Sound of the Genuine

Sheehan Scarborough: Cornerstones

June 10, 2021 FTE Leaders Season 1 Episode 4
Sound of the Genuine
Sheehan Scarborough: Cornerstones
Show Notes Transcript

Sheehan Scarborough is Senior Director of the Harvard Foundation and Interim Director of the Office of BGLTQ Student Life (the QuOffice). His work oversees the programming and services provided by the QuOffice and develops the strategic vision for supporting BGLTQ students at Harvard College. 

Sheehan’s academic focus includes religion and sexuality, pastoral care and counseling, and politics. He loves squash (the sport), graphic novels, video games, the Hebrew Bible, and good storytelling. Sheehan holds a Bachelor of Arts from Harvard University and a Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School. 

Music by: @siryalibeats

Vector Portrait by: Rafli

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Patrick: Hey and welcome back to the Sound of the Genuine. I am Dr. Patrick Reyes and I'm especially excited for today's episode. We are interviewing Sheehan Scarborough, who is the senior director at the Harvard Foundation. And what you'll hear is a story of someone who is pastorally inclined, theologically trained and deploying that level of care for every human that he comes across. He's just one of the most thoughtful and generous humans. I'm so grateful that Sheehan has joined us on the Sound of the Genuine

What's going on Sheehan. It is good to see you, to be with you. It's been too long. 

Sheehan: It has. 

Patrick: How are you doing? 

Sheehan: I'm doing well. Thanks Pat. Thanks for this invitation.

Patrick: So tell me about yourself. Where did you grow up? But try to surprise me. What don't I know about you? 

Sheehan: Well, I grew up in Philadelphia. My earliest memories take place in the church and my grandmother's house in Philly. We were a really church going family. So that was the place where you got to see everybody at least once a week, right. It was uncles, aunts, my grandparents, all the people who were looking out for me. So Philadelphia, you know, I haven't lived there for a long time, but it has a really special place in my heart because it's that place where I associate all the people I love the most.

And most of my family's still there right now too. Going home is a reunion every year. I'm one of the only ones who aren't still in the city. Dad was a police officer for many years, moved out to the suburbs a little bit after that, but always had that connection to church and to downtown Philly.

Patrick: And that church, what did the church community want for you? What did they speak over your life? 

Sheehan: That's the language, speaking over life. That's right, yeah. Again, one of my earliest memories I'm sitting on my grandmother's lap and on her coffee table, she used to have this giant print King James Bible. I mean, it had to at least been a foot tall.

It was a massive Bible. I would sit on her lap and we would read. We'd start with Matthew, and I would just start reading and she'd coach me through the words. And so early as a young person in church I would read scripture. That was like one of the first roles that I had growing up. And it was celebrated. You know I think this was a community where they wanted to see their young people doing well. They wanted to see their young people really having opportunities not only to be raised well, and to have a sense of respect and love for the faith for God and for one another, but also be excelling academically too. And so that was a way where I was really encouraged from a young age.

Then growing up, it became more and more opportunities for leadership in the church. So that included being a trustee, you know they trusted me with the money that we collected and that was like a step up in responsibility you know. I worked in the sound room on Sundays. And then finally, when I was a teenager in high school, I was a worship leader.

So this was me kind of sitting right up there next to the pastor and having this opportunity really to speak to the congregation, not just read and recite scripture, but speak from the heart about my own spiritual journey and help move the service from start to finish. And so it always felt like this place where these different gifts that people saw were actively nurtured and a real sense of love and nurturing.

Patrick: Well that's a lot of leadership for a young person, both the money and leading worship, but is this inspiring your kind of call to pastoral ministry? Is that what you wanted to do? Or what did you want to do when you eventually went off to college? 

Sheehan: There was a little bit of a tension for me. By the time I was in high school, I started to get the message from people in church, that there was a way in which our community held faith in the truest sense of the word. So there were things spiritually that I would be able to find in Christ Baptist in Philadelphia, that I might not be able to find, or that I'd have to be very actively seeking when I left.

