The Odyssey Fellows program supports graduate students at theological schools, and the field education faculty and programming of their institution. The program’s goal is to support and train these emerging faith leaders working in communities to engage difficult civic issues and provide resources for seminaries to meet the growing needs of contextual education. Engaging the immersive power of documentary film, Fellows convene brave and healing conversations across lines of difference within their community, resulting in faithful actions inspired by their leadership. Odyssey Fellowships support the valuable intersection of innovative new leaders, the wisdom of educational institutions, and the on-the-ground opportunities of faith-related communities.
Through the course of an academic year, the Fellows’ work has two basic phases. In the fall semester, they engage various subsets of their community, using the power of documentary film to spark conversation on a selected civic issue, such as mass incarceration, racial injustice, gender-based violence, or gun violence. These conversations, paired with engagement of those in the community most affected by the issue, shape discernment of exactly how the Fellows and the congregations feel moved to act. In the spring, these conversations culminate in each Fellow’s leadership of a community-generated action or response to the issue, as well as theological/scholarly reflection within the rubrics of each institution.
Not only does Odyssey Impact provide access to powerful media and written resources to the Fellows, their seminaries and congregations and organizations they serve, but also engagement with filmmakers and film subjects, roles in the process of creating support materials for faith communities, leadership opportunities across Odyssey’s virtual and in-person events and screenings, as well as innovative training experiences with leading experts and practitioners. An Odyssey Fellow will graduate with skills to engage both faith and secular spheres, and gain fluency in using film to inspire brave conversations, new partnerships and faithful actions in response to complex difficult civic issues.
Perhaps best of all, Fellows experience the transformative power of their cohort: dialogue and relationship with talented peers from other institutions and regions. Odyssey believes that when emerging leaders are properly supported, they are often allowed to experiment with different ways that they might engage on tough issues, with new community partners. With the Odyssey Fellows program, everyone wins: tough conversations are advanced, new partnerships are built, and faithful action happens!
The 2020-21 Odyssey Fellows cohort is a diverse, talented group of emerging leaders, engaging justice issues within faith spheres, innovating new ways of virtually convening communities via film and healing conversations.
Jonese Austin (Atlanta, GA)
Candler School of Theology | Ebenezer Baptist Church
Deirdre “Jonese” Austin (she/her/hers) is a writer and justice seeker. She aspires to employ a radical love ethic in working towards healing and wholeness through good theology, research, direct action, and public policy; she hopes to enter a career at the intersections of ministry, academia, nonprofit work, and politics. Jonese understands her calling as one dedicated to exploring the ways in which healing can be facilitated in and through the Black Baptist Church, and her research interests lie at the intersections of religion, race, justice, and healing. Currently, Jonese is a second year Master of Divinity student at Candler School of Theology pursuing certificates in Black Church Studies and Baptist Studies. She is also a licensed Baptist minister, licensed at the historic Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in DC, who will be interning at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church this fall. In 2019, Jonese graduated from the Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service, with honors, where she majored in Culture and Politics focusing on Religion and Social Justice, minored in African American Studies, and earned a certificate in Religion, Ethics, and World Affairs. Her favorite scripture is Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God,” and she lives by the philosophy and Emily Dickinson quote, “If I can stop one heart from breaking I shall not live in vain.” As an Odyssey Fellow, Jonese is most looking forward to having brave and healing conversations on topics related to mass incarceration, especially amidst the Christian-Jewish interfaith fellowship of young professionals of Ebenezer and the Temple.
Ristina Gooden (Nashville, TN)
Vanderbilt Divinity School | Faith Matters Network
Ristina Gooden (she/her/hers) is originally from Cleveland, Ohio. She is currently a divinity student at Vanderbilt Divinity School where she is concentrating on Black Religion and Cultural Studies as well as Religion, Gender, and Sexuality. For the 2020-2021 school year, Ristina will serve as student government President for the divinity school. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Hospitality Management from The Ohio State University. Previously, Ristina had a nearly 10-year career as an event planner at both The Ohio State University and Spelman College. In that career, Ristina has managed over 4,500 events. Ristina has a passion for womanism, equity, cultural competency, and community building which is why doing her field education at Faith Matters Network, womanist-led organization focused on personal and social transformation, was the perfect fit. With their vision of a world of people living in just communities rooted in wisdom, spiritual practices, healing, and courage, Ristina has found a home with kindred spirits. She has begun her ordination process within the Baptist denomination and looks forward to becoming a pastor as well as a birth doula. In her spare time, which is rare, Ristina loves baking and cheering on her Ohio State University Buckeyes during football season.
