Beyond the Quads

Composition of Forces

Alumni Vicki and Thomas Flippin are making waves in their fields.

In Cos Cob, a picturesque hamlet of Greenwich, Connecticut, at the crest of a hill on Route 1, stands a gray stone building with three front doors, all painted dark red. The 140-year-old church is both elegant and spare: thick wooden beams supporting the ceiling, two rows of stained glass windows on either side of the nave, a simple gold cross above the altar. On a March Sunday, with a ceiling fan whirring softly overhead, the Reverend Vicki I Flippin, AB'05, chats with congregation members as her husband, Thomas “T.J.” Flippin, AB'05, drives up the hill to help prepare for the morning service. Short, with a bob, Vicki is soft-spoken and serene. Thomas is tall, slender, and as tranquil as his wife.

Vicki and Thomas met at the College, attended graduate school at Yale, married at Bond Chapel, and today live minutes from Diamond Hill United Methodist Church. A classical guitarist, Thomas performs nationwide and composes songs. Through a Yale Alumni Ventures grant, he performed and lectured at low-income, high-minority schools across New England with fellow classical guitarist Christopher Mallett. In 2008, Vicki, now 27, became the youngest pastor in Diamond Hill's 175-year history. In 2009, her congregation challenged the United Methodist Church's doctrine against same-sex marriage, unions, or blessings and the ordination of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people.

The daughter of an Anglo-American mother and Chinese father, Vicki was born in Taiwan, where her mother was a Methodist missionary, and moved to Missouri when she was two. “My mother brought me up in the Methodist Church and was my number one role model in the faith,” says Vicki. “Without her influence, I wouldn't be as dedicated to the church.”

Vicki arrived at the College a self-described “science geek,” but decided on the ministry by her fourth year. She attended Yale's theological studies program, where she earned an MDiv in 2008. While at Yale, she held part-time positions at two New Haven Methodist churches; after graduation, she was assigned by the Methodist Church to be lead pastor at Diamond Hill. Just five percent of Methodist clergy are under 35 and roughly a quarter are women. As a female minister under 30, Vicki faces some subtle barriers. “I've heard, ‘I didn't know they ordained teenagers' more than once,” she says.

But it was a poised leader who rallied her 25-member congregation last year to partner with the Reconciling Ministries Network, a national group focused on making the Methodist Church fully inclusive regardless of sexual orientation. Vicki and her associate pastor held two Bible studies on the topic, where they reviewed the current doctrine in the Methodist Book of Discipline and discussed relevant biblical passages. The parishioners' decision to publicly challenge the policies was unanimous.

Day to day, Vicki offers spiritual counsel to parishioners, makes hospital visits, and conducts weddings and funerals. But perhaps the most time-consuming part of her job is writing and delivering Sunday sermons. At the beginning of each week, she selects a scripture passage and memorizes it. Then she meets with a group of local Methodist ministers who discuss each other's sermons. By Saturday, she's ready to begin writing. Getting started can be painful, so she heads to a café with a relaxing vibe. She drafts each sermon in one three-to-four-hour sitting.

Meanwhile Thomas is usually one of two places: out of town performing, or at home strumming. He's been playing classical guitar since middle school, when he heard a recording by Andrés Segovia, considered the father of modern classical guitar. “I thought, ‘I have to learn how to do this.'” He taught himself by reading technique books and then minored in music at the College while also taking lessons with Chicago-area instructors.

As Vicki started at Yale Divinity School, Thomas began a performance-based master's program at Yale School of Music; today he plays venues from Duke University to Manhattan's Gershwin Hotel, performing as a soloist and with ensembles. With Christopher Mallett, he plays as Duo Noire. Mallett was the second African-American classical guitarist to attend the Yale School of Music—Thomas was the first.

“It would be hard for me to not think about being an African-American classical guitarist,” Thomas admits. “There are so few African Americans in classical music to begin with. And classical guitar is a niche instrument.” Of his 2009 outreach work with Mallett in the schools, Thomas says, “It was amazing. Every single time we played for an African-American or Latino community, the kids would say, ‘That was awesome. We want to play just like you guys.'” With the grant over, Thomas is finding new ways to make a similar impact. He's mentoring scholarship students at the Music Conservatory of Westchester, and he and Mallett hope to release a CD of work composed by Justin Holland, a 19th-century African-American classical guitarist.

When he's back in Cos Cob, Thomas spends much of his time arranging and composing. Last summer, he published Neverland, a piece that sounds like gently rolling waves. “Composing is similar to writing a sermon,” he says. “I'll begin with a theme and then try to tell a story. I feel almost like a painter, who would add a bit of harshness or a beautiful section as needed. I'm constantly changing things.”

Sitting in their Cape-Cod style home tinkering with their various compositions, he and Vicki bounce their work off each other: “Oftentimes,” says Thomas, “she'll tell me that she hates something I write. And she used to ask me about her sermons, but now she usually asks me after she delivers them.” Vicki adds: “Because it's late on Saturday night by the time I'm finished, and I can't change it anyway.” —Katherine E. Muhlenkamp