And so that was a little bit of a concern, you know. I thought maybe when I left home and went off to school that I would study religion, potentially. You know, that was something that I was deeply passionate about. I had always felt like I'd excelled in that and I'd never had a chance to study it academically because of course, you know, in high school, public school, there aren't religion classes, unfortunately right? They're not thinking about it in that way. The fall of 2002 is when I was applying for school. And so, you know, America had just gotten into the war in Afghanistan. It was gearing up for the war in Iraq, and I'd also had this interest in international relations and diplomacy. And I think that interest in diplomacy really shot through the roof when there was this bellicose language around, you know, how do we respond to September 11th as a country?

And so for me, the wedding between those two was, well I'm interested in international relations, I'm interested in studying religion academically so I'm going to go to school and study international relations in the Middle East. And so my first year in college, I took modern Hebrew with the goal of eventually being able to speak and read biblical Hebrew and then Arabic at the same time, right. So it was kind of figuring out how to blend those together. That worked in some ways, didn't in some others so. 

Patrick: So you take on study of language with this international relations kind of in the mind or doing this sort of work. What else did that lead you to study or pursue while you were in college? What else was kind of stirring in your imagination? 

Sheehan: Yeah, I wasn't formally declaring religion as a concentration, as a major, but I did want to take religion courses. You know they would always teach these Bible courses, King James in the English department, right? And it was a very secular literature approach to the Bible, which I didn't mind because I think it's one of the most beautiful, it's just a beautifully written text too.

So I took courses like that. I took courses on obviously international relations in the Middle East. I took some comparative politics and music. That was the other piece for me that was a way of connecting with home. Music was always a big part of my life growing up and in church,that was something that I was involved in, music ministry.

And so even though I was studying, I wasn't studying gospel, but I was still learning the fundamentals of music and being able to apply those to my own passions, my own interests. Really it was about finding a middle ground between all of what felt like very disparate interests and finding that place where they overlapped and allow for some deeper growth. Even if it wasn't like a specific concentration. 

Patrick: Well I'm going back to that church community that you had in Philadelphia and I'm wondering if these interests that you're pursuing academically, if you found a religious community in school that was similar to back home, where you could do the music where you could engage yourself in the language, you know lead worship, maybe take care of the money. You know, like where did you find that sort of sense of community while you're in college?

Sheehan: Yeah, what a great question. This was a turning point for me really, because I didn't. I remember my first year I was searching for it. I grew up in a Baptist church, Christ Baptist, and I went looking for a Baptist church in Cambridge. I found this Baptist church, very old established, been there for hundreds of years. And I walked in one Sunday and I see rainbow flags in the inside of the church. I'd never seen any kind of messaging around LGBTQ people at church, well no, I shouldn't say that. Every message about LGBTQ people that I'd ever heard in church was negative, right. There were no celebrations of those identities.

So this was a space where it was clear that there was a much more liberal, progressive understanding of scripture, of the dignity of human souls. I mean, I think just a really different approach than I was used to. And I'll be honest, it scared me. It scared me. I left that Sunday and I never went back as an undergraduate because at that point I hadn't really come out to myself as someone who was queer, as someone who identified as gay. I was actively fighting any inkling of those feelings and so this was a place that…it disturbed my soul, right, those shudderings, that fear and trembling. I didn't find a church community that was reminiscent of the one that I had at home, which in a way was confirmation of what a lot of folk at home were saying, that you wouldn't find that. That I would potentially be opening myself up to falling away from this understanding of the true faith that we had at home.

Patrick: Sheehan so what do you do with that sort of strong sense of community, that like bedrock in Philadelphia and what you named as fear and trembling, this kind of shaking that's happening within you as you pursue your academic interests, as you think about potential career, how do you work through that?

Sheehan: Well, I mean, the advice I would give to someone now as a 35 year old is different from what I actually wound up doing. You know it was an isolating time because I was separate from that home community that had done so much nurturing and given me so many opportunities, but at the same time, there was a way in which that community wasn't sufficient for the next stage in my life, which really was about coming to a deep love and appreciation for myself in how I understood myself to be and not only how other people saw me or wanted to see me. No, that was difficult. And I'll say I didn't necessarily have that immediate affirmation because there was so much I wasn't sharing, you know, so much was bottled up because to share that would mean to acknowledge things that maybe jeopardize my future.

