Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences recently honored its Distinguished Alumni of 2022, the Rev. Dr. Sarah Halverson-Cano (’99, Religious Studies and English Literature). Halverson-Cano, currently serving as a pastor of Irvine United Congregational Church, is a progressive social justice leader in Orange County, active in numerous causes. She is a successful female leader in a traditionally-male occupation, and her social justice activism aligns well with the college’s Engaging the World: Leading the Conversation programming, which has explored the significance of race, environmental justice, and ethnic studies. I felt very grateful to have the chance to sit down and speak with her.
Erin Berthon: How was your experience as our Distinguished Alumni at this year’s Homecoming?
Rev. Dr. Sarah Halverson-Cano: It was such a heartwarming experience to attend the Homecoming gathering as a Distinguished Alumna. So many memories came flooding back to me as I arrived on campus. I remembered my Chapman orientation 27 years ago and all the feelings I experienced moving into the dorms, and meeting friends, some of whom are still my best friends. I thought about the professors who would let me follow them around like a puppy dog so graciously giving of their time and sharing their wisdom. It was powerful. In addition to all the memories, was all the energy of the day! I loved the welcome! My kids enjoyed all the Chapman swag, my daughter especially loved the pom-poms. There was such a sense of excitement in the air! It was a delicious meal. I truly felt so honored. Thank you, Chapman!
EB: Give us a short story of the moment you graduated to where you are today.
SHC: On the back of my mortar board, I wrote, “Thanks, Mom!” and I continue to feel that sentiment today. A widowed mother of three, she got my two brothers and me through private school without saddling us with student loan debt (two of us are Chapman grads). So, I left Chapman without school debt. I went straight into graduate school to work on a Ph.D. in the New Testament at Claremont Graduate University. After finishing coursework, I began to feel the pull to go to seminary. So I tentatively crossed the street and ultimately received my master of divinity. I began as an associate pastor at United Church of the Valley in Murrieta. Shortly after, I was called to be the senior pastor at Fairview Community Church in Costa Mesa, where I led the church for 14 years. I saw the whole of Orange County as an extension of my church. My ministry has had a strong social justice bent: I worked with low-wage workers focusing my attention on economic justice. I became very involved with activism for the LGBTQ+ community, fighting for marriage equality. I began working with Planned Parenthood on women’s rights. In 2011 I received my doctorate from Chicago Theological Seminary. On a mission trip in Guatemala, I met my husband, Markyce. We got married two years later and now have two children. Then during the thick of the pandemic, I became the first female senior pastor at Irvine United Congregational Church, where I’ve led the church for just over 2 years.
EB: Did you always know what you wanted to do? Or was there a moment or a mentor that caused a pivotal change?
SHC: I always thought I wanted to be a teacher. I began Chapman as an English major to become an English teacher. I first added a minor in religion; before you knew it, it became a second major. Studying under Marvin Meyer, I realized I wanted to pursue New Testament studies and become a professor (still a teacher). In case I didn’t get into grad school, I did the credential program at Chapman to teach secondary school, but just before I did the student teaching, I got into a Ph.D. program at Claremont Graduate University, following in Dr. Meyer’s footsteps. At the time, I really only wanted to study religion academically. However, I had to admit I had a heart for justice and community work. As a pastor, I realized I could take scholarship into the pulpit, be a progressive Christian leader, and live my activism as a faith leader. It ended up being the best of both worlds! Though I am sure I would have loved being an English teacher and have the utmost respect for teachers, I’m grateful I listened to the call of my heart.
EB: How did Wilkinson’s professors prepare you for your career today?
SHC: I loved my professors. Their impact is almost indescribable. My parents had dreamed of small school education at a liberal arts school, and that’s exactly what I got. I think my English Lit degree has had an influence on my sermon preparation and being able to deliver creative, well-written sermons. I think it’s also helped in my interpretation of the Bible. People like Dr. Kevin O’Brien, in particular with his emphasis on global literature, really impacted me, as did Jim Blaylock in creative writing. I felt extremely close with my religion professors: Dr. Marvin Meyer, Dr. Marilyn Harran, and Dr. Nancy Martin in particular, and while Dr. Chuck Hughs and I will always disagree on the Christology of Jesus, we had a good time doing it! The first time I ever left the country was with Marv Meyer. He was an incredible mentor both at Chapman and beyond, and in many ways, he stepped in as a father figure, knowing that my own father had died just 4 years before I arrived at Chapman.
EB: What has been a highlight of your career merging social justice and ministry?
SHC: One of the most profound moments of my ministry was at the first Women’s March here in Orange County. I’ve been part of dozens and dozens of actions. I know most activists in the county. Our largest gatherings might give us a few thousand. But on January 21, 2017, nearly 20,000 people gathered in Santa Ana. It was a sea of pink. I gave the opening invocation, and I looked out and somehow spotted my three-year-old daughter on my husband’s shoulders. I recognized the profound connection between our past, present, and future and was so moved by the power of the moment and the sheer number in the crowd. I then marched to the front, but only when I turned back to find my family did I realize just how many people were gathered. It was profound to see that many people who are not activists but rather felt moved to get up on a Saturday morning and have their voices united as one with women and pro-women people across the globe. I was so proud of Orange County that day. And I was so proud that as a pastor, I was there to bear witness to that incredible power of Spirit.
EB: Do you have any advice or words of wisdom to share with our students?
SHC: I believe strongly that the liberal arts education you receive at Wilkinson College is extremely important. It’s what helps me to become a critical thinker. And now more than ever, we need critical thinkers in this world. Wilkinson is called the heart of the university, well we need more heart in this world. We need people who have the brains to articulate compassion, who can see the connection that is so integrally important in creating a more just society.
Take Dr. Harran’s classes on the Holocaust. If we don’t remember this history, we will repeat it.
I know we live in a post-religious society, but take a world religions course if you can. It will help you better understand the commonalities and differences and truly appreciate our world’s diversity.
Take advantage of the fact that world-class professors are at your fingertips and they have connections with others. Go to all the conferences you can.
You can sit back and suck in knowledge at no other time in life. It’s a gift. I know it’s an expensive one, but it is a gift. I promise you will cherish these years for the rest of your life.
We look forward to having Rev. Dr. Sarah Halverso-Cano visit us in the spring and speak to our students about her amazing journey. Thank you, and congratulations again.