Surprised by Community: Low-Res Students, Alums Reflect on CDSP Experience

Ashley Gurling on computer screen

Ashley Gurling ’23

I was born in Ogden, Utah, and grew up in an idyllic small town where I could climb trees, capture frogs, and swim in the Weber River. My family raised me in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and I cannot ever remember a time where God was not with me.

As a child, I would line up my stuffed animals and dolls and “play church.” I would pass out pieces of bread and pass a small cup of water. Then I would give a sermon! In my childhood tradition, women are not ordained, so my family thought this was amusing. But it felt natural and right to me.

Later in my life, after transitioning away from my childhood faith, I walked into Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Centerville, UT. I stayed for worship that day, my first experience with formal liturgy. The hair on my arms stood up. I cried and cried. Worship in the Episcopal Church felt, to me, like I had stepped into living poetry, like I was learning truths that I could know in no other way.

When I first experienced my call, I did my best to set it aside because I believed there was no way to pursue the call and full my responsibilities to my family. I knew our circumstances were such that I could not easily uproot everyone for us to move someplace where I could attend a full-time, residential seminary. We had no local options either, and I convinced myself briefly that I must be misunderstanding my call.

The low-residence program at CDSP was the answer to every obstacle. It allows me to do the work according to a schedule I set for myself and continue being a present parent. Formation at CDSP is changing who I am over time, subtly shifting how I view the world, my faith, and my connection to other people. Wherever my future ministry is lived out, I hope I will have the opportunity to lead worship, facilitate adult formation, and provide pastoral care. It is in these three areas that I feel I am most responding to God’s call.

The Rev. Bertram Nagarajah ‘23

Rev. Bertram Nagarajah on computer screen

I was born and educated in Sri Lanka. I came from a family where my mom was a cradle Anglican and my father a cradle Hindu. My mom had more influence on me growing up. I went to church regularly with her, and also to Sunday school. So church became a part of me growing up. However, at times I would participate in Hindu rituals with my dad and his relatives.

When I was about 17 years old, I felt a calling to the priesthood. I went for an interview in the Diocese of Colombo. I was told to come back three years after further education. Around that time, my dad died, and I was the oldest male child and had to shoulder family responsibility. After a few more years of studies, I got a job to support my family. However, the calling to the sacred ministry never went away.

Many years later, I came to the United States for more engineering and technology studies. I got a job, and my company sponsored me for a Green Card and U.S. citizenship. Eventually, I settled here and got married. My wife is also from Sri Lanka. We have two sons. All this time, I continued to hear God’s call. When I could no longer put it off, I participated in a discernment process for holy orders and was ordained as a vocational deacon in the Episcopal Church. With my regular job, diaconal duties, and outreach program work, it would have been impossible to do any full-time coursework in person. The CDSP low-residency program makes this possible.

I am planning as part of my mission to spend time in Sri Lanka and teach at the Colombo Theological Seminary. There are many great curricula I have learned and continue to learn through my CDSP studies. I hope to one day share this treasure trove of knowledge with others.

The Rev. Andrew Armond ‘20

Andrew Armond on computer screen

I was raised as a Southern Baptist in rural North Louisiana. The story of my conversion to the Episcopal Church is fairly standard for evangelicals of my generation (late X / early Millennial). I was intrigued by and drawn toward formality, ritual, and liturgy in worship. Since that time, I have continued to grow in my appreciation for other aspects of the Episcopal Church as well, particularly its openness to people of a wide variety of backgrounds.

I am currently the chaplain of the Diocese of Western Louisiana’s diocesan school, Episcopal School of Acadiana in Lafayette, LA. For the past five and a half years, my role has been to offer spiritual counsel with students and faculty, to be the presence of the Church in the life of people from a variety of religious backgrounds, to teach a world religions course to eighth-graders, and to operate the chapel program. I am in the midst of a vocational transition. I will be moving to the Diocese of Texas and working at Trinity Episcopal Church in Longview as curate and chaplain of Trinity School of Texas.

I was drawn to CDSP’s low-res program because it was literally the only one that met my life circumstances. I needed to get a Certificate in Anglican Studies, but I wasn’t able to uproot my family and leave my job for the one or two years that such a program would require at most residential seminaries. In addition, CDSP’s program was affordable and flexible.