That might make it harder for me if I'm wanting to go back into religious community and have a leadership role, that might make it difficult to go into diplomacy, right, in the Middle East, I didn't know. I will say, though, that wasn't going to last, I wasn't going to be able to hold onto it, I wasn't able to hold onto that on my own forever.

One of the greatest human beings in my life was my roommate. We stayed roommates for four years in college. So this person saw me grow every year and saw how much I was struggling. They're a Catholic student and they invited me to start attending the Catholic Students Association. You know and I never told my parents about that because what were they, what were they going to do with that, right?

That would be confirmation of the furthest falling away from the faith. And you know that was how it was understood at home. But this person, this was a lifeline and it just so happened that at this Catholic church there was a smaller group called Cornerstone and they took their name from a text that appears a couple of times in the Bible, I think in the Psalms and also in Isaiah, and maybe is also quoted in the New Testament, but the stone that was rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This was the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in their eyes. I love that text. And this was a group of young Catholic students who identified as LGBTQ. They were queer. Gathering once a week, would light a candle, would pray, would lift each other up in encouragement and where there was an understanding that these were sacred identities.

This was not something that we were trying to crucify ourselves so as to be something else. Or this is who God created us to be and what do we do with that? Like what did we do with the sacredness of that when we can't immediately see it? So that was my lifeline. Like that was my way of, again, integrating another piece of myself that I'd had to compartmentalize for the sake of survival.

Patrick: You have this lifeline, what's your next step as you work through your academic program and what do you think you're called to do in the world? 

Sheehan: I look back on my time in college and I'm grateful for the things that I was able to dabble in but I didn't necessarily find a calling at that time. By the end of college, I knew that I had an interest in helping people.

I knew that I enjoyed mentoring and coaching and supporting younger students than myself. So I had little roles like that throughout college, like a prefect or a peer advisor, that kind of thing. And there happened to be a job opening up in a boarding school in the UK. They were looking for someone who would serve as an assistant housemaster at a boys boarding school. A recent college graduate who could teach according to the things that they'd studied in school, but then also help the students apply for American standardized exams. Cause there were some students at the school who wanted to come to American colleges. 

So I applied for that job. Thankfully, I got it. And I spent the next two years in England, really cementing a love of education, of coaching, of mentoring, of really supporting students and developing a keen sense of when students are struggling or saying the things or not, not saying the things that you may identify as being a particular need for them and figuring out how to support those unspoken needs.

And that was my next step. And I would say that was the seed of a broader ministry that I think still lies with me today.

Patrick: And so you were there for two years, but that's not where you are now. When did you start thinking, okay, this is what I want to do. I want to support these young folks, but maybe there's something else I need. And what did you do after those two years? 

Sheehan: This was actually an Anglican school.  Again, it wasn't the faith that I'd grown up with at home, in the same practice, but that was good at that point in my life actually. This was a really wonderful chance to connect with faith, with Christianity in a different way.

And so I was integrating this coaching, this mentoring, this nurturing of young people alongside of a deepening re-appreciation for Christianity. And it just so happened that I began thinking about what my next step would be. This good friend of mine that I mentioned before, who was my roommate in college applied for divinity school.

I'd never thought about that before, but as I was listening to him talk about what the opportunities might be and what his interests were, I realized that well those are the skills that I want to cultivate. That that's kind of a path I feel like I've been on for a long time, but really haven't known that it'd be a place where you are able to study religion as an academic subject, to cultivate skills as a minister, as a coach, as a spiritual guide for lack of a better word, to develop skills in pastoral care and counseling. Divinity school was the next step. And that was the place that actually gave me opportunities to work formally in ministry in a few different denominations - UCC, again Anglican, Episcopalian, and then eventually a brief stint back in a Baptist community.

Patrick: Well, that's a pretty ecclesially diverse group of places to explore your religious leadership. Was there any time as you're doing that, as you're going through your MDiv studies where you're thinking, okay, I'm going to, I would like to pastor a church or I'd like to do campus ministry, or I'd like to fill in the blank, that ties these skills in this serious academic study of religion, and music, you know, marrying these passions that you have together? Is there ever a time where you're thinking I'm going to do that? What was this preparing you for? 

