Sound of the Genuine

Christy Yates: Opening Up to Explore Possibilities in Ministry

November 05, 2021 FTE Leaders Season 1 Episode 18
Sound of the Genuine
Christy Yates: Opening Up to Explore Possibilities in Ministry
Show Notes Transcript

Christy graduated from the University of Virginia and then received her MA in Applied Theology and the Arts from Regent College in Vancouver, BC. At Theological Horizons, she directs the Horizons & Perkins Fellows programs as well as coordinates student and community engagement. She lives just outside Charlottesville with her husband Chris, a writer and philosopher, their four children, flock of hens and rescue dog. Christy is also a visual artist and you can find her work at

Instagram: @christenbyates

Music by: @siryalibeats

Vector Portrait by: Rafli

Patrick: Hello and welcome to the Sound of the Genuine, the Forum for Theological Exploration’s limited audio series on vocation, meaning and purpose. I am Dr. Patrick Reyes and I am especially excited about our guest today, who is the associate director of Theological Horizons, a campus ministry just outside University of Virginia. She's also an accomplished artist, Christy Yates.

Christy, I'm so glad that you were able to join us to share a little bit about your story. It's good to see you. 

Christy: Good to see you too Patrick! 

Patrick: Tell me about yourself. Where'd you grow up? 

Christy: Yeah. So I was born in Stoneham, but grew up on the north shore of Boston. A place that is kind of rural, a little bit suburban. I grew up in a great stable family. My mom is a counselor - social worker. And I'm the youngest of several kids and yeah, had a great experience there. Went to an Episcopal church there, Christ Church Episcopal. My dad is an Episcopal priest and also was a seminary professor for a number of years. One thing that was really formative, I grew up in a pretty lily-white homogenous community, pretty middle and upper-class. We had one stoplight that was for horse crossing. But my dad had a real heart for the city and for racial justice. He helped to start Gordon Conwell's urban campus, CUME and so we've always had a pretty tight relationship with going into the city. And so he would bring our family into Dorchester and Roxbury pretty regularly to go to church there, to eat soul food.

See a very different kind of life. And then that culminated in a year spent living in Kenya. He had a sabbatical from the seminary he taught at and so that was another really transformative time for me. I was sixth grade and spent the year living there and going to a school where there was nobody else like me and just getting to love the people and the culture. And so that was another really formative time for me. 

Patrick: So you go to Kenya and you come back. What is it that you are imagining in your life at this point? You know, as you enter back into North Shore, Boston, greater Boston suburbs life. What is it that you want to do with your life after being exposed? 

Christy: That's a good question. So I was 12, I came back the first day of seventh grade wearing all my African clothing and thinking I was gonna remain different. But it didn't take long for me to get sucked into the culture. And I think like a lot of middle and high school kids, I experimented with partying and tried to fit into the cool kid crowd while also really being interested in what I was studying. I also was involved in our Episcopal church and then also involved in Young Life.

And so I had these different threads that were continuing to hold me to the faith. And so I don't know that I had vocational dreams much in middle or even high school. I think one of the biggest turning points for me was doing work crew at a Young Life camp. That really helped me to take a personal relationship with Jesus seriously and see that it could integrate the rest of my life and shape the rest of my life and not just be a go to church on Sunday, but that it could affect all of my relationships and how I lived. So that was really transformative. And also just starting to think about, from my dad's vocation and promptings of the urban and Africa world that there's difference out there. And even though I lived in a pretty lily-white area knowing this isn't the way the whole world lives was in the back of my mind. But I would say it wasn't until college, where I went to the University of Virginia, that everything just started to hit me. It's crazy to say that UVA was diverse for me because for a lot of people it's not diverse.

But coming from South Hamilton, it was the first time I was able to be in relationships with people of color who are Christians and see divisions among the fellowship groups too. I was involved in Young Life and had a real heart for urban Young Life. And I also learned about our friend John Perkins when I was at UVA

I still remember thinking like, my dad knew about him, but I was thinking why did you not tell me about him before? I was taking a sociology of religion class and I was reading a book that the professor didn't even touch upon, but there was a whole chapter about what he was doing down in Jackson, Mississippi and this whole field of community development.

And it was just this eureka moment for me that this was the missing piece. Like I got this sort of relationship with Jesus part, but Young Life only goes so far, as a lot of people probably know. And I felt like there was this whole social dimension to our faith that dealt with inequality and injustice that I was deeply passionate about.

