08 Mar 2022: Developing Theological Education That Engages People of Color: A Panel Discussion
In the summer of 2020, in the middle of the racial protests following the death of George Floyd, the Washington, DC campus of Denver Seminary sponsored an online panel discussion on the topic of “Developing Theological Education That Engages People of Color.” Participants included:
The late Dr. Felix Gilbert, then serving as Assistant Professor of Pastoral Leadership and Ministry and Director of the Urban Initiative, Denver Seminary
Dr. Rodney Patterson, CEO, The Learner’s Group, Chicago, IL
Dr. Ralph West, Founder and Senior Pastor, The Church Without Walls, Houston, TX
Dr. Angie Ward, Assistant Director of the DMin Program, Denver Seminary
Rev. Dexter Nutall, Pastor, New Bethel Baptist Church, Washington, DC
Dr. Tim Koller, Associate Dean for Program Innovation and Extension Education; Director of the Leadership Program, Denver Seminary
The transcript of that discussion has been edited for length and clarity.
Do you believe just from your personal perspective, that if we’re going to talk about doing theological education correctly, that we need to include all the cultures and not be a monocultural thing?
Of course the answer is yes. I would point to the Lord’s prayer: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And so when we look at what heaven’s going to be like, and how do we recreate tastes of that in kingdom work and ministry here on earth, it’s a no-brainer.
The short answer is yes. When I went to seminary, I went through an entire MDiv program at didn’t have one African-American professor. We didn’t read one African American piece of literature. And so it was the unspoken statement that African American studies number one, didn’t count. Number two, that there were no African Americans that were intelligent enough to teach in that theological seminary. I believe that the diversity of theological education is essential because without it, you just have a one-sided perspective.
Yes, I think the bigness of God requires and demands it. And when we look at scripture in Revelation chapter seven, we see every nation, every tribe that are all gathered together. I think oftentimes there is an inaccurate perspective that unity and diversity are in conflict, but you can have unity in the body and still celebrate the diversity that exists within the people of God for, without it, we lose and miss out on exactly how big and amazing and awesome God is.
Like Dr. West said, I went through my education, got two theological degrees so far, and never had an African-American or a person of color as a professor, never was required to read a text written by someone who wasn’t white male, unless you want to count Augustine in there. And there’s a handful of white females that were in there and it was a massive blind spot in my education. So these conversations are essential for theological educators because the blind spots still exist today.
What would you say to our white brothers and sisters that are leaders and presidents of these institutions that are faculty members that are administrators, that are the forerunners of these theological engines in institutions that people of color need for them to engage, for them to thrive, for us to begin the process of deconstructing the systems that promotes white supremacy or racism?
We have such a problem, but a grand opportunity. When you think about restructuring theological education and being diverse, inclusive is I think you just talked about, doing that, is that if that, if you talk about from the from the pedagogy, you talk about involving, if not bringing on staff, at least including in classrooms, different people from different backgrounds that can make contributions to theological education. That’s one way that you could do it, you know. The other one would be just to put a book in the hand of students and say, here’s a book, not as an elective book, but to say, no, this is a document that we are going to be required to read, and make it part of the curriculum. If you, but we don’t have an African-American who on our teaching team that can do that, surely somebody in our communities has the expertise to do it, to come in to talk about that. I think it is as simple as that. You just reach across the aisle and you start doing it immediately. It could be rough. You could stumble through it. That’s okay.
I know that there are more complicated ways of doing it than that and more involved in it, but that’s a good way to get started. What you’re doing right now is a great way to get started because you had a conversation with people and a diverse group of people. And not just racially diverse, ethnically diverse, but also theologically, religiously, culturally, socially diverse. So we bring all of our learning to bear at this moment and we learn from each other.
I think it’s really important in theological education that both deconstruction and reconstruction be a focus and an emphasis for us in the educational process. The deconstruction piece is necessary because again, white supremacy is just ingrained in the soil, right? Robert Jones wrote this book called White Too Long. And he sought to sort of quantify in statistical terms this issue of racial tension and conflict, and his overarching thesis, if you will, was that racism among white Christians is higher than it is among non-religious people. Now think about that for a minute. Racism is higher among Christians than it is among non-Christians, who are white. That deconstruction process is significant. We’re talking about centuries of teaching and centuries of preaching and centuries of silence with regard to issues other than soteriology. Because if it doesn’t have to do with salvation, then it’s been labeled politics and something that we don’t need to deal with or not appropriate for the academy. So I think when we look at the George Floyd situation and we’ve seen a lot of press releases and statements and all of that, that’s great. I’m grateful for it, but I would prefer to know what you’re teaching in your Bible study. I would prefer to hear what it is that you’re preaching from your pulpit. That’s the work of deconstruction. It takes place in the Bible study. It takes place on relational terms. It takes place in the small groups in conversations where that teaching happens. And then once that deconstruction happens and only after that has happened, can the reconstruction take place. In terms of including all of the writing and all of the scholarship among the diverse perspectives of people of color, because we’re not a monolithic either, even in terms of our theology.
