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“Guppy Tank” Classroom Experience Helping Students Embrace Social Justice


While a professor at Valparaiso University, The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia’s (LTSP) Dr. Jon Pahl always enjoyed the chance to engage in service learning projects with students.

“I had never had the same kind of opportunity since teaching here,” said Pahl, the Peter Paul and Elizabeth Hagan Professor of the History of Religion.

That is, not until this past academic year, when he decided to launch a classroom concept modeled after the network television show “Shark Tank.”

MAPL Guppy TankHe called it “The Guppy Tank,” for lack of a more suitable title. In the ABC TV show, fledgling entrepreneurs compete to curry the favor of business philanthropists by persuading them to invest money in their novice enterprises. In the LTSP model, Pahl explained, the 16 seminarians taking his “Religious History and Public Leadership” course were invited to take three minutes in class to pitch a practical idea that would make life better for their neighbors. They needed to engage their faith in the process, think of prospective partners in the City of Philadelphia to help them hatch and enact their proposal, and, lastly, have the seminary host the initiative through effective use of unused or underutilized space on campus.

Why call it the Guppy Tank? For one thing, the class wasn’t really shark-like. “During the presentations,” Pahl recalled, “ideas and enthusiasm flew around the room. They were helping each other polish their ideas. They were collaborating more than competing. It was amazing.”

More on the outcome in a bit. The class the students took is one of 16 courses seminarians take to earn the Master of Arts in Public Leadership (MAPL) at LTSP. The degree is unique in that the students seeking the degree are not trying to become rostered leaders in the church. Pahl explained it best, since he was in on the ground floor of the degree idea when it was launched in 2010.

MAPL Guppy Tank“The MAPL Program exists to engage people who are spiritual and seeking to work in the world on behalf of social justice,” he said. “We give them the skills to understand the deep motives of theology and the variety of religious traditions in our culture. Then we give them practical skills in the areas of business and social work. The purpose is to integrate the sacred and the secular on behalf of a more just and peaceful world.”

The seminary’s partners in the degree program have been the Fox School of Business at Temple University and Temple’s School of Social Work. “It is intended to be an interdisciplinary program with the skills we develop,” Pahl said. “We are teaching people to think creatively like entrepreneurs, and we are trying to break down the religious silos in our culture that tend to divide us and keep us from establishing a more just and peaceful world.” Put another way, the degree program is attempting to meet a real need by providing a wide range of social ministry organizations and agencies, and organizations like them, theologically astute future leaders with strong practical skills in a way that hasn’t been attempted before.

And the track record has been impressive. It takes two years to earn the degree, taking the 16 classes, plus completing field work assignments with agencies, such as  Lutheran World Relief, the Klein Jewish Community Center in Northeast Philadelphia, Liberty Lutheran Services, and Paul’s Run retirement community. There are many more partners. Twenty seminarians are in the program currently, and 20 have earned the degree. And the popularity of the program is growing.

“All 20 of our graduates have jobs and are successfully working in a vocational area of their choice,” Pahl said. For example, Patricia El, a Baptist student who graduated in May, is working with older persons impacted by Alzheimer’s at Paul’s Run, doing the vocation she had originally imagined herself to be a part of. She did her fieldwork at Paul’s Run.

MAPL Guppy TankGetting back to the “Shark-turned-Guppy-Tank,” Pahl’s students in the “Religious History and Public Leadership” class began by reading the works of individual public leaders inspired by their embodied spiritual ideals. They read the Hindu Bhagavad Gita (“The Love Song of God”). They read the writing of Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee. They studied Mahatma Gandhi, and read The Gospel According to Oprah.

Then the presentations began. “It was intense,” Pahl said. “The class voted and four viable projects surfaced,” he said.

One venture, called “Action for Justice,” would develop media spots for social ministry organizations through the World Wide Web, producing a revenue stream for the organizations. An aim would be to also work on developing additional needed social enterprises working with faith-based grounding. The students working on this initiative have connected with LTSP alumnus Bishop Dwayne Royster, director of POWER, Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild, an organization which recently campaigned to improve the financial status of Philadelphia International Airport workers receiving basic wages.

A second idea involved establishing a campus-based mental health service initiative offering sliding scale services for those in need on the seminary campus and around the seminary’s neighborhood. Northwest Mental Health Services, a Germantown Avenue neighbor to the seminary, has been talking with seminarians about this idea.

Pahl said one of the most exciting ideas makes use of the seminary’s 1792 Refectory serving as a Mt. Airy community kitchen. Seminarians Donald Searchfield and Yolanda Sowell have held exploratory conversations with Philabundance, the city’s largest supplier to food pantries in the city.

“They have a kitchen in Northeast Philadelphia where they teach gourmet cooking to ex-offenders,” Pahl explained. “They have been looking for a new venue and have been engaged in business planning that could involve them in teaching and providing a food service to the campus. They have visited the campus three times.”

Yet another idea the seminarians have worked on would involve the Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network in setting up transitional housing in vacant campus apartments for homeless individuals transitioning toward a more stable existence.

MAPL Guppy TankThe fruition of the ideas depends, Pahl said, “on other partners to make the projects viable. It is a way of turning the campus inside out, as President (David) Lose puts it, becoming a place where people come to learn, to live, to work, to grow, where the Gospel is put into practice on behalf of a more just community where people may flourish.”

Will the Guppy Tank ideas fly? Will future classroom sessions become incubators for ideas not yet envisioned? Stay tuned.

Regardless, Pahl thinks the Guppy Tank model has assisted students “to learn to lead by leading.”

Michelle Steiner, a seminarian in the MAPL program who just completed her first year, worked on the mental health proposal in Pahl’s class

“The MAPL program is for those of us who feel we are not being called to rostered ministry but rather to public leadership,” Steiner said. “As lay leaders, we too are being shaped by our faith and called by God to work for justice in the world. This program is really unique. Before I heard about it, I didn’t know how to get to the place I wanted to go. MAPL has changed my life. I’m being shaped the way I want to be to work in the context of the church while embracing the ideal of social justice. The program is forming my faith, and providing me with practical skills. I feel by the time I complete my seminary training I will be ready to come out and make a difference in the world.”

Learn more about the Master of Arts in Public Leadership program.

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