Sara A. Williams

Assistant Professor of Community-Based Learning, Ethics, and Society and Director of Field Education


  • M.A., Yale University Divinity School
  • M.S.W., University of Georgia
  • Ph.D., Emory University

Draw the Circle Wide

Draw the circle wide. In divinity school, these words often opened our chapel services. They rang out against the silence to remind us that however wide our circle, it could be wider still. They beckoned us to examine ourselves in light of the questions: Who is excluded? How am I complicit in their exclusion? How can I move toward repentance and solidarity?

These questions animate my teaching and scholarship as a community-engaged educator and a Christian ethicist. I am committed to place-based pedagogical approaches that ask students to critically reflect on intersections among their social location, vocational call, and community contexts. As an ethicist working in the virtue tradition, I believe the goal of such reflection is to cultivate a self increasingly capable of discerning how she is complicit in and harmed by relations of domination. This framework is inspired by what educational philosopher Paulo Freire called “conscientização,” and what poststructuralist philosopher Michel Foucault called “the practice of freedom.” Both argued that such reflexive processes free us to enter into relations of care and to pursue just social change.

I believe that reflexive formation is most richly engaged in the messy realities of the everyday. This is why I use ethnographic methods in my research and community-engaged pedagogies in my teaching. The complexities of ordinary life confront us with competing goods, structural constraints, and moral dilemmas. They prompt us to deliberation when the faithful response is unclear. They challenge us to risk vulnerability. Seen in this frame, field education is much more than an internship. It is a spiritual discipline, a profound opportunity for vocational formation that constantly asks how we participate in God’s liberative work within the particularities of place and lived community. And, as we are invited to ministry practice in the places and communities of others, we may begin to wonder if the question should not be about the width of my circle at all. Perhaps we might instead humbly ask the communities in which we work whether we may come alongside them in their circles to collaboratively build beloved community.