor Aloyo tells Presbyterian News Service readers what to expect from the seminary in Decatur, Georgia

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Victor Aloyo is the 11th president of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.  (Photo courtesy of Columbia Theological Seminary)

LOUISVILLE — When the Rev. Dr. Victor Aloyo was elected to be the 11th president of Columbia Theological Seminary, history was made. Aloyo, who has been at the helm for nearly three months now, is the first person of color to lead the seminary.

Prior to becoming president, he was the organizing pastor of Iglesia Presbiteriana Nuevas Fronteras. This multicultural community of faith in Plainfield, New Jersey, was made up of families from 22 Latin American countries. At his first parish in Brooklyn, New York, there were families from 39 countries across the board.

Simultaneously, Aloyo served for more than three decades in administration at Princeton Theological Seminary. Presbyterian News Service asked Aloyo how he felt about being the first person of color to be president at Columbia, and how he plans to lead the seminary in the 21st century.

Aloyo:

First of all, I’m extremely honored and humbled by this opportunity. As I reflect on my trajectory of ministry, I think of the mentors and individuals who have been so integral in my life. I learned so much from their wise guidance throughout my ministry, be it in Brooklyn, New York, Princeton, as well as in my pastorates.

One of the most important elements in my ordination is that I recognize I am a minister of the Word and Sacrament for the whole people of God. It’s exciting that it’s not solely for a specific population, because it gives me an opportunity and framework to develop my ministry. It is about getting to know a variety of different cultures and people groups that form the whole body of Christ.

Even though there was a common language at Iglesia Presbiteriana, there were nuances in cultural values and systems in each country represented. So, it is important to understand that all these stories are viable, as is my story as the only child of two immigrants that came from Puerto Rico, which gives me a foundation to relate to other cultures than my own.

 Presbyterian News Service:

What have you learned so far about Columbia?

I’ve been having individual conversations with all the administrative departments. These individuals come from a wide variety of cultural and transnational contexts.  They’re passionate about serving Christ and the church through Columbia.

I’ve learned how culture is an integral part of faculty research, and how passionate the faculty are to share not only with the students here but as active participants in local churches. Our students from all over the globe have this insatiable need to want to make sense of it all, amidst the challenges, hurts and traumas that have been experienced in the past. There’s an engineer here from Ghana who wants to have a theological foundation in order to develop schools for young boys and families in his home country. I’m in awe of these students here in our seminary community.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities at Columbia?

The theological academy is encountering a number of challenges, which I see at Columbia as well. What is our identity in the midst of these pandemics that we have been experiencing that are challenging both our church and our educational institutions? Even as I use the word “pandemics” intentionally, I know there’s been a lot of trauma — the loss of loved ones along with racial and economic discrimination across the country and globe.

We need to make sure we incorporate these real-life lived experiences into how we interpret Scripture and our understanding of ministry as a whole. I’m working with faculty, administrators and students to try to understand how we are going to be nurturing leaders, and indeed the church, to engage productively with these particular social challenges we are confronting today.

If we continue to do as we have with the same paradigm, the same framework, then we are preparing individuals who are not going to be relevant to not only the church of today, but the church in the public sphere for the next decade.

How does this phrase I’ve heard you use, ‘abundance and grace,’ fit into meeting these challenges?

Paul, this is based on my own lived experience, seeing my parents working with their talents and gifts, making something out of virtually nothing. Also, I have been the organizing pastor of three congregations. In each one, we started with zero financial resources, but we had human capital. So, our vision and decisions at Columbia are going to be based upon the abundance of God’s gifts in our midst.

In Isaiah 55, we read that we can come to the waters and drink and eat instead of wasting our time on things that do not matter. Many times in the theological academy, decisions are based on either maintaining a particular endowment or financial resources without utilizing those financial resources for the sake of the mission. So, we’re going to be moving towards a strategy based on abundance and grace, instead of fear and scarcity. The reality is God has called us in this abundance and grace to be changemakers.

Based on what you know now about Columbia, what might you say in a ‘state of the union’ address about the seminary?

We are called at Columbia Theological Seminary to not only educate siblings in the faith, but also to acts of faithful service to Christ in the church — and that’s what we’re going to be. Columbia Seminary will have conversations that will impact the life of the church, whether it’s about race, power, privilege or injustice, whether it’s issues of theological imagination, or whether it’s about the local economic rhetoric that has become so divisive in our country.

We have to have these conversations. We cannot shy away from it, from the prophetic and priestly role of the call. We’re going to be leading the way in having these conversations and collaborating with our sister institutions, creating pathways of learning that will be impactful for the life of the church.

So, what I’m hearing from you is ‘for the church.’ Can you say more about that?

There was a point in time when the framework of the theological academy was to be an institution not of the church. It tended to be an intellectual think tank. There was a lack even within the curriculum to understand our responsibility to the life of the church.

As we move forward in this pandemic era, we need to recover this. We are called to serve the church, but also to be agents to bring consciousness to the church. There are myriad ways by which we can continue to develop the role and mission of the church in today’s society. Evangelism is different. Stewardship is different.

‘We need to make sure we incorporate these real-life lived experiences into how we interpret Scripture and our understanding of ministry as a whole.’

The proclamation and the way it’s done is different. In the 1980s, when I was getting my Master of Divinity, I would have never thought I would need to take a class in video production. It’s a completely different environment. So, how do we create different rubrics of evaluation as well as mission development? We need to go back to those reciprocal conversations with practitioners and academicians in order to understand the next steps forward.

Anything else you’d like people to know?

The church is not dying. It is transforming. In that transformation there are many elements we need to leave behind, or put to the side, and be open to action.

God is doing a new thing. God is constantly creating. That means we have to create the resources as well as the curriculum for students to become bold and innovative leaders within the life of the church, whether it’s in pastoring, chaplaincy, mission work, community organizing, the list can go on.

I believe that Columbia has the resources — the human capital — to do so. As we enter our 200th year of service to the church, we will continue to do so intentionally and responsibly, recognizing the hurts and the pains that have existed — building upon that and continuing to go forward.


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