And when I learned about the work of John Perkins it was like this light went off and I thought I need to meet him. This is the kind of stuff I want to be about. And so I actually did. It was back in the microfiche times, this would have been 1996, I think. I remember printing out an article about him and learning about Voice of Calvary Ministries and my then boyfriend, Chris who's now my husband, I told him, I said, we need to go meet this guy. 

So we got in a car for spring break. We had just started dating and we drove down to, we actually stopped in Atlanta and met Bob Lupton and got a tour of the ministry there. And then we showed up in Jackson without any GPS, this was before GPS, and started asking people on the street, do you know where Voice of Calvary is? And we ended up at church a little late but they welcomed us in, we got enjoy a meal with them. We've got to spend the night, they had a house in intentional community house at that time, the Antioch house that we got to learn from.

And it was just, it was amazing. We basically followed Dr. Perkins around while he was working on a house and just peppered him with questions. And from there, I came back to UVA and a group of students and I had been praying for racial healing and we had been talking about doing some trip together and that's when we decided I think this is the place we need to go. It's about what we're talking about. And so the next spring break, we gathered up Christians from different fellowship groups, the Asian Christian fellowship group, Black Voices, a gospel choir which I joined and other groups and we all went down in a bus together to spend a week in Jackson. It was the highlight of my UVA career, for sure. Just experiencing that together, working alongside one another hearing the ministry and the vision of the Perkins and then trying to bring that back to UVA. So that was a real, a real moment of clarification for vocation, but I didn't know what it would look like at all.

I just knew like these were the themes I wanted to be about. 

Patrick: Thinking about that trip, you're going with other Christians from UVA, but also knowing Voice of Calvary and the folks who've worked there, they do a whole bunch of things. Like they're serving their community on so many different levels.

Was anything in particular, as you were there, capturing your imagination and it was like, this is the thing, this is what I want to do, or I want to do all of this? Or how were you imagining serving as you were bearing witness in this week-long trip? 

Christy: That's a good question because looking back on it now I see that what I really loved was the facilitation of it. I loved bringing people together and talking about how to live well, how to live the Christian life. But I didn't know that at the time. I knew I just loved what they were about. I loved being with people. I think the Young Life background I'd had, I like relationships and I like bringing people together.

So from there, I think there was a bit of a journey of what does this look like? I remember thinking I wanted to go into public policy, which looking back on now, like no! My first job out of college was working at a great non-partisan, faith-based civic education program or project called the center for public justice. And it still exists and it's wonderful. They are very thoughtful about how to engage in public and civic life. And they were connected loosely with the work of John Perkins and talked about issues of housing and education and work. I'd also spent a summer working at a jobs training partnership program in Richmond, Virginia.

So I felt like I kept exploring. I'd also worked with YMCA with youth. So I kept exploring these different pieces of Christian community development. But like after my year at the center for public justice, I definitely felt like I don't want to be in an office all day on Capitol Hill. Like I don't get excited about just talking about this stuff in a sterile kind of academic way. But I didn't know I didn't know, I just knew I'm still passionate about this, but I definitely don't want to be in DC or do public policy. After that my husband and I spent a year at a retreat center behind the scenes.

So another thing I loved was just bringing people together and offering them hospitality and got to do that for a year. And then we went to seminary together at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. And I would say there was another opening up of my vocation and a broadening of what I was passionate about.

John Perkins connected me the urban realities in connecting with people but then I also got a real vision for environmental justice and environmental stewardship, reading people like Wendell Berry and studying issues of sustainable development and a couple of professors there.

And then I also got really interested in the arts. I've always been an artist on the side and always felt like, as you might know a little bit from my writing, that I felt like there wasn't a place for that in this kind of community development work. So that was another sort of opening up, but I didn't know what it would look like.

Would I bring it all together or what? For a while, I tried to bring art and community development together and I've since learned that, I just love being an artist. I don't need to like go do a mural or work with kids, teaching them art. Like I just loved art, to do art on my own.

Which is a real privilege to be bi-vocational at this point. Back in seminary, I was able to connect with a group of young people. And I'd say, this is maybe the first or maybe the second demonstration after UVA of working with college students around issues of justice and vocation and faith.

But I was part of InterVarsity I think - I think that was the group, Bible study for college students kind of thing. I don't even remember what we did, but I remembered we’d met in this sort of day shelter of a church and just talked about issues of faith and justice. And I loved it and I thought this is great.

But I would say from there, the next big jump for me was an invitation to work at Gordon College, in Lynn (MA), as the assistant director of the Lynn initiative, they called it then, it turned into the office of community engagement. And in between that, we had a couple kids and my husband had fallen in love with philosophy. And we'd been in Memphis for two years where he did a master's and got to do some urban gardening and connect with some cool stuff happening there. But Gordon College, was this great fit of - I had this passion for community development and I had a passion for working with young people and especially increasingly college students, but it just, it really just opened up.