Lauren Johnson (Denver, CO)
Iliff School of Theology | Soul 2 Soul Sisters
Lauren Johnson (she/her/hers) is a Southern California native and earned her Bachelor’s Degree at Howard University in Washington, DC. She is currently pursuing her Master’s of Divinity at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO with a concentration in Pastoral Care. The Lord placed a burden on Lauren’s heart for Black women who desire healing from wounds of emotional, relational, and spiritual trauma by helping them return to their first loves—God and self. She is passionate about Womanism, healing, liberation, and all matters of the heart. This fall, Lauren will intern with Soul 2 Soul Sisters, a faith-based, Black womxn-led, racial justice organization focused on Black healing and Black liberation. Divine providence led her to the organization as their sacred devotion to their work on providing advocacy, resources, healing, and a voice for Black women aligns perfectly with Lauren’s calling. Lauren will soon begin the process of licensing and ordination in the American Baptist denomination and plans to start a public ministry that will change the lives of Black women. Lauren is a graphic + web designer and owner of Providence & Design, LLC. She enjoys spending time with friends, hiking in the beautiful Colorado mountains, anything floral, and basking in the sun.
Oriana Mayorga (New York, NY)
Union Theological Seminary (NY) | CONNECT
Oriana Mayorga (she/her/ella) is the granddaughter of Caridad Esperanza Pereyra, Margarita Mayorga and Henry Mayorga Sr. She is the daughter of Henry Mayorga Jr. and Dr. Norma Fuentes-Mayorga. Oriana is born and raised New Yorker, community organizer, harm reductionist, artist and recipient of the Justice and Peace Scholarship at Union Theological Seminary. The lived experiences of her Latinx family inspire her daily to fight for justice. Oriana is dedicated to dismantling structural oppression, promoting racial justice and ending violence against womyn, as well as building healthier, accountable communities. Currently, Oriana serves on the leadership council of her Bronx-based church New Day, where she is focused on building the mutual aid ministry. In 2018, while working as the community ministries intern for the St. James United Methodist Church in Kingston, NY, Oriana had the opportunity to preach her first sermon at the Clinton Avenue UMC church. Upon returning from her year away in upstate New York, she briefly worked in a south Bronx syringe exchange. She is a longtime advocate of ending the war on drugs, fighting for accessible psychedelic medicine for all and is the Vice Chair of the board of directors for Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Oriana received her bachelor of science from Fordham University in 2014 and a graduate certificate in Harm Reduction Psychotherapy from the New School of Research in 2016. In 2022, she will graduate with her Masters of Divinity with a concentration in social ethics from Union Theological Seminary. As an Odyssey Fellow, Oriana is most excited to facilitate healing circles with survivors of intimate violence during her internship at CONNECT to promote the healing and growth of some of NYC’s faith leaders.
Staci Plonsky (Cocoa, FL)
Iliff School of Theology | Suntree United Methodist Church
Staci Plonsky (she/her/hers) has felt a call to ministry and social justice work since she was a preteen. She has served in ministry in many capacities, including as a camp counselor, a youth director, and a children’s director. Staci has also attended to hundreds of families as a certified birth and postpartum doula, as well as training new doulas. A graduate of Florida Southern College, Staci is currently earning her Master of Divinity degree from Iliff School of Theology, is a certified candidate for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, and serves as intern at Suntree United Methodist Church. Staci is most excited to learn how churches can partner with their communities to promote mercy and justice. Staci resides with her husband and three children in Cocoa, Florida with horses, chickens, dog and cats. Staci loves camping and visiting Florida theme parks with her family.
Darrin “D.J.” Sims (Atlanta, GA)
Candler School of Theology | Providence Missionary Baptist Church
“Theo-Organizer” Darrin Lamont Sims Jr. (he/him/his) was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. Growing up in such a racially divisive city had a large impact on the way Darrin saw social justice, even from a young age. At Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, he double majored in Political Science and History. Upon graduation, Darrin served as a teacher for Teach for America in Nashville and St. Louis. It was during the Ferguson Uprising that Darrin decided to focus on community organizing and abolition. Soon after, Darrin followed the Lord’s guidance to move to Atlanta, Georgia and enter Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Since then, Darrin has devoted his work and research to social justice through a theological lens. Darrin currently teaches, preaches and organizes around faith-based approaches to reducing recidivism, voter suppression and police and prison abolition in southwest Atlanta, Georgia, building on his recent involvement in the Theology and Racialized Policing Cohort Program of Sojourners Network, and his continued role as Community Manager for The People’s Supper. Darrin is most excited about the holistic reentry work this fellowship will allow him to continue at Providence Missionary Baptist Church in southwest Atlanta. He is supported by his beautiful wife Chauncey and their two children Emmett and Zora.
At the heart of Odyssey’s Impact mission is connecting people, communities, and organizations to the stories that uplift our society’s most pressing issues. Organizational and individual partners are vital to our work, and we are thankful to those working alongside us, particularly because their work is often behind the scenes. In particular, our partner relationships are critically important to our on-the-ground work, as they connect local changemakers, stakeholders, advocates, students and educators to our resources and enhance the work they do in their communities to drive positive social change.
Our productions and co-productions have reached people across the nation, catalyzing engagements and creating connections needed to drive change. Our films are seen at hundreds of local community institutions nationally; broadcast on STARZ, HBO, PBS and OWN, and seen on global online platforms like Netflix.
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