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Maria Swearingen reflects on the “experiment we call college” and her next steps as co-pastor in D.C.

 

By Amanda Richey, Editor-in-Chief

Maria Swearingen stood in the pulpit at Daniel Chapel for the last time Jan. 22 at an interfaith celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. The interfaith gathering seemed to be the perfect send-off as Swearingen has spent much of her Furman career supporting students and organizations of all kinds.

Swearingen arrived at Furman seven years ago with her Master of Divinity from Duke University in hand. After serving in the Chaplain’s office, on various committees and as a mentor to many students, she is taking the next step in her career by co-pastoring Calvary Baptist Church in Washington D.C. with her wife, Sally Sarratt, by her side. Swearingen and Sarratt will lead their first service together Feb. 26.  

In the following Q – and – A, Swearingen reflects on how the Furman community has prepared her for her journey. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How has your time in the Chaplain’s office shaped both your career and personal outlook on theology?

These years have afforded me the opportunity to practice my theology, to give it hands and feet and a voice. In other words, when I “say” that I believe people of various faith traditions can learn to live together across lines of difference, this work has actually demanded that I put that belief to the test. When I “say” that I believe the gospel calls us to radical inclusivity and hospitality, I’ve had the opportunity to hone what I mean by that when I speak or preach or pray on this campus. When I “say” that all people are Beloved, created in the image of the great Lover that threads life together, this work has daily challenged me to enflesh that in whatever program or conversation or experience I might be invited to take part in. These years have accorded me space to live out what I hold to be most deeply true, to try and fail, to test and re-test, to imagine and enact.

Q: Could you share a favorite memory about your time as Associate Chaplain? I know there are probably tons…

No one memory springs to mind, but every so often, I would walk up the stairs from my office to the sanctuary when it was quiet. And I would find myself reminiscing on the experiences that have taken place inside its walls over the years. Gospel choir concerts, speakers and scriptures read from various faith traditions, sharing bread and wine from the table of hospitality, private grief shared in silence, public lament over a social injustice, celebration over the love shared between two people…I could go on and on about the moments that space has held, and it never gets old for me to imagine them.

Q: What changes have you seen or facilitated during your time at Furman?

As Furman continues to make sense of who it must be in a complex, beautiful, global world, I felt so grateful to be a part of the most recent iteration of Furman’s Diversity and Inclusiveness committee. Seeing the committee’s most recent report come through my [email] inbox just a few weeks ago felt like a very special parting gift to me. I trust that the work will continue to thrive as we ask ourselves challenging questions about who a Furman education is for, how history shapes who has had access to it and who has not and how we can ensure that we provide this rich experience to everyone who wants it.

Q: What are you most excited about in this transition?

I’ve long been drawn to congregational ministry, i.e., the work of walking alongside an intergenerational community of faith seeking to contribute to the cause of justice and peace on earth. The chance to do that in partnership with my wife who feels similarly called is about as close to a “dream-come-true” as it gets!

Q: What are you nervous about in this transition?

I wouldn’t say I’m nervous about any one particular thing, but any big change like this is no walk in the park, to say the least. Moving to a new job, new home, new environment, new city … it’s a lot to take in all at once. I spend lots of time with college seniors talking about the real grief that comes with being thrust into this experiment we call “college” their freshman year only to walk away from it all (meaningful friendships, a reconstructed worldview, vocational inclinations, etc.) their senior year. I suppose I’m having my own kind of “senior year” right now, so I’m trying to listen to my own advice! Take it slow, grieve when you need to, give thanks for all that has been, celebrate your capacity to take risks, and breathe in all those who have loved you and you have been given the privilege to love along the way.

Q: What will you miss the most about being the Associate Chaplain?

There is something intensely profound and unique about the formative years of late adolescence, and something even more profound and unique about those years being lived in this strange, vibrant experience called “college.” I’d even say there’s something precious about these four years, but I think it might not always feel that way for many of you [students] when you’re in the slog of finals and papers and meetings and and and …

All that to say, every time there’s been a knock on my door and someone has invited me into the profound, unique, dismantling, disorienting, reorienting experience they are living at the moment, I find myself almost needing to take my shoes off because the ground under me feels so sacred.  

And as a queer woman and a person of faith, I’d be remiss to not give special thanks for the LGBTQ+ students at Furman who have shared their own stories with me over the years, some who have experienced the heartache of rejection from their faith communities and/or families and who still have the courage and mindfulness to continue asking meaningful questions of faith and identity. You have given me the courage to keep asking those questions too, and to continue imagining how I get to be my whole self: a Christian, a queer person, a minister, a wife and a sacred part of humanity’s tapestry, whether anyone else maligns that, accepts that, rejects that, or anything in between.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add about your experience at Furman?

My gratitude is endless for this particular place and my intersection with it at this particular time. Furman will always be the people who make it. We say this over and over again about institutions, but the repetition doesn’t make it any less true. I was a part of Furman’s “making” these last nearly seven years, and Furman has been a part of my “making,” too. What a gift!

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