Sojourners Weave New Students into Divinity CommunityDuke Divinity mentors welcome new students to a semester unlike any other
By Heather Moffitt
This past summer, senior M.Div. student and mother of three young adult children Angie Hoen had plenty on her plate. She was completing a field education placement at Highlands UMC in Highlands, N.C., and participating in the Smoky Mountains Community of Learning group. She also took a worship class, part of fulfilling her requirements as a certified candidate for ordination in the United Methodist Church.
But even with a summer full of coursework and Zoom meetings and sermon preparation, Hoen agreed to serve as a Sojourner, the name given to second- and third-year students who assist incoming Duke Divinity students with ministerial orientation. Hoen had been a Sojourner in 2019, which had followed the typical schedule of meeting in groups of about 10 students during the week of orientation.
Like almost everything else in 2020, this year Duke Divinity orientation was anything but typical. Instead of one week at the beginning of the semester, orientation programming started in June and was conducted entirely online. Staff from across the school, including admissions, ministerial formation, academic affairs, and IT, performed heroic feats to prepare a digital hub with a virtual tour of campus, videos, discussion groups, and information to plan for the upcoming semester.
Sojourner groups included two leaders and about eight incoming students. Instead of sessions held during one week, groups met for two months, from mid-June until fall semester classes began in August. The Sojourners hosted game nights, information sessions, and prayer gatherings—offering time and energy to help weave the new students into the Duke Divinity community.
“This was my second year as a Sojourner, and I wanted to participate because I believe the support and connection to a fellow seminarian is important to incoming divinity students,” Hoen said. “There are so many questions to be answered and affirmations that can be provided to the new students. It is a privilege to help incoming students connect to others within their own incoming class and to other ‘seasoned’ students, who not too long ago, had the same response to God’s call. The ministry preparation in academics, formation, and resource support is exceptional at Duke Divinity and I wanted to do my small part in helping other students feel welcomed as they walk through a new door on their journey.”
New students always have dozens of questions before the start of semester, and in 2020 the pandemic exacerbated the uncertainty. Many had never visited the campus before. How do you decide which classes to take? Should they move to Durham? Should they even begin their divinity education right now?
Mackenzie Fair, a first-year student from Fort Wayne, Ind., was in Hoen’s Sojourner group. She wrestled with these questions: “I spent a lot of time this summer thinking about whether or not I should wait and see how the pandemic shakes out before starting school. My biggest fear was that I would move to Durham and not be able to get connected to anyone because of the pandemic. What it really came down to was that I had a sense deep in my gut that I wasn’t supposed to stay in Indiana. Would it be lonely? Will I be able to find a church? Would I even be able to go to classes in person? Would I be able to visit home? Answers are: yes; no—but I’m working on it; sometimes; no—but I got to see my parents once! But I had a feeling that God had some really beautiful mysteries for me in North Carolina.”
Emmanuel Tabb is a second-year M.Div. student who also served as a Sojourner this summer. “I was raised in Durham, and I wanted to help others unfamiliar with Durham to have someone who could help them if needed,” he said. “This year, we were presented with COVID-19 and social unrest in response to the deaths of African Americans. These made becoming a Sojourner extremely hard, but I wanted to help my students and the first-year cohort as a whole navigate these challenges together.”
Even new students from Durham wondered whether they should accept the offer to begin their divinity studies this year. Megan Clinton, another first-year M.Div. student in Hoen’s Sojourner group who is on the path toward ordained ministry, considered deferring admission or waiting for another year to enroll: “When I received the call to ministry, Duke was the only university I applied to. But at the onset of the pandemic I considered not attending. Like many, I was discombobulated and anxious. Ultimately, I decided to attend this year because I had trust in my calling and trust in Duke University.”
Keeping students informed about the university’s ongoing response to COVID-19 was critically important. Divinity staff including Ken Spencer, associate director of rural church engagement, and Nohemi Ramirez, staff specialist in the chaplain’s office and the Anglican Episcopal House of Studies, not only helped plan the summer schedule for the Sojourners but also liaised with other offices at Duke to ensure students were informed about Duke’s policies.
“Ken Spencer and Nohemi Ramirez were great in lending us support in creating opportunities for connection with incoming students,” said Caleb Strawn, a Sojourner in his second year of the M.T.S./J.D. program. Hoen agreed: “Nohemi did an extremely good job keeping us informed of changing plans for the semester and planning out the schedule for us to have Sojourner groups online. They had an outline showing exactly what you would be doing in different time periods.”
Some of the suggestions for adapting the groups online proved more challenging than expected for Hoen. “Ken and Nohemi shared lots of ideas for getting to know people, like playing online games,” she said. “Blaine Thomas was my co-Sojourner. That was wonderful, because in my age group playing online games is not something I’m familiar with, but Blaine—bless his soul—was like, ‘Me neither, Angie, but I’ll take over that.’”
Responding to Tragedy
In addition to the challenges of the pandemic and responding to racial injustice, tragedy struck the group led by Hoen and Thomas when he was shot and seriously injured outside his home in Durham. Their Sojourner group responded by praying for him and joining the prayer sessions organized by Duke Divinity Chaplain Meghan Benson. They requested his address in order to send cards.
