Skip to content »

Meet Our New Faculty

Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary is excited to welcome two new faculty members in the field of Christian education. Rev. Dr. Mai-Anh Le Tran (G-ETS 2004) joins the seminary as associate professor of religious education and practical theology and Dr. Débora Junker (G-ETS 2003) has stepped down from her role as dean of international students to accept an appointment as assistant professor of Christian education. 

You can learn more about our newest faculty members by reading their interviews below.

Why did you choose to take a faculty position at Garrett-Evangelical?

First, I am grateful to be part of a faculty that is among the more diverse collegiums (in terms of gender, race, denomination, background, discipline) of all theological schools, is distinguished in their scholarship and teaching, and impactful in their work within the academy, the church, and civic life. 

Second, I am pleased to work at a United Methodist seminary that has positioned itself to be a servant of the public, a partner with the church and wider community, an educational center that is locally rooted yet globally connected. 

Third, I am proud of the hefty legacy of Christian religious education at Garrett-Evangelical—a department that not only boasts of heavy-weight faculty and graduates, but one that has always invited new expansions of disciplinary boundaries. Today, Garrett-Evangelical may very well be the only Mainline Protestant seminary that has four faculty members with wide-ranging specializations in Christian religious education. Together with colleagues in the other fields, we are stretching the umbrella of practical theology in exciting ways. It is exhilarating to be co-laborers with these “movers and shakers.”  

Fourth, I love it that Garrett-Evangelical is a “Garret” within a larger ecology of educational systems and resources in the Chicagoland area. It is both a significant and a humble perch for us—to be able to look out and speak out from very specific vantage points, and to be reminded that we are one of many excellent partners in this greater enterprise of forming leaders for the church and the world. 

Fifth, I deeply appreciate the diverse student body. While I am still slowly getting to know the make-up of our students, I am delighted that they truly come from every walk of life. 

Finally, I am impressed by the tight-knit structures of administrative leadership and support. They make our common work possible through competence and dedication.

We know that the reasons for saying “yes” to a community and a web of relationships are many and will continue to grow. We also know that relationships require daily “yeses” from each partner, a continual renewal of our commitments to one another in the shared work. I hope to be a worthy partner in our endeavor to build troth and seek truth (a la Parker Palmer) at this special place of learning.

As a professor in religious education and practical theology, what do you think are the most important lessons and/or skills you need/hope to pass on to prepare future leaders for service in the church, academy, and world?

More than ever, I am convinced of this: Education—and religious education—is vital for the cultivation of peaceable, equitable, participatory, democratic society. We live in a time when a pedagogy of disimagination is rampant in wider culture. The “case studies” for this are all around us: divisive rhetoric stokes fear and mistrust, bullying and prejudice are sanctioned, misinformation distorts informed opinions, public policies do not always advance social and economic equity, the moral framework for evaluating what is good for our communities and society is so easily reduced to “looking out for #1.” In such times as these, religious leadership must step up to assist individuals and communities in reinvigorating our imagination and replenishing our capacities for empathy, compassion, agency, critical reflection, and wise action. That is a both a theological task and an educational task.

The fields of religious education and practical theology contribute to these tasks by offering valuable instincts and skill sets for religious leadership. The fields prepare us to learn across cultures and traditions; to organize opportunities and experiences for consciousness-raising; to excavate marginalized or suppressed sources of cultural and religious wisdom; to critique social, cultural, ecclesial, or political structures that privilege a few at the expense of the vulnerable; to “make accessible and make manifest” the rich traditions that guide our new visions for and commitments to the flourishing of common life in pluralistic society. Regardless of vocational track or professional arena, religious leaders will be charged with the above tasks in their work. I’m only half joking when I boast that I teach in the most important fields of theological study.

What’s the number one reason you chose to become a professor in religious education and practical theology?

