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Where Heroes meet Angels

BARRYTOWN, NY –  Often when we meet someone with an unusual name we have an expectation that that person should be somewhat, well… unusual.

This is certainly true of Denneze Nelson (UTS’99), a second-year Doctor of Ministry (DMin) student at the Unification Theological Seminary (UTS) who was given the unusual spelling of her name by the French doctor who delivered her in her native Guyana, spelling it that way on her birth certificate. It wasn’t until years later when she was in school that her teacher informed her that the spelling of her name wasn’t what she believed it to be, but something entirely different.

“It was a little funny in the beginning when I found out, my teacher told me I was spelling my name wrong, and she corrected me,” said Denneze with a laugh, a response that comes easily to her.       

It’s hard to know for sure, but experiences like these in life often push us in directions we wouldn’t always normally follow. Whether or not this is true for Denneze, what is true is that she is headed in a direction of service to her community, her faith and her country.       

Denneze is a 10-year employee of the Veterans Administration (VA) in New Jersey, where she was recently promoted to the position of Medical Foster Home Program Coordinator

The Medical Foster Home (MFH) program brings together veterans, either with physical or psychological needs, or who are aged and without familial support, with a caregiver who provides assistance to the veteran in their home (for a fee), giving the veteran a more “homelike” experience instead of an institutionalized one. 

Denneze, however, has felt that a spiritual element may also be needed to provide what is truly proper and necessary. This is where the importance of a “faith-based” approach comes into play when the caregivers and veterans build a relationship.

“The more I worked to try and resolve issues the more it made me realize how much faith, religion and spirituality impacts people’s lives,” said Denneze. “It could be something as simple as how you cook food; how you wash clothes; which holidays you celebrate – this is a big deal.”

Denneze quickly found out how much of a “big deal” it could be when she sent a veteran raised in the Roman Catholic faith to live with a Seventh Day Adventist caregiver. It didn’t take him long to learn that some Adventists don’t celebrate holy days, e.g. Christmas, the way other, more mainstream, Christians do.

“There were no decorations, no Christmas tree, no presents; none of the usual ‘trappings’ of Christmas that he was used to,” recalled Denneze with a laugh. “It was a culture shock to him to see zero decorations.“

“Those were the sorts of issues that came up. But it’s serious, because it impacts the relationship. This issue of faith is really problematic in the program, but it’s not really noticed because no one knows how to deal with it.”

In spite of these kinds of setbacks – or because of them – Denneze set her sights on making her faith-based initiative into a national level program at the VA. Denneze focused her research on helping veterans with physical and emotional problems connect with caregivers in the community through a home care program with a faith-based orientation – where “heroes meet angels”. She foresees a program where the caregivers attend to the well-being of veterans, including the spiritual needs of the veterans in their care.

Denneze knew, however, that to accomplish her goal, it was important for her to “legitimize” her initiative by earning a doctorate. She determined to get her DMin from UTS and use her dissertation project as the basis for her proposal to the VA. Just to make sure no one was confused as to the purpose of her studies and what she hoped to accomplish, she has titled her dissertation: Problems between Medical Foster Home Caregivers and Veterans based on Religious Beliefs: Conceptualizing Faith-Oriented Understanding and Spiritual Care.

“You know, there’s legitimacy if you have a doctorate degree,” said Denneze, “and if I say I’ve piloted this through my dissertation it has more weight than if I’m just coming up with a program out of the blue. I’ve been doing it on my own… I felt I needed to implement a program I could propose to the VA on a national level, for interfaith harmony or for spiritual care in the home.”

Encouragement from a former classmate and her previous experience as a student at UTS made the decision to enroll in the DMin program easier.

“I was talking to my classmate and friend, Rollain Muanda (UTS’99) who graduated from the DMin program in 2015,” said Denneze, “and he said I should do the DMin to deal with this [VA] stuff. Finally, I listened.”

Although Denneze graduated from UTS back in 1999 with a Masters of Religious Education (MRE) degree, many memories of the classes and professors have remained with her, as was evidenced when she spoke of her time here.

“UTS has really good ministers and spiritual leaders who are professors,” said Denneze, recalling her studies at Barrytown. “To me that has always been a strength for UTS. In the past, when I was doing my masters, I learned so much from these brilliant professors… I still remember things from Dr. Arthur, Dr. McMahon, and Dr. Carlson’s class. Being a seminary graduate, we were very interfaith back then. I remember especially Dr. Carlson’s class, ‘Paths of Faith,’ which made us aware of different faiths and their importance.

“You know, it was impactful and powerful to have such knowledge. UTS has always been excellent at getting good professors.”

Denneze Nelson 2

Family night – performing an African Dance

Denneze is also active in other areas, having been appointed in 2010 as Chairwoman in New Jersey for the Women’s Federation for World Peace (WFWP), affiliated with the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (FFWPU), and was a recent speaker in the African Diaspora Conference held last month in Las Vegas to support the work of the FFWPU in Africa.

Being at the center of various groups and activities is something Denneze is not only comfortable with, but which actually fits in well with her friendly and outgoing manner. It’s through her participation in these groups that her true nature and abilities rise to the fore.

“I think that’s where my strength is, usually,” said Denneze. “That’s why I’m in Women’s Federation and African Diaspora because I think one of my strengths is taking something very internal and making it manifest.”

Her next step will be to take that strength and manifest it in her faith-based VA program.