Sheehan: I think that's one of those questions for me that's become clearer in hindsight than it was in the moment. I think that the greatest surprise for me in divinity school, I had always felt so self-conscious about my academic ability, even though I was, I was really encouraged growing up and there were ways that that was affirmed. I think college can really knock the wind out of your sails in some ways, and taking biblical Hebrew and taking courses that I felt like I'd wanted to study ever since I had first opened the Bible, was an affirmation of a different type.

Like, I felt like I looked forward to the reading. I looked forward to the papers and I looked forward to the research. I even looked forward to the exams. I've never felt that way before or since, but in those moments, it was this really, really wonderful acknowledgement that perhaps I hadn't given myself the space before to actually pursue what I love and what was kind of deepest to my heart.

And that alignment allowed for a blossoming of myself, you know, as a human, not just as, as someone who can do academics, but I think as someone who has self confidence in their ability to talk about the things they love and to really speak about their own ministry in compelling and accurate ways. Can you remind me of your question, Pat? Sorry that I went off on… 

Patrick: No, no, that was fantastic. It was really around when you have this, in the words that you just said, with the confluence of what you want to study and your passion and feeling confident in what you're doing. Another way to put the question was, you know, how do you imagine all that stuff being a job? Like how do you make it more than just a study, lifetime career student, but what do you do with that? Like, what was your imagination at that point thinking about like, I want to do this for as long as possible. How do I do that? 

Sheehan: Well I thought about ordination. There was a time when I was thinking about ordination in the Episcopal church. From my field education placements in churches, I've found that pastoral care and counseling is something that I was receiving feedback that I was good at.

It was something I looked forward to doing. I love spending that time with people really deep listening, compassionate listening, and being able to hold and share space with people who, whatever they're experiencing in life and not feeling like you have to compartmentalize or shut out a person's life experience, just being able to hold it with them.

I would say though, ordination I realized probably wasn't going to be for me because I didn't feel in a way Christian enough. I knew that if I were working in a formal denomination, there would be things that I may feel compelled to believe or execute in the daily duties that just weren't there anymore. And that was an important realization for me. And so I'm wanting to hold on to this sense of ministry, no matter where I was I wanted to treat my work as a ministry, and pastoral care and counseling had to be a part of that. And because I was working alongside of my divinity school studies, working in higher education as an RA at one point, doing student ministry at another point, I realized that higher ed was a place where I could blend those interests, blend those skills. So obviously you're doing the pastoral care and counseling when you're working with students. Student affairs, that's a component of it, right? It doesn't get talked about in that way, but if you've had your foot in both fields, you realize you can apply your language to the work in a way that makes sense for you and that has some integrity for yourself. And so that's really - that was my next step.  When I was a ministry intern in the campus church, one of the ministries that I developed was an outreach to the LGBTQ center. And we developed something called the Faith and Sexuality Initiative with myself, the LGBTQ center director at that time, and a fellow seminarian, fellow ministry student.

When you create a ministry like that and it seems to be meeting a need on campus, it's just amazing how many people come out of the woodwork to participate, to express gratitude just that it exists. And so that was another affirmation. The number of students who were showing up to our events, the kinds of events we were able to host.

Again, like going back to that cornerstone, that didn't exist at this time, but we were able to create something like that. These sacred spaces for LGBTQ people and non-LGBTQ people to think about identity, the full range of it, as sacred, and to be in conversation about that. So that was the trajectory that I was on. It was higher education. It was thinking of higher education as ministry. 

Patrick: Thinking with that image of the cornerstone, you planted that cornerstone in a particular place that you've been for a while, like you've invested in the community and the local spot, and you still serve at that same institution. I'm wondering what it's like to have such deep roots in a particular institution, knowing that you're bringing this pastoral care, exploring your sense of call on this campus, planting that cornerstone, what's that been like? And if someone were thinking about your journey, what advice would you give them if they wanted to do that, wanted to put their cornerstone that may not exist already in a place and really see it to fruition? 

Sheehan: That's such a great question. So I've been at this institution off and on since 2003, I think formally three years away. So that's about 14 years fully. For someone my age, you know, that's a long time at a single institution and that has some positives and some negatives.

