Leaders Who Serve

December 1, 2016
Silvia Mejia
HDS alumna Silvia Mejia

The call to service is literally in Harvard Divinity School’s DNA. It’s visible in the vision of Harvard President John Kirkland, considered by many to be the founder of HDS, who appealed to alumni in 1815 for support of an institution that would prepare those who “enter our houses in affliction,” and “give us light, admonition, and consolation in suffering, sickness, and the last hours of life.”

It’s there in the School’s earliest years, when students engaged in prison ministry and created a Philanthropic Society dedicated to the promotion of peace and education and to the alleviation of poverty, among other “benevolent projects of the day.”

Two centuries later, HDS still empowers men and women who serve their communities, societies, and the world. For some, this means working one on one to teach writing to an incarcerated student. For others, it means heading up an NGO that works to improve the health of millions of people in developing countries. Wherever they go and however they serve, HDS students and alumni are the “boots on the ground” that make the world a better place.

Education Through Service

Silvia Mejia
HDS alumna Silvia Mejia
Silvia Mejia came to HDS thinking she would pursue further graduate work in religion. Instead, she ended up having a life-changing experience that led her to discover her passion: serving those who were invisible to her, and to many others.

“I took the course ‘Ethics, Punishment and Race,’ taught by Professor Kaia Stern. The class took place at MCI-Norfolk, a medium-security men’s prison. Half of the students came from different Harvard schools, and the other half were incarcerated students,” she said. “In the class we explored the American incarceration crisis and its religious roots, but what was most transformative about it was learning alongside people behind bars.”

Mejia’s passion for service, particularly serving others through prison ministry, was brought out not only through her courses, but also through the experiential learning opportunities at HDS. The School’s Field Education Program and the Harvard Prison Education Project (HPEP)—along with Partakers and Boston University’s Prison Education Program—enables students to provide academic mentoring for those pursuing a college degree while incarcerated.

Mejia worked as a teaching assistant and co-taught a writing course at MCI-Framingham, a women’s prison about 20 miles from Cambridge. She also mentored a student through HPEP. Her passion endured despite having to allot three extra hours of time for commuting and processing through security at the prison.

As a teaching assistant for the course “The Art of Expression: Constructing Experience through Writing,” Mejia began each class with a check-in during which the students named a celebration or challenge that took place during their week. Lectures were kept to a minimum. The teachers instead posed discussion questions.

“It was a rewarding experience and taught me about the challenges of teaching in a carceral environment,” she says.

The combination of learning alongside incarcerated students and being a mentor to them added to the value of her HDS education.

“The continuing value of what I learned at HDS was to integrate theory and practice, to understand them together, and to be a lifelong learner,” she says.

Mejia says she wants to continue working with those who are incarcerated, but also to change perspectives and advocate for prison reform. She specifically wants to focus on helping women who have been incarcerated.

“Women are often not at the center of rehabilitation or reentry services, and I am passionate about changing that.”

Finding the Resources

Rick Santos, MTS '92
Rick Santos, MTS ’92
As a Volunteer in Mission with the Presbyterian Church, USA, in Thailand in the late 1980s, Rick Santos found himself in the middle of great socioeconomic and cultural shifts in Southeast Asia.

Santos, MTS ’92, now president and CEO of the global public health NGO IMA World Health, was in Thailand during a time of political unrest and uncertainty in the region, with refugee camps filled with hundreds of thousands of Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese people on the northeast Thai border and with the first Burmese refugees who came in from the West. It was a pivotal time for him, and one that eventually led to HDS.

“What was really important for me was to be able to put into context multiple experiences that I’ve had in my life and then also give myself a good framework for what I want to do next,” he says. “The questions I wanted to ask I was not going to get any answers to at other institutions.”

The education and training Santos received at HDS provided context for his experiences overseas and solidified his belief that the humanitarian and development world was where he could best serve.

“I took a lot of religions of the world courses. I took courses on Islam. I took several courses on Buddhism,” he says. “The MTS track gave me the ability to really go as broad and as wide as I needed to really understand and give context to the world in which I live, and where I came out of, while also grounding me in the Christian tradition.”