What I found certainly exceeded my expectations. The setting, the people, the academic rigor, the spiritual development, the corporate worship, and the online aspects of the program were deeply meaningful and gratifying. The cohesion of our cohort was a blessed surprise for me. I did not anticipate being able to form relationships of such depth in so short a time. I loved learning alongside students from all over the country, especially when discussing regional differences in the Episcopal Church. It was illuminating to understand how differently the Church operates in dioceses across the country.

Dr. Robin Woodberry ‘21

Robin Woodbury on computer screen

I grew up in a family with five children and two hard-working parents. My mother was a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal church, retiring in 2014. My father worked in the local steel mill. I have lived in Youngstown, OH, all of my life. I met my husband of 36 years at church when we were children. Yes, I was a church kid, a preacher’s kid—all of the applicable titles. I swore I wouldn’t be a minister. I wanted to be a nurse, but God had other plans.

In 1995, I was licensed to preach in the Baptist Church, and in 2005 I was ordained, going on to serve as the assistant pastor at the largest Black Baptist Church in the city. But in 2017, I felt God’s pull in a different direction, and I embarked upon a huge life transition. After having served as a minister for more than 20 years, I left the Baptist Church and was confirmed in the Episcopal Church, discerning my call into the priesthood. It was one of the most significant decisions I have ever made, but one I do not regret.

Being called into the life of ministry is not something I take lightly. Since I am the fourth-generation woman minister in my family, I know all too well the sacrifice and dedication that comes with this call. That’s why attending CDSP in the Certificate of Anglican Studies program was so important to me.

It’s no secret that the Baptist Church and the Episcopal Church (TEC) have some differences. I needed to come to know who TEC is, as well as how and why she functions. While my bishop would have preferred that I attend seminary as a residential student, financially I could not leave my job and move to another city. The most significant benefit was studying from home and not having to uproot and relocate, even if temporarily, which gave me the chance to continue working my job and overseeing my family’s needs while pursuing my education.

Frances Oka ‘23

Frances Oka on computer screen

I have lived in Japan for many years now and am fairly fluent in everyday spoken Japanese, but unfortunately, my reading and writing skills are not sufficient to undertake an academic course in that language. Since none of the seminaries here offer courses in English, I needed training for ordained ministry elsewhere.

Family and work commitments made it impossible for me to move overseas for a block of time, so a low-residence program I could complete part-time was the obvious solution. A couple of my colleagues and advisors suggested that CDSP might be a good fit.

The low-residence model has allowed me to honor both family and work responsibilities as I take the first steps on an uncertain path. Much as I would value the experience of a residential program, moving to Berkley or elsewhere in the U.S. would require me to give up on teaching and abandon my family.

The church I presently serve, St. Albans,’ is the only “English” church in the Nippon Sei Ko Kai, the Anglican Communion’s province in Japan. As my working skill in Japanese improves, I hope to act as a kind of bridge between our church and others in the diocese. I’m mainly interested in parish ministry, but my nursing background and recent experience on the receiving end of some excellent medical and nursing care have started me thinking about the possibility of chaplaincy in a hospital or hospice setting.

The diaconate here in Japan is essentially transitional, but my bishop has expressed an interest in developing the vocational diaconate as a ministry in its own right. As yet, we also have relatively few female clergy. I have never been much of a trailblazer, but I hope to make a contribution in both these areas.

The Rev. Anthony Jones ‘20

Anthony Jones on computer screen

I sensed and explored the call to ordained ministry after working as an attorney for several years with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Still repaying law school loans, I was hesitant to think about seminary. I needed to continue to work full-time and did not see a way forward.

The low-residence program at CDSP was vital in allowing me to answer the call to ordained ministry. It allowed me to continue working to support myself during seminary. I wanted not just an education but an academically rigorous theological formation that would stretch and challenge me.

I now serve in parish ministry as assistant priest at an urban congregation in Brooklyn with more than 600 members. As part of this clergy team, I share in pastoral care ministry, liturgical leadership, and regular preaching. I also support our small group community outreach ministries.

Perhaps an unintended benefit of the low-residence program is the technological skills and tools I learned as a result of the nature of the program. My classmates are spread out across the United States and are as far away as Hawaii. We know how to create and hold relationships and community online. We know how to create audio and video presentations that can be presented through meeting spaces such as Zoom. When the pandemic prevented the congregation I serve from gathering in person, we were able to immediately transition worship, Bible study, choir rehearsal, and small group meetings to online offerings.

No doubt we are in a time of change and transformation in community and congregational life. I cannot predict what life will look like going forward, but I hope and intend to continue to grow the ministries of the congregation in the context and circumstances in which we find ourselves.