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Student Story by Gemma Bell

I love my church community and the mission communities that I’m part of, but I was starving for the kind of deep thinking that challenged me personally. I wanted the kind of thinking that would influence my understanding of God and the created world, and how I respond to that in a faith way.

My name is Gemma Bell, and I began a Bachelor of Theology degree in 2017. I was working for an organisation and mentioned to someone that I was thinking of studying theology. They told me not to do it, with the gist being that academic thought will squash my heart’s response to Christ. I think that’s a misconception, but it gave me something to think about and made me more cautious of where I chose. I started looking for somewhere which was more aware of diverse communities, pluralistic societies; societies with issues facing people in the world today. I spoke at some other Bible colleges and came to realise exactly what I did not want … to be shaped into a church leader. This is not to say that Whitley doesn’t have pathways to become church leaders. It does. They are certainly there. But it’s bigger than that.

I’m studying part-time. I’m presently the leader of a faith-based community that houses people experiencing homelessness. I am responsible for a lot of people. Some of these are in turn responsible for others. It’s a hectic schedule and I’m forced to choose classes around that. It was pretty catastrophic here when we went into lockdown. I’ve been in this industry for 14 years and I’m used to crises. But it was very demanding in my home and workplace. I don’t know how I would have managed without the natural warmth and supportiveness of the Whitley community
I was reflective of the words in Matthew’s gospel: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy”. Whitley ended up being the ‘mercy’ for me so I could give to others.

It’s remarkable how connected the Whitley community becomes to the ministries of their students.
My favourite units of study have been ‘Being Human’, ‘Who is Jesus’, ‘Ethics in the Bible’, and ‘Salvation’. There is also a great unit on reading the Bible interculturally. And I’ve been part of an indigenous learning community called NAIITS, which was hugely profound. It’s impressive that at Whitley you’re able to ask any question or respond to anything and it’s a safe environment in which to do so.

For me, studying has been a very integrated experience. I was quite worried about managing my time and demands. But it ended up being something that has fed into my being, sharpening my capacity and re-centered me. So I can still be present for the ministry family roles that I have. Every so often I take the opportunity to drive to college. I really enjoy that hour-or-so of being alone.

I feel like we all have a bit of a box that we’ve put God in. It’s healthy to expand that. Whitley has been a huge part of letting go of some of those sacred cows and inviting other angles to see the world with – including how you see God.
Finally, I would say that Whitley is an open community that listens and shares, while empowering folks to challenge and confront the hard questions that come with following Jesus.