- The Washington Times - Friday, June 19, 2009

On opposite sides of the room, they sat. She a young, single black woman. He a young, married white man. Yet, there Charlene Brown and Tim Baer were, in the same place with the same purpose and on the same path.

The Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria this week hosted this diverse pair and about 140 other college divinity and seminary students from across the country and Canada at a religious leadership conference, “Becoming Rich Toward God: Pastoral Leadership and Economic Justice.” It was sponsored by the Fund for Theological Education, a nonprofit ecumenical organization that provides scholarship support to intellectually gifted and socially engaged young people from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds who are pursuing degrees in theology and religion.

These members of Gen Y are interested in the ministry as a way to affect social change and channel their passion for economic and social justice, group leaders said.

Melissa Wiginton, vice president of ministry, programs and planning, said many of the fellows are purpose-driven and motivated to tackle such issues as homelessness, poverty and economic depression.

In keeping with the conference theme of economic activism, the students volunteered at regional social-service agencies, including Bread for the World, Jubliee Housing and Sojourners.

Miss Brown, 22, of Woodbridge, Va., said she received her call to the ministry on a visit a couple of years ago to South Africa while she was a student at the University of Virginia.

Before that trip, Miss Brown admits, she never attended church and had no personal relationship with God. The unforgettable experience of seeing hungry schoolchildren forced to sit inside hot classrooms while their teachers ate lunch on grassy knolls inspired her to fight world poverty and social injustice through ministry.

“The next day, a group of us [students] made bunches of peanut-butter-and jelly sandwiches for the children and watched in disbelief as they broke the sandwiches in pieces to feed their starving brothers and sisters,” she said.

Miss Brown then joined a Baptist church and headed a campus religious group at UVa. Upon graduation, she enrolled in Duke University’s School of Divinity.

Episcopalian Tim Baer, 24, of Oklahoma City, said he always knew he wanted to pastor a parish. There was no divine revelation or spiritual awakening to help him decide to pursue a life of service. He just knew someday he would. At least, he prayed he would.

“One does not become a parish pastor without the blessing of church leaders,” Mr. Baer said.

The church did, indeed, give its nod of approval and support, and the soon-to-be pastor is completing his second year at Virginia Theological Seminary.

Like Miss Brown, Mr. Baer is self-reflective and said he is focused on changing the world through a holistic approach to faith in action.

Recent studies show a 20-year decline in clergy under the age of 35, according to the Fund for Theological Education. Also, just one-half of seminary students express an interest in leading churches.

“Losing Our Religion?” was one of the conference workshops spun off studies by Harvard University professor Robert Putnam, who contends that American youth are less likely to go to church and will never embrace the traditions of their parents and grandparents.

However, Ms. Wiginton says a new wave of college students is taking a look at ministry as a path to creating change at home and abroad.

As many church pastors and leaders are retiring, another conference workshop asked the looming question, “Who will lead your church tomorrow?”

The Fund for Theological Education says it provides $1.5 million in scholarships annually to foster a pool of highly qualified, socially conscious and spiritually inspired future leaders.

The participants this week represented 30 denominations and nondenominational churches.

Ready to stand up in the gap and lead in a new direction are at least 140 fellows, including Miss Brown and Mr. Baer.

c Geraldine Washington is a writer living in the District.

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