December 12, 2013
It’s Christmastime—which means that we get to spend time celebrating Advent, attending church services and singing carols. It also means that we dress up in wintery colors and make our way from the chilly weather into warm homes to trim trees and eat together. We don our Christmas sweaters and drink eggnog and Instagram things too much.
There is something spectacular that happens when we enjoy one another’s company over food. We are fed physically, but also relationally. I’ve always adored the idea of dinner parties and the chance to spend the season of Advent with people that I care for.
I arrived in Cambridge right on time, which meant that I was the first one there (fashionably late would have, perhaps, served me better socially in this scenario) and made my way inside. Beautifully and festively decorated, I found it to be something very familiar to me. The house of a host at Christmas.
What was different about this house was that it was the house of my professor who serves as the Minister at The Memorial Church at Harvard University. It was a gathering for the students in the class that I took this semester called, “Peasants and Proletarians: Black Religions and the Social Sciences in the 20th Century.”
As a part of the Boston Theological Institute, Gordon-Conwell students have the opportunity to take classes through other grad schools and seminaries in the Boston area. My friend from Gordon-Conwell and I decided to take one at Harvard Divinity School. While I will admit that much of the allure was the promise of Ivy League education, I soon found that the education I had the chance of experiencing was something new that would change the way that I learn completely.
When other people (especially outside the Gordon-Conwell community) hear that I’m taking a class at Harvard, they assume a few things. First, that I’m unrealistically brilliant; second, that I’m somehow more intellectually worth something for gaining a “legitimate academic experience.”
This view of BTI is harmful because it degrades the seminary and it glorifies one college experience (based, I’m sure, on movies like “Legally Blonde” and “The Social Network”) over another. It divides us into groups of “them” and “us.”
I had that mindset going into this class. I was intimidated and overwhelmed by something different and during the break on my very first day, I called my brother-in-law. A seminary graduate himself, he reassured me as I blurted out, “These people are brilliant! And I don’t know what on earth I am doing here. I know nothing about black sociology and I feel like I can’t do it.”
He lovingly said, “If you are in this class, you can do it.”
He was right. These students, while more well-versed in the topic of the class, were still fellow students. They were still learning and eager to do so. I swallowed my pride and continued on with my class.
It became clear to me that what was keeping me from fully pouring into the BTI experience was a division between academia and humanity. These were students with more intellectual experience than I, but they have parents and histories and passions and dreams and personalities. As weeks went on, we learned to understand one another better and from a different perspective than that of Gordon-Conwell and I believe that it made me a better person. And isn’t that the point of education?
C.S. Lewis once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I realized that I was robbing myself of truly connecting with other pilgrims by acting like I was a Gordon-Conwell student who was sitting in on a class at Harvard Divinity School. Instead, I needed to fully invest myself into being a part of that class as a peer and fellow traveler.
More guests arrived at the house and I felt myself relax a little more with every familiar face that entered into conversation. I asked if I could capture a few images and felt a little mom-ish asking everyone to get together for one group photo, but I am so glad that I did. It reminds me that the people we once knew nothing about can become peers, daresay friends. It reminds me that there is a great deal of unnecessary pressure that we can put on ourselves when we see things through a lens of stereotypes and ignorance. And it reminds me that one a cold night in December, I celebrated the holidays and the pursuit of knowledge in true holiday fashion.
We laughed and we engaged in good conversation and we ate food. We took pictures and we trimmed the tree. And while some of these souls are the most brilliant I may have encountered, the great honor of knowing them does not come from their GPA’s or their aspirations. The honor comes from the realization that we learn best when we learn from one another.
Melissa Zaldivar is an MATH student from California. She loves golf, theology, Jewish holidays, people falling in love, Jonathan Edwards, chocolate chip cookies, her adorable niece and telling stories. When she's not filming and photographing weddings, you can find her reading news articles, watching Parks and Recreation or playing Super Smash Bros.
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