For Santos, like many other HDS alumni, service is not just a vocation; it’s a calling. He views his service as a ministry in three parts: action (“working overseas in some of the most difficult places in the world, really trying to make a difference in people’s lives), policy (“action without correct policy is often self-defeating”), and modeling a spiritual compass (“being true in what you do and also how you deal with other people”).

As head of IMA World Health, Santos travels to some of the poorest countries in the world, establishing partnerships and leading his organization in its mission to build healthier communities. IMA sends essential medicine and supplies all over the globe, targets specific diseases, works with governments to strengthen the infrastructure of health care, and promotes health, equality, and opportunity for women in the world. The work is sometimes slow and often intense. In 2009, he lived through a massive earthquake in Haiti by surviving for 55 hours in the rubble of a collapsed hotel. Where many get burned out, Santos says that he has developed a resilience that helps him endure.

“Growing up in a very traditional Catholic home, being drawn to reformed theology and an ecumenism while studying in university, exposure to Buddhism in Thailand, and then divinity school—all of that builds your inner resources,” he says. “All of that has contributed to creating an inner compass that has brought me where I am. That inner spiritual resource is always being challenged and tested, and hopefully it is continuing to grow and guide me.”

A Second Career in Service

Liz Walker, MDiv '05
Liz Walker, MDiv '05 / Photo: Jonathan Beasley
Liz Walker was one of the most famous and successful TV news personalities in Boston. She spent more than two decades as a reporter, as well as being the first African American news anchor on WBZ-TV. So, when she stepped down from the anchor desk, many of her peers were shocked. But Walker says it was an important step along her journey toward something greater than herself.

“If you understand the idea of television news, you don’t leave television news unless you’re fired. You don’t leave six-figure jobs, nobody does, it just doesn’t happen. So the idea of stepping out of that, it seemed I was doing it on my own, but another part of me was saying, ‘What are you doing?’” she says. “There was the feeling of being compelled . . . a feeling that it was something else I could do, it was something more I could do.”

That something else took her to Sudan, led her to co-found a humanitarian organization, and eventually to HDS.

Walker, MDiv ’05, met Gloria White-Hammond, MDiv ’97, the Swartz Resident Practitioner in Ministry Studies at HDS, through her church. In July 2001, Walker joined White-Hammond and others on a trip to Sudan to investigate allegations of slavery. The result was My Sister’s Keeper, an organization Walker co-founded that focuses on economic and educational initiatives for Sudanese women and girls.

In 2007, the organization opened a school for young women. A thousand students enrolled on the first day.

“When we were in Sudan, Gloria and I interviewed many, many, many women who had been gang raped and who had just seen incredible things, but their affect was like nothing had happened, because they had no choice. They had to keep going,” she says. “And I wondered how they dealt with trauma. And now, in my neighborhood, I see the same thing. I see people who have dealt with a lot of pain.”

Walker is currently the pastor at Roxbury Presbyterian Church in an inner-city neighborhood of Boston. She describes the area in which she serves as a wonderful community but one that sees more than its share of street violence, prostitution, and drug abuse, all of which lead to trauma.

To help, Walker’s church has launched multiple efforts, including a recovery program and a support group for the mothers of victims of violence. Walker works with the city, the public health commission, mental health workers, and local hospitals. She’s also just left open the doors to the church.

“We are trying to help heal a neighborhood,” she says. “So we’ve decided to just open our doors and invite people in on one night a week to talk about their pain. We give you a meal. There are no requirements. There’s no religious requirement. You can be anybody, but just come in.”

One of the efforts that most excites Walker is being able to help those with mental health issues. There’s a stigma attached to mental health that can get in the way of receiving treatment, she says, adding that in churches there’s a feeling that you can “pray everything away.”

“Well, you know, some things you can’t pray away. God wants you to get some help, so that’s what we’re doing,” she says.

While Walker’s current career may be very different from her years anchoring newscasts, she sees them as linked.

“I never thought that anything would be more exciting than television news,” she says, “but that was just preparation for the work that I’m doing now.”

—by Michael Naughton