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Co-op Model: Called via ‘coincidences’

Called via ‘coincidences,’ Excited Bronx Couple enters Seminary this Fall

Jeanette and DiogenesJeanette Surita-Vazquetelles, a new Philadelphia Seminary (LTSP) MDiv Co-op student, and her husband, Diogenes, keep bumping into people who change their lives.

Jeanette, a fashion designer from the Bronx, New York, first felt a call to ministry during first communion classes in a Roman Catholic parish. “It was a poor neighborhood, and the nuns were very strict, but I enjoyed the curriculum because it was all about Jesus. I wanted to become a nun and show others all about the love of Jesus, but my family told me I was too young to become a nun.” Subsequently she became involved in a Pentecostal movement at the age of 14. An evangelical pastor prayed with people about their salvation. “But something was missing,” she said.

Years later she was getting off a  train in the Bronx when she bumped into a one-time classmate, the Rev. Fernando Otero of St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church in Parkchester. “Pastor Otero began to speak to me about God’s grace,” Jeanette explained. “I had been feeling that no matter how much I do to make a difference something was missing. I wasn’t feeling anything.” Otero, she explained, taught her of a Godly love Jeanette already has. The love doesn’t need to be “earned.”

Otero also told her that unlike other backgrounds of which she had been a part, she could become a pastor now. Unable to fulfill her preferred call in life during her younger years, Jeanette had settled on being a talented fashion designer, a trade she learned by graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. “I’ve made all kinds of patterns and clothing,” she said, “including men’s clothing as well as women’s.” She developed an interest in making stoles, including her own, for use in church. She noted that many designers of churchly wear do not tailor women’s garments well. “They make them the same as for men, and so I tailor my designs for women appropriately,” she explained. (Classmates are already talking to her about becoming customers.) Jeanette really has no idea how many articles of clothing she has made or designed over the years. “It is a lot,” she said.

Meanwhile, a persistent Otero kept telling Jeanette she showed remarkable promise as a leader because she is charismatic and not afraid to talk to others about faith issues like salvation. She enjoys teaching first communion classes, teaching about the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostles Creed and how the words of the Creed apply to the young people in her classes. She teaches in the Sunday school.

But Jeanette, who is 58, kept putting off the call she had felt for so many years. In June 2012 she began diaconal ministry studies with the Metropolitan New York Synod and this year became rostered as a deacon. Otero, meanwhile, was studying for his doctorate at LTSP. He kept inviting her to accompany him to the seminary. She came to a “Wet Toes” weekend at LTSP having no thought she would become a prospective student. There were just three seats left, she recalled, when she sat in on a session led by LTSP Vice President of Student Development Don Johnson. During introductions, she discovered she was beside the Rev. Dr. Philip Krey, the seminary’s former president. He gave her his card. And they chatted.

“I lost his card,” she said ruefully. She returned to the campus for Dr. Timothy Wengert’s farewell lecture. (Wengert was stepping down as Ministerium of Pennsylvania Professor of Reformation History.)

As she sat down to lunch she found Krey joining her once more. “He informed me I would be having an interview today to decide on studying at the seminary.” Soon she was sitting with Matthew O’Rear, Associate Director of Admissions, who asked her about her story and that of her husband, Diogenes, who for 27 years had served as a parole officer, working with New York State’s Department of Corrections in youth detention. Diogenes, meanwhile, had bumped into Gail Hicks, who had an administrative role in the seminary’s MAPL (Master of Arts in Public Leadership) program which enables seminarians to study for key leadership roles in social ministry organizations and other similar initiatives.

“Diogenes has a vision for continuing to work with troubled youth in retirement,” Jeanette explained. “He wants to influence young people before they get into detention, and he has had a vision for doing that with a spiritual focus.” After spending time with Hicks, it suddenly made sense to Diogenes that MAPL studies might be the step for him to take to achieve his vision. Diogenes is 65.

Both are now entering seminary this fall and living about seven blocks from the campus. The couple has an adult daughter, Meagan, who is 28. Jeanette is excited about the MDiv Co-op initiative. “I like the combination of classroom studies and hands-on service in congregations,” she said. “Because of my experience with church service, I don’t think I will have a problem stepping out of the classroom to serve in a congregation.”

At this writing Jeanette was still awaiting the decision on the congregation where she will do her Co-op ministry.

Co-op seminarians complete their studies in three years rather than four. Their classroom studies take place between Tuesday and Thursday with congregational service taking place between Friday and Monday. The new initiative is in its first year and has nine seminarians taking part. The option is part of the seminary’s curriculum focus that is “flexible, affordable, and relevant.”

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