Yale leaders talk about COVID-19: Divinity School Dean Gregory E. Sterling
This is the latest interview in a series.
Judging from media coverage, the coronavirus pandemic seems to be primarily a medical, public health, and economic crisis, and people are looking to experts in those fields as well as in government to furnish solutions. How does the Divinity School fit into this equation?
There are two crises unfolding now. The first and most pressing is the health crisis. The second is the economic crisis, which will become the more pressing reality in time. Both of these crises raise profound moral and ethical issues — the kinds of issues to which we devote ourselves at the Divinity School. Let me mention three of those issues.
The first is how individuals face the stress of the health crisis or economic crisis. One of the things that the Divinity School does is provide a message of confidence and support for individuals facing enormous stress. Several faculty members, including Miroslav Volf and Mary Moschella, have provided public statements in an effort to comfort people and provide much-needed theological perspective.
The second area is the role of communities of faith in helping people maintain their social networks during times of social dislocation. Those of us fortunate enough to be employed are able to maintain contact even while living in physical isolation. But there are many people who were already living in isolation, and now millions more have been displaced from their places of employment. All of these individuals have lost a sense of community. Communities of faith help unite individuals and give them a sense of belonging even at times of enormous social dislocation.
The third is the ethical dimension of both crises. In the case of the health crisis, we’re all concerned that medical personnel will be forced to make terrible decisions about who receives treatment. These are profound questions that require reflection grounded in responsible moral principles. In addition, the upheaval in our social structure has put those who are most vulnerable in profoundly tenuous positions. It is the role of people of faith and good will to be voices of support for those who have no voice.
What is the Divinity School doing to support the greater New Haven community during the pandemic?
We’re attempting to provide resources in three primary ways. First, in keeping with our commitment to social justice, we have allocated half the time of one of our key staff members to do work for the City of New Haven. Alison Cunningham ’84 M.Div. is our relatively new director of professional development. She came to YDS after serving for many years as the director of Columbus House, a New Haven-based nonprofit that provides solutions to homelessness. At the mayor’s request, she is now working directly with the city to coordinate a plan to address the unique challenges around the pandemic’s effects on people in our city who are experiencing homelessness.
Second, Kyle Pedersen ’02 M.A.R., director of the Connecticut Mental Health Center Foundation, has assembled a group of YDS students to help local churches create virtual communities. Students competent in digital communication are assisting pastors as they set up social networks to maintain their communities in a time of physical separation. Professor Teresa Berger, who has studied digital churches, is also providing broader help through media interactions of various kinds, including interviews.
Third, we have created a special area of our website where we are providing resources for churches and individuals everywhere who are trying to come to grips with the moral and spiritual implications of the crisis. It is our mission to serve the church and the world, and rarely have the church and world been in greater need of the kind of expertise and resources we at the divinity school offer.
What role does religious faith play in our society’s experience of this crisis?
Faith is not a naïve neglect of reality. Nor is it a surrender to the hopelessness that can overtake people in a crisis. It is a resource that provides people with the confidence that, no matter what circumstances we or our families or society might face, we do not face them alone. We face them with the assurance that God is with us. This does not mean that we won’t get sick or won’t die. But it does mean that we have the inner strength to confront whatever lies before us. For this reason, when YDS had our final staff meeting before dispersing to our remote work stations in our homes, I concluded the meeting by reciting the 23rd Psalm.
You are an ordained minister in the Churches of Christ. How does this influence your work as dean?
When crises occur, I feel it necessary to send messages of a pastoral nature to our alumni and our campus community, especially when there is a spiritual or moral dimension to the crisis. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have issued statements dealing with such issues as the meaning of faith in a crisis and the formation and sustainability of hope in a crisis. I make these statements as a dean and as a minister. The latter is part of who I am. One day I will no longer be dean, but I will be a minister until I die.
What message do you have for individuals who are not part of a faith community?
Every human being is a child of God, created in God’s image. In this time of social isolation, limited resources, and economic struggle, it is vitally important that every person remember that they possess inherent value and importance. It is our obligation to express this conviction and to support our fellow human beings.