UPSem alumni offer relief to flood-ravaged WV

Flooded town
Photos courtesy of Frank Cunningham (M.Div.’13)

By Crystal R. Sygeel  (M.Div./M.A.C.E. ’96)
UPSem Communications

On June 23, 2016, a phenomenon known as “train” flooding – which involves thunderstorms lining up over the same location like the cars of a freight train – hit West Virginia and nearby parts of Virginia.

Before it stopped the region had received eight to 10 inches of water in mere hours. A federal disaster was declared in twelve of the hardest-hit counties, while a state of emergency was declared in 44 of the state’s 55 counties due to the floods. Numerous lives were lost, and over 20,000 homes damaged or destroyed.

Frank Cunningham
Frank Cunningham

“God’s grace abounds,” might not be the response one would expect in the aftermath of a natural disaster of this magnitude, but alumnus and pastor to Barnwell Presbyterian Church in Barnwell, South Carolina, Frank Cunningham (M.Div.’13), can tell you that it does with absolute certainty. Cunningham spent the week based out of First Presbyterian Church in White Sulphur Spring, WV.

“Initially, we opened the doors of the church to make the sanctuary and ourselves available to people for prayer and support,” said Cunningham. “But no one came. That’s when we realized, we had to go out and meet the people wherever they were, both physically and emotionally.”

Barbara Chalfant
Barbara Chalfant

Cunningham and alumna Barbara Chalfant (M.A.C.E.’94), Associate Presbyter for Mission for the Presbytery of West Virginia, both, found themselves in conversations with service providers on how to address the needs of the effected communities from several angles. Thus a plan emerged for clergy, non-profit professionals, and providers from relief agencies to go out together in pairs to visit and talk with people throughout the region.

In the coming weeks, Cunningham and Chalfant would establish, a pastoral care website which offers “emotional care for those in need,” where people can request visits, and clergy can volunteer to come and provide support.

“People have a tendency to think of providing for basic needs in times like these,” said Chalfant, “and those are important. But what we’re finding is that people need to be able to tell their story in order to move beyond the trauma of what’s happened. After they tell their story, then they begin to ask for what they need.”


Key to this effort has been an established morning meeting which takes place every day at 9:30. Initially begun at First Presbyterian Church in White Sulphur Spring, the meeting is now held in Rainelle, WV, in  the old Magic Mart building. Each day, representatives from various denominations and non-profits gather together to pray, to discuss their experiences from the day before, and strategize on the work for the day ahead. The same group returns at 5:00 p.m. to pray, process, and look to tomorrow.

“The recovery will take years,” said Cunningham. “The outpouring of support and services in the region has been nothing short of miraculous. However, there is much that remains to be done.”


You can help! Visit The website includes links to a variety of agencies at work in the area.

Pokémon Go or Pokémon No for Christians?

Pokémon Go was a Pokémon no go in Japan recently as the game-maker worried that the  hype generated by a leaked email might crash the system. With more than 30 million downloads in over 30 countries already, this app-based augmented reality game already has way more adherents than most Christian denominations in the U.S. That kind of popularity generates concerns, not the least of which is whether or not Pokémon Go is a good pastime for Christian young people.  Some questions focus on children’s physical safety as they follow the game to unfamiliar locations. Others relate to economic risk, as users are prompted to spend real money buying online “lures” and other game elements. But from a religious perspective, the biggest question is about the spiritual value of Pokémon Go and other virtual reality experiences.

Christians have long endorsed the idea of envisioning the world differently than it is. In fact, all religions encourage their adherents to see the world through eyes governed by the stories of what could be told by their tradition. In a sense, to embrace a Christian identity in a predominantly secular world is to choose to participate in an augmented reality game in real time and space, much like the experience of chasing Pokémon around town. Everywhere they go, Christian young people are expected to see and act differently because they view life through Easter eyes. Playing Pokémon Go reinforces a way of being in the world that expects the unexpected to happen.


Dual Degree Student Rosy Robson demonstrates how Pokémon Go works on the quad of Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Christians historically have also been fans of pilgrimages. These spiritual journeys involve rituals and practices that help participants express commitments and make meaning in their lives. They require pilgrims to acknowledge that their destiny is shaped by God and thus not wholly within their control. Pokémon Go players are also on a quest, one that serves to reshape their experiences of life and is not fully theirs to define. Studies of gamers find that they are aware of the dissonance between being agents within their play and also bounded by the design and rules of the game. Perhaps playing Pokémon Go, then, is good training for daily Christian pilgrimage, where young people are called to “choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15) and become reflective producers of a faithful life with God.

Let me be clear. Pokémon Go is not a Christian game and chasing Pokémon in and of itself will not make children and youth more faithful Christians. Playing Pokémon Go, however, can cultivate skills of imagination, attention, questing, awareness, and decision-making that can be transferred to Christian discipleship. Furthermore, the communal nature of the game, where young people band together to locate and catch  Pokémon, reinforces another Christian value: community. The celebrations that arise during the chase echo the joy of Christian fellowship and, more faintly, the delight of Christian worship. For all these reasons, my response to the question of whether Christian young people should join this augmented reality sensation is ” Pokémon Go”!


