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Isabel Nelson Finds Kinship between Social Justice, Religion, and Storytelling


Isabel Nelson crop SD_R8825

A physical theater and devising artist, Isabel Nelson (’24) traces her passion for theater back to childhood. “I have always been really compelled by story and the meaning that we make and drawn to what I call ‘old story’—folk tales, fairy tales, myth, etc.” At the same time, as a UCC minister’s child and a Macalester College liberal arts graduate (’04), Isabel is deeply concerned with social justice. At United, she affirmed the kinship between justice, religion, and story, and gained a greater sense of self.

Finding United

Though Isabel double majored in theater and religious studies during college, she says her religious studies degree was “much more of an intellectual interest than a personal call.” Instead, she undertook a two-year intensive physical theater training program in London. Transatlantic Love Affair, the company Isabel founded in 2010, “takes the seeds of an old story, and reimagines it into something really fresh and imaginative.” The plays have no props or set pieces; stories are conveyed by the actors’ movements, some dialogue, and imagination.

Back in Minnesota, working at Macalester College, Isabel was struck by how interreligious campus chaplains served the community in times of crisis. At one point during a racial reckoning, she recalls, the chaplains were able to “invite authentic dialogue, hold a space that contained multiple perspectives, and guide folks toward wrestling with the hard questions and reaching mutual understanding.”

This example of faith in action inspired Isabel to reconsider the idea of seminary. On a Zoom call with a colleague, she learned about United for the first time and our Theology and the Arts Program. Three months later, she enrolled.

Finding Home

While at United, Isabel began to understand when her heart first felt the spiritual tug toward justice, story, and religion. She traces that feeling back to the mountains in western North Carolina where her mother worked at Eagle’s Nest Camp. “Every summer of my life, including in utero, I was surrounded by nature and music and play and physical activity. We moved around a lot when I was a child, and Eagle’s Nest felt like home.”

Returning to the camp many years later with her own children, Isabel was able to see the use of ritual and the ways in which “leaders of that community...called us to live into an interconnectedness with nature and presence with a sense of the Sacred.” Isabel had come home again.

Moving Forward

Isabel credits United for helping her to gain a deeper sense of herself and the unique gifts she can share. Her social transformation course with Rev. Dr. Gary F. Green II, she asserts, “was the first class in which I really felt like I could start to articulate this intersection of creativity and social justice work and spirituality.” Courses like Arts Praxis and Art, Religion, and Contemporary Culture with her advisor, Dr. Jennifer Awes Freeman, have allowed Isabel the opportunity to continue to live into that vital connection.

What’s next? Isabel wants to slow down for a time. “I want to gift myself as close to a fallow period as I have ever had.” In addition to her theatrical pursuits, she still works as the administrative coordinator for the Lealtad-Suzuki Center for Social Justice at Macalester College and is happy there. When the time is right, she will live into the dream of where art, social justice, and spiritual practice will take her next.

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