It’s been a busy five days of conferencing for me and as always, my mind has been filled with more ideas to write about than time has allowed me to compose them. But now, I am flying back home. As I look down on the vast expanse of the landscape and lights as my plane moves me homeward, I have a chance to reflect and to write. Every time I sit down to compose a blog entry recently, I am reminded of a simple truth I have said before and will say again: serendipity is the daily motion of the divine in our lives.
Today has been another one of those days, but the story is worth retelling.
This morning I was en route to the closing lecture at my conference, which promised to be an inspirational talk by reporter and documentary film-maker Maria Hinojosa. I approached the room from one direction at the same time as a colleague I have known for years approached in the other direction, each of us sneaking in to the room just a few minutes late. We spotted a little space of seats we could wedge into amid the rather packed audience. As soon as we sat down, another friend and colleague from my current workplace spotted me and came to sit in the one remaining seat on my other side. And, in that moment, sitting snugly between these two people who serendipitously came to be in the same place at the same time with me, I became viscerally aware of the wholeness of my vocational journey as one that has been, is currently, and will be guided by divine grace.
Let me explain the serendipity of this seemingly ordinary moment just a bit further.
To my left, there was Larry. I thought about the first time we met, in a small college classroom in upstate New York. I was an eighteen year old pre-med major who, from Unlikely Places, had just been uprooted from thinking about a career in medicine to considering the fit of something called social work. I remember sitting in Larry’s Introduction to Social Work course as a young undergraduate, an unknown potential career path just beginning to unfold at the same time that the world’s injustices were becoming vividly apparent to me. From Larry’s lectures and assignments and mentorship, I would begin to learn a new language that included social justice, structural inequality, and intervention across systems of individuals, families, communities, and policy. I would take several classes from him at this tiny, religiously affiliated college where we both serendipitously had landed in the late 1980’s. I had big hair, and a big heart. I was having a falling out with the faith of my youth, just as I was stepping in to this vocational path in social work that allowed me to value the dignity and worth of every human being as a core of my commitment to impacting the world around me. At the end of the next academic year, we would all go our separate ways as that college disbanded their social work program over a value conflict between socially just policy and a conservative Christian institutional agenda. It was a difficult time from my student perspective, and I can only now empathize with magnitude of the faculty level conflict my professors were enduring. Larry moved on in his academic career to other positions in social work education, making a difference to hundreds of other students across a successful career in his scholarship, teaching, and advocacy. I, along with several of my friends, transferred to the state college system in the city to finish our BSW program. I worked in a nursing facility, then moved on to complete my MSW and step into a vocational career where the dying and grieving could be supported, and social and health inequities could be confronted and ameliorated. Social work has been a rich and fulfilling vocational path for me, and I have always been grateful that this vocation found me.
I lost track of Larry altogether for over a decade, until I followed another calling into the academy for my own doctoral studies to become a scholar and teacher in my field. One day toward the end of my doctoral program, as I was preparing to go on the academic job market, I spotted Larry’s name on a conference announcement. I emailed him and to my shock and surprise, he remembered me from all those years ago. We have since reconnected at conferences over the years, around mutual points of advocacy and networking with our mutual colleagues and students. At this particular conference, I attended one of his workshops. He had just heard some news about me from a mutual colleague that made him come up to me, hand me his new business card and say: “everything really does come full circle.” We each, for our own reasons and in our own paths, have stepped into new positions as PhD Program Directors at our respective institutions.
As my left shoulder pressed against my very first vocational mentor and current colleague, my right shoulder pressed against my current colleague Kia who knows all the details of the deepening and strengthening of the vocational journey that is emerging in my life. She is my present mentor, and former chair of the PhD program at the university where we work. She has been instrumental in helping me make my own way as I step into this new administrative role and wrestle with how it fits with my other teaching, mentoring, and research priorities. Our conversations also help me integrate my professional and spiritual formation in meaningful ways, as this intersection has become increasingly important to me. She listens as I explore where my path seems to be leading, and provides support and raises critical questions for me to ponder in this process. There are times I admittedly may not want to field these questions; but, I appreciate them, even if I seem frustrated in the moment. I am hoping she knows how important her perspective is to me, which is why I am owning it here.
Today, as I sat bolstered by these two vocational mentors, I felt more ready and affirmed than I ever have to step forward into the next iterations of my vocational path. The vocational threads of social work, academic scholarship, and spiritual and religious vocation are weaving together into a garment that is uniquely mine. But these threads did not just appear; they are sourced in the relationships and experiences and learning that have serendipitously…and divinely…entered my life over a 20 year career.
I was lost in this serendipitous moment today, being visited by past, present, and future vocation. It was at that moment that I heard Maria Hinojosa say in her lecture, “everything comes full circle.”
Yes, it does. Sometimes, even shoulder to shoulder.
Serendipity is the daily motion of the divine in our lives.