The Courage to Teach…and to Learn

Thanks to all for your well wishing and prayers. As I continue to help my husband back to health, I feel blessed that I began work on a number of different pieces for my blog a while back. This preparation will allow me to both care for Alvise and continue to report on stories of unity and courage in the PCUSA. I’ve also got more offers of stories to share from guest bloggers, which I see as a tremendous gift and look forward to sharing with you as well.

Today I’d like to share a story about a remarkable woman named Lynn Coghill. Lynn is a popular teacher at the University of Pittsburgh and a lay minister in the Community of Reconciliation, a church in my Presbytery in Pittsburgh. She directs the Masters of Social Work Program at Pitt, and has over 500 students in any given semester.

Discerning God’s will in her life matters greatly to Lynn. She describes herself as a thoughtful person who knows there’s a reason God placed her in the teaching profession. “I know that God places situations in front of me to which I must respond. Discernment takes courage and happens when I literally stop and pay attention and sit with what God is asking me to do,” said Lynn recently.

One day, Lynn was approached by a graduate student who was intent on ministering to the needs of victims of the civil war in Northern Uganda. Specifically, the student wanted to do trauma work with former child soldiers and forced wives left behind by Joseph Kony’s “Lord’s Resistance Army” (LRA). Lynn was intrigued by the project, but recognized that the student had no background in trauma work.

Lynn, as a psychiatric social worker in clinical practice and a trauma specialist herself, said to the student, “I think this is a really great project, and I would like to help you with it. In fact, I think you should take me with you!” Lynn realized that discerning God’s call was leading her to a new adventure.

Lynn set to work. As an academic, she researched what had been done in trauma work in the conflict zones in Uganda and found no evidence of effective approaches or impressive results. Lynn and her student would have to be creative, and call upon their own religious experience.

Together, they decided to offer the Ugandans suffering from trauma the spiritual experience of the labyrinth. They would go to Africa to help build a labyrinth and explore with the Ugandans its power as a mode of prayer and spiritual renewal.

“The labyrinth is an archetypal image that has come across different cultures and through time. As a walking prayer in a country full of walkers, the labyrinth could be a unique sacred space to pray and be with God,” said Lynn.

They found that creating conditions for discernment and prayer is hard intercultural work. Lynn tells of the physical stamina needed to build the labyrinth in the “Chartres design” in the unrelenting heat of Uganda.

Lynn recalled that, “Everyone was working together, the children, the teachers, and the whole community. But together we ‘got it.’ We were building a space for prayer, just to come and have time with God and not do anything except be with God.”

Lynn shared the moment that she felt their communal effort was a success. She said that “one Ugandan woman put the whole project in perspective when she concluded, ‘So when I come here, I just pray and I will just be with God and I will do nothing else.’” Lynn realized that the woman totally got it by the look in her eyes when she said, “I will come every morning!”

The pictures Lynn provides tell better than words this story of a community’s courage to teach and to learn. I’ve drawn inspiration from them – may you draw inspiration from them as well.

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