“Blaine is such a joyous, Christ-like human being,” Hoen said. “It’s like a breath of fresh air when he is around you or part of your group. He’s very humble, quick-witted, and comforting. The group could see the joy it brought him to serve. And then he came home from work and was helping a neighbor get in his car and randomly got shot. I’m thankful to God that he’s healing, and I think this allowed students to see the outreach of love and support from Duke Divinity School to Blaine. He’s in classes now! Talk about grace! You know that takes professors and preceptors and administrators to make that happen. His parents, his friends, and source of community friendships who are walking alongside him. It’s a very special place where we go to school.”
A Community of Encouragement
Students—both Sojourners and first-years—cited the community at Duke Divinity School as the blessing that has encouraged them throughout the semester. “There is so much that God is revealing to me about why Duke is the right school for me,” said Clinton. “The most meaningful aspect of my experience has been the people. There is a warmth and kindness here that consistently reminds me I am in the right place, and it’s exemplified in my interactions with Angie Hoen. She offered encouragement, information, and joy to our Sojourner group. Throughout our meetings Angie would remind us ‘you are meant to be here.’ That reminder has been with me this entire semester.”
Ruth Ostler, a first-year M.Div. student planning to pursue chaplaincy, was another member of Hoen’s Sojourner group. She moved to Durham from Washington, D.C., and knew that the pandemic would make connections with people difficult. But she found that her Sojourner group helped her to get oriented, ask questions, and meet people. “Online meeting is not ideal, but our leaders made it work. I give them major kudos for that! I think that we did the best we could and were successful at forming relationships and supporting each other as we began divinity school.”
As a group leader, Strawn was surprised by how smoothly Zoom and other remote methods worked to create spaces for the Sojourner groups to get to know one another and build relationships. “I was nervous that we would have poor turnout or fail to really build any sort of connection with our group. Similarly, since so much of our day-to-day lives are now spent on video calls, I was worried that ‘Zoom fatigue’ would preclude meaningful participation in the Sojourner experience. Thankfully, we still had great turnout for most meetings.”
Ramirez thinks that this community helped encourage students who were either considering other offers or contemplating postponing their education. “I wholeheartedly believe that we have such a large incoming class of students because our Sojourners were willing to work with them over the summer.”
“I was so impressed and thankful at the way our Sojourners gave of themselves during the summer. These current students freely made themselves available via text, email, and phone calls to our incoming students. I imagined that the Sojourners would tell the new students about their favorite Durham restaurant and advise them how to use Sakai. And they did. However, they did so much more. They helped strangers develop community during a pandemic. In a time when social distancing is the norm, our Sojourners served as counselors, travel agents, academic advisors, and spiritual directors.”
— Ken Spencer, associate director of rural church engagement at Duke Divinity School
“I believe that the Sojourners process, even if it’s online, helps to be the bridge to Duke Divinity in a very special way,” Hoen added. “It’s such an uncertain thing anyway, going to divinity school. You may be moving to the area. You may be coming from undergrad; you may be like me, a second-career student who hasn’t been in school forever coming into it. And I know what the first year is like! Duke Divinity is challenging every year, but especially that first year tends to levy that wallop on you! I assure you that if a person like me in her mid-50s can do this, you can do this! Just get really organized. Do your reading. You can do this.”
The Challenge of the First Semester
Now that their first semester is nearly over, how have these first-year students fared?
“It’s been challenging academically, but I am learning so much and making good progress,” Ostler said. “My peers and professors have been so supportive and great. I am engaging with my spirituality in a new and deeper way, and I am so grateful that God has guided me here.” Clinton describes her experience similarly: “This semester has been challenging. But I was better equipped to meet those challenges because of the Sojourner group experience.”
“The semester has been brutal,” Fair said. “Long weeks of work with no substantial break, lots of self-doubt, and lots of sitting in Goodson Chapel breathing in my own gross mask breath and shifting in my seat every five seconds to make the best desk out of my lap that I possibly can. Somehow in spite of that, I am still sure that this is where I am supposed to be. I love what I am learning.”
Fair also said that encouragement from her Sojourner group continues. “Angie told us school would be difficult, and she was right, but she continued to affirm each of us that we were in the right place. We have a class together this semester, and she will message me during class and write incredibly encouraging and affirming words that I really value.”
The Reward and Gift of Sojourn
And what about the Sojourner leaders themselves? “I was surprised by how refreshing our meetings were for me as a leader,” Strawn said. “The highlight was getting to meet with the incoming students, and I was as impressed by their friendliness and kindness as their obvious talent and bright future in the church and the academy.”
“My experience as a Sojourner was extremely rewarding,” said Tabb. “I got to help guide a group of students through one of the most important moments in their lives. The biggest surprise to me was how my students handled this summer. They adapted to the challenges. I remember how difficult it was for me to adjust during my first year at Duke. As I watched them, I was inspired and proud of them for the grace that they showed themselves, their peers, and sojourners. I have hope for the future because of this first-year cohort.”
The word that Hoen uses repeatedly is gift. “I really believe the whole Sojourner process is a gift to journey with people as long as they need you to do that. The good news is that doing that is also beneficial to me, too. It’s a joy. It’s a gift to actually help people with information, to share love, to nurture people, to let them know you’re a resource. It’s being the hands and feet of Christ in this world, to be present. It’s a way to see the incarnational process of Jesus in the midst of a relationship. It allows you to see grace. It’s very special. It’s a treasured activity that we do here at Duke.”