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Steppes to Seminary: Gina Sterk’s Faith Journey in Mongolia

Gina Sterk Host Family
Gina Sterk and members of her Mongolian community

Last year, I found myself in an unknown place with a job I was unqualified for. My task in Mongolia was to teach English, with little experience and no training, to students who were nearly my age. It was the most challenging, yet incredible, experience of my life. Before going to Mongolia, I had begun to feel a faint pull to seminary, borne of an admittedly vague desire to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. I was surprised to find, however, that after a year in Mongolia, this sense of call was sharpened and expanded in unexpected ways that rerouted me to McCormick Theological Seminary.

One influence on my sense of call to seminary was my daily experience as a foreigner. In Mongolia, I couldn’t not stand out; I clearly didn’t look Mongolian, often didn’t know what I was doing, and made painfully slow progress learning the language. I was dependent on others for help with even the most basic tasks — like buying groceries or movie tickets — and had little (if any) confidence in my ability to locate a hospital or call the police if a crisis were to occur. From this experience, however, I gained a heightened awareness of the relative confidence and competence I have when in the United States stemming from the numerous ways in which I am privileged as a white US citizen and native English speaker. As I relied on the generous hospitality so many Mongolians provided, I became aware of a deepened sense of call to extend this hospitality to everyone I encounter, especially those on the margins of our society.

Mongolia also allowed me to experience God and find sacredness in many new, unexpected places. I visited areas of the Mongolian steppe known by local shaman to be sacred which they would indicate by building a rock altar there. I ventured out to one of Mongolia’s energy centers — a stretch of land in the middle of the desert which Mongolians flock to in order to lie on the ground and absorb the earth’s energy that was believed to be abundantly available there. I also visited several of Mongolia’s Buddhist temples which contained rich beauty and ancient history that was spiritually palpable. These experiences broadened my understanding of what church is, what is holy, and where God can be found. In addition to deepening my spiritual journey, this laid the ground work for some of the new ways seminary has invited me to think about God, spirituality, and the church.

McCormick has been a good fit for me precisely because it allows me, as Mongolia did, to learn and grow by setting aside myself, my agenda, and what I think I know.

My year abroad also strengthened my intention to seek answers to my countless questions about Christian theology, spirituality, and its application to our global world. While I was abroad, I was challenged in new ways by my identification as a Christian, as many Mongolians have had little to no exposure to Christianity. I found myself often questioning what I truly mean when I call myself a Christian, what it is about Christianity that I consider universally meaningful, and in what ways Christian teachings I am familiar with challenge or puzzle me. These questions made it all the more clear to me that I had little to lose and much to gain by coming to seminary.

In spite of my strengthened sense of call to seminary, I still had plenty of concerns before beginning my Master of Divinity degree. I worried that no one could understand my deep attachment to Mongolia or my disorientation at reentering the United States. I wondered if what I learned in Mongolia would translate into my “old life” or if it would get washed away by the familiar. And I feared ending up in a community with people just like myself, because venturing into the unfamiliar had taught me so much, and because I knew that no single, simple answer could satisfactorily address any of my big questions about Christianity.

Gina Sterk Hiking
Gina lived on the vast Mongolian Steppe, a sacred land to the people she lived and worked with

Shortly after arriving on McCormick’s campus, it became apparent to me that this community is what it claims to be. As I discovered the vast range of denominational affiliations, backgrounds, theological perspectives, and life experiences of my peers and professors, I recognized how truly rare it is to be in a community that doesn’t just talk about diversity, but lives into it and embraces its many challenges. Because we are in fact a cross-cultural and ecumenical community, McCormick isn’t the place to meet people just like you who affirm everything you think you know. But McCormick has been a good fit for me precisely because it allows me, as Mongolia did, to learn and grow by setting aside myself, my agenda, and what I think I know. Seminary has been a safe environment for me to ask the many questions my time abroad raised; in fact, asking these questions is one of the biggest reasons all of us are here. While I know I will leave seminary with more clarity than I entered with, I am also continuously reminded that no one has it all figured out, and to me, that’s a good thing.

While I have to admit that my sense of call often still feels vague, it is clear to me that whatever work God began doing in me that put me on a plane to Mongolia is continuing to be done here at McCormick. I’m continuing to move forward along this journey. I’m finding opportunities to continue to process my time abroad — for example, by participating in our weekly “Global Conversations” — as I discover that this community is full of fellow travelers, seekers, and life-long learners. I continue to find ways to weave my year abroad into the larger narrative of my life, with the help of a community that shares my deep concern for bringing both hospitality and justice to those whom our society ignores. My desire to minister to the marginalized is echoed throughout this community, which is strongly committed to social justice. And perhaps best of all, in a way I feel as though I’m still traveling — maybe not across the Mongolian steppe, but by entering into the lives and stories of my classmates who come from around world and all walks of life.

Photo on 2013-05-31 at 09.14Gina Sterk is in her first year of McCormick’s Master of Divinity program.  She is originally from Duluth, Minnesota.  She is involved with the Center for Faith and Service at McCormick and is seeking ordination in the ELCA.