The Alternative Seminary
History and Mission

History of the Alternative Seminary

The Alternative Seminary is an informal, grassroots, non-institutional program in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that was started in 1993, when a small group of Christians who were involved in social justice and urban ministry work were drawn together by a common desire to re-ground their work and ministry in biblical values. We found few options for serious scripture study – the typical church Bible study didn’t go deep enough, and institutional seminary study was over-professionalized, over-intellectualized, and costly. So, after some discernment, the group decided to start a seminary of our own.

We spent much time discerning and clarifying what we were looking for in terms of community Bible study. We consulted with Richard Shaull, a prolific author and activist who had spent almost fifty years working between North America and Latin America and who was especially interested in social justice, liberation theology, base communities, and alternative models of biblical and theological education. We covenanted together to undertake a year-long study of the Hebrew Bible. As a prelude to the study, we used, as a primer to the broad arc of biblical narrative, Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination. We then used as a text Anthony Ceresko’s Introduction to the Old Testament: A Liberation Perspective, which is an excellent tool, providing a popularized version of the complex thesis of Norman Gottwald in The Tribes of Yahweh. A few months into that first year, a second group started up.

The following year, the groups decided to embark on a similar survey of the New Testament. After the two years of biblical surveys, we decided to keep the Seminary going. The new model included a variety of short courses on a range of themes, such as Women and Scripture, Biblical Forgiveness and the Criminal Justice System, Martin Luther King as Liberation Prophetic, Biblical Economics, Jesus and Empire, among others. A wide number of local resource persons, some “credentialed” teachers but most not, have facilitated courses.


When the Alternative Seminary was first started in 1993, the founding group adopted the following mission statement. While this mission statement functioned as a guide for our approach to Scripture study, it was not then and is not now intended as any kind of criteria statement for participation. Of the hundreds of persons who have participated in the Alternative Seminary, many but not all resonate completely or partially with these words. The Alternative Seminary is open to all persons, however they define or understand their spiritual journey.

We are Christians who believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord. We believe that Jesus proclaims and inaugurates the reign of God. We believe that the Gospel of Jesus embodies God's will for our world. We believe that our lives are to be committed to radical Christian discipleship.

We believe that the Church -- those who profess Jesus as Lord --is in its authentic form "ecclesia," "called out," a body distinct from culture and called to a mission of reconciliation, concern for the poor, and new understandings of power, justice, and community. We are concerned that the Church in this culture desperately needs to be revitalized. The institutional church has been largely co-opted by the values of this culture and has failed to be a radical presence true to the biblical spirit. We desire in some way, guided by the Holy Spirit, to revitalize the Church.

We feel strongly that the word of God should be studied not in "ivory tower" abstract detachment but in real dialogue with the struggles of the world and our own place in it. We desire a solid core of scholarship that requires serious intellectual work, but in the context of personal reflection and engagement, and with serious concern for our history and our society.

We undertake this Scripture study in the hopes that it will provide us with a strong grounding in Scripture, and will develop in us skills of biblical and theological reflection as tools for ministry and witness in society.

We covenant together to engage in serious study of God's Word. We also pray that our study can model alternative forms of theological and biblical education that can contribute to revitalizing the Church.

Who participates

The Alternative Seminary is open to anyone who is interested in taking classes. It is primarily geared toward persons who are committed Christians serious about discipleship and following the ways of Jesus, but it is open to anyone who is curious about issues of faith, spirituality, and the Bible, whatever their beliefs (or non-beliefs).

Over the years, participants have come from a wide variety of backgrounds, ages, professions, and experiences. They have come from all denominations, as well as persons who don’t identify as Christian. Many have been to “mainstream” seminary and/or are professional clergy (though frequently former seminarians have said that in seminary they “studied the Bible but never really read it”). Many of the participants are involved in some kind of urban ministry or justice-and-peace work, but not all.


The founders of the Alternative Seminary agreed at the beginning that we were interested in something more than an informal gathering where participants simply said what they thought about the text; nor did we want a professional expert telling us what the text meant. Instead, we desired to gather around substantial scholarly material, often making use of the gifts of someone with some academic background (who would be more of a facilitator or “animator” than a teacher); but in the context of a communal learning experience. We wanted to create an environment where we would do serious intellectual work (what we consider “loving God with one’s whole mind”) but bring in our personal experiences and perspectives and the issues of our world. In the spirit of popular education, we wanted to gather around substantial scholarly content, in dynamic interaction with an experiential engagement with the world and our active discipleship.

Most classes meet weekly, for two hour sessions, and include homework and often textbooks (in addition to Scripture). Classes are generally kept small – 8 to 15 persons. Maximum discussion and group interaction are emphasized. Depending on the nature of the course, audio-visual materials might be used, including contemporary film or other cultural media. As an expression of our commitment to taking our faith seriously, all classes start with prayer (though any particular expression of faith – or any faith at all – is not required to participate in the Alternative Seminary).

