By Micah Rensunberg, MDiv ’25
At Boston University’s School of Theology, a place lauded for its trauma-responsive chaplaincy and interfaith work, mads deshazo enrolled to earn her master’s of divinity for both of those elements to further inform the future she anticipated in serving others. She died in January of 2023, just after her first semester. The circumstances regarding this passing have been kept vague – without knowing the reason for this, it is possible, still, to talk about her experience at the school and the injustice in her not being here to do the work she was so eager to make a difference with.
It is worth considering that we do not have to know the exact nature of what happened with this fellow student to still take seriously the reality of her death and the ways this educational environment became life-limiting during the time she spent here. This student was not the first who has openly struggled with liminality at STH – having been promised a place of compassion by staff and current students in conversations before coming, only to encounter prejudice and outright callousness.
As someone who went through the first semester in the fall of 2022 alongside deshazo, I can attest to what was promised versus the lived reality of what seemed to be a satirical and constant misfiring by the school. From professors who had no language appropriately accounting for religious traditions outside of Christianity to deans who overloaded students with emotionally exhausting single-unit courses – with punitive attendance and an unwillingness to account for the broader diversity at the school beyond its methodist framework.
A curriculum review is not enough to account for these issues or to address the immediacy with which mental health concerns among the student body should be heard. Second and third years spoke constantly about how awful the first couple of semesters were for their ability to function on the day-to-day – coupled for many with the integration of brand new ways of thinking and a sort of fear around asking questions that might push the envelope too much.
When I was obtaining my undergraduate degree, I navigated these realities at a small, nazarene university that was at least open – in its student handbook – about who would be discriminated against, should they end up going to school there. I wrote about how even this vague and passive non-acceptance is dangerous and was weary of that reality also being true at a methodist institution. Assured by alumni and currently affiliated individuals that this would not be the case here, I enrolled – additionally reassured by the trauma-responsive congregation work I was familiar with BU doing alongside churches across the United States.
Does it suffice to say I was wrong? It is the response I have received from those who I choose to share the complexities of these experiences with. Instead of holding the difficult nature of this situation in ways that might call someone to act in solidarity with me – or others who are struggling here – I am told that I should have known or that I should participate in the upcoming curriculum review to help things improve over time. This is the same as what was told to my friend, mads. Those practically identical reductions or denials were given to the students who dropped out of our mandatory first semester courses in waves – as folks who were promised a different reality than the one they received felt overwhelmed and alone.
This death should not become a symbol of the change that needs to be made, but remembering and pursuing justice for mads means taking stock of the world we inhabit at STH and committing to doing better – not just by way of thought experiments or long-term planning but by being there for those who are being othered everyday.
I eulogized my friend less than a week after finding out that she died – both at an already planned interfaith service in the chapel and at the weekly community lunch. Professors, staff, and students stared back at me, nodding when I expressed my profound grief and growing still when I suggested that the institution we exist inside of has the power to end lives. As much as possible, I am trying to demonstrate the dire cost of ignoring our responsibility to each other and hoping that we are moved to do something with our time here that involves showing up compassionately, instead of acting as if our words don’t have the capacity to end lives.
About The Author
Micah Rensunberg has a background in communications and experience in facilitating queer affirming spaces. His undergraduate degree is in psychology, and he was a Sergeant in the U.S. Army before seeking an inactive contract as a Conscientious Objector. Currently, he is living and working in an intentional living community run by Quakers while in the process of converting to Judaism.