CHHSM Creates Special Emerging Leadership Cohort for Rev. Jerry Paul Scholar Finalists

Dr. Zaria Davis, Nicole Starr, J.D., and George Davis-Williams, R.N., B.S.N.

A rare juxtaposition of events has created an innovative blessing for the UCC’s Council for Health and Human Service Ministries and the finalists for its Rev. Jerry Paul Scholar Program, or CHHSM Scholar Program. Beginning this summer, and through the 2023-2024 academic year, the three finalists for the CHHSM Scholar Program will form a one-year Emergent Leadership Cohort.

Dr. Zaria Davis, an M.Div. student at Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, Mo., and the 2022-2023 CHHSM Scholar, Nicole Starr J.D., a treatment court judge in Minnesota and seminary student at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in St. Paul, Minn., and George Davis-Williams R.N., B.S.N, also a student at United, are the three participants in this new cohort.

“The diverse strengths of these three candidates presented a unique opportunity that was too good to pass up!” said the Rev. George Graham, vice president of CHHSM. “Rather than offering scholarship support for a single Jerry Paul Scholar, CHHSM Legacy Funds will be used in 2023-2024 to fund leadership development activities related to the cohort, such as participation in the Nollau Leadership Institute and the CHHSM Annual Gathering. After the cohort has completed its year, we expect to recruit another Rev. Jerry Paul Scholar.”

Graham credits the Rev. Dr. Elyse Berry, CHHSM’s associate for advocacy and leadership development, with developing “a way to engage all three in a program in which they could learn from CHHSM, one another, and make contributions to CHHSM and our members at the same time.”

Berry said she came up with the program as a way to keep all three finalists “engaged in a programmatic and supportive way.”

“It is worth noting that all three mentioned that they had ‘found their people’ during the interview process with CHHSM,” she added. “There is potential for this to be an extraordinary opportunity to cultivate and widen our CHHSM community.”

The Emerging Leadership Cohort will support the three seminarians in integrating and engaging their experience in health and human services in new ways through a faith-based perspective, structure and community. The cohort will be enrolled in the Nollau Leadership Institute, have monthly individual and group mentoring, and will be able to network with CHHSM organizations and the UCC’s Health and Wholeness Ministries. Additionally, they will participate in the CHHSM Annual Gathering and engage with CHHSM’s board of directors and affinity groups.

“Although the program is called ‘Emerging Leadership,’ it does not presume that their leadership is emerging for the first time,” said Berry. “Indeed, each of the participants is a second-career seminarian, having had great success in their work before feeling the call to ministry. Rather, the focus is on what emerges for them when they are able to fully bring their faith, spirituality, and passion for social justice into their health and human services work and leadership.”

Through the cohort, the three will experience a community of kindred spirits and colleagues emphasizing that they are not alone in their desire to bring their whole selves to their work in the public realm.

About the Cohort Participants

Dr. Zaria Davis

Dr. Zaria Davis graduates from Eden this summer. She currently works as director of advocacy for the Chicago Community Bond Fund. She also is the senior consultant with New Direction Coaching & Consulting, LLC, working with nonprofit organizations. “The work that I do is through a racial equity lens,” she said. “I believe that CHHSM is aligned with my passion for the health and human service world.”

“My life experiences and educational background all aligned with me in a role of service within health and human services,” she added. “[CHHSM], is directly aligned with what I have been called to do!”

As CHHSM Scholar, she already has attended the CHHSM board meeting and Annual Gathering, and looks forward to those events, as well as participating in the Nollau Leadership Institute, in the coming year.

Nicole Starr, J.D.

Nicole Starr, a judge in the Minnesota Second Judicial District, is part of a national project of treatment courts. While respecting the separation of church and state, a treatment court recognizes that criminal justice cannot simple be about punishment and that the root of many problems is related to mental health, chemical health, and spiritual health. She wants to continue to work on the integration of spiritual well-being as part of the process of recovery.

She is already thankful for the presence of the cohort. Recently, she presided at the sentencing of a man found guilty of selling a heroin and fentanyl mixture to a woman who died of an overdose. “The woman’s family submitted 22 victim impact statements. They wanted the sentencing hearing to be a memorial service. They wanted their loved one back. They wanted emotional comfort. They wanted vengeance,” she said. “The man submitted a single letter from his mother. She asked that I remember that her son is loved; he is a human being; and he is a child of God.”

“Where is the role of spirituality and faith in these moments?” Starr continued. “How do I balance the competing emotional interests? What do justice and fairness look like at this moment? The CHHSM program and our cohort offered company on what can be a lonely journey. [At the recent Nollau Leadership Institute retreat], I asked the cohort to hold me in their hearts as I made hard decisions. To me, the program is about finding a community that believes in the language of love, understands the demands of justice, and will walk with me (as I will with them) as we try to live out our reset intentions.”

George Davis-Williams, R.N., B.S.N.

George Davis-Williams’ projected graduation date from United is 2025, as he (like the others) is juggling full-time work with seminary studies. He currently is a school health supervisor for Michigan’s District Health Department #10, which is comprised of nurses and health education specialists. He and his husband are members of Cadillac (Mich.) First Congregational UCC. Growing up in a conservative church in Michigan, he felt an early pull toward ministry, but in adolescence, realized he was gay and thought that path was closed to him. He turned to nursing, and while that fulfilled his interest in science and service, he still yearned to integrate the larger questions of life into his work.

After starting United as a Master of Leadership in Social Transformation candidate, his call to ministry re-emerged, and he now is an M.Div. candidate.

My initial concept was simply to be a bi-vocational nurse and minister,” Davis-Williams said. “Another interest of mine is to discover new approaches for congregations to remain relevant to the communities they serve by offering nontraditional support services based on the real lives of families and individuals — especially in small, rural churches. Churches could provide the facilities, connections, and relationship necessary to integrate these services into small towns and rural areas.”

“One reason that I am so glad to be a part of the Emerging Leaders cohort is related to my ongoing discernment as a nurse and minister,” he added. “I often think of James 2:26 — that faith without works is dead. This cohort is such an inspiring place to be for me, as a person who wants to be able to merge my nursing and ministerial callings.”

The Emerging Leadership Cohort experience will benefit both CHHSM and the three seminarians. “We are thankful for the gifts Zaria, Nicole, and George will bring to CHHSM during the coming year,” said Jamar Doyle, president and CEO of CHHSM, “and we look forward to helping them as they discern the path of God’s call in their lives.”

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