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Pacific School of Religion’s Unlikely Adventure

Learning Outside the Box

Pacific School of Religion’s Unlikely Adventure

by Paul Chaffee

Nowhere is the diminishing influence of liberal Protestantism in the US more dramatic than in the decline of its seminaries. Mounting debt, smaller student bodies, and ever-increasing costs have left dozens of institutions struggling to survive. Enrollment has fallen more than 25 percent in the past decade. Many Evangelical seminaries, though dwarfing their more progressive ‘mainline’ schools, are also facing declining student levels, including Fuller, Southwestern Baptist, and Trinity Evangelical. Three years ago Andover Newton, the nation’s oldest seminary and first graduate program of any kind, sold its 20-acre campus in Massachusetts. In 2017, moving to New Haven, Connecticut, Andover Newton became a division of Yale Divinity School, focusing on pastoral preparation.

Founded in 1866, Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California is the state’s oldest theological seminary, and its progressive bona fides are considerable. Seminary president David Vásquez-Levy puts it in a nutshell: “PSR has led the way towards access and inclusion: educating women in the 1870s – close to a hundred years before most other theological schools; committing to the education of students of Asian descent during the Chinese exclusionary act; bringing education into the internment camps for Japanese American students; and pioneering leadership preparation for LGBTQ communities.”   

The Art of Institutional Survival

PSR’s Mudd Building is being leased by REALM Middle School. – Photo:    Pacific School of Religion

PSR’s Mudd Building is being leased by REALM Middle School. – Photo: Pacific School of Religion

Like so many other theological institutions, PSR saw the financial writing on the wall years ago. In 2017 the school brought forward plans for tearing down a number of their buildings and constructing 256 apartments for seniors, a Berkeley constituency badly in need of more housing. But some of the ‘Holy Hill’ neighborhood (as it is called) rose up in great anger at losing historic buildings and the beautiful quad in the middle of campus that looks across the Bay at San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. “Destroying the neighborhood,” they said. PSR decided not to fight it out and went back to the drawing board.

PSR’s campus needs are different than they were 25, 50, or more than 100 years ago. Fewer students live on campus, part-time students abound, and the need for lots of big classrooms has evaporated. The newest building on campus is a large, under-utilized classroom, the Mudd Building, and the idea of leasing it was raised as a Plan B survival strategy. From this an unexpected relationship emerged.

REALM Middle School, established in 2011 as Berkeley’s first charter school, was badly in need of a campus in a community where real estate, when available, is extremely expensive. PSR was badly in need of income and had a beautiful building it was not using much. The complementarity of their practical dilemmas was clear when leaders from the two schools sat down to talk. Living cheek-by-jowel on a beautiful Berkeley hillside would solve problems for both institutions.

But there is much more to the story.

Students working at REALM Charter School – Photo:    REALM Charter School

Students working at REALM Charter School – Photo: REALM Charter School

REALM (which stands for Revolutionary Education and Learning Movement) is a school dedicated to “Love, Grit, and Action” in everything it does, from students and faculty to parents and staff. In this context, it focuses on college preparedness, project-based learning, and social justice. Ninety percent of the students are children of color.

Their learning experiences focus on getting meaningful things done in the world. Mutual respect is clearly an expectation. Their website says “Our students are known and have a voice. Our teaching practice is rooted in love for our students and our community. We help each other get ‘unstuck.’ We serve our community through project-based learning.”

And the projects? Principal and executive director Victor Diaz says, “Our students have designed and built houses for the homeless and a greenhouse for a local community center. They have dissected a cow’s heart and performed at a jazz music competition in Santa Cruz and built a robot and performed in plays and learned how to run a small business out of their economics class. Our parents have made hundreds of tamales and organized school dances and spearhead our annual gala.”

A Blessed Collaboration

The unexpected synergy between a middle school and a seminary gets clearer when you see the comparisons. Fifty percent of the PSR community are people of color, and its trustees are quite aware that within a quarter-century there will be no majority ethnicity in America. Seventy-five percent of Californians under the age of 18 are children of color today, and the seminary is preparing to meet their needs in coming years. In that sense, REALM students exemplify the world into which we are growing.

Like REALM’s project-based learning, PSR has redesigned its Masters of Divinity program to make it more useful and accessible to students. Now it offers three “stackable” years, each with its own credential. A certificate is given after year one, a masters degree in religion after year two, and a M.Div. at the end of the third year. This provides theological students with professional credentials along the way to the full M.Div. At the same time, PSR’s offerings today tend to be more practical and related to actual ministry than the traditional academic seminary curriculum.

REALM Charter School students – Photo:    REALM Charter School

REALM Charter School students – Photo: REALM Charter School

The fact that both schools are committed to social justice is an important corner-stone connecting them. Diversity and inclusiveness are built into their DNA. In the words of PSR’s David Vásquez-Levy, “It’s about discovering a partner with an aligned mission of love. Their presence among us will deeply shape our theological reflection.”

Following some custom construction to the Mudd Building, REALM is hoping to be in its new campus by the turn of the year. How well will the partnership work? Time will tell. It is like nothing before it, and it looks to be fruitful in all sorts of ways for two adventuresome institutions and hundreds of students, young and old.