Felisha R. Chism, M.Div is a 2013 graduate of the Candler School of Theology – Emory University. Her concentrated focus was in Women in Religion and Black Church Studies. Felisha was recently accepted to her alma mater of Emory University as a Master of Theology candidate, where her thesis work will center on Homiletics and the Disruptive Voice. A former Advertising Executive and native of Birmingham, Alabama, she is also a graduate of Alabama State University. An Associate Minister at the Zion Hill Baptist Church – Atlanta, Georgia, she shares the life words of the Psalmist, “It is God who Arms me with strength and makes my way perfect.” (II Samuel 22:33/Psalm 18:32).
[Felisha’s story of life, death, burial, and resurrection resonates as she shares how her time in seminary encompassed the entire gamut of emotions and experiences. The cycle of life continues.]
“I entered the experience with life and expectation. I found myself dying each day. There were two semesters where I lost my breath and my reason for living. And then right before I succumbed to self-doubt, the rumors, evidence, and reputation of being a ‘challenged’ student, God allowed me to breathe again.”
The above words were given in response to a question about my seminary experience. I wanted to give a less complex answer – albeit that the person was considering my seminary as a place of preparation. I did not want my answer to dissuade what God was saying to them. Yet, I knew that I was speaking from a reconstructed frame that would not allow a surface answer. That same person later shared that it was my honest answer that led them to come to my school and pursue what God had spoken to them. I had been transparent. It helped another. In the words of the blog, “What the hell happened to Felisha in seminary?”
Applying to seminary was nowhere in my plans. However, I did know that God was calling for educational preparation. Prior to submitting my seminary application, I was applying to Master Programs in Creative Writing. I was clear that God had called my pen. I was also fighting a call to preach. In my cognitive awareness, my creative pen was going to be my preaching platform. It was going to save me from the pressures of being called into an ordination track, and live my life as an Inspirational Author and Motivational Speaker. It seemed the likely choice as I felt the end of my nearing 10-year Advertising career. I applied to the Master of Theological Studies Program with hopes to focus on Christianity and Culture. The program was only two years. I could be in and out of this round of school, and then move forward to pursue my love of writing. I had not yet concluded that my creative writing was going to be fostered in seminary. It seemed a “secular” practice. The end result was that Candler named me an M.Div candidate. I was becoming restless in God’s shift, so I surrendered. I found new life.
I entered seminary and my first Masters Program at the age of 32, 10 years out of undergrad. I was out of the rhythm of classwork and disciplined study. Yet, I was a corporate professional. I managed. I coordinated. I executed ideas and campaigns. I entered Candler as an Academic Scholar and Dean’s List qualified. No one could tell me that I was not intelligent, and that this work would not be a breeze. Little did I know – that my path would be encapsulated with rounds of academic probation and having to take on a fourth year. My Struggle: Biblical Studies and the life that surrounded me. My Situation: A blow to my self-esteem and self-worth. I was assassinated.
What people will not tell you about seminary is that you may have to become marginalized if your call is to the marginalized population. Marginalization in this blog submission’s context means more than being of a certain gender, race, sexual identity, and social class. Marginalization is the realism of days when you are so challenged by the tight walls of life that you wonder if God is still around. Sometimes, one may be forced to work two and three jobs to support housing and utilities while in full-time study. Sometimes present are the realities of empty bank accounts and the use of an EBT card to buy groceries. Unfortunately, I learned what material repossession felt like. I watched classmates balance marriage and children. I watched various types of relationships disintegrate. In addition, the challenges of learning and re-learning biblical texts that you were/were not introduced to in your religious experience will challenge what you believe.
In my case, I had to learn a new way of writing. My undergraduate degree in Communications – Public Relations fostered a writing based on facts with minimal emphasis on interpretation for self and consideration of how facts affect an entire people. It was about maintaining positive image no matter the circumstance. One had to remain neutral in opinionated expression – so as not to influence persons based on bias and prejudice. Since this suppression was a part of my vocation, it also contributed to a silent voice. My inability to communicate as an exegetical writer in my earlier stages of biblical interpretation merited me as an abstract thinker, or in my severest feedback of being a poor writer. I hurt. I began to die.
Never say what you cannot survive. Burial looked like the second semester of my first year and the first semester of my second year in seminary. In 2010, I expended my 401 K to pay rent and utilities that were not covered in partial scholarships and loans. I lost three relatives in a cycle of six months; two relatives to cancer, another in a motorcycle accident. In addition, my paperwork for licensing in my denomination ceased due to Church discord. I took on positions of leadership at school. The classes became harder. I did not recognize my limits, and suffered a mild nervous breakdown when I looked at my grades at the end of the year. Real depression is waking up three days before my birthday (October 19th) saying aloud to God after awakening, “Damn God is this all You have for me? Why don’t you just let me die?!” I am glad God did not allow me to die. I was more grateful that I could recognize that I was dying on the inside. I took advantage of counseling provided by Emory’s Student Health, which helped me tremendously. In addition, the Department of Homiletics nominated me to preach in Cannon Chapel during second semester. So I knew that I had to live. I knew that God had ordained a work for February 15, 2011. It was a requirement for me to live.
The road to resurrection was re-learning how to be attuned to Felisha’s genuine self. I was called to preach, write, and heal. I had forgotten my call. During my process, I gained professor parents who could challenge me in a way that made me pay attention to the many “A” papers as opposed to my then challenged abilities in Biblical studies. They reminded me of my giftedness. They trained me to become more disciplined. They reminded me of God who brought me to a place of preparation. They did not receive my excuses, but knew how/when to give me safe space. When I witnessed my gradual improvement in Biblical Studies from a transparent D average to a B/A- average, I realized that God had been with me all along. I kept thinking that if I had given up, I would not have witnessed the victory!
When I graduated May 2013, I had no regrets regarding my road to resurrection. My fallen GPA resurrected and qualified me for the next educational preparation. My confidence resurrected. The seminary community that was built during my formation was also a part of God’s plan. They loved me fiercely, and still do – flawed and all. I may have had to work two jobs, have a very limited social life, miss most family and close friends’ milestones, but God still honored God’s promise to provide in the call. I owe a seven-room house to the government, but God still did it. My road to ordination in the in my denomination became official on June 30, 2013. And God still did it!
God answered a prayer of mine from the age of nine to let me do something great for the world. No, it has not come to me the way that I imagined. Accepting that my life is being used for a greater purpose that will live beyond my physical structure propels my “blistered” feet to endure the journey without complaint. The road is brutal, rewarding, and worth it! I wish my seminary experience had been filled with opportunities to travel and study abroad. I wish I had not had a questionable reputation of being a scholar.
However, my greatest lesson is that one has to be willing to be used as a visual example of what can do through a willing vessel. Sometimes, we have to be careful with human interpretations of what a blemished soul looks like. What we dismiss and name as, “Blemish,” God approves and names, “Classic Artwork.” I might not have appreciated living a private struggle in a “living out loud” circumstance, but I am clear that my open walk in the structured walls of seminary was necessary and needed.
At the end of my Howard Thurman class presentation, a classmate noted that I always appeared resilient. She asked, “Felisha, how are you able to maintain cool in this space that is so stressful?” Shocked by the question, I replied, “Few people see my tears and vulnerabilities. Few people see me on my knees with carpet marks in prayer when I do not know how I am going to make it. But my resiliency is fueled by the way I have had to embrace my journey all of my life.”
So what the hell happened to me in seminary? I lived. I died. I was buried. And God Resurrected…
–Felisha R. Chism