Union alumni/ae embark on a diverse range of vocations, from ordained ministry to law to non-profit leadership. In our Alums in the World profiles, we explore our graduates’ professional lives. Gabrielle Sclafani received her M.Div. from Union in 2019, and is presently studying migration in Germany.
Tell me about what you’ll be doing next year.
I’ve received the German Chancellor Fellowship to do ethnographic research with refugees and those who provide services and hospitality to them in the Heidelberg area. In Germany, churches play a major role in the social welfare system, particularly in regard to refugees. They’re really on the frontlines: once the government assigns refugees to a particular community, churches are responsible for helping them access the social services to which they’re entitled. I’ll be looking at how this intersects with faith values for both people who come to a place and those who welcome them.
Tell me about the journey that led you to apply for this and pursue this work.
My father came to the U.S. as an economic migrant in 1954, and I’ve been working with migrants of different types in the U.S. since I was in college. Last year I held a part-time position as a research assistant and translator to a woman from India who had a Fulbright scholarship to do narrative public health research here in New York City. She interviewed economic migrants who have gotten injured or become ill while working here in the U.S. in hopes that we might develop a safer and more inclusive health care system for people who are undocumented. Going in, I thought, these folks were doing us a favor by helping my friend with her research. While that was true, they were also incredibly grateful that she was doing her research in the first place because she’s ultimately trying to improve conditions. There was often something spiritually meaningful and healing for the participants about sharing their story in this context. Many told us that this was not something that they talked about very often because they don’t want to make their families back home sad or worried. The research was also a way of offering pastoral care. We asked them broad questions about their lives before coming here, why they were motivated to migrate, and what they’ve experienced on the job. This offered them space to share their experiences with people who would listen empathetically and affirm that what was happening was unjust.
I pursued this specific fellowship because I want to have a more global perspective. Learning new languages is really important to me: I want to communicate with more people. I particularly love that this grant is for people not just from the United States but also from Brazil, Russia, India, and China, so I’ll be with a cohort of fifty people from incredibly diverse backgrounds. I’ll hopefully forge relationships with the Evangelische Kirche in Germany, the larger federation of Protestant churches, and learn from them, ultimately because I want to be able to mimic what they’re doing well here in the U.S. A lot of churches here are developing ministries for recent migrants and refugees from the ground up because they see a need, but what are the best practices for this work? How can we do it better? The German churches have more experience and are better resourced, so I’m going there to learn from their example and hopefully help shape better dialogue and practices here at home.
How do you see God in this work?
I see God in those moments of connection, in the times when we can shed our pretenses and differences and just meet each other as human beings. When we can show up and listen without getting into the nitty-gritty of who is a “deserving migrant” or not, we are offered entrance into holy space.
Tell me about your work here at Union and how it connects to what you’ll be doing next year.
I have a concentration in Practical Theology, but I’ve found that Church History and Church and Society classes with Dr. Daisy Machado and Dr. Samuel Cruz have prepared me the most for this work. Those are the departments where people are doing oral history and connecting directly with people. To me, this feels like a more organic way of doing this kind of research. I’m not doing this research because I’m an objective observer; I’m doing it because migration matters to me and I want to better understand the experiences of people who are on that journey today.
What will be your next step after this?
I feel called to ministry in border communities. I think a lot of people are confused as to why I am interested in this very academic-seeming project when I intend to go into parish ministry. But I don’t think that research and this kind of continued study needs to be divorced from parish ministry: I want to be the best minister I can be, and that means learning from people with different experiences than me and people who have been doing this work longer than I have.