Considering that the Princeton Review ranked Sarah Lawrence College second on a list of least religious schools, the clergy is not the first line of careers you would assume for its students. That is until you meet JJ Warren (’19), who can be frequently seen sporting a wooden cross and praying over his meals at Bates or the Pub.
“[Sarah Lawrence] is a place where people haven't necessarily had experience with religion before, and if they do, it is mostly negative. So it is a neat experience, because I get to be part of people experiencing, sometimes, faith for the first time,” Warren said.
The Spiritual Life Director, co-Chair of Christian Union and co-Chair of Interfaith Union is on the path to becoming a pastor of the Methodist Church. This vocation, however, was only recently realized. Until the summer before his senior year of high school, Warren was set on becoming an actor. “I, for a long time, didn't want to be a pastor, I wanted to be an actor, and I only applied to schools for acting. Sarah Lawrence was the only school that I applied to that wasn't a BFA program,” Warren explained. “The summer before my senior year, I already had done my interviews for colleges and I already had my list so I wasn't going to change that.”
But his career in acting shifted after a talk with his camp pastor at Camp Casowasco, a Christian youth camp. “When I was sitting at the lake with this pastor I just had this feeling like ‘this is what you are here for. You are here to take care of people’s souls and hearts.’ Since then it has been something I have been called to,” Warren, who lives in Penn Yan, New York, affirmed. Warren has since given sermons at several United Methodist Churches.
Warren admitted to being, at times, uncomfortable expressing his faith at Sarah Lawrence College. “I have this shirt that is just really cheesy Christian that says, ‘Today’s weather, God reigns and the son shines.’ I was going to wear it today, but I thought people would look at me and be like ‘that is imperialistic Christianity that you are forcing upon us,’” said Warren.
But Warren does not let any negative interactions on campus stop him from providing spiritual lessons. For Christian Union, Warren has headed a seven part discussion series on “The Seven Big Questions”: does life have a purpose, is there a God, why does God allow pain and suffering, is Christianity too narrow, is Jesus really God, is the bible reliable, can I know God personally? No matter where a person is at in their spiritual journey, Warren argued, “everyone thinks about these questions. Asking questions is the Sarah Lawrence nature.”
Warren also extends himself beyond Christianity by working with Interfaith Union and taking classes in other religions, such as a class on the Koran. “We say that Sarah Lawrence is liberal, and we are to a certain extent, but we also sometimes don't accept what we don't like ... But to be able to come together and say that we all practice our beliefs differently, [that] we can come together for our campus and be here for each other is really special and really unique.”
Warren believes that interfaith dialogue can create solidarity within this Trump administration: “Interfaith as a way of expressing no matter what happens in our country, no matter what happens in the world, that we are all united by our humanity, by our belief in something more than us.” After the presidential election, Warren and other Interfaith Union members worked overnight to plan a prayer vigil, which resulted in a packed house in the North Room, Pub. “I think that shows while our campus climate tends to silence religious conversation and expression of faith, the people on our campus, like all people, are searching and asking these questions,” Warren expressed.
Warren who grew up in a religious household with six siblings, not only advocates for interfaith on campus, but also off campus. Warren has attended synagogue several times with Hillel members, and those Hillel members have accompanied him to church. “I don't think I would experience that anywhere besides Sarah Lawrence,” Warren said. “So in a way Sarah Lawrence is so difficult for religious people, but at the same time, it is so wonderful, because it encourages us to unite together. We question here so we can experience those and express those questions.”
Seemingly incompatible with his religious work and hopes for the clergy, Warren identifies as gay. “I do identify as gay and I do identify as a follower of Christ. I connect to God through Jesus and I think the message of the [religious texts] and the entire biblical canon is love and inclusion of those the world has rejected,“ Warren said. “Jesus came for the poorest of the poor and yet he said ‘I am the king of the world.’ That’s where I put my sexuality.” Warren attributes much of the church’s general oppression of the LGBTQIA community to misinterpretation of scripture, because the oppressed are those the church should love the most. “I think for me I am able to live as a follower of Christ and as a gay man, because they are one of the same, because I am valued by God,” stated Warren, who will be pursuing religious studies at Oxford next year.
Warren has a long road toward becoming a pastor. To be fully ordained, he must attend a three-year seminary for a Masters of Divinity degree, learn Hebrew, Greek and other faiths, and work in a hospital as a clergyman. He must also undergo a psychological screening and interviews with clergy and church laypeople. While he has many years of study ahead of him, Warren stated that he has learned one of his most valuable lessons in religion at Sarah Lawrence. “I feel like here, especially at Sarah Lawrence, because it is such a small school, I don't look at religions as ideas or structures anymore, but as people.”
Andrea Cantor ('17)