David Barnhart is on the move

Most of my friends didn’t understand why I wanted to go to seminary. To them, seminary was a place where aspiring ministers go to be indoctrinated and then locked within the four walls of the church for prayers, bible, and preaching – with little or no contact with the outside world

By David Barnhart
Given my experience in community organizing, disaster relief, and documentary film, most seemed to think I would be better suited for film studies or a public policy degree. Even though their perceptions about seminary were completely off, my decision still made for a lot of puzzled looks and questions. For me, the decision to go to seminary was part of an important realization that my previous work was, in some way, a form of ‘ministry,’ and I needed space and opportunity to explore these experiences in dialogue with others discerning their own call.

For over eight years I had been working with communities who are recovering from or have experienced significant trauma and enabled them to tell their stories through film, writing, drama or art. Initially, I worked with therapeutic foster care children developing creative therapy groups, and then through the PCUSA I had the opportunity to work with children living on the streets in Argentina, where we organized theatre groups, wrote plays together and organized performances to tell their stories. As the Latin American Liaison for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, I facilitated and coordinated disaster response efforts, while also working with community leaders to document their ongoing relief and development initiatives and tell their stories of recovery. In my decision to go to seminary I had reached a point where I was overwhelmed by these formative experiences, but I could see a growing edge to this work that needed to be further developed and solidified by a strong foundation in academic and biblical study.

I visited several seminaries and McCormick was the one place that looked at my proposal and listened to what I envisioned as a call to ministry and immediately said, “We have a place for you here.” I came to discover that it was more than just a “place” in a lecture hall or classroom but a rich environment of faculty, staff and students who welcomed, challenged, and empowered me. I quickly learned that my call to ministry was not just about me, the individual, equipping myself for continued service. My spiritual formation was a product of dialogue, critical reflection, and collective action with others in the McCormick’s diverse community.

I’ve always believed that some of the most formative learning experiences are those that continue to reveal themselves as time passes and this holds true for my time at McCormick. While urban ministry courses enabled me to look at my previous community organizing experience through the lens of biblical studies, academic research, and spiritual practice, I was also encouraged to integrate these learnings into ongoing ministry initiatives. Through an MTS internship I was able to develop a mural project with homeless migrant workers that shared their stories of leaving their families behind and coming to the United States in the hope of a better life – and the difficult realities they've had to face at factories, farms, and day laborer jobs. McCormick and [former Vice President for Student Affairs] Mary Paik also made it possible for me to be an exchange student at Hanshin Graduate School of Theology in South Korea for one year. Our independent film project with the ‘Grandmothers,’ who are survivors of rape and torture by the Japanese military during WWII and are currently seeking reparations and a formal apology from the Japanese government, gave me insight into how documentaries can be community-based and used as an organizational tool for social justice. This documentary project brought a younger generation of Korean students to visit with the Grandmothers, share their stories, work alongside them, and get involved with their movement for reparations.

After graduation I was contracted by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to develop a documentary project with survivors of the Asian Tsunami in Indonesia. Over a four-year period we worked alongside four survivors (Mahmud, Yadi, Damai, and Rahman) and enabled them to participate in the production and documentation of their stories and recovery. I feel like the result is a unique time-lapse documentary that captures the healing and transformation of each individual, while leveraging the power of story for each of the survivors. This experience has reinforced one of my seminal learnings from McCormick: stories in essence have the capacity to heal, connect people, and reveal our common humanity across cultural, religious, and socioeconomic barriers and boundaries. Through this project I have seen how survivors have been able to reclaim and interpret the Tsunami story as their own, which enables them to move from being objects of a disaster to active subjects of a daily, unfolding story of recovery.

The result of these collective efforts has been the documentary “Kepulihan: Stories from the Tsunami” which has been screened at the Carter Center in Atlanta GA and recently had the honor of being selected by the Martin Luther King National Historic Site as part of its D.R.E.A.M. (Developing Racial Equality through Arts and Music) film series. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is also excited about the documentary being selected by the ABC network for broadcast in the fall of 2010.

As our ministry continues to evolve, I look upon my time at McCormick as one of the most formative and transformative experiences in this process. I have made it a point to stay connected to the McCormick community and have greatly benefited from and appreciated its ongoing support. Staff and current students have come to screenings at the Carter Center and at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, reminding me of the resource for ministry I have in the McCormick community.

I strongly believe that McCormick Theological Seminary is a place where in community one can nurture and cultivate one’s call to serve. I am still learning from those formative years in Chicago everyday.