The Blasphemy of Vanderbilt Divinity – Juicy Ecumenism

Laura Cheifetz is associate dean of admissions, vocations and student life at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville. She gained online notoriety this week by Tweeter the “f” word for student applicants who don’t like the school’s vaccine requirements:

“F*** that person who emailed this morning saying they couldn’t go to school here due to the vaccine mandate, absolutely so fuck you.

The tweet was later deleted. But it always reflects on the seminary official, an ordained cleric in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and on the school itself that would hire that person for a position of responsibility. Vanderbilt, though very liberal for many decades, is still meant to be a training school for ministers of the gospel.

Vanderbilt Divinity School Dean Emilie Townes on the school’s website Explain that the school aims to provide a “living context to help clergy and laity not only prepare for Christian ministry, but to rethink ministry to meet the needs of our time by combining spiritual and intellectual growth with a sense of social justice and the formation of a new generation of academics.

Founded in 1873 with money from philanthropist Cornelius Vanderbilt, the university was for more than 40 years under the authority of the Methodist Episcopal Church of the South. But the school laughed under the control of the church and, after winning a case, asserted its autonomy. The 1914 Methodist Episcopal Church, General Conference South, officially severed ties with the school, founding Southern Methodist University in Dallas while upgrading Emory University in Atlanta.

But the United Methodist Church still permits Vanderbilt Divinity School to train aspiring United Methodist clergy, even though most conservative evangelical schools are not permitted. Reverend Cheifetz has admissions authority over United Methodist seminarians and students of various denominations. As her biography from the seminary notes, she is in a relationship with a woman:

Laura and her partner, Jessica Vazquez Torres, national program manager for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing & Training, live in Nashville, Tennessee, with two rescued Shih Tzus. They value all of their nieces and nephews, and hope to be such fabulous aunts that the children will smuggle booze into their nursing home. In their free time, Jessica cooks and Laura delivers baked goods to friends and neighbors.

Cheifetz’s Twitter account no longer exists, but one of his tweets is still accessible: “Trans kids are awesome and their existence glorifies God. They are loved. Her professional background appears to be primarily in social justice advocacy. A Vanderbilt Divinity School Biography on arrival there in 2019 notes:

Laura is currently the campaign manager for “Flint: the poisoning of an American city», a feature documentary, and supporting staff for the Montreat Conference Center’s Women’s Connection 2019 conference.

She served as Associate Director of Systems and Sustainability for the National Forum of Asian-Pacific American Women, a national organization whose work on immigrant rights, economic justice, and reproductive rights and health takes place in a reproductive justice executive, and was responsible for development, grants administration, operations, and human resources, including the spin-off of a fiscal sponsor and transformation into an independent nonprofit organization.

And:

Laura served as Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Forum for Theological Exploration (formerly the Fund for Theological Education) in Atlanta, Georgia, working with new pastors and partner institutions and organizations committed to developing the next generation of Christian leaders. . Prior to that, she was director of the Common Ground Project (formerly the Asian American Discipleship for Vocational Exploration, Nurture, and Transformation, or AADVENT Project), expanding a program for young American Christian adults and pastors in the Asia-Pacific to include Latinx and Black/African American young adults and pastors to engage in vocational discernment and mentorship for the next generation of diverse Christian leaders. She also served in a bilingual urban church (Mission Presbyterian Church) in San Francisco and, as an intern at the Presbyterian Office of the United Nations, coordinated the participation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in the United Nations World Conference. United against Racism, Racial Intolerance, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

And regarding Cheifetz’s posts:

She is the editor of Inheritance, a magazine amplifying the stories of Asian American and Pacific Islander Christian faith. She is co-author and editor of “Church on Purpose: Reinventing Discipleship, Community, & Justice” (Judson Press) and contributor to “Race in a Post Obama America: The Church Responds” (Westminster John Knox Press), Leading Wisdom: Asian and Asian North American Women Leaders” (WJK), “Here I Am: Faith Stories of Korean American Clergywomen” (Judson), and “Streams Run Uphill: Conversations with Young Clergywomen of Color” (Judson). She is co-author of the entry “Forming Asian Leaders for North American Churches” in the reference manual “Religious Leadership” (SAGE Publishing). An occasional contributor to various blogs, her article “Race Gives Me Poetry” for “Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice” won the 2016 Associated Church Press Award of Excellence – Reporting and Writing: Personal Experience/Review in the first person (long format).

In 2019 Cheifetz preached this message in a sermon just before coming to Vanderbilt, which in the eyes of the seminary may have improved his qualifications:

Most Christians are unable to have mature, thoughtful conversations about human sexuality. And let’s not talk about colonialism, slavery and capitalism, compared to our endowments and our buildings.

Because it’s not nice, right? It’s not nice to talk politics at the Thanksgiving table. It is not good to approach religion with an acquaintance. It’s not right to ask your conservative aunt to stop sharing transphobic memes on Facebook. It’s not right to ask if people of means are totally fine with withdrawing their own know-how and energy and dealing with disadvantaged and underfunded public school systems because they don’t. don’t have time to make structural changes on the backs of their own children at the expense of other people’s children. It’s not right to talk about how white teenagers from a wealthy private school who come to DC to speak out against the agency and pregnant women’s health care are not innocent, but are willing participants and beneficiaries of centuries of white supremacy and colonialism. Or how a city’s failure to properly plan transportation infrastructure contributes to entrenching poverty and damaging the planet, and makes it difficult for people who are struggling to make ends meet to get around. It is certainly not pleasant to point out that being a legacy admitted to a prestigious school is a way for white people to continue to benefit from the legacy of slavery, genocide and centuries of discrimination.

Cheifetz seems to embody all the conventional pieties of contemporary American liberal Protestantism focusing on the deconstruction and liberation of society through the lens of race, gender, and sexuality. The traditional gospel of salvation from sin plays little or no role. Her role at Vanderbilt Divinity as Assistant Dean of Admissions, Vocations, and Student Life presumably allows her to recruit new students who share her goal and guide existing students in that direction.

Deploying profanity in public social media is bad form for the leader of a Christian seminary. But far more disturbing is the central point of view of this official and her seminary, which seems to set aside the traditional gospel in favor of other politicized militant gospels aligned with today’s cultural fads.


Barry F. Howard