‘My Parish Is the World’

April 1, 2016
Betsee Parker
Betsee Parker, MDiv '85, has been named a 2016 Gomes Honoree. / Photo: Courtesy Betsee Parker

Betsee Parker's single-minded focus on service has been in evidence throughout her life, but perhaps never more so than on September 11, 2001.

She and her late husband were in their apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan when the first plane hit the World Trade Center's south tower. Minutes later, she was on a number four train to the attack site.

"I saw a lot of smoke and fire when I got off the train," she says. "I couldn't allow myself to fear what was ahead. I tried to focus on what I might be able to do to help."

When Parker, MDiv '85, sees an opportunity to serve, she seizes it, whether across town or halfway around the world. This commitment to alleviating suffering and to improving the lives of others has this year earned Parker the recognition of her fellow alumni as a 2016 Peter J. Gomes STB '68 Memorial Honoree.

"I was speechless when I found out I was a Gomes honoree," she says. "All I've ever done, honestly, is focus on what I was doing and not thought much beyond that."

Parker says her HDS experience served her well in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, but not in the way one might expect. The need onsite was less for people who could provide benediction and comfort than it was for those with the stomach to undertake the grisly task of locating and identifying the body parts of victims. Because of the broad-mindedness of her education at HDS, Parker saw the work as a ministry and a way of honoring the lives of the fallen.

"It was something I was able to do," she explains. "My service at Ground Zero was not really as a chaplain so much as it was doing pathology. That was what was needed. I felt that it was a way to truly honor the lives that were lost there."

The work with the Ground Zero clean-up effort continued for some time. By 2007, however, the project was in the past. Parker thought back to the humanitarian work she did in the 1990s and happened upon an article by the Columbia University economist and Harvard alumnus Jeffrey Sachs. She was impressed by the model of sustainable development that Sachs, a longtime United Nations adviser, laid out, particularly for the nations of sub-Saharan Africa.

What she did next says a lot about Parker—and her passion for making the world a better place.

"I showed up at one of Dr. Sachs' classes at Columbia University," she remembers. "When I saw that article, I just thought 'Wow! This guy has put it all together. I'm going to contact him.' Pretty soon I'd linked on to his Millennium Villages Project (MVP) in Africa."

Parker's support for the MVP and for its work with the UN has helped improve the lives and health of thousands of people. In Guinea, for instance, Parker undergirded and was on the "front lines" of relief efforts during the Ebola epidemic. Her work has also taken her to Ghana, Senegal, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Togo, and Sierra Leone, among other nations. She says that she's applied what she learned during her time at Ground Zero—from to managing logistical challenges to working with government agencies and NGOs—to her work with Sachs in Africa.

"The training I received after 9/11 is very useful for doing large-scale model work in equatorial Africa, which is what I do today," she says. "That's because we work with governments to scale up projects in public health, agriculture, education, infrastructure, and much more."

Parker recently helped the government of Rwanda integrate a new model for community health care workers into the country's public health system. Ghana, too, is dramatically expanding the number of health care workers in its system based on the MVP model. The efforts in Africa are based on the UN millennial development goals drafted largely by Sachs. Now, with Parker's help, MVP implements them around the world.

"We work with heads of state," she says. "We construct sustainable development goals that are logical for each country. Sometimes that involves working with teams in Europe, sometimes in Africa. As the UN's development adviser, Dr. Sachs really runs the whole global operation. I specialize mainly in Africa."

Here, too, Parker's time at HDS provided a valuable foundation. She says that one of her most memorable experiences of her MDiv was "The Parting of the Waves," a seminar that was co-taught by some of the School's top scholars, including Helmut Koester, Frank Moore Cross, and Krister Stendahl.

A class that explored the split between the church and synagogue in the development of Christianity may not at first seem like preparation for philanthropic work in the developing world, but Parker says that it advanced her understanding of multifaith dialogue, a concept that's been critical to her efforts in Africa.

"I'm an Episcopal priest," she explains. "I work with Jeffrey Sachs, who is Jewish. We work with the Pontifical Institute in the Vatican, which is Catholic. In Africa, most of the people I work with are Muslim. 'The Parting of the Waves' helped me to open up and step outside my denomination entirely."

When she's not traveling the globe to advance the UN’s millennial development goals, Parker is also the owner of show horses that compete at the highest levels. Her horse Lone Star was inducted into the United States Equestrian Foundation's (USEF) Hall of Fame in 2013 and the organization has named Parker USEF Owner of the Year many times.

"I have horses that are show jumpers," she says. "This is a sport that I've done since I was a little girl. That's another thing that I enjoyed about being at HDS. Harvard welcomed people who had a lot of different interests."

Parker says that at age 64 she's just hitting her stride. Like the "medical missionary" and theologian Albert Schweitzer who was her earliest hero, humanitarian work and philanthropy are her ministry. After graduation from HDS and ordination, she spent 22 years in the pulpit as an Episcopal priest. Now she says "my parish is really the world."

"When I was a four year old, I dreamed that I would do something in Africa like Albert Schweitzer did," she says. "Today I feel that the fullness of my HDS education—the liberal tradition, the openness to multifaith work—has all paid off. My work is more global now, and I feel I've been well-trained for it."

—by Paul Massari