August 13, 2015

I Am Starr King: Interview with Michelle Rockwell

Michelle Rockwell
2nd Year Dual Degree M.Div. and M.A.S.C. Student

Michelle RockwellWhat inspired you to become a religious leader?

I think what really sparked the change in my life was when my mom passed away eight years ago. During the last two weeks of her life, my family and I stayed with her. And despite the fact that it was incredibly sad to lose her, it really struck me that being with her during this difficult time was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. It gave me a new base of reflection on everything else about my life.

I wasn’t particularly happy with my engineering career. It was not meaningful enough to me. And I also realized that the Unitarian Universalist congregation that I had become a member of—the first time ever in my life I joined a church—meant a lot to me, particularly because of the social justice work we were doing. And I was inspired to further explore my own personal spirituality.

There was this one experience that really put a seed in my brain. It was when I was a Regional Coordinator of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC). A small group of the regional coordinators went on a trip to northwest Arkansas, where there are many poultry processing plants. We received an extensive tour by the Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice Center, a grassroots organization whose mission is to improve the conditions of employment for low-wage workers by educating, organizing and mobilizing them. The majority of the poultry processing plant workers were immigrants, many of them here illegally, and the experiences they had were just horrible. It was an eye-opening experience, and I was so inspired by the work that UUSC was doing to support these people. It really got me thinking that I wanted to do something like this to help—even though I didn’t know exactly what that meant.

So it was not exactly an ‘Ah ha’ moment when I decided to become a religious leader. I kind of had a sense of where I needed to go, but it wasn’t particularly clear. And then one day I thought, “Well, maybe I could become a UU minister.” I looked at the Starr King and Meadville Lombard websites, and when I saw Starr King I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is where I need to go! I still don’t know whether or not I want to become a UU minister, but this is where I will be able to figure out what I want to do.”

Why did you decide to study at Starr King?

One thing that was really important to me, because at the time I didn’t know if I wanted to become a UU minister (and since then decided I do not want to become UU minister), was that through Starr King I would also be in connection with other schools. The fact that Starr King is part of the Graduate Theological Union and has a relationship with University of California, Berkeley was really important to me.

But what was also extremely important to me was that Starr King customizes to a person’s own inspiration and gifts. I did not want go through my graduate career suppressing inspiration and instead be solely focussed on the end goal of getting a degree. I did not want that at all. I wanted my own source of inspiration to be my primary guidance, and then, based on whatever really inspires me, receive any needed support and guidance in order to figure out what direction I need to go to continue my education and to discover my specific calling. I am in my second year and am very pleased with the level of support I have received from the faculty at Starr King.

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

Being a low-residency student, I have not had a lot of contact with people physically in the school. So one of my most memorable experiences was going on the Rumi Immersion trip. It was great to bond with my fellow Starr King classmates. It was great to be on this adventure in a completely different country and be exposed to Sufism. Oh gosh…I can’t event begin to describe it. It was just fantastic!

But then, as far as classes go, the Eco-Theologies class was one of the most memorable experiences for me (there are a couple other classes that are close runner-ups!). In the Eco-Theologies course, all of final projects that people came up with were compelling and encompassed a broad spectrum of theological applications to the many environmental issues we are presently confronting. There was one student whose final project was focused on green burials, and it was actually a proposal for his own business that he was going to put together. And there was another student who works in a non-profit Christian organization. He is using his final project as a draft to start a book about what it is that non-profits, particularly religious non-profits, need to do to make sure that their organizations are eco-theological.

And when it came to my own project, I studied the news network media. Specifically, I did a comparison study of ABC World News and NBC Nightly News to determine the news programs’ theologies and what each program needed to do to become eco-theological. I am very interested in figuring out how the news media can challenge audiences to reflect upon their own personal theologies (whether or not it includes the supernatural), and for them to then consider how aligned their personal theologies are with their daily interactions with the earth and all of its beings.

What do you hope to do with your Starr King education going forward?

That is the part that absolutely scares me the most because it’s become pretty apparent to me that I want to become an eco-chaplain. It excites me that I know where my passions lie, but it scares me because it is a very new field. I will have to forge my own career path. There are days when I wish I felt an incredible longing to be a hospital or hospice chaplain. But that is not where I am right now. So at the moment I think I need to just ride this wave of self-discovery and see where it takes me.

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