I was not looking at colleges to do ministry. It really was a job that just fit sort of my more thematic interests of community engagement. So I was there for six years, our family, we moved into Lynn and preached and lived the principles of asset-based community development and all that other good stuff that the Perkins talk about.

Daily got to work with interns and students and help them bridge the divide from South Hamilton to Lynn, build community partnerships, host events, and I loved it. It was this great, like bringing together of all these things I had been interested in. 

Patrick: Yeah, one of the things that I'm curious about, and I think some listeners, especially young adults who are trying to figure out what they want to do, they have a sense of call or passion. I mean, you mentioned art, you mentioned the community development, you mentioned, serving the church, facilitating, but you also mentioned a lot of different places. How do you discern that mix between where you want to be and what you want to do? How did you all decide that? 

Christy: I talk a lot with students now about the idea of constraints and if the whole world was open to me, it would have been really overwhelming and paralyzing, like how do you choose? And in fact, I actually had constraints because, Chris and I had decided together to go to Regent College. I had decided to go to UVA. Like those were some of my decisions, but then after that, he fell in love with philosophy and needed to go get another master's.

And he happened to get into a program that was really a good fit for him. So that's why we moved to Memphis. And then he wanted to do a PhD and he got into Boston College and it was the best program for what he was interested in. So here we are headed up to Boston College and I'm looking around for jobs and this happened to fall in my lap.

It's hard. I think, there's benefits to having those constraints cause it helps eliminate a lot of possibilities. So when my students, when I talked to the ones that had the whole world open to them, it's almost more paralyzing. So it's helpful to sometimes have some necessary constraints.

And you just never know how those are going to come up. Maybe it's your family, maybe it's your health, it's a school you got into or a lot of it is personal connections and just other things that kind of help take you to the next step and then the next step. But I'm grateful.

I'm really ready now to not move again ever because by the time we landed back in Charlottesville, I think this was our 11th or 12th move and we were so done. We had four kids had moved all these times and just said, you know what? Which is a little bit hard for my husband as a philosopher. Because his job actually that he had went away and yet we don't want to move for his job anymore. So now we're just saying this is our constraint, which is we want to just stay put here and then make the work thing work. 

Patrick: And how did you end up in Charlottesville? What was the pull back down there?

Christy: That's a little interesting because he had a job offer that allowed him to teach philosophy in a low residency program so we could move anywhere. And that was a huge gift actually, just to go back to like the paralyzing of being able to move anywhere.

We had always, when we talked about where we would like to settle if we had the choice this is where we met in Charlottesville. I went to college here. He's from nearby, his parents are nearby. And he had told me that he did not want to live in new England forever, which is another place I could have settled, near my parents.

But, I love Charlottesville. I was happy to raise a family here, so we made this leap to move here. We'd actually spent two years at another college in Western Pennsylvania, which I didn't mention, which is another little sidetrack where I got to do some more college ministry as a consultant. But we just knew we did not want to end up there forever. We didn't have family close by. And Western Pennsylvania is even colder than Boston. 

So we took a chance and moved to Charlottesville with his job that was remote. And so again, I did not have a job. I moved here for his job. We just started talking to people in this job happened to opened up, this position with theological horizons. It was very part-time. It was a very small ministry when I started. It's not much bigger, but it's grown since and it just was this perfect little sliding right back into a place in a community that I knew pretty well from my undergrad days.

Patrick: What was Theological Horizons in that super part time, first couple of days, the first couple of weeks? What was the job then? 

Christy: So I came on as an associate director with Karen Marsh, she's our director. And she and her husband, Charles Marsh, had started Theological Horizons as a campus ministry to support Christians and seekers in academia.

So not just at UVA, although there's a real incarnational presence here, but also just beyond UVA. When I came on there was a very small fellows program that had just started the year before. It was about five students, I think. And Karen handed it to me and said, Hey, what do you want to do with this?

And so I'd come from Gordon College - it was very robust, I was working almost full-time while my husband was in grad school, and I was managing a bunch of students and having weekly meetings and trainings. And this was very small, low key. So I kind of had to adjust. I had four young children, so I didn't have the time and capacity, but it was a great opportunity to think, okay, how can I connect my experience with this particular iteration of ministry? And so the Horizons Fellows program is what I helped to develop. We've had five fellows, I think, the first year and then we've now grown to 12 fellows that meet. And it still is pretty laid back. I'm still part time so I can do art and be a parent.

