A Day in the Life of SKSM’s President

Dear Friends of Starr King,

“To accept life’s gifts with grace and gratitude and use them to bless the world…” we say every Tuesday at Starr King when we light the chalice for our chapel. Grace and gratitude mark my days.

Here is how one day in my life as president of Starr King School went this week.

It’s 8 am, foggy and icy cold when I arrive in my office for the first meeting of the day, a consultation with Dr. Ibrahim Farajaje’, our Vice President for Academic Affairs. We are excited and pleased at how mentoring of each student is taking on new depth, helped by an advisor to student ratio of 1:7. We plan further refinements to our approach to individualized guidance which is at the center of our educational philosophy and practice.

By 9:30, the heat has come on and things are warming up in our small building which is filled with activity. The core faculty gathers in the Round Chapel for its monthly study session together. Dr. Jo Sanzgiri, one of our visiting professors, inspires us with a power point summary of the paper she’s just delivered in South Africa on religiously-based transformational leadership in a multi-cultural world. A rich conversation follows.

After the faculty study time, Thomas Smith, our Vice President for Finance and Administration, comes looking for me. He has a donation check for $325,000 in his hand and we sit down to complete the paper work to set up a new endowment fund as per the donor’s wishes. The donor—a leader from the Black Empowerment movement within Unitarian Universalism and a former Starr King trustee—designated this planned gift to endow scholarships for full time students at Starr King. We are honored by the gift and know the donor would be gratified by the school’s commitment to “Educating to Counter Oppressions and Create Just and Sustainable Communities.”

It’s 1:00 p.m. and the sun has finally come out, streaming through the rose and gold stained glass window in the Fireside Room just in time for the Chapel service. Glenn Farley, this year’s student body president, preaches. He tells of his call to Unitarian Universalist ministry after beginning his professional career on Wall Street in wealth management. He contrasts the problems on Wall Street with those of the small California towns he visited this summer as part of the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry Water Tour. These rural communities struggle to survive with water that is not safe to drink because of high levels of arsenic. The state of California says it is not cost effective to lay pipes to provide them with clean water. Glenn challenges us to know the neighbors we are called to love and asks us to consider who really needs a government bailout.

An hour later, Academy Award winning actor and director, Danny Glover, slips into the school to address Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake’s class in Non-Violent Social Change. Glover speaks of his commitment to using film to lift up and advance social justice issues, such as his recently released project “Trouble the Waters,” a documentary about New Orleans. He encourages our students to be active participants in public issues and to recognize that the hopes we believe in can’t all be achieved in our lifetime. We have to see ourselves as the recipients of a legacy of caring and commitment that began with our parents and religious communities before us, and that we are to carry on for the sake of those who will come after us. He speaks of the significance of this coming week’s historic presidential election, and urges us that no matter who wins the election, progress will only be made for our nation by people continuing to build the necessary movements and coalitions that make real change possible.

The class gives Glover a standing ovation, and as people begin to disperse, Glover quietly asks me who Thomas Starr King was. His father, he says, worked for Starr King elementary school in San Francisco, but he doesn’t know anything about Starr King the person. I tell him a little about Starr King’s ministry and activism and give him a copy of the Educating to Counter Oppressions reader we use with our entering class. Glover sits down to read the page I have shown him. Then, softly, hunched over the page, he begins to read Starr King’s words out loud, his resonant voice savoring them:

The preacher’s business is with spiritual laws,
and their bearing upon or their application with
the duties and the action of common life.
If I think and see clearly how a great spiritual principle
may be honored by the method in which you can trade,
or use your money or exercise your genius, or live at home,
am I not bound to interpret that way,
leaving it for your conscience and your insight
to accept or refuse my interpretation? . . .

Glover smiles. The passage continues:

You certainly have the right, as well as the power,
to choose what type of preaching this pulpit shall represent;
as long as I stay in it, it will represent no other
than that I have just described –
not because I ever intend or desire to “preach politics,”
but because I feel I must preach devotion to humanity
as the highest outward form of the gospel
and the obligation of doing the most good that possibly can be done
by all of a man’s influence,
by his ballot as well as by his money and his words.

After a quick supper, a beloved friend and I return to the Fireside Room for a screening of the film, Poverty Outlaw. The film documents the work of a group of women experiencing homelessness who build a collective to care for themselves, their children, and to advocate for change. Dr. Gabriella Lettini, Starr King’s Aurelia Henry Reinhart Professor of Theological Ethics and Director of Studies in Public Ministry, leads the discussion and we reflect on the important work of the Poverty Truth Commission which Dr. Lettini and her students have organized in Berkeley. (Read more about the Commission.)

Driving home at 9 p.m. to catch the evening news on the state of the presidential race, I am filled with gratitude for the mission of Starr King School and the people who I am privileged to work with daily. Our spiritual and educational work transcends the ups and downs of politics and the market place. We have been here for 104 years and will be here for the long haul, carrying on the legacy of commitment and caring.

In grace and gratitude,

Rebecca Parker
President and Professor of Theology

510 845 6232 ext. 112