I wake up thinking about this a lot. I mean, I think the positives is that I've been here long enough to really see what progress looks like at this institution, to see the development of more resources, development of how we talk about diversity and inclusion, and who's a part of our community and who, by nature of being a selective institution, we're excluding and how we measure and manage that contradiction.

I've also been able to see a lot of students come through. People say the students stay the same age but you get older. I'm at the age where I'm feeling that now because I've got students who are younger than, you know, they weren't here on September 11th. So my motivations for going to school are completely different from theirs and what they're studying is different and their fluency with talking about diversity, inclusion, and belonging that language is very different now too. I would say there's something beautiful about planting that cornerstone when you're able to see it develop when you're able to see the archway built around it.

And you're able to kind of see the other stones that people are planting alongside of it. That's special. Today you know, we move a lot I think, and you don't always have an opportunity to see your work flourish longer-term. I think especially important for people in ministry, because sometimes we don't always get that immediate acknowledgement that what you're doing is meaningful, that it actually made a difference to someone or it made a difference to an institution. At least that's been my experience in ministry. I will also say though, the downside is that there's a way where blind spots start to develop. And so you've been here, you're kind of used to a certain way of doing things.

You're used to the barriers and you've learned how to navigate around the barriers, but not everybody who's coming through the institution has that skillset. They don't necessarily know how to navigate the barriers, but the barriers are still there for them. And so you've developed all these skills for navigation, but really the question might be, we need to destroy some barriers so that people don't have to develop those skills to navigate, they can just exist. They can just thrive. And so I'm mindful of that tension right now, too, in my own ministry in higher education, specifically in the field of diversity, inclusion and belonging. 

Patrick:  And how do you do that work? It sounds almost, going back to your MDiv experience, almost pastoral care, like listening to the barriers that others are experiencing and addressing them using what the power of your vocation now on that campus might be. How do you do that work well when you have been able to navigate around things for some time?

Sheehan: I think pastoral care comes into every element of human interaction. If you have those skills, you bring them because they're more than likely going to benefit. And so if you're going into the meeting and you find yourself needing to advocate for something, paying attention to the tone of the room, who's in the room and being able to craft your message to your audience. I mean, I think that's something we learned as people in ministry. That that's what pastors do, right? But I think there also needs to be something in addition to pastoral care, something in addition to those skills of paying attention and listening, that also has to do with an awareness of broader structures that are not about individuals that are not about even groups of people, but are about impediments and barriers and ways that institutions are constructed so as to allow for certain outcomes very easily and not others. Those are very hard to see. And I think depending on our identities, we just don't see them. I think, depending on our positionality, you may or may not see these things. 

And so part of it certainly is paying attention, part of it is having that bird's eye view, which means thinking strategically with others who are not occupying your positionality. So if I was only doing this work with other diversity, inclusion and belonging people, I think that there would be a lot of ways that I'd be ineffective. So I actually feel like I have to be in conversation with the ministry professionals at the school, with faculty and with folk on the academic side, academic affairs, with people who are working in career services to actually have a much better picture of what's going on at the school and where those barriers exist and how we might work together to destroy them. And in the absence of being able to destroy them, at least lift them up and make sure people are aware of them and that there's some tools for navigating. That it's not just this unspoken sense of, well you're here long enough, you'll figure out this is how we do it here. Right? Who succeeds with that kind of, that kind of labyrinth of exclusion? 

Patrick: So you're doing this work in diversity and inclusion. What is your work?  I hear this kind of coalition building, power building. I'm almost going back to your interest in diplomacy and advocacy earlier on when you’re in undergraduate studies and deep listening to your colleagues. What is your day to day like?  What is your work now look like?

Sheehan: So I actually manage one of my institutions diversity offices. So my office specifically focuses on race and intercultural relations. So it's an old office it's been around for about 40 years. It's one of the oldest at my institution, but we're going through a really timely and exciting change in how we think about diversity work on campus. My work specifically is guiding this period of change. We're thinking through our mission statement. How do we understand the work that we do? What are our core values? How do we make sure that students understand that and understand the resources that we provide in this space? Do undocumented students know that we have support services for them? Do first gen low income students know that? Are we the only place where they would find that out or are they getting that messaging in other parts of the institution as well? Is there a sense that if our office isn't doing the work, it's just not happening or are there ways that other offices, career services, residential life, that we're all holding a piece of this framework? And we're holding a critical piece, but res life is also holding that piece of support for undoc or first gen low income students.

