Mar 14, 2023
Damascus Project Director Stephanie Perdew will preach at the principal worship service at the 2023 Wisconsin Conference Annual Conference at Green Lake Conference Center. The service is set for 4 p.m. June 10.
Stephanie was appointed to lead the Damascus Project in January. A lifelong member of the United Church of Christ and enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, she has served as a parish pastor and holds a doctorate in church history. Stephanie is an enrolled tribal citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and co-chairs Garrett’s Indigenous Study Committee.
In an interview with Wisconsin Conference Life, Stephanie discussed her vision for the Damacus Project and the roles her Cherokee heritage and training as a historian play in her vocation as a religious educator.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What attracted you to the Damascus Project?
I’ve enjoyed conference staff ministry but continued to feel there was this theological educator part of me, and that part of my soul that wasn’t necessarily being engaged. The Damascus Project had been on my radar for a few years. The director role felt like a bringing together of some of my interests and skill sets. And I’m really impressed by the thoughtfulness with which the curriculum has been created and sophistication of the online platform. I feel I’m inheriting a well-designed project that’s ready to live at the next level.
Why is the Damascus Project important to the church today?
One reason is that the UCC and our predecessor denominations historically had an emphasis on an educated laity, on accessibility not just to the Bible in the vernacular but in reading the Bible in an educated way. Spiritual and intellectual engagement are hallmarks of the UCC. The Damascus Project is an efficient way for a conference or multiple conferences to offer that learning.
In 2018, our General Synod made it possible for there to be multiple paths to ordination in the United Church of Christ, meaning it was no longer necessarily expected that a three-year seminary master’s degree would be normative. That’s one of the purposes that the Damascus Project serves.
How high is the ceiling for Damascus?
The project is infinitely expandable. Wisconsin and Minnesota together have invested significant resources in the platform itself. It’s an instructional platform and a social media platform. The little cohort groups can have their own space to do what they need to do.
My goals for coming year are first to build out the second tier of the curriculum. We have people who need more coursework to fill out their training. The second goal is to promote the platform as a place where anyone who has a small group need can organize out of the Damascus Project Network. That means something as simple as a place to post a Zoom link and meeting materials.
A third goal is lay training in best practices in church governance. “I just got elected moderator. What do I do?” That’s a whole curriculum we expect to launch.
Some observers say that churches are a bit depressed coming out of the pandemic. How can Damascus address that challenge?
I wonder if there is a pastoral care need that can be filled by the Damascus Project, where gathering folks together is an end in and of itself, whether it’s a book study or something more open-ended. When depression sets in, isolation is a big component of that. Even folks who can’t get out and about can find something online – a human community.
Your Native heritage is a significant part of your biography. How does it shape your approach to your teaching ministry?
Education is very highly prized in my family precisely because those on the Cherokee side had so little of it. My mom got her GED and did not graduate normal high school, but she did attend college as an adult learner and got her B.A. with honors from Nebraska Wesleyan University. My maternal grandfather was a product of a missionary-run school for Native students. It was not a boarding school, but nonetheless the education he received was very much about removing his Cherokee culture from him.
As a Native person, I’m very much aware of how access to education has been limited for many people and also aware of the harm that education in its most coercive veins can do. That happens in the church, too, in the kinds of theological messages people hear about who they are and who they aren’t as a child of God. Education needs to have a healing aspect and inclusive aspect. That’s a particular calling we place upon ourselves in the UCC.
What else should we know about you?
I am trained as a church historian. That relates to Cherokee culture in that we’re taught about remembrance and ancestors. There is great respect for the past and the notion that the next generation is responsible for carrying that into the future. As a church historian, my responsibility is to honor the wisdom of Christian tradition, and we sometimes have to pry that apart from the sinfulness of the church like colonialism. But there is life-giving wisdom and teaching there that we need to pass on.
The Damascus Project, a joint venture of the Wisconsin and Minnesota conferences, was started five years ago to address emerging leadership needs of both conferences and of the wider United Church of Christ. It offers courses in faith foundations, ministry studies and leadership skills for lay members and continuing education to authorized ministers, and may serve as a learning path toward ministerial authorization for individuals seeking to serve local congregations in pastoral roles.