Joey Courtney traffics in understatement.
“I kind of always had a connection to service when it comes to the church,” says Courtney, 26, who began classes at CDSP this month as the recipient of the seminary’s Presidential Scholarship, which covers tuition, room and board.
A cradle Episcopalian who grew up at Good Samaritan Church on Cedar Bluff in Knoxville, Tennessee, Courtney started bagging groceries for the parish’s food pantry in the first grade after his mother, Meg Rutherford, took over the operation. “When I was 6 year old I didn’t want to do it, but as I got older I saw the importance of it and the value of it,” Courtney said. “It became part of my spiritual practice. It was something I learned to love.”
Courtney worked among prisoners, the poor, the hungry and the homeless throughout high school and at Maryville College, where he was awarded a community service scholarship. One summer, while working as a chaplain at a Boy Scout camp, he read “An Irresistible Revolution” by Shane Claiborne and felt he had found a kindred spirit. Claiborne founded a neo-monastic community in a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia, and Courtney was inspired by his teaching that “the poor are holy, and that living in solidarity with the poor was a central part of Jesus’ message.”
After college he spent two years with the Episcopal Urban Intern Program (EUIP) in Los Angeles, a branch of Episcopal Service Corps, a nationwide program that offers college graduates in their twenties the opportunity to live in a prayerful community and work in innovative social service agencies. Courtney worked first in children and youth programs at the Salvation Army Alegria in the Silver Lake neighborhood, and then at Chrysalis, an organization that helps poor and homeless people become self-sufficient.
Shortly after moving to Los Angeles, Courtney found his way to Holy Spirit, an emerging Episcopal congregation not far from Salvation Army Alegria. There, he helped launch a local chapter of Laundry Love, a nationwide movement to assist people who are struggling financially by helping them to do their laundry. Courtney, the Rev. Nat Katz of Holy Spirit and Garrett Klindt of Founders Metropolitan Community Church in Los Feliz say they were inspired by a similar initiative in Huntington Beach started by thom’s, another emerging Episcopal ministry.
“I think it is important to do things that build relationships with people who are different than us,” Courtney says. “Laundromats are places everyone has to go to even if they don’t talk. Giving back to the community in a way that is very non-judgmental. You don’t have to sign up. You just have to show up.”
Katz, who in addition to being a leader in the Holy Spirit community is director of communications for Claremont School of Theology, says Courtney “takes Jesus at his word in Matthew 25 when he says that when you care for ‘the least of these’ you care for Jesus.
“Joey does not go about his ministry with fanfare but with a tenacity for improving the lives of those who live on the margins. His encounters on the margins draw him deeper into his calling and deeper in his relationship with God. He is remarkable in his ability to make human connections with people who are routinely ignored by our society.”
After finishing his internships, Courtney went to work as a job developer for The Los Angeles Youth Network, which works with abused, neglected and homeless adolescents, and began contemplating his future. He had enrolled in college as a chemistry major, but he was also the recipient of one of the Lilly Endowment’s Isaac Anderson Fellowships, which are awarded to “students contemplating lives in the field of ministry.” In Los Angeles, he entered the diocesan discernment process and soon found himself choosing a seminary.
“I was kind of blown away by the program [at CDSP],” Courtney said. “I didn’t realize it was so connected with the other seminaries [through the Graduate Theological Union]. I loved learning from other traditions about their theology, where they are coming from, their perspective. That made CDSP even more impressive to me.”
He continued mulling his choices until February when he visited campus another time. “That just reaffirmed what I was feeling,” he said. “I could talk to them very candidly about questions I had. Everyone was really welcoming and warm. The other schools I talked to weren’t as proactive.”
The Rev. Andrew Hybl, CDSP’s director of admissions, says the seminary was impressed by Courtney’s long record of service and his openness to following God’s call. “Joey has proven his leadership capabilities in numerous settings prior to attending seminary,” Hybl says. “His compassion for the poor and marginalized in our society is humbling. Joey will be a great addition to CDSP’s residential community and I look forward to seeing his further development over the next few years.”
Thanks to alumni and donors who have contributed to funds through estate plans and endowed gifts, CDSP has expanded its range of scholarships and financial aid for the 2015-2016 academic year, Hybl said, and that has allowed the seminary to make generous offers to students like Courtney.
Courtney arrives at CDSP with few preconceptions about where his seminary training will lead him. “I could see myself working with the homeless and the disenfranchised, or doing an environmental ministry doing things in the wilderness,” he says. “I could see myself doing prison ministry, hospital chaplaincy, doing something outdoors like being at a summer camp.
“I really rely on the spirit,” he says. “I try not to nail down an idea of what it will look like when I am done.”