The Elizabeth Blackwell Award for outstanding service to humanity was presented to the Most Reverend Doctor Katharine Jefferts Schori. The oceanographer, pilot, professor, pastor and bishop is the 39th woman to receive the honor.
“Reverend Jefferts Schori brings honor to this award and to HWS by being present today,” remarked President Mark D. Gearan at Sunday’s ceremony in the Vandervort Room. “She has been an advocate for the poor, she has championed for the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the church and in the secular world, and she has worked on environmental issues.”
Breaking a 500-year gender barrier, Jefferts Schori is the first woman to serve as Presiding Bishop, and the first female Primate in the Anglican Communion. “Her inclusive and expansive world view, that honors the dignity of all things, defines her ministry,” said Maureen Collins Zupan ’72, P’09, who presented Schori with the medal.
“I am humbled to be here,” said Jefferts Schori, expressing her gratitude for the award, and for those who served as her mentors and role models.
“I am reminded I stand here only because of the difficult work done by so many women and men before me. A lot of women have tried and failed to gain entry to many different vocations and opportunities. We remember the ones who prevailed in the face of prejudice and doubt, but none of those named trailblazers have made entries wholly on their own. At the same time, the remembered ones have continued to inspire others to try.”
Jefferts Schori celebrated her own inspirations – Amelia Earhart, Marie Currie, Harriet Tubman, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and the men and women rebuilding community in Rwanda and the Congo. “Life is about discovering new possibilities, the possibility that we can create a world that is more life-giving than the one we currently enjoy,” she remarked.
Following her brief talk, Jefferts Schori was joined by a panel of faculty and staff members including President Mark D. Gearan, William Smith Dean Suzanne McNally, Professor of Religious Studies Michael Dobkowski, Associate Professor of Geoscience Nan Crystal Arens and Chaplain Lesley Adams.
Jefferts Schori addressed her work as a pastor and spiritual leader, speaking of her responsibility to comfort the afflicted and “afflict” the comfortable. “You have let go of the past to gain something new, and you have to discover the blessing of people who disagree. None of us can ever know the full truth, therefore a person who has a different view must hold answers.”
When asked about her thoughts on the church’s position in terms of environmental leadership, Jefferts Schori showed optimism. “Traditionally, the ministry of the church has been to people. Now, there are theologians who challenge us to be good gardeners. The world is not ours to exploit, but to nurture for the benefit of all creation.”
In addition to her hope for the Episcopal Church, Jefferts Schori also expressed hope for the future of interfaith dialogue and for the prevalence of not tolerance, but a deep understanding among religions. Through local movements and even government coalitions, steps toward “engaging the other” to share beliefs and discover similarities – and differences – are evident and abundant.
While the future is not clear, Jefferts Schori does not see religion disbanding, but rather shifting to new forms of community. “I am a hope-filled person; I think that’s what it means to have faith,” she remarked. “Religious traditions are important, but they are bound in time and space, they have to grow and adapt to a wide set of contexts and realities.”
She views religious and spiritual movements becoming far less hierarchical system with organic structures that able to move and adjust. “We are increasingly far more present in the world as people of faith, rather than retreated into sanctuaries that are ceasing to exist.”
Above all, Jefferts Schori can still find wonder, curiosity and gratitude in her work and in everyday. “Spirituality is about being able to share occasions of awe and wonder. It is acknowledging an experience that draws us outside of ourselves.”