Hannah Phillips Mollenkamp never considered herself religious. For someone who studied English literature and German at the University of North Texas, it might come as a surprise that Mollenkamp ended up at a Christian seminary with hopes of becoming a pastor.
“I had a lot of feelings about it,” she says. “This is not something I ever thought I would be considering, becoming a pastor.”
Mollenkamp, who grew up in Austin, Texas, and is bisexual, says she had never heard of Methodism being accepting of LGBTQ+ people like herself. The General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted against allowing gay marriage and the ordainment of gay people in 2019. The decision served as a turning point for Mollenkamp, who realized she wanted to fight for LGBTQ+ rights from within the Methodist Church. To do so, she would need to go back to school.
After researching various Methodist seminaries around the United States, Mollenkamp found a small seminary outside of Chicago: Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. The institution sits on Northwestern’s campus, hidden in a nook just north of Deering Library.
While the beauty of Garrett’s campus enticed her, Mollenkamp says one of the main reasons she chose the school was its vocal support for the LGBTQ+ community.
“I had already met with a recruiter who is an openly gay, married, ordained deacon in the Methodist Church, and he recruits for Garrett admissions,” she says. “And so I knew that I would be supported here no matter what.”
Although Garrett is a faith-based school, Director of Admissions and Recruitment Katie Fahey says interested applicants range from those pursuing social justice degrees to those in public ministry or even non-profit management.
“We have students that come to us and say, ‘I have a lot of questions theologically — big questions,’” Fahey says.
Because Garrett is primarily a graduate school, Fahey says interested applicants come from three main age groups: college graduates, those in their mid-30s leaving previous jobs to pursue ministry careers and those pursuing faith-based careers later in life.
Since her acceptance to Garrett, Mollenkamp says she’s found that many Northwestern students are seemingly unaware of the seminary.
“I’ve been walking up Sheridan behind a couple of Northwestern students, one of them being like, ‘Oh my gosh, what is that beautiful building?’ and I just was like, ‘It’s the seminary,’” Mollenkamp says. “I do think it’s funny that most of Northwestern has no idea we’re here.”
Garrett is not a subset of Northwestern’s campus by any means. In fact, it was founded nearly in tandem with Northwestern in the mid-1850s, when Methodism was the most popular Protestant sect of 19th- century America, according to Garrett Research Instruction and Digital Services Librarian Daniel Smith.
Stained glass windows depict biblical scenes in Garrett Seminary’s Chapel of the Unnamed Faithful. (Photos by Hope Cartwright)
What started as a six-person school offering a degree similar to a bachelor’s degree gradually became an institution with upwards of 70 students near the turn of the 20th century. For the next century, Northwestern and Garrett were intertwined with one another religiously and academically, as dual-degree programs like a doctorate in philosophy lasted until the early 2000s.
“The relationship was obviously much different then — not that there isn’t a friendly relationship now,” Smith says. “But I think there was a deep connection and a desire for both institutions to survive.”
In 1972, then-Northwestern President Robert Strotz’s efforts to secularize the University culminated in its official separation from the Methodist Church, Smith says.
“The letters were almost hostile. It was like, ‘Do not list us anymore as a Methodist institution and, in fact, we haven’t regarded ourselves as a Methodist institution for a long, long time,’” Smith says.
Today, the two institutions take part in a biannual interfaith luncheon and dialogue, one that brings religious leaders together to explore crossovers, according to Garrett President the Rev. Dr. Javier Viera.
He says these luncheons grew out of Northwestern President Morton Schapiro’s friendship with Garrett’s former president Philip Amerson in an attempt to advance dialogue between the two campuses and forge connections with the Evanston community.
“That work has continued,” Viera says. “I hope the new [Northwestern] president will want to continue that — I know I will.”
Students from both schools are allowed to take courses at either institution, and libraries permit an interchange of materials between students at the two campuses.
The degree that many pastors receive before becoming ordained is the Master of Divinity. At Garrett, this three-year program provides concentrations such as peace studies or LGBTQ+ studies. Derek Stienmetz, who is finishing up their second year of the Master of Divinity degree, says that while introductory classes are generally geared toward becoming a pastor, other classes — like Theology of Race and Culture — focus on broader sociocultural concepts. These classes, Stienmetz says, have encouraged them to think about instituting change within the Church as a whole.
“This is not something I ever thought I would be considering, becoming a pastor.”- Hannah Phillips Mollenkamp, Garrett Seminary student
In a Christology course, Mollenkamp investigated various theologians, like Paul the Apostle, without the bias she previously held about their views on the world.
“Instead of just shutting down and saying, ‘I’ve seen this used in a way that was harmful, and therefore I can’t use it for anything that’s good,’ I realized that that is actually really counter to the work that I’m trying to do in this world. I can have a conversation within these texts instead of just rejecting them all together,” she says.
Although Garrett is largely supportive of progressive ideas, Stienmetz says biases and obstacles that they have encountered at Garrett are common within Western understandings of religion.
“I’ve had to remind a couple of professors, all of which were pretty established at the institution, of my pronouns and queer identity,” they say. “[I’ve also pushed] back on theological understandings and beliefs that uphold not only homophobic ideas but also uphold white supremacy. And that is something Garrett is very mindful of — deconstructing colonial understandings of faith to find something liberated — that’s something that I’ve never experienced in a church setting.”
Now that Stienmetz and Mollenkamp are both about to enter their third years at Garrett, their seminary experiences are almost over. From the moment she stepped on campus, Mollenkamp says she felt like making friends was easy. Today, she’s found a lifelong community.
“I never had a group of friends who are my age and who are Christian,” she says. “So it’s kind of funny that I have all these precious, devoted nerds around me now that I can make terrible jokes about church history with.”
When asked what she gained the most out of her Garrett experience, Mollenkamp answered, “Perspective.”
“There really is an emphasis at Garrett on reading theologians from different schools of criticism and backgrounds,” Mollenkamp says. “I’ve just learned that it’s all so big, and I can’t possibly do or hold on to it all. And I’m not alone.”