I Am Starr King: Interview with The Rev. Dr. Gabriella Lettini

Watch The Rev. Dr. Gabriella Lettini, Dean of Faculty, Ex-Officio Trustee, and Professor of Theological Ethics at Starr King School for the Ministry, speak about her experience at Starr King.

Why did you decide to become a religious leader?

I grew up in a Waldensian family in Italy and being part of a small religious minority with a heritage of persecution and a deep involvement in social justice really shaped my identity. I was very inspired by the ministers that I knew at the time. They were people that could preach very passionately, they could lead our community in protest and rallies, they could be very vocal public intellectuals and very caring pastors. So [inaudible] recalled – already as a child, I was about nine – to embrace that kind of ministry. And I have to say at that moment, I didn’t know personally any woman that was a minister, and the numbers of women in spiritual leadership in any tradition in Italy I could have counted on my two hands. It was very rare.

I was also inspired by my parents. They both grew up during the Second World War. They grew up poor and they were working class most of their lives. And they taught me a very deep commitment to justice making. They taught me that it was important to take a stance, to use my anger at injustice creatively. They taught me about generosity and about connecting my own struggles to other people’s struggles, and other struggles in the world. I was also very inspired by my grandmother and her brother. They were both partisans at a very young age. So I come from a family tradition that taught me that I needed to take a stance, and I needed to walk the talk.

Why did you decide to teach at Starr King?

When I was doing my doctorate studies in Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, I read work by Dr. Rebecca Parker who was the President of Starr King at the time, and by Dr. Ibrahim Farajaje, our current provost. And I was very inspired by their work and I was thinking “I’d love to teach where they teach.” That led me to check their website and I discovered that Starr King as an institution had a commitment to counter-oppression and creating just and sustainable communities. And it was a dream to think about teaching there.

At that time I also happened to get to know a lot of Unitarian Universalists through my teaching and community work in New York City. And I discovered that theologically I had become Unitarian Universalist. A year and a half later from these discoveries there was a job opening at Starr King in my area of expertise and I applied. I was thrilled to be called to teach here and to serve here because I thought Starr King really embraced my passions and commitment and my ideas for theological education. I also felt that it could be a place where I could be constantly supported and really challenged and pushed to keep growing in every area of my being.

Why did you decide to create the Master of Arts in Social Change (MASC) graduate program?

The leadership of Starr King had realized that about 40% of its graduates came to the school without intention of becoming ordained ministers. They embraced spiritually grounded forms of justice making and community work. They were well served by the M.Div program, but the program itself was not created with their specific needs in mind. So the school asked me to implement the Master of Arts in Religious Leadership for Social Change that later was renamed Master of Arts in Social Change, MASC. And this new degree was to serve more specifically the needs for these students deeply committed to spiritually grounded social change.

Why are programs like MASC important for developing spiritual leadership and sacred social change?

I think we need places where people can learn to embrace more sustainable practices for their leadership, where people can learn about the struggles and successes of different social movements, where people can learn how to be leaders that empower other leaders, and empower movements to grow. We have our students, through courses, through advising, through mentoring, through fieldwork, internships, through integrity and reflection, and at the end we also ask them to create a creative project and really express their particular contribution to sacred social change. This is the final MASC project. So, Starr King is a place, and the MASC degree program is a place where we help people to create and bolden their vision.

What has been your most memorable or meaningful experience at Starr King?

I have many inspiring experiences working with the MASC students. I am the person that supervises all of their final projects so it’s always a very enriching experience to follow each person as they envision and then implement their particular creative offering to sacred social change. I also love collaborating with all the students in different projects. For instance, early on we created the first Poverty Truth Commission in the Bay Area, involving people from the GTU and UC Berkeley and local activists. We worked together with Poverty Scholars addressing economic injustice. We created the National Truth Commission on Conscience in War, which was held in New York City in the Riverside Church. That work led me later on to write my book Soul Repair, addressing the issue of moral injury and war.

So I felt very blessed from all the contributions of the MASC students. And when I feel that I need some hope, I think about the work of our graduates, about the work that the current MASC students are doing in different areas of society. I’m thinking about involvement in Black Lives Matter, climate change, social/economic injustice, and I am reassured that what we do does make a difference.

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