On a bright Sunday morning in June 2019, a novice preacher delivered the sermon at Denver’s Park Hill United Methodist Church. She asked the congregation to consider some of life’s most difficult questions. How do we undergo devastating experiences and still believe there is a God? When we feel that God does not hear our prayers, how can we continue to pray?
As she finished speaking, the people in the church rose to their feet in a standing ovation. They were applauding her inspirational words, but they were also applauding Maya Aggen ‘11 and the long journey that had brought her from her days at Colorado Academy to her first time in the pulpit of a church.
‘I had to step up to the plate’
Aggen remembers her four years in CA’s Upper School as a time that “shaped and formed” her.
“The blessing of CA is that it truly is a place where you can try different things,” she says. “I don’t really like sports and art, but CA taught me to try things, and I learned I could succeed even when I didn’t think I could.”
What she loved at CA was singing in the Chamber Choir and the specialty choir of Sorella, and so, when she enrolled at Belmont University after graduating from CA, it made sense to major in music business. Aggen, who had attended Park Hill United Methodist since she was four years old, felt at home at a university that highlights its Christian community of learning and service. And then very suddenly, Aggen’s life was derailed by circumstances that left her asking, “What kind of God would do this?”
Her single mother had a series of medical crises that left her near death. Aggen remembers sitting in the hospital at her mother’s bedside and watching doctors shake their heads, saying they couldn’t understand how she had survived. But her mother proved tougher than her prognosis. She lived, but she also faced a long period of recovery and rehabilitation. Aggen left Belmont and moved home to care for her.
“I had to step up to the plate when I wasn’t ready,” she says. “But I had to be ready.”
‘CA had provided me with a foundation’
While she cared for her mother, Aggen took classes at University of Colorado Denver. She recalls it as a time when she “lost her voice,” and so she turned from her interest in music to a new field—Ethnic Studies.
“CA had provided me with a foundation of African studies,” she recalls. “At CU Denver, I had the chance to explore and understand history, psychology, and people through the lens of ethnicity—Chicano, African American, and Asian.” In one course, a personal genealogy study led her to discover that, in addition to her African-American heritage, she had a great-great-grandfather who came to the United States from India by way of Canada.
When she wasn’t at school or competing in beauty pageants—an experience she describes as empowering—she also worked at Comedy Works, which led her to try her hand at stand-up comedy. “It was the scariest thing I have ever done, because it means opening up all your vulnerabilities to people on stage,” she says. “I never got booed off, so I take that as a good sign.”
‘It is the Big Why’
Aggen’s mother, Denise Burgess, recovered and returned to her role as President and CEO of Burgess Services, Inc., a Denver-based construction management firm. But the experience of nearly losing her mother had shattered Aggen’s once-firm faith. She left her church and started a quest to find a religion that spoke to her, a quest that, she believes, was consistent with her CA education, which encouraged her “to ask hard questions and look for answers.”
She tried Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Taoism, the Hindu guru ParamahansaYogananda (made well-known by Steve Jobs), and atheism. “I wanted to understand why bad things happen to good people,” she says. “But no matter where I went searching for an answer, there was a force that drove me back to Christianity.”
After she graduated from CU Denver, the same force sent her in the direction of the ministry. She visited several schools, but she looked no further after sitting in the chapel of Boston University’s School of Theology, the place where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., earned his PhD. “It was the week of Dr. King’s birthday, and they were playing his voice speaking in the chapel,” Aggen recalls. “I realized I was sitting in a chapel that had not changed since King was there, and I started to cry. I knew God was directing me to come here.”
In the Fall of 2019, Aggen began at Boston University as a Howard Thurman fellow. (Thurman was dean of the Boston University Chapel and a mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr.) Before she left for school, she asked the pastors at Park Hill United Methodist if she could deliver her first sermon at her home church. Connecting texts from the Old and New Testament, she preached about the question that had troubled her: “Why me, God? Why my mother?”
“I will never truly find the answer, because it is a mystery beyond comprehension,” she says. “It is the ‘Big Why,’ but what I do hope to remind people is that the foundation of God is love. I hope to be the person who helps others remember that universal truth, as well as the notion that God is always in their corner, no matter what.”