But I meet with them once a month, I've developed a curriculum that we share together. I matched them with mentors in the community. We have a retreat. A lot of these things have grown because when they first started, it was just a group hanging out together talking about vocation and faith, very loosely.

In the last seven years, especially with the help of the Lilly grant, we've just gotten much more clear and strategic about sort of the direction and what we want to move students through. And about a year after I came, I still had this experience of doing service learning and community engagement, which was not a part of the Horizons Fellows program, which is a little more just mentoring and vocation.

It was really neat. Karen and Charles Marsh knew John Perkins really well, both of them individually from their families and their history. So I said, Hey, could we do something with students around service learning and community engagement? Cause that was my real passion and there wasn't a lot of that happening at UVA.

There was these one-day service trips or alternative spring breaks, but there was no kind of weekly reflective service learning and connecting that to vocational discernment. I helped to start the Perkins Fellows program which we are now in, I think, our fifth year. So we have students that serve weekly at a local nonprofit, a community partner.

And then we meet once a month to sort of process their service. Usually we do a book study around themes of community development and social justice. And it's this really neat, full circle to look back and see all these little threads of things. And now I can't imagine doing anything different. I really love college students and I love being that sort of bridge between what they're studying and their worlds and the world of the community and helping people come together around difference. 

Patrick: That's amazing. And what type of sites do the students serve in? What are you facilitating? What are they working in, the community? 

Christy: This rotates from year to year, but this year we have students at a homeless day shelter. We have a student doing some tutoring. We have a student working at a community arts organization. One ministry we almost always have somebody at abundant life ministries. That's a big John Perkins fan and they have a host of different things that they offer. Also Habitat [for Humanity] and then the International Rescue Committee. And those are usually our most diverse group of fellows. It's been great to build the relationships between them, but then also in the community, they're sort of both an inward and an outward component to it.

Patrick: I'm curious as to how you see the role campus ministry shaping up in this kind of in-between space? Cause it's not just a service or a meal once a week, but you're doing much more. What is the involvement that you give, that deep relationship that you're able to build with students when you do this deep formational work, especially alongside this service and community development lens? 

Christy: I'll take a stab at it, but you might need to re-direct me, but I feel like there is nothing…no part of their life that I want to leave untouched by our experience with them. If they're just doing a meal or just doing a Bible study, that's great, but I really want them to bring their whole selves to our community. And that's where I really try to make it a safe space.

Vocational discernment to me is, obviously not just the career path, but your whole self and the direction of your whole being each day in each minute. And all those minuscule choices. So I really try to create a context where we can both model that just in our relationships of really listening and paying attention to one another so that they can in turn, pay attention to their own life and maybe a new way that they've never done before, but then also start to introduce them to just the whole broad array of the Christian life, whether it's in service in the community or through our readings. That's why I feel like our ministry is different than a traditional Bible study, which is what I experienced as a student in campus ministry.

Sometimes I feel like I always have to explain our curriculum or the books are read cause they'll venture far - not that they leave scriptural study at all or the faith lens, but we'll get into a lot of big topics. And I feel like there's nothing that can't be touched and thought about critically with the lens of faith that will help you as your vocation, just in general as a Christian, and also your specific vocation, whatever that might be, which could change. So we talk about different concepts of vocation. We talk about race, we talk about sexuality and politics and. Where we choose to live and why and caring for creation.

But I feel like all of it is up for grabs. And that we just really do an injustice to the students, if we don't create a space where they can ask and push back and wrestle with all of those aspects of what it means to be human and to live. 

Patrick: That's incredible in the way that you've expanded the vocational imagination of both the students you work with but I think campus ministry in general, who a lot of the campus ministers I work with, or I talk to, it's very limited in scope. We're here to do the Bible study, we're here to do the Sunday worship or the Thursday night small group. You're doing much deeper life formation. It's not just about being a college student. It sounds like anyone [can] really benefit from doing that deep engagement on the big questions of living in this moment. 

Christy: And of course they need alongside that a church and being with people outside of their age group. And of course, reading the Bible and studying the Bible alongside watching the news, hopefully in a unbiased way as best as possible, and getting all sides of things. I just want them to be sort of wide awake. And my husband, as a philosopher, is really passionate about critical thinking and just the dangers on either side of the spectrum of getting too delusional and self-righteous and militant about your perspective on the Bible or politics.