I actually didn't know what I was getting myself into. I grew up in the Evangelical Protestant Church of Vietnam, in a family of way too many clergy of various denominational affiliation, yet none of them women. This robust evangelical formation (a product of colonial missionary fervor) and the devastating history of colonization, occupation, and internecine warfare in Vietnam profoundly shaped my vocational trajectory. I went to seminary out of a modest yet earnest motivation: I simply wanted to become a better Sunday School teacher, and good theological education was strongly encouraged by my family and by the church. But what do you know, “Christian religious education” is intrinsically consciousness-raising and justice-seeking. I quickly came to realize that the teaching ministry of the church is that which enables people to truly be the followers of “the radical way” of that first-century itinerant Teacher. And as an academic discipline, the field is essentially interdisciplinary, requiring rigorous integration of theology, biblical studies, the arts of ministry, critical study of culture and social systems. So, entering my 15th year of teaching, I represent the field of religious education as a constructive (and scrambling!) pedagogue and practical theologian. I am a professor who is also an ordained minister of The United Methodist Church—still the only woman in my extended family to be ordained. I proudly profess that knowledge and grace co-exist not only in the sanctuary, but also in the seminary, and sometimes more in the streets.

What is the focus of your latest research and what do you find most intriguing about it?

My recent book with Abingdon Press was a practical theological reflection on the cultural and religious pedagogies that abet violence, particularly the violence of racial prejudice in wider US culture today. A couple of shorter writing projects are taking me back to my earlier study of the Vietnamese refugee/immigrant experience, this time with an eye toward connecting the making of US-American power globally to the militarization of policing practices domestically. My hope is to pull these disparate streams of research together to say some meaningful things about religious education for a racially just, culturally diverse, and multi-religiously vibrant world.

What was your favorite class as a student (any grade level) and why?

High School Calculus! I was one of a handful of kids in my class who took the AP exam for both Calculus AB and BC, earning a “5” (the highest possible score) in the first, and “4” in the second. Truth told, I can’t even do basic math in my head today, and couldn’t tell you what “calculus” is if my life depended on it, but I still get giddy thinking back on those 6:30 a.m. study sessions with just one or two other classmates. We carried ourselves like an elite squad of the select few, and I am secretly proud for being a girl who was good at hard math. The moral of this story: theological study invites the same capaciousness of imagination and rigor of study as calculus…

What do you like to do in your free time, when you are not research, writing, or teaching?

Getting lost. Surely, there’s a laundry list of things that I like to do—e.g., traveling internationally, family road trips (almost always with packed spring rolls), getting connected to bodies of water (so cathartic and therapeutic), cupcakery (with cake decorating lessons under my belt), watching movies (especially with my mother, who likes Asian epic period dramas and non-talky, action-packed adventure varieties), binge-listening to Vietnamese folk tunes (many of which I did not get to learn while growing up).... But if there is one thing that I do the most often, it is getting lost, and I love it. Whether it be wandering about in the streets of Ankara, Jakarta, Nairobi, or getting constantly turned around in the streets of Evanston/Chicago, I strangely like the experience of disorientation, of having to pay very careful attention to my environment, but, at the same time, having to let go of control and just go with the flow. Getting lost makes you learn to mind your place in this world.

What’s the number one reason you chose to become a professor in Christian education? 

As far as I can remember, becoming a teacher was a strong desire cherished since my childhood. I vividly remember how I would play the role of a teacher by transforming our kitchen into a little school and persuading my brother and sister to be my students. My earlier teaching experiences began to inhabit my unconsciousness, though in a dormant manner, throughout my youth. It took me time, significant changes, and different routes in life, to understand and fully embrace that call, and more specifically the call to become a theological educator. 

I had barely finished my undergrad in education when I moved to Argentina. Whereas I did not intend to be involved with any formal education while there, it was only a matter of time before I enrolled in a theological studies program which gave me the distinct opportunity to study under the guidance of well-known professors such as Miguez Bonino and Severino Croatto, among others influential scholars. It was a captivating moment, and soon enough I found myself falling in love with theology. My studies at ISEDET, Buenos Aires, opened new horizons and prompted me to pursue further studies in the intersections of education and theology upon my return to Brazil. Thus, encouraged by peers and mentors to advance my studies in the area of Christian education, a needed area in the context of the Methodist Church in Brazil at that time, I felt the necessity to advance my studies to contribute to the preparation of other teachers in that particular area. 

