A Conversation with Master of Divinity Students Nathaniel Adkins, Elise Hynek, DaMisha McFarland-Pollock, and Kurt Saenger Heyl

Let’s start at the beginning of your seminary experience. Why did you choose Wartburg?

Nathaniel Adkins: My family and I ultimately moved to Wartburg, and 90% of our decision was because of the sense of community that we picked up on when we visited campus. We came to the Fishbowl. We saw kids running around. We talked to the professors, and they talked about how it was a safe place. It was a supportive place where you were living in close community with people, but it was not an obtrusive microscope sort of thing. It was basically a place where I could send my kids outside, where my wife could be herself, while I was a seminary student.

Elise Hynek: I was absolutely convinced I was not going to come to Wartburg. I visited as a courtesy to all of my clergy colleagues who were like, “I went to Wartburg. I love it. You need to check it out.” And I went, “Okay, fine. I’ll check it out, but I’m not going.” I was so determined not to go, I almost accepted another offer.

Ultimately, I decided on Wartburg because of several things. I felt that Wartburg would give me a good foundation into entering ordained ministry, and you need to have the foundation. Otherwise, whatever you build is not going to be successful in the long run, or it’s going to take a whole lot of maintenance, which is much more tiring. And also, coming to visit, I loved how worship-centered this community was. We go to our morning class, and then together, as we’re discussing what was in the lecture, we’d walk into the chapel, we’d worship, we would commune together, and then we would go out and continue conversations that were happening throughout the week. I also found the community aspect of Wartburg important because I don’t know what context my ministry is going to be in. Once we go out to serve Christ in the world and to serve the church, to be able to have relationships to continually go back to that start here and now in seminary was so critically important to me.

DaMisha McFarland-Pollock: I moved across the country in the midst of a pandemic because I love Wartburg. The main reason, as many people will always say, is community. I have a spouse, and I wanted a place that not only would educate me and help form me into the pastor that I need to be, but also where my spouse could grow and find community. Not only was I welcomed with open arms, but so was he. And it’s been awesome to see how the community has included us, even though most of everything is online right now. But being here residentially, you can still see your neighbors or classmates when you’re walking around campus and when you are having socially distanced gatherings outside.

My spouse is part of the Warburg Fellowship of Spouses, and they have the best time. They live their best lives. I’m totally jealous when they have their gatherings.When they had their very first one, it was super cold and everyone bundled up, took their chairs, went down the street to a little parking lot, and they set up and just had a great time talking with each other and dealing with life as the spouse or the loved one of a seminarian. And so that’s part of why I chose Wartburg and to come to campus, because all of those things are important. I’m getting a lot more interaction, safely, here than I actually did back in Pittsburgh in the midst of this pandemic where we were all shut in and no one was coming out, not even to wave in the front yard. So this has been very good, not only academically, but also for my mental health.

Kurt Saenger-Heyl: As I reflect back on that time of discernment, the single word is
community that’s been repeated. For me, what that looked like was the sense of us all rowing in the same boat together, of the
professors and the students and the faculty, the staff, everyone is here for the same purpose. And obviously, everyone’s roles are different. And even as students, we all have different roles, and what we’re looking for and the areas we need to grow in and develop and the areas with which we can then share and develop others. I think the intensity with which that could take place here on campus was probably really the main thing, in that communal sense, that drew me and the ability to have those conversations over lunch, which I miss a lot these days, with professors or staff or anyone who just pops down to the refectory and those hallway conversations. So to be in community and to have that as the foundation in which I get to be formed is truly special.

How did you adapt to the pandemic on campus in those early days?

EH: With the initial shutdown, thankfully, the weather was getting warm, and so we could be outside. I experienced the shift in the community in that it drove everyone outside. I saw a whole lot more people sitting on their stoops and doing their homework, writing papers, reading textbooks out in the front yard. And then people would bring their chairs over and sit six to twelve feet away, however far we needed to be, once they saw someone else sitting outside. That was the nice part, it drove everyone outside, and in some ways connected us a little bit more because we saw each other more. We started to do a lunch Zoom Room and whoever wants to join and have this digital lunch together, and still have those conversations that we would around a table in the refectory. Our physical interactions drastically changed within like 12 hours, but we found ways to be creative, and we’re still finding ways to be creative around those interactions.