Actually, I was just talking to a student today about what's unique about ours and I said, even the ministries are becoming more polarized. And you have the conservative ones and you have the progressive ones, but there's fewer spaces besides the classroom where students of faith are intermingling together and holding those spaces where they can listen to the different perspectives that are polarizing the church all over the place and seeing schisms happening. We get flack from either side, and this is a warning for campus ministers; if you want to hold this space, you're going to get called out from either side. 

One time I had an activist friend on the left call me out for not being as present in the protest and putting my body on the line. And then I had a student the same week call me out for teaching third wave feminism and liberal theology. I thought that was interesting to be in a space where, and this happens continuously with donors and parents, that we we try to bring in both perspectives and we bring speakers in and we're unashamed to say, we want to be welcoming to all, which means both conservative and liberal. I'm really passionate about that more and more. I feel like with every news event that happens if we don't have spaces where we can come together and listen to one another and hear the pain that's behind this then it gives me little hope. Jesus' dying prayer to us was for unity and that our witness would be as one. There's times where we do need to say, look this is important and we need to have our own church, our own group because of this and that I totally get. You need those safe spaces. But we hope and pray that our space can be safe to wrestle with those differences in the name of Jesus. 

Patrick: as you use the phrase space, it's just making me think that you've done a really great job of Christian community development. This is starting with the people who are here regardless of where you stand or your background as you bring it into this space that we are going to be doing something together for the sake of this community. And that's really powerful, it's inspiring. Especially as, in this moment where not just in the physical locales, but with online social media and young people really pushed to be polarized, which camp do you sit in to hold a physical space to hold a community together, takes a lot of work and it's ministry. And it's inspiring ministry. 

Christy: FTE has been a great model of that. I'd also recommend like the civil conversations project with Krista Tippett has been influential. And just my experience growing up in Episcopal church, but then also doing Young Life and other more evangelical campus ministries, I feel an indebtedness to both worlds and both expressions of the Christian faith and have family very close to me in both of these worlds. It's deeply personal to me to bring that together. 

Patrick: I got just one more question for you. And it's tied to this sense of vocation. As you think about this, how much of this holding space not just for the community, doing the community development as a facilitator to develop the whole self, but also yourself as an artist…yeah you don't want to leave that at the door, as a member of a family with four kids and husband is moving all over the country; How much of your sense of vocation comes from the community that surrounds you and how much comes from some sort of inner sense of…maybe it's connection to God or your own personal sense of my vocation, this is what I was called to do? 

[00:24:57] Christy: So I'd have to say it's both. I'm constantly alone and reflecting, but then also I'm constantly in community and connecting and listening. I'm continuously letting those two feed off and inform one another.

Personally, you know what that looks like - I have three days a week in the studio painting as an artist and I would never have dreamed of piecing together being a studio artist, like working in my studio alone, with campus ministry. But those three days I get in the studio are where I listen to podcasts about all of these issues I'm talking to students about. Or I'm just listening to music, I'm praying, I'm reflecting and meditating, and just feeding my soul. And then I have two days a week where I am in conversations with students in the community and dreaming of how to connect them better. So that rhythm, it’s just been really helpful. And then we have a great church that models the kind of community and expression of Christian faith that goes along with what we're trying to do through theological horizons that's been a great space that I can go and, in the old days would get the sacraments and follow through the liturgy. But our church is an interesting hybrid actually, that models my own background of being both liturgical, but also not, and free and expansive and has a real heart for art and justice, which are big passions of mine.

Yeah, I feel like my vocation is always going to be progressing along that relationship between the inner and the outer and the alone time, contemplative time and community. Every week is different. We've got four kids, we're balancing parenting, which keep us rooted in all the different stages of life.

And thankfully my husband does not want to move all over the country anymore. We've got four acres and some chickens and a dog and land to cultivate here, which is really healing and nurturing for me. This life is wild! I have endless curiosity for the way each day unfolds and just gratitude for how many people have gotten me to where I am at this point. I'm just grateful to be alive and get to do this good work. 

Patrick: Christie, we are grateful for you and for sharing your story with us, particularly taken by the community development and artists. I know you said you’re piecing them together, but I see you living fully into both calls at the same time.

They're not really as separate as we imagined. Cause as you said ones feeding the other and the community is always present. And you're creating a community with young people that I wish more people knew how to do what you do, so thank you for sharing a little bit of your secret sauce with us.

Christy: Thanks Patrick. 

Patrick: Special gratitude to Christy for joining us today. We know you can find inspiration, a lot of places. And we're glad you chose FTE to hear this inspiring story. Gratitude for our design managers Elsie Barnhart and Heather Wallace. And @siryalibeats for his music. Don't forget, you can check out this resource and many others at our website Thank you for listening and see you next time on the Sound of the Genuine