As a matter of intention, most classes meet at a site that provides permanent housing for formerly homeless persons. This setting is itself a connection to the issues of human struggle and justice in our society. Other sites for classes are similarly chosen, when possible, to enhance the learning experience, e.g. inner city intentional community houses or churches, recovery programs, or others.

On occasion, a special class can be created for a specific congregation, in which case we will meet on-site at that church.

As new classes are developed, varying forms of creative pedagogy may be explored. Potential course facilitators are encouraged to propose alternative pedagogies that are in the spirit of popular education and commitment to active discipleship and spirituality.


Some of the major influences on the Alternative Seminary include:

  • Liberation theology
  • Feminist theology
  • The Catholic Worker movement
  • Theologies and biblical reflections emerging from the peace movement and faith-based resistance communities
  • Gay and lesbian theology
  • Jewish renewal

Some particular theologians, scholars, and activists whose work has influenced our approach include: Ched Myers, Walter Brueggemann, Richard Horsley, Wes Howard-Brooks, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Elsa Tamez, Norman Gottwald, Walter Wink, Rene Girard, and others.

Other influences and partners are listed in the Links section.


A partial list of some of the teachers and facilitators who have participated in the Alternative Seminary over the years:

Will O’Brien is the coordinator of the Alternative Seminary. He spent several years on the editorial staff of The Other Side magazine, an independent progressive Christian magazine. He has written and taught extensively on issues of scripture, discipleship, social justice, peace, and culture. He has also spent years working with Project H.O.M.E., a nationally recognized nonprofit organization that develops solutions to homelessness and poverty in Philadelphia ( He has done extensive advocacy and political organizing with and on behalf of homeless persons.

Dee Dee Risher spent several years on the editorial staff of The Other Side magazine, an independent progressive Christian magazine. She is a poet and writer living in Philadelphia, originally from South Carolina. She is concerned about issues of lifestyle

Shane Claiborne is one of the founding members of the simple way community in Philadelphia. He is author of The Irresistible Revolution - living as an ordinary radical and co-author of Jesus For President. He is active in numerous issues of compassion, justice, peacemaking, and community building. In his down-time he is quite a dynamic circus performer.

Chris Haw is a member of the Camden House community in Camden, New Jersey and co-author of Jesus For President. He is an aspiring potter, carpenter, painter, and theologian.

Liz Walz is a nonviolence trainer with groups such as Fellowship of Reconciliation and Bace e Bene Nonviolence Service. She is certified in spiritual direction in the tradition of Vincent de Paul, with special concern for poor an dmarginalized persons. She is also a Yoga teacher with certification in Yoga for Christians. She was co-founder of the Martha House Catholic Worker in Philadelphia and a Plowshares activist.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is an author, activist, and leader in the Jewish Renewal movement. He has written extensively on political and religious issues, with a passion for connecting ancient spiritual traditions to the challenges and struggles of contemporary life. He is director of the Shalom Center (see Links).

John Linscheid spent several years on the editorial staff of The Other Side magazine, an independent progressive Christian magazine. He has written extensively on issues of biblical interpretation, gay theology, gay spirituality, and gay psychological development. He is active in gay/lesbian issues in the Mennonite Church, where he served for many years as a pastor. His website is

Anthony (Tony) Prete is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting. He writes and teaches extensively on biblical issues. He worked for several years on the editorial staff of The Other Side magazine, an independent progressive Christian magazine. He is a passionate teacher, speaker and writer on biblical topics.

Darren Parker is an activist and writer in Philadelphia, and founder of Movement Consulting LLC, which offers services in organizational dynamics, mediation and anti- racism programs rooted in human rights and social justice.

Rev. Donna Jones is the pastor of Cookman United Methodist Church in Philadelphia. She has a doctorate in divinity from Eastern Theological Seminary. She is a leading advocate on issues of poverty and youth in Philadelphia.

The Rev. Dr. Robert B. Robinson is Anna Burkhalter Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. He has written extensively on Genesis and other Hebrew Bible topics.

The late Richard Shaull was a Presbyterian minister and theologian who spent decades working in Latin America, where he was heavily influenced by liberation theology and later Pentecostalism. He had a deep commitment to social justice and to marginalized peoples and communities. He wrote several books on the theology of justice and new models of the church. He often worked to spark alternative models of theological education and reflection among North American Christians. He helped in the formation, vision, and pedagogy of the Alternative Seminary, and was a frequent teacher. He died in 2002.

The Alternative Seminary c/o Will O'Brien . 4715 Pulaski Avenue Rear . Philadelphia, PA 19144 . 215-842-1790