KSH: All of us who’d never really had to use Zoom for the primary learning modality were like, “How do you do this?” And some of our distance classmates shared how they do it every day, what their routines are, and how they’ve made the best use of the technology. And there wasn’t any question. Right? It was just what we needed to do. Everybody jumped in, and the professors would scratch plans just to talk about life, and so that “We’re in the same boat” mentality kicked in, and the boat’s got to keep going down the river because we’re not at a place that we can just jump out. I have friendships now that I probably wouldn’t have had, had we not needed to be intentional then about our time together and make that space. We had no choice but to be intentional about what we did, when we did it, and how we did it. The community really lifted that up and embraced that.

NA: There have been ways that, as a community, we’ve adapted. We’ve been able to bring back some things. And I think, collectively, we’ve been very resourceful at looking for ways of integrating community into what we’re doing. But it’s still hard just sustaining little unplanned 30-second interactions when you’re walking up the stairs together, or when you’re walking down a hallway and, “Oh, I got to go this way,” and “Okay. Well, I’ll talk to you later.” It feels like a mineral deficiency. But I am hopeful—warmer weather is coming back, so we’ll be able to hang out outside more. There is a vaccine. The fact that this two-week thing turned out to be 11 months and counting, and the fact that there is an actual, legitimate end in sight…I’m swimming to that shore as quickly and as energetically and as hopefully as I can.

DMP: I’ve adapted pretty well, but I also wanted to be residential because online learning is not necessarily the best for me. Having no choice in that right now, I’ve adapted and it’s going well, and Wartburg excels at online learning. Of all the places I’ve encountered, interacted with, and other people who are going through the same thing in other places, I think we do online education the best.

Have you found or experienced joys in the midst of the pandemic?

DMP: I have a huge joy. In the year before I came physically to Wartburg, I was online in the certificate program, and COVID hit, and Chapel went online daily. As someone who wasn’t physically here, I was able to participate every day. A joy that I have even now as a residential student is seeing people in the distance learning programs in chapel every day instead of just one day a week is beautiful. I hope it’s something that continues even when we are able to physically worship together in the chapel.

NA: I think something that just could not have happened had it not been for the pandemic is the Fishbowl Academy [a Montessori school on campus for children of students]. I mean, that definitely poses its own interesting dynamics where we’ve got five little guys, who tend to play outside together anyway, who are now thrown together into a classroom situation. That has definitely amped up the brotherly dynamic, but that’s been an incredible, amazing thing that we couldn’t have foreseen and couldn’t have asked for. Another thing: whenever I talk to anyone in my family—and I’ve probably said this to everyone on this screen at some point—is that you could not have designed a better situation or a better community in which to go through a period of global trauma and physical distancing. At the very least, I know all of my neighbors, and they all know me, and we’re all looking out for each other. And just the fact that we already had that connection going in, just kind of that built-in sense of neighborliness, that was one less thing to have to struggle with.

EH: I would say, strangely, the fact that I have spent so much time indoors on my computer now, I think this has driven me to be outside even more. As soon as class is done when the weather’s warm, I’m out and lying in my front yard reading, or like Nathaniel said, like, “Oh, Nathaniel’s outside. Oh, I’ll go out.” In some ways, I think I’ve had more meals with my neighbors and classmates than I did pre-pandemic because now I’m like, “Oh, I have a grill. I will go set the grill up in my driveway. I’ll have hot dogs. And anyone who wants to come and have a hot dog, they can safely grab their own food from this hot space that is killing the bacteria and viruses.” And also, I’ve been a whole lot more active in going on daily walks with friends and things like that. Because when I’m sitting at a computer for so long, I need to get out. I want to interact. And so we have a nice little group that every day goes for a walk when we have the opportunity, which has led to interacting with faculty who live on our walking routes. We wave and occasionally drop cookies off at their door or something like that. Those are all things that didn’t happen pre-pandemic because I had other things that I thought that needed to get done. So in some ways, it’s helped me slow down and re-prioritize, and to shift the way that I was originally looking at community.

DMP: I keep going back to last November. One of my last memories of something that we did as a residential group was we had a group hug with Thomas after the death of Maria and Gwen. And as a class, I think that was time—for me, I was also quarantined for the first two weeks of spring semester, so I have different memories from everyone else. But to me, that was the last thing we did as a residential class. And I’d love that—I’d love it if the last thing we did was hug and the first thing that we do when this is over is hug.