UC Berkeley maintains connections with Pacific School of Religion

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Just a few blocks from the northern edge of UC Berkeley lies the Pacific School of Religion, or PSR, a seminary with a focus on social transformation. While the two schools vary dramatically in their sizes and degrees offered, they both share historical and current connections.

PSR was established in 1866 as the first seminary west of the Mississippi River and has a mission to “prepare spiritually rooted leaders for social transformation,” according to PSR President Rev. Dr. David Vásquez-Levy.

Two years after PSR was founded, the same group of founders felt a greater need for educational institutions and created the College of California, which later became UC Berkeley.

According to Vásquez-Levy, PSR’s main focus today is its graduate level program of about 150 students. Aside from its master’s programs, it is home to the Ignite Institute and the Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion, or CLGS, both of which run educational programs for the community and have certificate programs.

The school’s degree programs include master’s degrees in social transformation, divinity and theological studies and also a doctor of ministry. According to Vásquez-Levy, the curriculum at PSR is “always integrative.”

Vásquez-Levy went on to describe a course that students take in the beginning of their master’s programs on ritual design, communication and empathy. The course examines a case study — this year the course examined the death of a child in immigration custody at the border. Throughout the course, students examine issues related to this case such as how to mark the death of a child ritually, how to ritualize the event in a protest, how to preach about it in an area of worship and how to support the community affected by the tragedy.

According to Vásquez-Levy, PSR is integrative and diverse in several ways, including that the majority of students identify as LGBTQ+ and that students come from a wide variety of religious traditions. To create an intergenerational school, PSR partners with REALM Charter School, a middle school that lies within their campus.

“A lot of our work is really intersectional. We are a very diverse student body from every respect,” Vásquez-Levy said. “We’re very much of a ‘hyphen’ community.”

CLGS was created 19 years ago when the seminary was looking for a way to support its LGBTQ+ students. According to Dr. Bernard Schlager, a PSR associate professor and executive director for CLGS, the center’s mission is to provide education on these issues, take part in community building among queer communities, respond to research on queer studies and religion and advocate for LGBTQ+ people, their families and allies.

CLGS holds roundtable events run by community members that support specific groups, such as Latinx communities, Black communities and the transgender population. While each roundtable is different, they all “give resources for community building,” Schlager said.

Schlager said that through CLGS, students can earn a certificate of gender, sexuality and the Bible, and he added that CLGS is currently archiving papers important to LGBTQ+ and religious history. CLGS also regularly holds lectures, talks and other events so that PSR can interact with the outside community. Schlager said the events are informal, and PSR often tries to promote them through UC Berkeley.

“Understandably, many people assume Christians are anti-gay or anti-queer, so it’s hard to cross over that line,” Schlager said. “People are astounded that there are Christian groups that are welcoming and supportive of queer people.”

Schlager estimated that in any given semester, a couple dozen UC Berkeley students attend events at CLGS.

Aside from events at CLGS, there are other ways in which UC Berkeley is connected to PSR. According to Vásquez-Levy, many students take classes at both schools, and the two share library access. More informally, PSR has done programs with UC Berkeley’s Center for Latin American Studies, has partnered with individual faculty members and houses UC Berkeley students in its dorms and apartments.

Vásquez-Levy said he has taught courses at UC Berkeley, and PSR’s “Design Thinking for Social Change” course is often taught by a UC Berkeley professor.

Harley Shaiken, a professor in the UC Berkeley Department of Geology and Graduate School of Education, said he has interacted with PSR and Vásquez-Levy in several ways. According to Shaiken, it was Vásquez-Levy’s efforts to connect with Berkeley when he became president of PSR four years ago that began their relationship.

“We have become friends, and we have invited him to many things we’ve done on the Berkeley campus,” Shaiken said. “As a campus, we’ve been richer because of his contribution and the contribution of the Pacific School of Religion.”

Shaiken said he attends PSR events such as lectures and film screenings with other professors and UC Berkeley students and has remained in contact with people he has met at PSR.

Shaiken also spoke to Vásquez-Levy’s importance in the community.

“Under his leadership, the Pacific School of Religion has been very innovative on thinking about issues such as immigration and also very active on social justice issues more generally,” Shaiken said. “He’s regiven vitality, excitement and real importance to the work of the school.”

Contact Maya Akkaraju at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @maya_akkaraju.