Margie Gong had not heard of Claremont School of Theology until her former pastor Rev. Dr. Mark S. Bollwinkel became her church’s senior pastor. Although she’s a committed life-long Methodist, she explains, she has worked in Silicon Valley area corporations and start-ups for more than 25 years. Yet now she’s an active and dedicated CST Board of Trustees member, who recently became its development committee chairperson.
“Pastor Bollwinkel introduced our church (Los Altos UMC) to Claremont’s outstanding work in preparing future compassion-driven church leaders,” says Gong. She remembers being especially inspired by CST’s unique interreligious programs that give students first-hand experience in working across religious boundaries to diminish conflicts, enhance awareness of commonalities, and collaborate to help heal the world. When Pastor Bollwinkel took a new church appointment, she facilitated the formation of a scholarship fund in his name as a farewell gift, which annually awards full year tuition to a 3rd year M.Div student.
Gong first met CST Pres. Jeffrey Kuan several years ago when Pastor Bollwinkel invited him to be a guest preacher at LAUMC. “After a few group meetings together, Pres. Kuan saw my potential to serve CST and the value my work experience could bring to CST, so asked me to join the Board of Trustees,” says Gong. “I was intrigued, but I don’t say yes to responsibilities lightly. Because when I commit, I commit fully. So I did research to make sure that this was something I truly could bring value to and prayed about it before I accepted the call to serve CST.”
She’s glad she made the commitment, she says. “Pres. Kuan together with our board president, Rev. Patricia Farris, lead a very collaborative team. They make each of the trustees feel valued. Our board members are wonderfully diverse, with many differing perspectives. Our aligning thread is we are all motivated by the same vision: to make CST an even stronger organization so we can develop continually the future leaders and change-makers that this world needs, now more than ever.”
One interreligious experience that was especially poignant for Gong was when current M.Div student Insar Gohar traveled up to Northern California for a “meet and greet” donor event that she and Pastor Bollwinkel co-hosted. Gohar is a Pakistani Christian who arrived at CST through a series of events that began with a horrific tragedy in 2013 when two suicide bombers detonated themselves as congregants were leaving his church’s worship service. All told, over 100 church members were killed including his own 11-year-old son, 9-year-old daughter, and his mother, and 250 were injured including his wife Uzma.
Although he didn’t know much about counseling and was still working through his own grief, Gohar started an impromptu ministry to bring comfort to those traumatized by the tragedy. When UMC partners asked what they could do to help, Gohar said he wished he could be better equipped to minister to the bombing survivors, including the 36 children who lost their parents. UMC Global Ministries partners thought CST might be a good fit and reached out to Pres. Kuan.
“You know Pres. Kuan ,” says Margie, “when he makes up his mind to do something, he does it! He secured the needed funding from several sources including my own church, then brought Gohar and his wife to Claremont. Gohar is now in his third year at CST. And, he and his wife have been blessed with a beautiful daughter.”
“Gohar is in his 40s, but he told me that until he came to CST and was in class learning side-by-side with Muslim students and professors, he had no idea that Islam is a religion of love and not hate. So when he and his family return to Pakistan, he will build on all he has learned with interreligious outreach, in addition to the counseling and support that he will be better able to give those who’ve endured such trauma in his church and community,” she says.
“If he hadn’t received a full CST scholarship, he would never have had this knowledge,” says Gong. “How can your heart not be on fire for CST when our students experience such life transformation?”
“I am even more passionate about CST than I was when I first joined the board,” says Gong. “I invite each person to join me in supporting CST with time, money, and prayers. It’s incredibly humbling to know the ripples of your gifts are making our community and the world immensely better.”