Building Bridges - Princeton Theological Seminary

Whether it’s connecting people to their communities, resources to those in need, or God’s presence to the everyday, Ruth Faith Santana-Grace, MDiv ’94, sees herself as a conduit.

For their 30th wedding anniversary, Santana-Grace and her husband traveled to see the Northern Lights in Iceland. “We stood in the cold for an hour just saying, ‘wow,’” she recalls. Celtic tradition talks about “thin places” where Heaven and Earth meet. This, says Santana-Grace, seemed to be one of those places.

“It was one of those moments where the veil is lifted and you are aware of something divine and holy.”

Today, as executive presbyter at the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and member of the Seminary Board of Trustees, Santana-Grace compares those Northern Lights to the work of God. “I call it the aurora borealis of light,” she says of God’s work. “It’s God breaking in where you can’t contain the Spirit. It whispers. It dances. It moves. And it’s extraordinary. When God’s light breaks into our reality, it compels us to find more.”

And more she has found. As executive presbyter, Santana-Grace, with the support of her team, manages a field education leadership program, the Ministry and Leadership Incubator (MLI). Through this program Seminary students support parishes and clergy and they in turn mentor future leaders. The connections established help to empower seminarians as they grow in their gifts, sharpen their skills, and gain greater clarity about their call.

Princeton Seminary MDiv student Ryan Pearce’s field education under Santana-Grace at the Presbytery of Philadelphia involved learning about community leadership. “I’ve seen growth in my aptitude to start new ministries and to assess a situation and to figure out what the most appropriate response would be,” Pearce says. “Additonally, the cohort model has given us a chance to also learn from our peers and dialogue over things that we experience at our individual churches but seem to also apply on another level.”

The creation of the MLI is just one of many examples of how Santana-Grace has the knack to create structured opportunities for different groups to collaborate and strengthen one another.

Early Days

Santana-Grace’s journey to find more ironically began with a strong conviction to avoid seminary. Growing up, her parents were both elders in one of the largest Hispanic Presbyterian churches in New York City. When her father decided to go to seminary, the family uprooted to Maine. As a teenager, Santana-Grace did what she could to stay in New York. “I graduated a semester early from high school, and remained in New York for college,” she says. “My trajectory was, avoid ministry at all costs. The irony of it all, right?”

A stint working for a political campaign in the city led her to a series of jobs in Washington, D.C., and then in Europe. Her role? To build bridges between American leaders and their counterparts in Europe, so they may discuss issues of mutual concern such as education and the economy.

Throughout this, her faith kept her grounded. So, when it was time to choose her next chapter, Princeton Theological Seminary made sense. “I thought, I’ll go to seminary just to explore what God may have for me,” she remembers. “I didn’t arrive at Princeton with this great conviction.” But she saw it through and, after graduating in 1994, was called to serve at First Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and then as executive presbyter of San Gabriel Presbytery in Southern California. This included working with 44 churches in the eastern-most region of Los Angeles County. “It was a totally different cultural reality there,” she says. “Half the churches worshipped in 11 languages, from Taiwanese and Thai to Japanese, Korean, Arabic, and Indonesian. It was humbling and extraordinary.” It was a chapter that would last 10 years.

It’s the Conversation

Today, Santana-Grace still considers herself a bridge builder. “I’ve traveled more than some, and it makes me rootless in some ways,” she says.

“The gift and challenge of bridge builders is that you never fully belong where you are. But your life is deeply blessed, because you continue to be formed by worlds you might otherwise never have experienced.”

Part of being a bridge builder is having – and facilitating – the hard conversations. For example, the Presbytery of Philadelphia recently reached a crossroads on same-gender marriage when the Presbyterian Church changed its language in support of it in 2015. Instead of conducting talks behind closed doors, Santana-Grace was among the Presbytery leadership that hosted eight opportunities for congregants to speak. “We created space for those conversations in a way that would allow the quiet person to share,” she says, “and not just the speechmakers that come in with their papers prepared.”

Santana-Grace places great value on these types of informal meetings, where decisions are not going to be made. The point is not a decision – it’s the conversation. Everyone is invited to speak and, soon, all kinds of voices are amplified. What’s important, she says, is “creating opportunities and safe spaces whereby people might hear each other,” she says. “That’s part of my leadership DNA now.”

Part of the challenge is that listening to one another isn’t easy. And it’s a challenge that presents itself to ministers too. “A sermon that congregants responded to with a fervent “Amen” 10 years ago may be received with some wariness today because of politics,” Santana-Grace says. “For me, the solution is to be a place of hope in a world of cynicism.”

As described by Santana-Grace, that means bringing people together even in a climate that seeks to divide. It means promoting possibilities rather than bemoaning barriers. And, it means resisting the urge to feed fear. “I believe we can change the world, and seize the opportunity to be that voice,” she says. “What a great opportunity to bridge faithfulness and relevance together.”

Looking Ahead

Under Santana-Grace’s leadership in 2017, the Presbytery of Philadelphia celebrated its 300th anniversary at a special Saturday service in North Philadelphia’s Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. In attendance were Presbytery officials, national leaders of the Church, the mayor of Philadelphia, and about 1,700 members of the Presbytery’s 124 congregations. In honor of this milestone, over $300,000 was raised to support eight missions pertaining to education, interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline, and encouraging justice.

So, what’s in store for the next 300 years? For starters, Santana-Grace is working with three courageous congregations, including the very first African American Presbyterian Church, to combine, strengthen, and amplify their witness in West Philadelphia. “The Presbytery has recently called a gifted leader who we believe will shepherd this creative initiative into a vibrant rebirth,” says Santana-Grace.

As this new collaboration continues to evolve into what God has in store for them, undoubtedly Santana-Grace will continue to play a key role in building bridges and fostering conversations in Philadelphia – and well beyond.