SCUPE and Seminary Education in the 21st Century

shantapremawardhanaIt's not every day I get a hug in the crosswalk, but that happened yesterday evening.

The hug was from my friend - and neighbor - Shanta Premawardhana. He's a reverend. He's a doctor. He used to pastor a church here in Hyde Park, not far from where the Obamas live.

Then he went abroad for a few years to work for the National Council of Churches, then for the World Council of Churches. Shanta gets around.

These days, though, he's back in Chicago. For the last few years, he's worked as the executive director of an outfit called SCUPE.

It's pronounced "Scoop," and it has been around since the seventies. The name stands for "Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education." Or at least, it does for now.

Turns out, SCUPE is in one of those periods that nonprofits go through that the experts call "re-visioning." The organization is looking at its core strengths, and figuring out how to be of value in a new and changing world.

For years, SCUPE was a partner to divinity schools in Chicago and across the nation. Where the seminaries would teach about history and theology, SCUPE courses offered "contextual education." That's fancy talk for "the real world."

Students learned about poverty in the classrooms of their seminaries, but SCUPE took them to the streets to meet the poor. Students learned what the Bible said about justice, but SCUPE took them to the front lines of the struggle.

Folks who were training to be pastors needed that kind of confrontation. SCUPE did a great job of providing it. So great, in fact, that nearly every seminary worth its salt these days has a strong focus on "contextual education."

While that's a victory for SCUPE's philosophy, it also took a toll on SCUPE's bottom line. Over the past decade, the bread-and-butter partnerships with the seminaries have drifted away.

So my friend Shanta has invited the organization to explore what its mission will be for the 21st century. The needs have not gone away. People of faith still need to confront poverty and injustice face to face, to learn ways to be bold in fighting these social evils. But the shape of the work is changing, and the context of "contextual education" has changed, too.

These days, Shanta wants to work with city governments. He wants SCUPE to reach out to civil servants and police departments. He wants to teach them the importance and the value of the faith communities that surround them.

And communities are responding. In the deep south, and even in foreign countries, he has found willing partners to help continue this important work.

He has partners here in Chicago, as well. Everywhere he goes, in fact, there are still folks who want to work with SCUPE.

Given that the mission and the focus has shifted, though, he's no longer certain about the name. Probably it should be changed. He's open to suggestions.

After we hugged in the crosswalk, my family and I spent a few minutes in conversation with Shanta on the corner. As he talked about the organization, he seemed energized and excited. His whole being was joyous. The new shift in focus is a challenge, and the challenge thrills him.

Jesus mentioned that we will always have the poor with us. The world around us reminds us there is no shortage of injustice. Whatever the new name, Shanta and his colleagues have their work cut out for them.

And Shanta, it seems, could not be happier to get to that work.

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