Karen-Marie Yust is the Josiah P. and Anne Wilson Rowe Professor of Christian Education at Union Presbyterian Seminary

Incoming students enjoy face-to-face fellowship

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By Sandy Irby
Director, Communities of Learning Program

The Richmond campus burst into life this summer as participants in Union Presbyterian Seminary’s (UPSem) annual Communities of Learning (CoL) program gathered for their greatly anticipated “Face-to-Face” (F2F) event.

After eight weeks of small-group, online study and discussion, students, faculty advisors, and alumni mentors gathered during a warm July weekend for the first time. Smiles aplenty marked this time of conversation and laughter, table fellowship, and worship among a very special community of old friends who had never met before.

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The F2F weekend is the culminating event of Communities of Learning—a program unique to UPSem and one that has met with resounding success since its introduction in 2011. Designed to ease the transition of newly admitted students into seminary academics and community life, CoL enfolds them into the UPSem family from the get-go—before classes even begin.

Along with faculty and alumni mentors, students from all three campuses follow an online curriculum that offers a foretaste of the academic readings and class discussions that await them in the fall.  CoL’s emphasis on the sharing of diverse perspectives encourages collaborative learning and, in the process, builds relationships and strengthens community.

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At the end of the F2F weekend, all departed with fond farewells— eager to meet again in the fall, to continue the conversation, to learn from one another, and to grow deeper in relationship with God and in community with one another. In this way, the CoL program sets the stage not only for seminary study, but also for future ministry for the church in the world.

See more photos!

To learn more about the program and/or to sign up as a new student or alumni mentor, please contact:
Sandy Irby, Director
Communities of Learning Program
(804) 278-4272 /

Statement from President Blount on the passing of Dr. Kenneth Orr

Dear Friends,

It is too soon, it seems, for another statement announcing the passing of a beloved member of our seminary community. And yet, I am saddened to share the news of the death of Dr. Kenneth B. Orr (B.D. ’60; Th.M. ’61), president of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education from 1974-1979. Dr. Orr’s death comes after a long and courageous battle against Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Orr graduated from Duke University in 1954. After ROTC at Duke where he was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Air Force, he served as a pilot from 1954-57. In 1960-61, he earned the B.D. (equivalent to today’s Master of Divinity) and Th.M. degrees from Union Theological Seminary (now Union Presbyterian Seminary) in Richmond, Virginia. After three years as pastor of West End Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Virginia, he returned to Union as assistant to the president, eventually becoming a vice president. Orr earned his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in 1976, winning the honor of Outstanding Dissertation Award. From 1974-79, he was president of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education (now a part of Union Presbyterian Seminary). In 1979, he accepted the call to become president of Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, where he served until 1997. Under his leadership, Presbyterian became a Carnegie Foundation Baccalaureate Institution, a liberal arts college with a national reputation. In recognition of his outstanding service, the governor of South Carolina awarded him the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian honor. After retirement, Dr. Orr worked for some years as an academic search consultant with the firm of Jon McRae and Associates in Atlanta.

Dr. Orr is survived by his wife of sixteen years, Ruth Douglas Currie, of Montreat; three sons, Kevin Hunter Orr, Erie, Pennsylvania; Jeffrey Hill Orr, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania; and Jonathan Jarrett Orr, Richmond, Virginia; and seven grandchildren from his prior marriage to Janice Jarrett Orr, now deceased.

A memorial service in celebration of Dr. Orr’s life will be held at the Black Mountain Presbyterian Church in Black Mountain, North Carolina, on Saturday, July 30, 2016, at 2 p.m. with reception immediately following. After the reception, a private family internment service will be held at the Columbarium in Montreat, North Carolina. Memorial gifts may be made to Presbyterian College for the President Emeritus Dr. Kenneth B. Orr Memorial Endowment: Faculty Research Fellowship, Presbyterian College, Office of Advancement, 503 South Broad St., Clinton, SC 29325.

Brian K. Blount
President and Professor of New Testament


Statement from President Blount on the passing of Dr. Arnold Lovell

Dear Friends,

I write to share the sad news regarding the death of Dr. Arnold B. Lovell. Dr. Lovell came to Union Theological Seminary as a graduate of Appalachian State University. A 1981 Doctor of Ministry graduate of UTS, he would also go on to earn a Doctorate in Education from the Presbyterian School of Christian Education. Dr. Lovell returned to the Union community to become a Visiting Professor of Evangelism at the seminary for more than a decade. He also taught Polity. He served as senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church, South Charleston, West Virginia and Second Presbyterian Church, Knoxville, Tennessee, and as an interim pastor for churches in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia. He is survived by his wife, Emily Sexton Lovell, and their daughters Carolyn Edmunds Lovell and Catherine Hedrick Lovell Lawson. The Service of Worship and Witness to the Resurrection will be held on Thursday, July 21, 2016 at 3 p.m. at Clemmons Presbyterian Church, 3930 Clemmons Road, Clemmons, NC 27102. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorials be sent to the Mt. Eval Association, c/o Stewart Sexton, 321 N Main St., Denton, NC, 27239.

Brian K. Blount
President and Professor of New TestamentBrian_Blount-1