Rev. Joy K. Bussert, Ph.D. ’02

Categories: Alums in the World

What do you do?    

I’m an interim pastor for the Southeastern Minnesota Synod of the ELCA. Ordained in 1978, I have served the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), for 38 years in various capacities as a parish pastor, staff for a council of churches, interim pastor, and adjunct teaching faculty at Luther Seminary in St. Paul.

What is the best thing about what you do?

What’s most satisfying is not only the traditional spheres of ministry like preaching, teaching, worship, and music, but the opportunity to use my doctoral work at Union to encourage the people of God to engage the largest questions of the day.   To be the church is to be in continuity with a first-century counter-cultural movement of resistance for the sake of justice, mercy, and peace.

How did Union prepare you for this work?

Professor Roger Shinn, then Academic Dean, first welcomed me to the Quad at Union in 1985. Already for seven years I had been involved in ordained pastoral and ecumenical ministry where I had lived and worked “on the boundary” in Paul Tillich’s famous phrase, walking the fine line between churches in Minnesota and the early 1970s and 80s grassroots movements to establish shelters and crisis centers for battered and abused women and children.  I arrived for my interview at Union bearing in my soul the full weight of Reinhold Niebuhr’s critique of the liberal illusions of the social gospel movement because white liberals like me did not readily understand the depth of systemic power and evil. With my application papers spread across his desk, Dr. Shinn leaned forward, peered over his glasses, and with deep clarity pronounced, “You are what we call a Union type.”

Union offered the space I needed to ask the most important questions of my pastoral, theological, and activist work and to shape my doctoral study around the theological problem of suffering.   My influential mentors included Professors Delores Williams, Phyllis Trible, James Cone, Dorothee Solle, and my dissertation advisor, Larry Rasmussen. The writings of Elie Wiesel focused me on the theme of silence and speech. Dr. James Forbes gave me the courage to travel and do public speaking and preaching through ecumenical channels. My research in Europe and Scandinavia strengthened my global understanding of the anti-violence movements, both within and outside of the church. The opportunity to teach with Dr. Paul Sponheim through Luther Seminary’s Integrated Quarter upon my return to Minnesota further sharpened the sense of urgency for bringing theological reflection together with the movements to eliminate violence against women and children, especially as I worked with 4th year students placed on-site in battered women’s shelters, sexual assault centers, the early drop-in sites for victims of the trafficking industry, and Minnesota’s pioneering Domestic Abuse Project,.

In July of 2011, Governor Mark Dayton signed the first version of Minnesota’s Safe Harbor Legislation into law, redefining minors caught in the trafficking industry as victims needing assistance rather than criminals deserving prosecution. Cheryl Wudunn and Nicholas Kristof’s book Half the Sky put the issue of trafficking before the global community. However, in recent visits to Seneca Falls, NY, I’ve discovered that long before our Second-Wave feminist movement, the early reformers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Tubman, and Matilda Joslyn Gage had already spoken out on the problem of trafficking. In her book Sisters in the Wilderness, Delores Williams alludes to the work of sculptor Edmonia Lewis and helped me settle on the lone figure of Hagar in the wilderness as the illuminating character for women and children fleeing violence yet today. Hagar is the first to name the Deity El Roi, “Thou Art a God of Seeing.” Her eyes are opened to see a well of water so that she and her child might live.   Today, we stand on the shoulders of all of these courageous reformers that preceded us. We stand on their shoulders, continuing their struggle yet today. The question is, who will stand on ours?

How have you stayed connected to Union?

Recently, when I returned to Union, I felt as if I were walking on holy ground, but I did not take off my shoes because at my age, my arches would start to ache. Yet this ground was the sacred place where I found space in the 1980s to ask questions that were so little acknowledged by the churches at that time. The late Rev. Dr. William Sloane Coffin, who had been my mentor at Yale University’s Battell Chapel in the 1970s, used to tell his students, quoting Tolstoy, that “God did not put the largest of human questions to us that we would answer them, but that we would spend a life-time wrestling with them.”

In this post-election season, I’m grateful for Union’s support of the “Black Lives Matter” movement and opposition to the immigration ban. I’m also inspired by my college-age daughter’s insights, by her generation’s support of the January 21 Women’s March, and by their ever-expanding understanding of intersectional feminism. In these times of transforming demographics, mainline churches perhaps will become numerically smaller, but I believe that this next generation of leaders will be no less critical as the vital “salt” and “light” for the future. As quantities of scared Americans gravitate to large prosperity-gospel assemblies, astute and faithful visionaries will need to think qualitatively about their role and voice for our day.   The question is, where will students today find the “wells of water” for survival as well as resources for resistance to the forces of mass cheap conformity? More than ever, Union has an essential role to play for our time.

What would you say to someone considering Union today?

A year ago, a St. Olaf College student asked me to carry a copy of Professor James Cone’s book God of the Oppressed with me to Union and have it autographed for her. Upon my return with the autographed book wrapped as a gift, I described to her the many gifts that Union would have to offer her, should she decide to apply: not only the heritage of prophetic teaching and scholarship, but a faculty who cares deeply that you grasp what the world should know for the sake of the “least of these.”