Circles Rise Together

September 1, 2015
Angela Thurston combines art and spirit to leaven twenty-first-century community

Angie Thurston grew up acting, writing, and making visual art in Boulder, Colorado. So, when she came to Brown University as an undergraduate, she was thrilled to study with the Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel. But while she learned a lot about art from Vogel, she says that she learned even more about community.

“Paula had a philosophy: ‘Circles rise together,’” she says. “It’s the principle that, when we are generous with each other, it’s better for each and all of us. I remember that she really embodied that and it stuck with me when I left Brown.”

Thurston brings Vogel’s philosophy to her exploration of twenty-first-century spiritual community at Harvard Divinity School. A student in the MDiv program, her goal is to bring the deep sense of connection that she experiences through the arts to a generation of millennials that long for transcendence, but is often turned off by organized religion. 

"I want to address the hunger that I sense among young people for meaningful connections that help them realize their potential."

“I found deep community through the arts,” she says. “We were all participating in creating something that was bigger than ourselves. We all brought something unique to the project. It fostered a lot of strong relationships. But outside of that, there was really not a sense of belonging among people my age—certainly not through organized religion. That hunger to socialize my own spiritual life is what ultimately brought me to HDS.”

The daughter of a Jewish mother and a Protestant father, Thurston says that both of her parents were dissatisfied with the spiritual content of their upbringings. Before she was born, they took an interest in the Urantia Book, a spiritual and philosophical text of unknown authorship that probably originated in Chicago in the first half of the 20th century.

“The Urantia Book is sort of a textbook on the universe,” she says. “It has science, religion, philosophy, cosmology, sociology, history, you name it. It’s read all over the world and was the foundation of my religious upbringing. It’s all about the personal experience of getting to know God and striving to become like him.”

At Brown, the creatively inclined Thurston took advantage of the flexibility of the undergraduate curriculum to immerse herself in the literary arts.

“I basically majored in playwriting,” she says.  “Brown has no core requirements, so I ended up taking 11 playwriting classes, including the one with Paula Vogel.”

After she graduated in 2007, Thurston moved to Brooklyn for six years to write her own plays. She also started to work in arts administration for organizations like Manhattan School of Music and BRIC, the organization that produces the massive Celebrate Brooklyn! festival of concerts and performances every summer.  When she decided that she wanted to pursue her interests in art, community, and spirituality, she considered the University of Chicago and Yale divinity schools, as well as Union Theological Seminary. She decided on HDS, though, as the place where she could best combine “the kind of explorations that I wanted to undertake, both personally and professionally.” She says that the School’s field education program was a big factor in her choice.

“I don’t expect to be ordained, but I do intend to dedicate my life to ministry,” she says. “At HDS I can do field work in settings that contribute to my spiritual and vocational formation more directly than placement in a congregation. I couldn’t find another divinity school where I wouldn’t have to fight tooth and nail in order to get the work I want to do considered for the degree program.”

Much of Thurston’s most important work has come outside of the classroom, not only through field education—which enabled her to chair last year’s International Urantia Book Conference in Amherst, Massachusetts—but also through an innovative study that she co-authored with classmate Casper ter Kuile. Titled “How We Gather,” the research looks at the ways young people are creating communities that fill the gap left by their dissatisfaction with organized religion.

“Any institution that has creed as the price of entry is not an appealing proposition to a lot of young people,” she explains. “So their attempts to foster deep community are instead going in different directions. A lot of organizations that we mapped in the report are not explicit about addressing the transcendent in people’s lives. The question for me is whether these communities could be places where people can share the spiritual dimension of their journey.”

Thurston and ter Kuile reported on 10 organizations that fostered community, personal transformation, social transformation, purpose finding, creativity, and accountability. The groups they included ranged from the Millennial Trains Project, which “leads crowd-funded train journeys across America for diverse groups of young innovators who are thrown together for 10 days and 3,000 miles,” to SoulCycle, “a spin class where fitness is associated with empowerment, joyful living, and both inner and outer strength.” In between were organizations that dealt with loss, social change, art, and more.

Thurston says that she sees at HDS many of the traits she and ter Kuile identified in their case studies, particularly a strong sense of community.

“I remember showing up at orientation and meeting current students,” she says. “Pretty much to a person, everybody said the community here was the most meaningful and significant part of their experience.  It’s unusual for a graduate school, and I have experienced it again and again throughout my time here. HDS has been a very fertile and transformative environment for me personally, mostly because of the relationships I’ve developed.”

Last summer Thurston developed a lot of new relationships during a ten-week field placement in India, where she worked at a home for abandoned and destitute girls in the Durabi slum of Mumbai. With funding from HDS’s Office of Ministry Studies and Harvard’s South Asia Institute, Thurston helped teach and mentor 36 girls, and also tried to help the organization build on its success in raising them to become independent, self-sufficient young women.

“Spending ten weeks with these girls and their caretakers, I learned more about ministry than through any other experience I’ve had,” she says. “Their devotion, courage, resilience, and love will permanently inspire my work, no matter what shape that takes."

Thurston says that she’s grateful for the opportunities she’s had at HDS—as well as the grant aid that’s made her experience possible.  When she graduates in 2016, she hopes to build on the work that she and ter Kuile have done with millennials.

“I want to deepen community and combat the crisis of isolation among the rising generation,” she says.  “I want to address the hunger that I sense among young people for meaningful connections that help them realize their potential. And the HDS community continues to support me in realizing that aspiration.”