The Distinguished Alumnus/a Award is bestowed annually upon an extraordinary Claremont School of Theology graduate at Alumni/ae and Friends Day. This alumnus/a should be living the mission and values of CST; being agents of transformation and healing in churches, local communities, schools, non-profit institutions and the world at large. They are working to bring peaceful coexistence and collaboration with other cultures and religions.
The 2015 Distinguished Alumnus Recipient
Rev. Dr. Ignacio Castuera, RelD '70
Ignacio Castuera ’70 is a native of Mexico who moved to California in 1960 invited by the Spanish American Institute, a United Methodist institution started by a men's group in Pasadena. He benefited from the wisdom of Californians at that time who created a three-tier higher education system. Ignacio attended Compton College, then California State University Long Beach and Southern California School of Theology, the name adopted by our Seminary when it first moved from USC to Claremont.
At Claremont, he wrote his dissertation under Dr. John B Cobb Jr. arguing that the elevation of women in the abstract is highly correlated with the devaluation of women in concrete situations. He supported that thesis by looking into the adoration of Coatlicue in pre-Colombian times and the hyper-veneration of the Virgin of Guadalupe. He concluded his thesis calling for facing cultural problems squarely and advocating for a non-violent theology of change supported by Process Thought.
Ignacio served churches in Hawaii and Los Angeles, and lectured frequently on the emerging Chicano movement. After a lecture at Westwood UMC, he was invited to join the Counseling Center at UCLA where he worked for three years. He was the Director of All Nations Foundation, a social change agency of the United Methodist Church and was called by Bishop Charles Golden to be the Superintendent of the Los Angeles District. Under his leadership the LA District paid over 90% of its apportionments, a level not seen for 50 or more years and has not been reached since.
Ignacio was pastor at Hollywood UMC in the midst of the AIDS pandemic. During that time, he inspired the church to become involved in ministry to LGBTQ persons. Hollywood UMC became the 50th Reconciling Congregation during his tenure. The giant red ribbons that still hang on the tower were placed there during Dr. Castuera's tenure at the church.
During his years of ministry at St. John's in Watts, Castuera became the part time National Chaplain for Planned Parenthood, a position he held for six years. The last church he served before his "jubilación" was Trinity UMC in Pomona.
In 1972, a few years after the Liberation Theology movement began in Latin America, Castuera traveled to Chile where he met many of its leading members. That same year he worked with his mentor, John B. Cobb Jr. in the planning of the Alternatives to Catastrophe Conference. Concern for the Earth and for the marginalized have been at the center of his ministry ever since. His most important activity these days is continuing to work with Dr. Cobb on the Seizing an Alternative Conference, to be held in Claremont this June.
Previous Distinguished Alumnus Award Recipients
Rev. Dr. Sharon Rhodes-Wickett, MDiv ’78 DMin ’81
The Rev. Dr. Sharon Rhodes-Wickett, Lead Pastor at Claremont United Methodist Church, has been selected as the 2014 Recipient of Claremont School of Theology’s Distinguished Alumni/ae Award. The award will be presented to Rev. Dr. Rhodes-Wickett at a special luncheon in her honor as part of this year’s Alumni/ae & Friends Days, an annual gathering that brings together alumni/ae and supporters of Claremont School of Theology (CST) for two days of theological enrichment. The Distinguished Alumni/ae Award Luncheon will take place on Thursday, March 13th at 12:15 PM on the CST Chapel Lawn.
CST first welcomed The Rev. Dr. Rhodes-Wickett to campus in the fall of 1973 when she arrived as a Master of Divinity (MDiv) candidate. Upon graduating in 1978, Rhodes-Wickett received the First United Methodist Church (UMC) of Santa Monica Edwin and Frances Witman Pastoral Care Award, presented to a CST student who demonstrates excellence or shows great promise in pastoral care. In 1975, she was ordained as a Deacon in the California-Pacific Conference of the United Methodist Church. After serving for two years as Associate Pastor of Northridge United Methodist Church, she was ordained an Elder in 1980. In the years that followed, Rhodes-Wickett built a track record of sustained leadership at several congregations, including ten years as Co-Pastor and Pastor-in-Charge at Santa Clarita UMC, twelve years as Senior Pastor at Westwood UMC, and as Lead Pastor at Claremont UMC from 2006 to the present.
For more that twenty-five years, The Rev. Dr. Rhodes-Wickett has been selected for leadership positions within the United Methodist Church on the district, conference, national, and international levels. From 1990-1994, she served as the District Superintendent in the Long Beach District of the UMC. She was elected by the California-Pacific Annual Conference as a delegate to the Western Jurisdictional Conferences in 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004; and delegate to the World Methodist Conferences held in Rio de Janeiro in 1996 and Brighton, England in 2001. Rhodes-Wickett represented the United Methodist denomination at the Protestant Consultation on Church Union (1982-1988) and the National Council of Churches in Christ (1996-2000). She currently serves on the California-Pacific Conference Board of Ordained Ministry.
Throughout her career, The Rev. Dr. Rhodes-Wickett has demonstrated a deep commitment to social justice and interfaith engagement. She has served on the board of directors for a number of local organizations including the Westside Interfaith Council, People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), and the Westwood Village Rotary Club. She is currently involved with the Claremont Interfaith Council, Progressive Christians Uniting, and the Clergy and Laity United for Justice (CLUE) Los Angeles. In 2009, the Rhodes-Wickett was the recipient of the California-Pacific Conference’s (UMC) Mel & Lucile Wheatley Lifetime of Justice Award.
