For more than 20 years, Monica Corsaro has pursued a career that combines both traditional ministry and political activism. She has led United Methodist and Christian Church, Disciples of Christ congregations in the Seattle area and served as campus minister at the University of Washington for four years. She has also been a strong advocate for social causes, serving as Director of Social Justice Ministries for the Church Council of Greater Seattle and as the first-ever chaplain in the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, serving in Washington and Oregon states.
Though she has worked and lived in the Pacific Northwest since completing a master of divinity degree at the Iliff School of Theology—she has since earned a doctor of ministry degree from Wesley Theological Seminary—her roots run deep in this particular corner of central Illinois.
Was it always your ambition to go into the ministry?
Actually, my original plan was to go into musical theatre or teaching; I wanted to teach music. When I was a junior in high school, though, I went on a mission trip to Henderson, Kentucky, to do outreach to the people of Appalachia. We weren't there to proselytize; we were there to be helpful to a poor and isolated community. We helped support a hostel, a library, a community garden, a bookmobile van that went up into the mountains and held Moms' Days.
I've always been political and an activist as well as a person of faith; one doesn't cancel out the other. My mentor in college, the campus pastor at Illinois State University,encouraged me to use my faith to make the world a better place, be a church minister but never forget to reach out to the larger world. In fact, we have a saying in my tradition to that teaching. "The world is our parish." Knowing how diverse our world is, I believe I am called to serve and care for all, no matter their context or faith.
In your experience, what's the difference between working with students and ministering to the general public?
On campus, you can focus on the work. In a church setting, you're a manager. When you're the minister, you have to think about fundraising, looking after the property and the building—there's so much administration. There's some of that in the campus world as well, but there's more time to work with the people, students, faculty, and staff.
And, of course, leading a church, you work primarily with people of a particular denomination. I want to emphasize that, even though I'm personally Christian, I'm here to support students of all beliefs, including agnostics and atheists.
The director of spiritual life position is still relatively new at Knox. What challenges and opportunities do you see for yourself as you take on this role?
I like the way that positions like this one have evolved from being a "campus chaplain" to being a "director of spiritual life," because we live in an interfaith world. Campuses aren't assumed to be Christian any more; there are students of many faiths, and we have to figure out how to live in the world together. I see that as an opportunity.
However, I do think I have an opportunity to reach out to Christians who grew up in the church but who have decided along the way, "I don't think this means anything to me." I want to help them identify their views and challenge them. I think a lot of people have preconceived ideas about what Christianity is, what a Christian should be, what the Christian church is. There's a temptation to project a lot of those ideas onto this position, like, "Because she's a Christian, she must believe this" or that I won't support a particular idea or cause.
At Knox, I also serve as a confidential resource for students who are affected by sexual violence. I'm here to listen and support them as they process the experience and consider their rights, and trained to help as they decide what course of action makes sense for them. I want all students to know my door is open, and they are welcome.
You have a great deal of experience working on issues of social justice. Can you discuss the relation between spirituality and religion to social justice?
This is kind of a tenet of my faith life. I've found it in Islam and Judaism as well. Because I know that there is grace in the world, that there is love in the world, it is my duty to make sure that I share that grace and love with others, and show others that they too can experience love and justice.
What is the first thing you plan to do when you get to campus?
Mostly, I plan to check out the calendar and find out what's happening on campus. I'll go to this baseball game or that international tea, I'll visit the residence halls. I want to use this brief time before the term ends to meet as many people as possible in their own element. I want to see students and faculty and staff at their best and get involved in campus life. My goal is to meet, greet, and be available to people, to listen to them and find out how I can serve this community.
I also want to let students know that this is a resource for them, and do things to bring that lens to the rest of campus. I have a lot of ideas—maybe a film series, or bringing musical acts, or even taking on service projects in and around Galesburg—but, first, I want to see where the students are, and what they need.