On January 9, 50 young people from up and down the East Coast were on campus for a special guest talk by Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. The talk was part of a Lutheran vocational retreat in New York City. Many Wagner students on campus for athletic activities between semesters attended as well.
In 2002–03, Gbowee led a women’s nonviolent, interfaith protest movement that helped end the Liberian civil war and led to the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Liberia’s president — the first woman president in Africa. (Sirleaf also received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, along with Tawakkul Karman of Yemen.) Gbowee’s work became more widely known through the documentary Praying the Devil Back to Hell, which won the Best Documentary award at the 2008 Tribeca film festival.
At Wagner, Gbowee immediately engaged her audience with her humor, sympathy, and personality in a talk she called “My Life, My Work, My Faith.”
“When you’re looking for your life’s vocation, you’re in a strange room with no light,” she said. The civil war undermined her motivation to become a pediatrician, and she fell into a dark place, dropping out of school and entering an abusive relationship.
She found her light when she became a social worker serving women who had survived abuse. Sadness, anger, and excitement about her work brought her to a place of “unexplained joy” that has motivated her ever since to pursue her sense of personal mission.
She emphasized that in a person’s vocation, life, work, and faith are inextricable. “The most important lesson for my life,” she said, “is the sense of a higher power.” She proudly calls herself “a Jesus person,” and she sees religious faith as the basis for respecting others’ faiths and having an appropriate sense of humility.
“Never despise humble beginnings,” she concluded, and encouraged all peace-loving people to step into the light.
Gbowee appeared at Wagner College through Project Connect. An initiative of the Eastern Cluster of Lutheran Seminaries funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment, Project Connect supports vocational exploration by young Lutherans. Wagner’s Chaplain Martin Malzahn, a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, was a member of the retreat’s leadership team.
Wagner students will have new opportunities for vocational exploration during the upcoming academic year, thanks to a grant from the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE), a program of the Council of Independent Colleges.
Beginning in the fall, students in religiously-affiliated student organizations will participate together in community service and engage in interfaith dialogue, for the purposes of exploring their sense of vocation. Student leaders, staff, and faculty will plan activities, attend conferences, and receive training this spring and summer.
In addition, vocational exploration through interfaith dialogue will be incorporated in spring semester seminars that are part of Wagner’s new trial extension of the First Year Program.