During my short time at HDS, I’ve come to understand that this school’s strength lies in its ability to make connections between the seemingly disparate—the old and the new, the academic and the personal, the magical and the mundane. Perhaps one of the best examples of the propensity for HDS students to make connections comes in the form of a podcast that reads a young adult novel as if it were scripture. Their most recent episode struck me as particularly relevant to my own time at HDS–and not just because it focusses on The Prisoner of Azkaban, my favorite book in the series. Hosted by Vanessa Zolton ‘16 and Casper ter Kuile ’16 , two graduates of HDS’ MDiv degree, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text asks its listeners to derive spiritual lessons (in the most inclusive sense of the term) from a pop culture phenomenon. While interviewing Casper, he shared the insight that “sometimes [examining religion in secular spaces] feels a little bit like walking through the wall behind the Leaky Cauldron – two very different worlds, with two very different set of reference points and norms!” The podcast makes connections between Harry Potter and spirituality by connecting both to central themes like mercy, justice, imagination, and wonder.
In this most recent episode, Vanessa and Casper talked about friendship in The Prisoner of Azkaban with Sejal Patel, a lawyer and MTS ’14. Sejal mentions how she decided to study at HDS because she realized how religion touches every aspect of culture, including literature and the justice system. She discussed how part of understanding the ways in which religion interacts with ethics in the United States required her to step outside of her comfort zone and take courses in the study of Christianity, including a course on the Niebuhr brothers offered by Professor K. Healan Gaston. Sejal mentions that coming from a Hindu background, she was nervous that she would not be able to understand the readings offered in the course, but her fears were dispelled when Professor Gaston reassured her that “there are ministers-in-training in that class who would help [her] with the Christian piece.”
What struck me about this story was not just Sejal’s willingness to explore the unknown, but the underlying assumption that her fellow HDS students would help her on this journey. This story speaks to the strong sense of community at HDS, as well as the value that students place on each other and the friendships that we develop here. Casper puts it best when he describes HDS as “a place where you can bring your established gifts and new intuitions and turn it into something wholly new and surprising.” HDS has helped me transform my gifts and intuition through connecting me with other students.
I remember how during our new student orientation, the class of 2019 spent the better part of four days getting to know each other through icebreakers, eating in large group meals, attending multiple panel sessions about inclusivity at HDS, having conversations about who we are and what we are here to do, and (most importantly) laughing together. Perhaps it is unusual that a graduate institution would put so much emphasis on fostering friendships between its students, but I think that is one of the things that makes HDS different from any other Divinity School in the world. I know that the focus on friendships has helped me immensely as I continue to adapt to a new school year and a new environment, and because of that I can only be grateful for the exciting yet exhausting four-day orientation. I’m also grateful for Community Teas, an incredible array of student organizations, and our challenging yet non-competitive environment.
Just like Harry needed to rely on Hermoine and Ron to free Buckbeak, I am finding that I need to rely on my community at HDS to achieve my own goals. What makes HDS unique is that community life doesn’t just supplement academic life, but is an essential part of the graduate experience. These connections—between student to student, Harry Potter to sacred text—are at the heart of HDS.