Field education at Union provides an opportunity for students to bring together their education, skill, and religious commitment in a way that can help them discover their call. Students do their field work in a wide variety of locations, from churches to shelters to non-profit organizations.
This week, we spoke with Danielle Williams-Thiam, a second-year M.Div. student who is doing her field placement at CONNECT Faith.
What is your field site and what do you do there?
My field site is CONNECT NYC in Harlem, just off 127th Street and Lenox Avenue. CONNECT is a training, education, and advocacy nonprofit dedicated to preventing interpersonal violence and promoting gender justice. Our mission is to create safe families and communities by transforming beliefs, behaviors, and institutions that perpetuate violence. We equip community leaders, service providers, healthcare professionals, educators, faith leaders, and youth to understand intimate partner violence (IPV), prevent it, and develop culturally relevant responses to survivors’ needs. Our holistic approach includes Women’s Empowerment Circles, Men’s Roundtable, healing and wellness programs, youth programming, community dialogues, trainings, and legal advocacy.
My work is specifically at a CONNECT program called CONNECT Faith that equips congregations from multiple traditions to prevent and eliminate family violence. CONNECT Faith provides customized trainings for congregations and helps them establish ministries to address IPV. We hold Faith Roundtables once a month with leaders that come together to discuss and reflect on our collective efforts to eradicate IPV. As an intern, my primary project this year is working with leaders from the African American Hebrew community to develop a training for clergy and lay leaders on IPV prevention and intervention. I also help plan CONNECT Faith events like our upcoming faith leaders circle discussing the “Surviving R. Kelly” series and a screening and panel around the documentary “The Rape of Recy Taylor.” I also sometimes have the opportunity to preach at partner congregations.
How has Union prepared you for this work?
My supervisor, Sally MacNichol, CONNECT co-executive director and Union alum, has given me feminist and womanist resources that explore biblical interpretation and spirituality through the eyes of survivors of IPV, child sexual abuse, and sexual assault. Our weekly theological check-ins have increased my awareness of survivors’ spiritual needs. I use these tools to develop trainings, programming, and my work with congregations. I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to receive this training, and it’s my hope that in the future Union will offer a mandatory class that educates seminarians and future faith leaders about domestic and sexual violence.
Last semester I took “Preaching the Headlines” with Dr. Lisa Thompson, a class in which I learned how to put current events into conversation with scripture. My preaching focused on gender-based violence, from #MeToo to IPV. Learning to exegete and interpret text for preaching was empowering for me, especially exploring the work of womanist and feminist biblical scholars. This was formative for the work I do with CONNECT Faith.
What are the differences between addressing IPV in faith communities and addressing it in the secular or wider world?
In both spaces, it’s about reflecting, challenging our bias and cultural beliefs, and changing our collective behavior to prevent and end abuse. Both spaces need basic education on the definition of intimate partner violence and the many ways it manifests, which can be physical, financial, spiritual, psychological, and more.
For faith communities in particular, we must boldly proclaim the values in our sacred texts that condemn IPV to liberate, empower, affirm, and support those suffering abuse. My Christian tradition is about radical love, peace, self-control, justice, mutuality, hospitality, and the sanctity of life. We must be clear that our traditions do not support or condone abuse, power and control over others, sexism, rape culture, or victim blaming. The faith community has a unique call toward accountability and healing for victims and families. As people of faith seeking to eradicate IPV, one critical step we must take is self-critical reflection on beliefs, theologies, and interpretations that might harm victims, empower abusers, and propagate the collective sin of rape culture. We have to assess our application of theological concepts or values like grace, sacrifice, reconciliation, and forgiveness. The misapplication of these concepts can harm victims of IPV and gendered violence.
CONNECT conducted a survey in NYC with 500 people in the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn and found that 80% wanted to go to their congregations when facing abuse. There is great opportunity for the faith community to set an example. The world is waiting for us to lead the way.
How has the work affected your own faith or theology?
They say that the first revolution is internal. This experience pushed me to deep reflection about my own life experiences and how my Christian socialization impacts my beliefs about gender, sexuality, and relationships. I’ve always questioned the application of theological concepts like original sin, forgiveness, grace, and sacrifice, and CONNECT Faith has been a fruitful space to question, wrestle, and see what makes the most practical sense. I learn mostly through life application, so this has been a good balance of reading books, theologizing, and practical application in community.
The work I do with CONNECT Faith is living out my faith. Coming from the Christian tradition, I am heavily influenced by Jesus’s model of ministry—meeting people’s practical needs and showing love to those whom society ignores. When you have been or are in an abusive situation, it can be isolating, stigmatizing, and lonely. I have the opportunity to assist and witness faith leaders who stand in the gap: We believe, affirm, comfort, help abused people get to safety, and spread the good news which eradicates a culture of abuse and exploitation. It’s these most vulnerable, desperate moments in which people of faith can really make a difference in someone’s life. This is a core practice in my faith tradition: love expressed through action.
Is this work feeding your vocation or calling?
Absolutely! I have a background in congregation-based community organizing and came I came to Union with the expectation of graduating and continuing that work with increased understanding of prophetic ministry, Black liberation, and theology. My time at CONNECT is clarifying the types of work that speak to my heart, uncovering skills I didn’t recognize previously, and expanding my understanding of what organizing looks like.
I still don’t know what in the world I’m going to do after graduation next year, but I’m grateful for this incubator experience that is confirming and clarifying my call.