What does it look like when engagement is done well?
I think there’s humility across the board, a listening posture, a learning from everyone toward everyone. One of the things I like to add though, we’ve been talking a lot about the education, the classroom portion of things and listening in that type of environment. But I think it extends to the entire student experience in an institution. Admissions needs to consider what is the experience of different people, people of color. What about the student life portion of things? There’s so much to theological education. It’s not just what textbooks are used in a classroom or what the lecture content is and what is studied. It’s hopefully ideally a diversity of faculty and perspectives on faculty, on staff, among the student body, and all of those are incorporated and valued. Let’s make it this rich diverse thing from start to finish from every part of the student experience that faculty can understand all the perspectives brought in the classroom. Everyone knows their own stuff, what we bring in, our personal history and how that shaped us. It becomes this rich, flourishing learning community, not just in a classroom; it becomes a true community of learners, start to finish. Even financial aid, and placement and interaction with churches and ministries around the institution: it becomes this much more vibrant community than just a diverse classroom.
There are a couple of things that you have to think about. The first one is what I would describe as the leading indicators, and those are the traditional indicators and for the most part that’s quantitative stuff. How maany faculty, how many administrators, what’s in the curriculum, how much of this is being taught? We typically do a good job of thinking about those measures as it relates to what needs to happen in order for the extended outcome that we hope to see manifest. And the last of that then is the lagging indicators, and the lagging indicators are more qualitative in manifestation. One of these would be passionate participation. If the folks that are in that environment are passionately participating, then it means that you did what you needed to do on the leading side, in order to acquire and accomplish this kind of manifestation. So if, as a person of color, I’m not passionately participating, then you miss something on the leading indicating side that resulted in me not being passionately participating. So you have to look at both. The quantitative and the qualitative and the leading and lagging the lagging measures really tell you whether or not those levers have been pushed in the right way to the right degree and the right mix together.
What’s been said is marvelous. And I would just add from my perspective, we need to understand the use of power in situations. When we study how power is constructed, how influence happens, those are really helpful because you begin to see how interactions are going and what they’re appealing to, and trying to influence someone. So in a classroom you can make significant missteps because you might just come in as like, “I’m the authority you do, as I say,” and that’s going to shut down an environment. There are things that we can do that appeal to individuals that will draw them out. I think Rodney had talked about this a little bit, but the idea is that in order for the flourishing of all to happen, each individual must be able to flourish. But it’s not pragmatic to slow things down and actually get to know individuals in your classroom. So we often avoid it because in our culture, we have adopted pragmatism. We’ve tried to baptize pragmatism in the name of Jesus and we’re neglecting the righteousness that is available to us in those environments. So seeing the humanity of each person in the room is critical, but it’s slower.
Meaningful inclusivity and participation. You know, I have learned a lot more grateful for my seminary experiences and all of that, but I’ve learned a lot more out of the classroom than I have in the classroom about how to pastor, and how to do the assignment that has been given to me. And it has to be meaningful, right? In terms of in ways that impact how we think and how we understand one another. I’ll stop there.
There’s a big word in in the Greek, koinonia, about how the early church had all things in common. But they didn’t lose that distinctiveness. They wrapped it around the commonality of Jesus Christ. Didn’t lose that distinctiveness, but they rallied around the resurrected Lord. I think that’s what it looks like for me. We could begin by just being nice to each other, being kind to each other, the creative gift of kindness.
How do we create a seminary environment where folks who perhaps have not chosen seminary in the past, maybe who have grown up and thought that the school of hard knocks was enough first and foremost, how do we make this environment an appropriate environment for them to return?
I make the distinction between being comfortable and being safe. I think being comfortable as it relates to some basic needs Maslow’s hierarchy, those are essential. The seminary is obligated to make sure that the basic comforts are supported because the person can’t learn if they don’t have those. As it relates to the distinction between safety and comfort in the learning environment, sometimes the best learning happens when people are not comfortable. So we have to push people past levels of comfort and put them in places of discomfort, in order for them to stretch, and grow. Racism is a very uncomfortable conversation, right? And the problem is if we try to maintain a level of comfort, then we’ll never talk about racism. So we’ve got to be willing to be uncomfortable but at the same time we’ve got to maintain a level of safety.