As I look back to the many pieces that compose the mosaic of my journey, I can positively say that although my vocation brings many joys and challenges, it is always an exciting endeavor to transverse the unfamiliar territories of academic life together with my students. In this journey, I try to bring to my mind the inspiring words of Nikos Kazantzakis who says, “ideal teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross, then having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create bridges of their own.” Certainly, in my academic life, I have experienced professors who molded that for me, and now it is my turn to do that for my students.  

What is the focus of your latest research and what do you find most intriguing about it?

I am currently working on a manuscript, Religious Education for Global Citizenship: Embracing Compassion and Solidarity, in which I am exploring the concept of global citizenship within a religious education framework. In light of the current political climate around the world, my research confirms that there is an urgent need to be involved more concretely in issues of citizenship from theological and practical stances. To accomplish this fascinating and challenging task, I have engaged in an interdisciplinary effort bringing into dialogue different fields of knowledge such as theology (liberation theologies and public theology), sociology, inter-cultural studies, cultural-historical activity theory, and more specifically the work of Paulo Freire and Lev Vygotsky. My goal is to demonstrate how people from a diverse religious background and different cultures need to acquire skills, values, and attitudes necessary to live and to thrive in the context of a globalized world.   

As a professor in Christian education and director of the Hispanic-Latinx Center, what do you think are the most important lessons and/or skills you need/hope to pass on to prepare future leaders for service in the church, academy, and world?

As a Freirean educator, I am concerned with providing students a creative learning space where all can learn and grow, including myself. For me, education is a communal effort in which each person, along with the teacher, contributes to the process through active engagement and disposition of mind and heart. In my educational praxis, I find it fundamental to stress the need to educate the human in each of us, that is, our sensibilities, so that we may be able to scrutinize the unveiled codes that have prevented us, educators and students, from coming to the classroom as whole beings. To resist what hinders us from being human is indispensable to cultivate our ethical values and spirituality that can sustain us through moments of struggles. However, the spirituality that I am referring to here is that “attitude which puts life at the center and defends and promotes life against all the mechanisms of death, desiccation, or stagnation” (Leonardo Boff).

So, I hope to inspire my students to think of the act of educating as a communal effort where learner’s experiences are respected, socio-cultural reality is reflected upon, and dialogue becomes the channel to support the exercise of critical thinking. These are the principles and attitudes that guide my work at the Center. 

What was your favorite class as a student (any grade level) and why?

As you may know, Brazil is considered a Roman Catholic country. Most Brazilians considered themselves Roman Catholic although the majority rarely attend to a Mass. When I was in the fourth grade, about ten years old, one of the classes in my school was religious education. The class was taught by a young Roman Catholic priest, who later became a bishop in my hometown. Father Leo, as we usually addressed him, was a kind man, soft-spoken and very approachable person. I really liked his class especially because I knew better than any other classmate the subject that he would discuss in class: God, Bible, Jesus and alike. Although I liked him a lot, sometimes what he would say was different from the teachings of my Sunday School lessons. So, I began to think that my peers were listening to just one side of the story. Then, one day, I had an idea: I approached him and asked if he would allow me to invite my pastor to come to our class to talk about the topics we were discussing in class. He paused for a moment, and said, why not? I was very excited! The next Sunday, I ran to my pastor and explained to him my idea and told him how wonderful it would be to have him explain things from his perspective to all my classmates. He promptly said yes. My pastor was a wise man of God from whom I learned the first lessons about God. Later in my youth, I came to appreciate the depth of his theological knowledge, his insightful sermons, and his sensitive teachings.

The dialogue happened, and it was a success. My peers enjoyed the experience, and I was very pleased to contribute to the event! At that time, I had no idea that by inviting my teacher, Father Leo, and my pastor, Rev. Ismael, I was promoting an interfaith dialogue and planting the seeds of what came to be my vocation some years later.

What do you like to do in your free time, when you are not research, writing, or teaching?

I enjoy being in the company of family and friends, attending music events, traveling, meeting and connecting with people and appreciating God’s creation in all its colors and wonders.