Kristen Opalinski is a woman on the go. Even as she hustled to complete a multimedia project during an intensive two-week media course at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute, the graphic designer was in between international travels and media relations work on behalf of Peace Islands Institute (PII), a peacebuilding think tank founded in the Turkish Islamic tradition of Hizmet or “service.”
Opalinski is now in Turkey, where she’s traveling with Philadelphia-based PII religious scholars to provide media support while conducting research on Sufism and feminism in relation to the 21st century Muslim world. When she returns, she’ll begin her final year of studies in the Master of Arts in Religion program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP).
In some ways, her time at Eastern Mennonite University – she missed the first day of the May session to finish a final exam at LTSP – offered brief respite and a chance to think about her life’s journey: from Minnesota to Africa, from Pennsylvania to Turkey.
Adding to a storytelling tool chest
“Changing Society Through Media: Transformative Storytelling,” taught by professors Jerry Holsopple and Paulette Moore, was “the nuts and bolts of learning Adobe Premiere software and how to use some of the top camera equipment in the business, some things that I may never get my hands on again,” said Opalinski, with a laugh.
Opalinski “dove into the video and audio technology, which was mostly new to her,” said Holsopple. “Besides her photography, communication and design skills, the most important ingredient that she brought to class was her desire to think deeply about why we communicate and how we facilitate the process. She took away new skills, but also learned more how the process is equally important to the product, wrestled with some ethical issues, and experienced collaborative community-building teamwork.”
“I have a strong background in photography, but less of a skill set in film,” Opalinksi said. “I had taken the ‘Media for Societal Transformation’ introductory course last year at SPI, which was fascinating, and this was a great complement. I really want to be able to offer this wide spectrum of media possibilities to my clients.”
Away from ‘corporate’ America
When Opalinski says clients, she’s not talking about the kind of people she worked for during six years as a graphic designer and marketing strategist in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area of Minnesota. Her clients now want to utilize media for faith-based bridgebuilding, social justice and peacebuilding.
This work has allowed her to both ask big questions and move towards providing answers. Her goal, she says, is “a better understanding of how the needs of the world can be best approached and met through our sacred call to service in Christ. How can all faith bodies unite to respond to the deep-seeded needs of all creation? How can we do so in ways that promote mutuality and respect, reflecting our common purpose as brothers and sisters of one human family?”
The answers, and the search for the answers to these questions, seem to be “one of the best paths towards a more peaceful world,” she says.
Opalinski points to several experiences at the root of her sharpening professional focus, specifically a strong relationship with her great Aunt Ruth, a nurse in Liberia in the 1950s, and a cross-cultural experience in Africa before graduating from Augsburg College (she still struggles with one searing memory: an afternoon spent drawing with a boy in AIDS hospice care).
When she returned to work in the corporate business world for six years, she said, “I don’t think I ever really let go of that experience. I was always thinking about Africa.”
Into communion through communication
In 2009, Opalinski joined the Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) program of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Based at Umphumulo in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, Opalinski primarily worked in the bishop’s office on communications development for the local diocese. But she also painted a mural in the children’s hospital, coached soccer, and taught elementary school students.
“YAGM gives you the opportunity to be formed and informed by living and working within a very different cultural context,” Opalinski said. “Within a couple of months, I felt like I was both uncomfortable and comfortable at the same time. It was a good discomfort.”
Before her YAGM term was up, Opalinski signed a two-year contract to work in Johannesburg as a communications coordinator with the Lutheran World Federation. Her task was to develop a regional communications network among 15 member churches in 10 countries – so that “they could learn from each other in more integrated ways, sharing each other’s joys and challenges, and really be able to live into that sense of what communion means as the body of Christ.”
She conducted one annual capacity training to introduce church leaders to their options, from print to social media, and then travelled to help each church to develop a sustainable communications plan. Some churches were strong communicators already (the Lutheran Church in Malawi, for example, had three regular staffers producing a newspaper), while others had no communication structures in place.
Seeing ‘where the Spirit leads’
By the time Opalinski returned to the United States in February of 2014, she had helped launch several new media forums, but more importantly, she’d helped church congregations strengthen their faith and community through connections and communication (view Opalinski’s presentation about her time in Africa).
Opalinski is now focusing her studies. She’ll keep supporting PII on special multimedia projects, while not ruling out a return to Africa. “There’s no doubt that I’d like to go back,” she says. “You don’t live in a place that long and not have it transform who you are and how you see the world.”
In Africa, she learned what she calls the sacred gift of living freely and simply in the moment. “We Westerners are completely bound to time and organization, which can detract from experiencing life as it happens,” Opalinski says. “God continues to surprise me each and every day, and sometimes it’s best to just let go, bask in the wonder, and see where the Spirit leads, even if it doesn’t make sense at the time. I have faith that when the time is right and the road is ready, I’ll know it. In the meantime, my questions push me forward and light my path ahead, wherever it may lead.”