And so that's a piece of it. That's the strategic kind of visioning piece then it's programming. Then there's the events that we host alongside of students and really wanting to make sure that student interests are lifted up in those programs. Students just won't come. That is the thing you learn quickly. If you're doing the thing that you find interesting, because you went to school in 2003, you know, nobody will show up. So it's really about paying attention to what the student needs and being responsive to that. 

And then also the one-on-one. And I'll say in my current position, I don't get to do as much one-on-one advising, coaching and mentoring as I would like, as I used to. But that's a critical part of the work in these offices. It's working with students who are exploring their own identities and looking for conversation partners in that, looking for resources to connect them with other folks on campus, other supports and other opportunities. And I think a really important part is, and I don't want this to sound paternalistic, but providing students with a conversation partner that isn't just a peer. Someone who has a little bit more experience who can be not so much directive as much as invitational in the conversation, offering suggestions for how to move forward, but really, really providing that additional sense of experience and expertise.

Patrick: Sheehan it sounds like your gift to your campus in so many ways for a long time and this sort of deep listening to students, colleagues, friends, building bridges, advocacy across the campus institution is pretty remarkable given how competitive higher education can be. How these students right now in this last year have been living through a pandemic. They're all pre-professional so they got busy lives and big dreams as well. I'm wondering what really kind of fuels you in this work? Is it the community? Is it going back to that image of you on your grandma's lap, in that vision of the church in Philadelphia that really holds your call or your vocation? Or how much is it your sort of own internal voice conversation with yourself? Like, this is what I know to be right. Or this is what God calls me to be, or this is what I feel like is needed in the world? 

Sheehan: I lean towards being a more solitary person. So I find myself, this sounds weird coming out, but I find myself in conversation with myself a lot, doing a lot of that self-reflection. That's the piece of it that stands out the most to me Pat, in your question. There is an internal sense of me thinking back to myself in 2003 and how much I didn't communicate and how little help I reached out for. How much less help was available too, right? Because again, over 17 years, there's a lot more available now than there was when I was an undergraduate. But I'm mindful of those students, not exclusively, but certainly they have primacy in my heart. 

And when I think about my office and the various parts of the campus community that we support, one of the common themes is supporting marginalized students. Students whose voices may not always be the first to be heard, whose concerns are sometimes not acknowledged, not recognized, and that dovetails with my own experience in some really important ways. That's a big motivator for me. The other though is the people. It really is human beings. This has been a really tough time for me. As much as I am a solitary person, I thrive on those opportunities to be in community with people one-on-one. I miss seeing students come through the office, knock on my door, can we have a conversation? Sure. They say, I just need five minutes, and then an hour later, you know, you're still there with them. And that feels so rich and sacred and meaningful. I felt like my office was a sacred space and I tried to treat it like that. But it is a mix of what motivates me is being in community with people and providing that pastoral care and when it comes up, but then also remembering who I was and that there are folk out there who still need those kinds of support. 

Patrick: Sheehan that's beautiful. I just want to say thank you. I know I've benefited from being on the receiving end of your pastoral care, your friendship, your love, you're family. And I'm so grateful for you as a human. And I know that that campus, that town, this world is better because you're in it. So thank you, thank you, thank you, from the deepest part of my heart. I'm so grateful for you. 

Sheehan: Thank you so much. 

Patrick: I want to thank you for listening to Sheehan's story. Now we know you can find inspiration a lot of places, but we're glad you joined us here on the Sound of the Genuine. Special gratitude to Heather Wallace and Elsie Barnhart, FTE's design managers and @siryalibeats for his music.

Don't forget, you can get more information about the Forum for Theological Exploration at fteleaders.org. FTE is a leadership incubator, cultivating diverse young adults to be faithful, wise and courageous leaders for the church and the Academy. 

Thank you for listening and see you next time on the Sound of the Genuine.