The Rev. Dr. Sharon Rhodes-Wickett’s relationship with CST has only deepened since she completed her first degree in 1978. She received her Doctorate in Ministry (DMin) from CST in 1981. She served as an adjunct faculty member from 1999-2012, instructing CST students in the art of preaching and facilitating seminars for students taking part in local field education assignments. In 2005, CST established a scholarship in her name upon the twenty-fifth anniversary of her ordination as an Elder.
Perhaps the most profound event to take place in Rhodes-Wickett’s life at CST occurred during her first days on campus. It was then that she met Al Wickett, whom she married in 1977. A pastor, musician, and composer, Al was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2000. He died in 2010. Following his death, the scholarship that had been established in the name of Sharon Rhodes-Wickett was amended to include Al. His mother Jean served as a trustee at CST and is the namesake for the School’s Wickett Lecture.
The Rev. Dr. Sharon Rhodes-Wickett is the proud mother of two adult children – Ben, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Southern California (USC); and Rachel, who holds a master’s degree from the USC School of Social Work and with her husband Elliott have three young sons.
Rev. Larry W. Hixon, Th.M. ’59
After graduating seminary in 1959, Larry served as the Associated Pastor at Pasadena Christian Church before his calling to lead in the Bella Vista/Eastmont Parish. Just one year after starting in his new parish, Larry developed a community center whose purpose was to serve the needs of the Hispanic community in Eastmont. The community center became a hub of ministry to and with the people living in the area, offering tutoring, family counseling, language classes, boys and girls clubs, and the site of a Headstart program. Larry successfully launched Eastmont as an effective community center that today, forty years later, is continuing its vibrant ministry in East Los Angeles.
While serving in Eastmont, Larry also partnered with the Rev. Dennis Short founding the Unity Walk, an event bringing Disciples of Christ congregations together from across the Pacific Southwest Region to raise money for the Community Center and other justice oriented ministries. The first of these walks was held in 1971 and was 25 miles long, raising over $15,000 and eventually raising over half a million dollars in the years the walk continued.
Following his tenure at Eastmont, Larry became the Associate Director for Christian Rural Overseas Program (CROP), where he increased awareness of world hunger issues and solutions. Larry continued his justice work by serving as the Director of Hope Net, a consortium of several congregations in Los Angeles, whose purpose was to build low income housing and offer job training, health care and other services. Throughout Larry’s years in ministry, and continuing into his retirement, he has relentlessly pursued peace and justice. As a member of the Disciples’ Social Concerns Committee, he has organized communities to take action on civil rights issues, the Vietnam War, poverty, fair housing, sexual orientation and the like. Larry’s commitment to social justice has even gotten him arrested after non-violently opposing environmental devastation. For the past 11 years he has organized and participated in an annual mission trip to both Nicaragua and Guatemala, doing hands-on work with the mission outposts in each country. He just got home from a trip to Nicaragua on January 15th 2013.
Rev. Rob Rynders ’06
Rob grew up in Livermore, CA where he graduated from Las Positas Community College then transferred to California State University Long Beach, where he completed a degree in psychology with a minor in religious studies. From there he found himself at Claremont School of Theology. During his time at CST Rob enjoyed taking classes with Dr. Clayton and Jack Coogan. When we talk about his time at CST he says, “I appreciate all the opportunities that CST has given me.” After graduation he was ordained as an elder in full connection in the Desert Southwest Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church in June 2010. Shortly there after he was appointed as campus minister at Arizona State University. He says he was very grateful and happy with the appointment. He remembers thinking how great it would be to some day be a campus minister. At ASU he works with 50 students each year. They have free dinners with fellowship, discuss philosophy, mission trips and an alternative spring break trip that focuses on community and leadership development. He says the favorite part of his job is that the students, “they allow me to be their spiritual guide, along with God, at a very important time of their lives.” His other projects include work on the Relevance X and Lead conferences for young adult in ministry. He is currently Pastor of City Square Church a progressive and inclusive United Methodist Church in Downtown Phoenix.
He is married to Melissa Rynders ’05, who is also a UM pastor. They have two sons, Zack and Colby. Rob enjoys social media, Oakland A’s and SF Giants baseball and recently finished his first half-marathon.
Bishop Mary Ann Swenson ’75
Bishop Swenson is an outspoken leader on issues of inclusiveness and violence. She was one of fifteen United Methodists who signed a statement in 1996 expressing the pain that resulted from the denomination’s proscriptions against gay and lesbian persons in the church. In 1999 she was featured in the PBS “Religion and Ethics News Weekly.” Her foundational values are those of diversity, team/partnership and justice. She participates regularly in the Los Angeles Council of Religious Leaders and has been actively involved in the events of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) and Progressive Christians Uniting (PCU). She has been featured on Hugh Downs’ ‘Heroes of Hope” series and continues to pursue the dream of leading the church in becoming a more inclusive community, justice seeking and more perfect in love of God and neighbor.
Bishop was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas on July 8, 1947. She was educated and raised in Jackson, Mississippi and graduated from Millsaps College in 1969 with a B.A. in Religion. Mary Ann married Jeff Swenson in 1968. Jeff is a Navy Veteran who served in Vietnam. He has a B.A. from the University of Puget Sound with a major in fine arts. From 1969-72 Mary Ann was the Director of Youth Ministry at Mason United Methodist Church in Tacoma, Washington. She was also active in the District as a Youth Coordinator and served as dean for several camps.
Mary Ann attended the Claremont School of Theology and received her Doctor of Ministry in 1975 with her thesis, “A Synthesis Between Personal Piety and Social Gospel in the Modern Church.” She was ordained deacon in 1973 and elder in 1976. She was Associate pastor of Claremont UMC in Claremont, California (1973-74), pastor of Orchards UMC in Vancouver, Washington (1974-83), District Superintendent of the Puget Sound District in the Pacific Northwest Conference (1983-89), and Senior Pastor of First UMC Wenatchee, Washington (1989-1992).